The road from Lap Paz toward El Alto rises in a series of curves that cross a red ravine. It can be no other way—the slope of the mountain is almost vertical, leaving behind the colonial city to arrive suddenly on the Bolivian Altiplano, more than 4,000 meters above sea level.
The wind is vigorous after crossing this flat and treeless land. In the markets, saleswomen dressed in traditional skirts staff the thousands of stalls that line the road and protect their merchandise from unruly gusts. Buses transport people from bottom to top and back again at all hours of the day.
This is El Alto, a city legally and economically part of the Bolivian capital, but completely removed in its origins, cultures, and socioeconomic traits. It is a settlement built by its residents, indigenous migrants from the countryside, miners, and workers from the city. While in 1950 it had a population of some 11,000, today the number nears one million.
More than 80% of El Alto’s population is indigenous, principally of the Aymara ethnicity. According to the 2001 census, 70% of residents are "poor, with basic needs unsatisfied," and thousands live in extreme poverty. Many houses lack one or more basic utilities: piped water and sewage, potable water, electricity, etc. The roads of the sprawling city are made of dirt, excepting only the main avenues and a few other streets. Most El Alto citizens work in the informal sector.
The society of El Alto has been studied continually due to its high degree of self-organization, self-management, and self-government. Since the first mass migrations, the residents have organized themselves to deal with the lack of services and other daily problems, constructing and transforming their society. The creation of new ways of organizing, particularly in the neighborhood committees (juntas vecinales), is now part of the culture and identity of El Alto.
The lack of transport, employment, services, education, and healthcare affects everyone, but the direct impact tends to be greater on women. Together with the daily challenge of just surviving, women are excluded from many cultural, social, and political spaces; historically, they have been taught to remain silent when faced with endless injustice.
In this context, speaking about the right to communication becomes a fundamental need. Communication—different, autonomous, self-directed—is a central theme in this society that knows how to fight for its rights. Through its communication projects, the inhabitants of El Alto gather together, discuss futures, contemplate, celebrate, and forge shared identities. For the women, the process gives them life skills, and in many cases, opens them to personal transformation.
"I’ve Always Listened to You, Now it’s Your Turn to Listen to Me"
Radio Atipiri was born in 2006 in Urbanización Atipiris, an outlying development attached to the vast city of El Alto. It started with two speakers attached to a 30-meter antenna, projecting from the station itself. With voice-over announcements, the station started its long and arduous journey in its local community and the Altiplano area.
Radio Atipiri is a project of the Center for Education and Communication for Indigenous Communities and Peoples (CECOPI), an organization formed in 1997 that started focusing on communication strategies as of 2003. It now has one three-kilowatt radio transmitter, broadcasting on 840 AM Monday through Saturday. Its signal reaches the department of La Paz and even as far as the southwestern area of the department of Oruro. CECOPI, through Radio Atipiri, coordinates a wide range of capacity-building workshops and activities. The organization has successfully established its own premises, which houses the station’s broadcasting and production equipment, as well as offices and rooms for meetings and workshops.
The Key Challenges
"The station is a mix of information, music, different voices, all translated into a permanent radio production that recovers the oral memory of the Aymara culture, in educational kits of stories, miniprograms, educational messages, etc.," says Tania Ayma, current director of CECOPI and Radio Atipiri. "Its programming is as varied as the people who come to share their voices and abilities. Radio Altipiri claims to be what the Altiplano community is: diverse and bilingual."
This is what distinguishes Radio Altipiri from other stations—the voices of the communities and suburbs which make up the team of producers and the material it broadcasts. Its aim is to democratize communication, and as a consequence it functions very differently to commercial media outlets, which have always sidelined the voices and the messages of the indigenous communities.
"There are other radio stations here, which, although they have a powerful transmission and even years of history in the radio field, are still biased in their politics. They don’t allow native languages like Quechua and Aymara to be spoken in their participative radio slots, as they don’t understand them very well." In contrast, on Radio Atipiri people speak the language they choose: Aymara, Quechua. "Children come and speak. Grandparents come and speak."
From its launch, Radio Atipiri has worked to promote democratic participation and gender equity. The founders, male and female, have a clear commitment to giving voice to those who have least representation and receive least services from the conventional media outlets—the indigenous women of the Bolivian Altiplano. In 2003 the station initiated skill-building workshops for "women people’s reporters"; to date, they have trained an average of 200 women per year. The reporters learn to interview their neighbors, write and edit articles, use broadcasting equipment, and transmit programs onto the airwaves. When the women take the microphone, they learn to speak up and broadcast their own reality.
In a four-month long workshop, the women learn to record the voice of their community—its complaints, demands, and desires. In general, they have no tape recorders or any other kind of equipment. They simply bring the information direct to the station where it is transmitted, or they ring in their pieces over the phone. The workshops have a multiplying effect, resulting in the program’s continuing growth. "The women’s demand for training, this need, is felt by other women who live in the same situation."
"The task is not only about information. By collecting information, the women reporters record the most pressing demands of the people, of other women. They are demands and needs that would otherwise find it difficult to get access to the public sphere," explains Ayma. "They come from the marginal areas, and the sectors of the population who have been silenced by the neocolonial system that reigned in Bolivia, despised for their language and their culture."
|Radio Atipiri’s broadcasting site.
Ayma relates the story of one woman reporter who travels the most distant areas of the city, where no public transport runs. "She goes on foot, recording the demands and the needs of the people who never would have thought that their voices would be heard." More than just spreading the word, this kind of news allows the community to establish connections with organizations who can channel their demands, like the Federation of Neighborhood Committees, among others.
The project seeks to vindicate the right to communicate, and to promote women’s voices in the public sphere. The participants are given tools not only to face the difficult situation they live in, but to overcome it and open new spaces for themselves. When asked if the women of the station are part of mixed organizations, like the neighborhood committees, Ayma replies, "Of course, but they don’t participate. Now, they are being given a chance to participate." In CECOPI and Radio Atipiri’s projects, it is the women who are the protagonists and the organizers. In their own spaces, they learn to lose their fear, raise their voices, and record the voices of other women who live in a similar situation. In this way, the women’s subordinate role in their daily lives—and even in their local organizations—is upended.
The methodology of the workshops is based on the oral tradition, uses pictures rather than the written word, and is guided by personal testimonies and experiences. The elders of the region participate in programs which promote the recovery of the people’s oral memory; young people make hip hop or rap programs in Aymara; women write soap operas, or act out dialogues that share their experiences in sexual and reproductive health, gender relations, and violence.
In addition to the radio program, the CECOPI/Atipiri project has made inroads into the production of video documentaries. They’ve produced almost 50 films on topics chosen by people in the participating communities and suburbs. They also conduct research into the situation lived by the region’s inhabitants, and work on the systematization of their own organizational experience in order to document and analyze their project’s trajectory.
One of the primary challenges faced by the project is the lack of funding. To deal with this, Radio Atipiri has sought international cooperation with groups of communicators in other parts of the world.
Radio Atipiri doesn’t impose a dominant culture from above, as do the elitist media outlets that Ayma criticizes. It records, feeds, and broadcasts culture from below, the diverse, vibrant, dynamic culture of El Alto. In the voices of the young and the old, the complex mix of ancient traditions and modern street culture is reflected.
A good example is found in the hip hop videos made by the youth of Radio Atipiri. When their families migrated to El Alto, the young people grew up between their heritage and their daily needs, between discrimination and "the pride of being Aymara, from El Alto, and, above all, Bolivians."
|"We the Women of El Alto are the owners of our bodies
and we speak with our own voices."
"Hip hop comes from the United States. In El Alto, it’s reworked. They take the rhythm, but the contents are about protesting, about sharing their lives, about their culture. Hip hop is a rhythm, a style to copy, but this is hip hop in Aymara. The music reflects these cultural contradictions, but in a strong expression of their own identity," Ayma points out. "And, well, that’s what El Alto really is—all of that mix."
An Integral Project, Where You Can Reflect and See Yourself Reflected
"The theory of making radio productions is related to our theory of creating audiovisual documentaries. When people see our productions, they see themselves reflected and say, ‘yes, that’s right’."
At Radio Atipiri, everyone does a bit of everything that needs doing. The cameraman is also a driver, messenger, and—when required—looks after other participants’ children as part of the station’s mode of collective work.
For the people of the station, the communication project cannot be separated from their need to earn money and support themselves. Without the luxury of being able to offer salaries to the women reporters and other participants, the Radio initiated productive workshops as an integral part of the undertaking.
The productive workshops teach participants how to sew polleras, the skirts traditionally worn by women in the region. The skirts are sold to bolster household budgets and the project itself. The workshop is a space that allows the radio participants to earn income, but it also gives them a space to spend time together, chat, and reflect on their lives, their dreams, and their demands.
Local and Global Connections
Radio Atipiri is always struggling to keep the project afloat despite the lack of resources. To deal with this situation, it has formed alliances across the world with groups of communicators and defenders of the right to communication.
One group which has been key to the Atipiri project is the Andalusian Association of Municipal and Community Radio and TV Stations (EMA-RTV). CECOPI, together with EMA RTV, apply for funding each year from the Andalusian government, to access development projects that have previously provided such things as transmission equipment. EMA RTV has also participated as a partner in training staff, as well as providing broadcasting equipment and other contributions necessary to the station’s ongoing work.
Another organization which has provided funds and training for the El Alto project is PCI-Media Impact, based in New York. The collaboration began in 2007, with funding for scholarships that resulted in the production of soap operas. The soap opera is an engaging way of telling stories based on people’s testimonies and experiences. One soap opera made for young people is called The Colors of Life and deals with issues of sexual and reproductive health. Another one made for women is entitled In a Woman’s Name, with 20 episodes that talk about sexual rights, particularly the right to choose how many children to have. The motto is "the women of El Alto are in control of our bodies and we speak in our own voices." The third soap opera to be produced with PCI-Media Impact is currently in production. Going by the title Looking for Love, it is aimed at adolescents in District 8 of El Alto and is about sexual health and young people.
CECOPI also works with the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC), an institution whose support has allowed it to begin work in rural areas, training people’s reporters in the municipalities of Santiago de Callapa and Tiwanacu, as well as in El Alto itself.
Rather than relationships based on first-world solidarity, Radio Atipiri has constructed global relationships based on collaborative work, sharing values, and the commitment to everybody’s right to communication as an instrument in struggle.
In its more than five years of operation in El Alto, the project has achieved a lot with very few resources. But the challenges continue, and the radio must survive from day to day. It is the commitment of the team, and all the individuals working on what they consider to be "their" project, that guarantees that this media outlet transmits, on a daily basis, its reality to the region and the world beyond, weaving their dreams and the demands of indigenous peoples into one voice made of many voices.