René Calisai is surprised by the question: “Where is the bathroom?” The truth is, I don’t know where he is anymore. The man scratches his head and laughs nervously. Calisai, a 56-year-old businessman with a mass of black hair on his head that would kill half of humanity, has strayed into his own house, a five-story building in garish colors. The bedrooms are decorated with stained glass ceilings and chandeliers. Properties like yours are known as cholets, symbol of a new indigenous bourgeoisie that has emerged over the past decade in Bolivia. “I think there is one behind this column,” the host suddenly remembers. Indeed here it is, in a space of about 30 square meters, with four toilets and four sinks. The cholets they continually invite wonder.
Its owners are wealthy merchants who came to El Alto, a town over 4,000 meters from La Paz, in the 1970s and 1980s. They came from provinces where the countryside and mining were starving them. Here they started a modest life on dusty terrain, like dormitory towns. They soon found themselves with contempt for the capital. Cholas, indigenous women who wear bowler hats and long colorful skirts, were not allowed to enter hotels or cinemas. Unusually, if they got on a plane, airlines required them to wear pants.
Eventually, they found their place in commerce, an art they have practiced for centuries. El Alto is full of shops, workshops, flea markets and small factories. You can find anything. This is how a new social class flourished, which emerged under the governments of Evo Morales (2006-2019). The representation of this manna takes shape in the cholets, a word that mixes the terms cholo, scornful until recently, and chalet, which sums up all that is ambitious. The city was filled with those buildings with geometric patterns and bright colors that the Aymaras tend to use in their fabrics.
The inventor of this unorthodox style is Freddy Mamani, an architect of humble origins whose father was a mason. Mamani was going to show this morning cholet from Calisai, but he’s very busy. He appears in the world’s most prestigious architecture magazines and design festivals capitalize on his presence. Some criticize its eccentricity and ugliness, but these are the least. The businessman, who made his fortune in transporting heavy goods, stumbled upon a work by Mamani in the street 12 years ago and was stunned. How sweet, he thought. It took him and his wife a while to get in touch with “the engineer,” as he calls him, but when they found him, they offered the artist a deal: a blank page. Mamani could build whatever he wanted.
—I am proud to say that the regional directors of two banks came here to challenge the financing of the work.
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Calisai recounts with a half-smile, revealing his golden teeth. He insists that he will have to work until the last day of his life to pay the 350,000 dollars (approximately 300,000 euros) that the project costs. The truth is, it’s hard to believe it. He seems to want to recover the modesty of his humble origins and, incidentally, to keep relatives who want to apply for a loan away. The value of the building has multiplied, even if it is not certain that he can find a buyer: “Unless he puts it at the price of a dead chicken.”
Behind him, through the windows, we can see workers on a scaffolding. His intentions are far from modest. They draw on the facade of a hotel the arms and eyes of an orange robot that appears in the film Transformers. The cholets pushed the rest of the architects to jump into the void. The city, a brick jungle, suddenly filled with extravagant buildings. It is not difficult to see the Eiffel Tower on a facade, the Statue of Liberty or the Titanic on a roof. People say they’ve seen buildings with very odd shapes, and at first it’s hard to believe, but as the days go by in El Alto, due to altitude sickness and nuclear sunshine, you start to believe that anything is possible.
Either way, these can’t be considered cholets The real one, like the one we are in, dedicates the ground floor of the building to the trade and the first floor to a party room. The space rents between $ 500 and $ 1,000 for weddings, baptisms and 15-year celebrations. Do you sometimes use it for your ceremonies? “No, just for the grand opening, 500 people showed up.” A celebrity? Evo? “No, the Alto ones don’t matter to us, we’re second yard hahaha.” Lights in the shape of a cat tie hang from the ceiling, and churrigueresque columns emerge from the sides. The walls are decorated with murals with Andean motifs.
Calisai, the son of a poor peasant couple with eight children, lives upstairs, on the following floors, with his wife and two children. He closed one completely and devoted another to tours. In total, 2,800 square meters. The last height offers a magnificent view of the Andean mountain range. It’s pretty much the closest to heaven.
The cholets They are not in exclusive neighborhoods, because there are none in El Alto, with 950,000 inhabitants. They rise next to modest houses, landfills, wasteland. Calisai recounts, with a scenic sense, that she sometimes leaves the house and that on her return she contemplates the building and it takes a few seconds for her to remember that it is hers. Did you never imagine that you would live in a palace? “Thank you for calling him that, that honors me. “
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