Bolivia: Market Theology

The market is a world in miniature, not just because of the infinity of goods but because of the amount of people who go there. The market is a melting pot of races, cultures, languages, traditions, and religious rites.

The market has a bit of everything – fruit and vegetables, rice, baby food, galoshes, vermicelli and pumpkins, as well as all sorts of meat and fish. One characteristic of the market is the great number of pedlars selling their sandwiches, ready meals, ice cream, and beverages such as fruit juice, tea, coffee, tisane, and the like. Then there are the biological products and natural medicines, coca leaves, serpent fat for tuberculosis, and taraxacum for cancer. There is also liquor like whiskey and rum.

But the market is not just about food and drink. There are also domestic items such as curtains, sheets, and towels. Flowers, too, of all sorts; perfume and cosmetics, electrical goods, records, CDs, DVDs, furniture, and all things connected with the world of computers.

For most of the vendors, the market is not just a place for business but a sort of home: the whole day is spent there – people eat breakfast and lunch at the market and have tea at 5pm as the English do. The market follows the celebrations throughout the year: at Carnival time, masks and bottles of water are on sale, for the feast of St John there are fireworks, at All Saints flowers for the cemetery, and at Christmas panettone and shepherds for the crib.

The market is a world in miniature because of the diversity of people there: country people selling tomatoes and greens to the unloaders – an institution by itself. We must not forget the people from the outskirts, who come and go. Then there are the boys and girls who help their parents to carry and sell their goods. Women breast-feeding their babies, street children looking for something to steal, policemen with wooden clubs, and guards with their whistles trying to create order among the chaos of cars, lorries, and minibuses.

It is at the market where the economic and social problems of a country can be seen. The country people sell their products at below-value prices, the women try to earn a little money, and the smugglers lay out their suspect goods. It is also an expression of poverty, an underground economy, and the search for a way to survive. The market is a melting pot of races, cultures, languages, traditions, and religious rites. The smell of the food is enjoyed alongside the sounds of Morenada rock music.

At the market we find a movement of solidarity: of “ayni”, or care for the children and the elderly. It is a school of humanism, of wisdom, of life. They follow the news on the radio and TV and also read the tabloids and sensationalist news. Politics is now becoming of interest to many – the people voted for President Evo Morales because he is one of them. They have placed their trust in him in the hope that he will improve their living conditions, get rid of corruption, and remove the need to emigrate from the countryside to the city, or from Bolivia to other countries.

The market reveals a special religious universe. Passing by the stalls and the shops on a Sunday, one may ask what importance the Lord’s Day, the Eucharist, or the liturgical cycle can have for these people – or what it means to be a Christian. However, these people are religious. The vast majority are Catholic; they have been baptised and made their Holy Communion. Some were married in church. They have an image of Our Lady in their pockets and go to Urkupiña with the sacred image of the cross. They take part in the Good Friday procession and go to the cemetery to pray for their dead. This world is joined to the traditional and ancestral religious rites in a healthy and sincere syncretism.

As a symbol of this deeper, pluralist, and emergent Bolivia, what has the market got to say to the Church and theology? Faced with the reality of the market, many arguments and theoretical discourses fail; together with many canonical, liturgical, and moral norms, and much cold, abstract speculation. What message has the Church, as a community, got to offer this world? What message can the Church give these people? It is from the starting point of the market that there must be a re-thinking of the faith, the creed, theology, morals, spirituality, pastoral, evangelisation, catechesis and the introduction to the Bible. However, in order to do this, the Church must start a dialogue with the people of the market. It must start from the real lives of the people and their concerns; from their dreams and the illusions of the Bolivia of today.

As the Church, we must ask what we can learn from the people of the market. What do the people of the market mean for the Church? How can this world be evangelised? And how can we discern the signs of the times that Bolivia is living through today? It is only after these questions have been answered that one may proclaim that Jesus Christ comes to give meaning to these marginalised people and offer them a “kingdom” as an alternative to a situation of exclusion. The kingdom is the good news that the Lord is coming to give us a worthy and human life. The Lord came to make us more human – to make us happy, not only in the next life but also in this life. Starting from the market.

By Víctor Codina

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