Tuesday, August 16

The ‘cholets’, the houses of the new Bolivian bourgeoisie | International

Bolivian businessman Rene Calisai's cholet, in El Alto, Bolivia, last week.
Bolivian businessman Rene Calisai’s cholet, in El Alto, Bolivia, last week.Mariana Eliano

Rene Calisai is taken by surprise by the question: “Where is the bathroom? The truth is that I no longer know where it is. 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 lost his way in his own home, a five-story building in gaudy colors. The living rooms are decorated with stained glass to the ceiling and chandeliers. Properties like yours are known as cholets, symbol of a new indigenous bourgeoisie that emerged during the last decade in Bolivia. “I think there is one behind that column,” the host suddenly remembers. Indeed there it is, in a space of about 30 square meters, with four toilets and four sinks. The cholets they continually invite amazement.

Its owners are wealthy merchants who came to El Alto, a city more than 4,000 meters away from La Paz, in the 70s and 80s. They came from provinces where the countryside and mining made them starve. Here they began a modest life in dusty terrain, like dormitory towns. They soon found themselves with the scorn of the citizens of the capital. The cholas, the indigenous women who wear bowler hats and long colorful skirts, were not allowed to enter hotels or cinemas. If they boarded a plane, something unusual, the airlines forced 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 during the governments of Evo Morales (2006-2019). The representation of this bonanza takes shape in the cholets, a word that mixes the terms cholo, contemptuous until recently, and chalet, which sums up everything aspirational. The city has been filled with these buildings with geometric designs and bright colors that the Aymara people usually use in their fabrics.

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The merchant Rene Calisai, owner of a cholet in El Alto, Bolivia.
The merchant Rene Calisai, owner of a cholet in El Alto, Bolivia.Mariana Eliano

The inventor of this unorthodox style is Freddy Mamani, an architect of humble origins whose father was a bricklayer. Mamani was going to show this morning el cholet from Calisai, but he’s very busy. It appears in the most prestigious architecture magazines in the world and design festivals raffle off its presence. Some criticize his eccentricity and ugliness, but they are the least. The businessman, who has made his fortune with the transport of heavy cargo, came across a work by Mamani on the street 12 years ago and was amazed. How nice, he thought. He and his wife were slow to get in touch with “the engineer”, as he calls him, but when they found him they proposed a bargain for the artist: a blank sheet of paper. Mamani could build whatever he wanted.

—I am proud to say that the regional managers of two banks came here to dispute the financing of the work.

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Calisai tells with a half smile, revealing his gold teeth. He insists that he will have to work until the last day of his life to pay the $ 350,000 (about 300,000 euros) that the project cost. The truth is that it is hard to believe him. He seems to want to draw the modesty of his humble origins and, incidentally, drive away relatives who want to ask for a loan. The value of the building has multiplied, although it is not clear that it will be able to find a buyer: “Unless I put it at the price of a dead chicken.”

Extravagant construction

Behind him, through the windows, workers can be seen on a scaffold. His intentions are far from modest. They design on the facade of a hotel the arms and eyes of an orange robot that appears in the movie Transformers. The cholets have prompted the rest of the architects to jump into the void. The city, a brick jungle, has suddenly been filled with extravagant buildings. It is not difficult to see the Eiffel Tower on a facade, the Statue of Liberty or the Titanic on top of a roof. People say that they have seen constructions of very strange shapes, and at first it is hard to believe it, but as the days go by in El Alto, due to altitude sickness and the nuclear sun, one begins to believe that everything is possible.

Anyway, those cannot be considered cholets The real one, like the one we are in, dedicates the ground floor of the building to commerce and the first floor to a party room. The space rents for between $ 500 and $ 1,000 for weddings, baptisms and 15-year celebrations. Do you ever use it for your ceremonies? “No, just for the inauguration, 500 people came.” Any celebrity? Evo? “No, those of the Alto do not give us importance, we are from the second yard, hahaha.” Lights in the shape of a cat’s tie hang from the ceiling and Churrigueresque columns emerge on the sides. The walls are decorated with murals with Andean motifs.

The Cholet of the merchant Calisai, in a street in El Alto, Bolivia.
The Cholet of the merchant Calisai, in a street in El Alto, Bolivia.

Calisai, the son of a poor peasant couple with eight children, lives upstairs, on the next floors, with his wife and two children. It has closed one completely and dedicated another to visits. In total, 2,800 square meters. The last height has beautiful views of the Andean mountain range. It’s about the closest you can get 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, wastelands. Calisai tells, with a scenic sense, that sometimes she leaves the house and when she returns she contemplates the building and it takes her a few seconds to remember that it is hers. Did you never imagine that you would live in a palace? “Thank you for calling it that, it honors me.”

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