Cristina Bubba Zamora
La Paz, Bolivia
Fellow Since 1996
This profile was prepared when Cristina Bubba Zamora was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996.
Cristina Bubba (Bolivia 1996) strengthens Andean indigenous communities by showing them how to leverage international conventions to recover ancient ceremonial weavings that have been stolen from them.
The New Idea
Cristina Bubba organizes indigenous Aymara Indians in the area of Coroma to identify, catalog and recover communally-owned ceremonial weavings, some more than 500 years old, that have been stolen or sold to dealers who illegally traffic in these weavings throughout the world. She has trained local indigenous leaders to use UNESCO conventions that protect communal cultural and spiritual property. This movement brings the issue of illegal trafficking of cultural property to the attention of people in Bolivia and other nations. It also galvanizes the social organization of the ayllus, the traditional system of governance in the high plains of the Bolivian Andes where the Aymara live. The ayllu system has functioned continuously since before the invasion of the Incas in the 15th century, but it has weakened in the course of political developments in Bolivia since the 1950s. However, recent government decisions offer an opening for the ayllu to return to greater levels of self-determination. The new Popular Participation Act, passed by the Bolivian government in late 1995, sets a policy to decentralize government programs and transfer resources to recognized local groups, which include the indigenous Aymara. Cristina's work to teach the Aymara how to implement the law on their own behalf is especially significant in that context. Cristina's commitment to recover the weavings reflects her concept of what they represent: that for a community to thrive it must protect the spiritual quality of its culture. It is part of her contribution to show how ordinary people can use the law to support this process.
In the 1970s people in the international art market became aware of the exquisite variety and quality of ancient Bolivian ceremonial weavings dating back to the time of the Incas. Collectors traveled all over the Andes to buy or steal the weavings. They were made on backstrap looms with wool so fine it feels like silk, then dyed with natural blues, roses, yellows and black, then woven in patterns that show the movements of the sun and stars. Coroma is a large ayllu of 30 villages 14,000 feet high in the Altiplano, the high plains of the Bolivian Andes, where the communities typically hide away their weavings until November 1, the Day of the Dead, then display the garments ritually in an all-day celebration of the connection between the worlds of the living and the deceased. Dealers would take advantage of those celebrations by taking photographs of the best weavings. Then they would turn the photographs over to Bolivian intermediaries, often the guardians who stored them in ceremonial bundles called q'ipis when they were not in use. The dealers would leave money and instructions to obtain the garments. Over the course of 5 or 6 years, at least 200 of the finest and most precious weavings left Coroma for the US where they were sold as art objects for tens of thousands of dollars. The process was repeated in communities all over the Andean region, especially during 6 years of drought in the 1980s when people were starving and migrating to the cities, and local authority was weakened. The UNESCO Cultural Property Convention prohibits commerce in items that are held communally and constitute spiritual and cultural patrimony; it was followed in 1983 by the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. However, there were no established mechanisms to enforce the law on the ground, and the Bolivian government turned a blind eye to the trade. Moreover, the communities had never composed the inventories or provenance for the weavings that would be necessary to prove theft in a court of law. For the people in the ayllus, the loss of their weavings meant a breakdown of religious ritual and of social organization. The weavings tell the story of 500 years of the community's ancestors. Some of the cloths are official garments which resemble ponchos and play an important part in the inauguration of new leaders and other community ceremonies. Their theft violated the community's integrity and undermined its organization patterns at a time when its political health was becoming increasingly important. During the 1990s a grass-roots movement arose within the ayllus-Ashoka Fellow Carlos Mamani is one of its leaders-to strengthen their system and secure official recognition by the Bolivian government. The ayllu communities are based on watersheds. Leadership rotates among the ayllu families, who allocate water and land use, grazing patterns and other community issues in a collective fashion. The ayllu system has been very successful at managing fragile land resources in rural areas; and the inhabitants do not typically migrate impoverished to the cities. However, they have remained outside the modern development of Bolivia's political structure, in which political parties and trade unions are the dominant form of representation for citizens. Moreover, the government has superimposed municipalities within ayllu territories. The resulting competition for resources and power has weakened many ayllus and led to sometimes-violent disputes over land ownership. With the passage of the Popular Participation Act in 1995, the government committed itself to decentralizing authority and channeling the bulk of state monies to local governments, including those of officially recognized indigenous groups, among whom the Aymara are the largest. This has created a moment of opportunity for strong ayllus to participate in the Bolivian political mainstream.
Cristina's strategy relies on three elements. First, she seeks to create the necessary mechanisms to enforce the law and international conventions. Meanwhile, she is organizing the development of ayllu community through the process of retrieving the weavings. A third component is the development of a vision of what the weavings represent, and how they should be managed in the future. The Coroma ayllu has been Cristina's pilot project. She has taught the community, which is accustomed to oral records, how to inventory its ceremonial objects and create written descriptions and explanations of the meaning of the ritual weavings, q'ipis, cups and other objects. She works with people through the process of local enforcement; including the arrest of the guardians who illegally sell the community's heritage and the difficult decision of whether to allow the guilty party to stay in the community. Painstakingly, she has put into place the network required to implement the law, using lawyers, anthropologists, international customs officials, the Bolivian government, indigenous peoples, and the media. Unfolding events have illustrated the necessity of building connections from local to international levels. In 1988 the community of Coroma received a post card from a Cornell University professor with expertise in Andean textiles. Its picture featured an Indian weaving he had seen for sale in California. It was one of those missing from Coroma. Cristina immediately left for San Francisco along with several elders who were able to identify the weaving. She then activated the international laws which upheld the principle that such goods held in common could not legally be sold without the assent of the entire community. She worked with a network of scholars, lawyers, and members of the American Indian Movement to bring the illegal trafficking to the attention of the public; and to persuade the US to take action under the UNESCO Cultural Property Convention and impose emergency import restrictions on antique textiles from Coroma for 5 years. As a follow up the Federal register published a list-which the community now could supply-of the textiles that were denied entry. Over 1,000 Bolivian weavings were confiscated by customs officials in San Francisco. Many were ceremonial weavings and the Coroma elders could identify and document 48 of them. In 1993 the textiles were released to the Bolivians, and a group of American Indians took them home to Coroma on November 1, the Day of the Dead. The Minister of Culture in France, where there has been extensive traffic in stolen Andean art, heard about the story, and when he made a visit to Bolivia with Prime Minister Chirac in 1996 he asked to see the returned weavings. A special exhibit was set up at the National Museum of Art in La Paz. Members of the Coroma community were there conducting a ceremony when he arrived. With the assistance of a French-speaking Aymara, they presented him with a draft proposal for an treaty between their ayllu and the French government to enforce the provisions of the UNESCO convention and secure the return of the ceremonial weavings. He suggested they form a "living museum," funded by the French government, where the textiles could be safeguarded, people could be educated about them, and the weaving techniques could be revived and taught. A group from an ayllu that can propose its own treaty with a foreign country demonstrates its confidence. Cristina has worked to strengthen the existing governance patterns in the ayllu and to create networks between the ayllus and other institutions. While she has focused on other issues such as acquiring land titles, her primary focus has been the recovery of the weavings, and her organizing of the community evolves from that theme. She has helped the affected communities with public relations campaigns to make the general public aware of the importance of preserving their cultural patrimony. She is working with the local governments in Coroma and Sucre to establish a living textile museum. She is working with the national government to establish a national textile museum in La Paz and to create an official institution of experts on textiles. She is replicating her work in other indigenous, ayllu-based communities throughout the Bolivian Altiplano. Until the weavings have been documented and their theft discovered and registered, there is no hope of recovering these treasures. Cristina has changed the reality in of enforcement in Bolivia. With her assistance, the Congress has set new policy to enforce legal protection, has instructed the Bolivian customs to confiscate stolen weavings and contracted with Cristina to train them. They made their first recovery at the La Paz airport in March of 1997. At the international level, Cristina has been instrumental in creating a network of support for any report of theft related to trafficking of cultural goods. She takes part in events where any aspect of ceremonial weaving is involved. The government of Sao Paulo State in Brazil invited her to speak to the Latin American Congress of Museums on the ethics of museums and how museums can deal with the realization that some of what they display has been stolen from an ongoing spiritual culture. The government of Ecuador has also asked her to explain her model for dealing with the problem. Cristina and the people of Coroma are now working on recovering weavings in Canada, Europe and Japan.
Cristina grew up in a large family that made her understand and respect the individuality of people. As a child she made constant trips with her family to Bolivia's undeveloped countryside where she learned to respect and admire the rural indigenous farmers and their way of life. This was an unusual vacation habit, as families with the means to do so would more typically go abroad on holidays. The racism she saw towards indigenous people left her indignant and anxious to support marginalized groups and poor people in Bolivia. Cristina is a cousin of Bolivia's former president, Jaime Paz Zamora, who was in office at the time she first became aware of the existence and whereabouts of stolen communally owned weavings of Coroma. Cristina received university training in social psychology that helped her understand the ways of thinking of the different groups of people in her country. She studied under renowned Cornell University professor of anthropology, John Murra, who is one of the first academics to study the cultural importance of Andean textiles. In 1982, when the Bolivian University was closed down during a political crisis and work was scarce, Cristina opened her own handicrafts shop. She was inspired to do this through her love for Bolivian textiles and admiration of the skill of the weavers. As the owner of the shop she soon could see clearly the plundering of the cultural patrimony of Bolivia and she was impelled to take action. She knew the weavings were more than just beautiful pieces of material and clothing. She started to investigate, visiting communities and learning more about the role the weavings play in their daily lives. She came to Coroma, a place where she could not only research but also help to stop the plundering. In l987 she was working in Coroma taking an inventory of weavings to help village leaders identify the missing pieces and protect against further disappearances, when Dr. Murra sent the postcard announcing an antique Indian art show in San Francisco with a picture of one of the missing weavings featured on the front. Thus began her world-wide effort to protect and recover ceremonial weavings.