La Paz, city and region of Bolivia, located in the western part of the nation; the city is situated some 50 miles southeast of Lake Titicaca. Covering an area of 51,732 square miles, the department of La Paz contains four distinct ecological zones: altiplano (12,000 feet or higher), high valley (12,000-8,000 feet), yungas or steep valleys (8,000-4,000 feet), and the Amazon Basin (4,000-1,000 feet). Each is characterized by distinct agricultural production. Potatoes and barley are grown on the altiplano, corn in the valleys, and tropical fruits at lower elevations. The city of La Paz is located in a high valley zone and in 2006 had a population of 835,000. The urban agglomeration amounted to 1.7 million people out of a departmental total of 2,672,800 inhabitants.
When Alonso de Mendoza founded the city of La Paz on 20 October 1548, he chose a site amid densely populated Aymara villages. The tribute lists of the first encomiendas (1560) showed why La Paz attracted Spanish settlers. Items delivered to the encomenderos included wool in the form of manufactured garments, llamas, sheep, pigs, corn, salt, fish, eggs, potatoes, coca, and cotton. Encomiendas also regularly supplied labor for the Spanish farms near the city and for the alluvial goldfields in the province of Larecaja.
After the demise of the encomienda, Aymaras continued to be important components of the Spanish economic system. The large number of surviving villagers on the altiplano paid tribute in coin derived from their labor at the Potosí mine and the marketing of their agricultural surplus in urban centers. Other villagers migrated to the Spanish-owned haciendas either on the altiplano or in the valley zones, where they became resident Colonos fulfilling obligations of labor and personal service to the owners. By the 1830s, out of a total Indian population of 500,000 in the department of La Paz, 70 percent resided in Indian villages and 30 percent on haciendas.
For the Spaniards, the city of La Paz served not only as a repository of goods from the immediate area but also as a trade center on the route from Potosí to Lima and an administrative center for Spanish authorities. Because of those functions, the city grew from a population of almost 6,000 in 1586 to 30,000 by independence in 1825.
During the colonial period only two uprisings occurred: an artisan tax revolt of 1661 led by Antonio Gallardo and an Indian uprising of 1781 led by Julián Apaza Túpac Catari. After the Indian siege had been lifted by Spanish troops in 1781, and rebel leaders had been executed, the memory of the rebellion reminded Indians and creoles alike of the deep divisions in colonial society.
During the early independence period, 1825–1880, regional caudillos, many of whom received their military training in the republican armies, dipped their hands generously into the treasury of La Paz, which was the largest in Bolivia because of Indian tribute payments. Thus, although Sucre was the official capital, La Paz became the de facto center of government. Once in power, however, caudillos altered colonial social relations very little.
In 1880 silver barons from southern Bolivia seized political control and stressed export-led development. They not only opened trade, built railroads, and established banks but also removed government protection for Indian communities and sponsored hacienda expansion. In the department of La Paz between 1880 and 1916, approximately 30 percent of Indian communal householders sold their land to elite residents of the city of La Paz. Mean while, La Paz became the official "second" capital of Bolivia, confirmed in the Federalist War of 1899. After the railroad reached the city in 1905, La Paz became the terminus of the import trade and the business headquarters for banks and exporters involved in the rubber and tin trade. By 1942 the city of La Paz had about 287,000 inhabitants and included a large, politically active middle class.
During the 1940s, the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) galvanized the latent political strength of the urban middle class when the party branded the government a tool of the tin mine owners. The 1952 revolution took place in the streets of La Paz and ushered in a reform government. But while MNR leaders expropriated the largest tin mines, implemented an agrarian reform that returned land to the tillers, and opened the electorate to all adults, other demographic and political forces proved stronger than the reform program. Despite having legal access to land, Indians increasingly moved into the city because population growth exceeded available land resources. Simultaneously, the government enlarged the bureaucracy and expanded state-run enterprises, and private, small-scale capitalists developed a manufacturing sector, particularly in textiles and food processing. Under these conditions, the city population increased to 992,000 by 1985. Thus, alongside modern office buildings and cosmopolitan hotels, Indians have their own markets and form the majority of inhabitants in certain sectors of the city.
Cholos (mestizos) comprise the largest portion of the city's population. They are defined by their cultural characteristics. Cholos speak both Spanish and Aymara, dress in a Western style, and participate in the national economyand political system. Their jobs and incomes vary greatly. They are waiters, truck drivers, merchants, mechanics, store owners, factory employees, white-collar workers, construction workers, and artisans of all sorts. Cholos comprise the rank and file of urban political parties and staff the government's bureaucracy and army. They are proud of their Indian heritage but do not consider themselves Indian. They value education highly, but they are not unified politically.
La Paz, one of Bolivia's most densely populated urban areas, with a large Aymara population, is a multi-ethnic city in which Indian and Western cultures collide daily. The outcome of these cultural collisions is not so much the blending of cultures as it is the creation of distinctions and the establishment of boundaries among social groups.
The city is home to several universities, including the University Mayor de San Andrés and the Universidad Católica Boliviana. As the nation's administrative capital, La Paz is the center of the legislative and executive branches of government. President Juan Evo Morales Ayma in 2005 became Bolivia's first head of state of Indian ethnicity.
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