Moment of surprise

I had a moment of surprise today. It all started when I came back to the Goytia’s house and found Angela Choque sitting in the living room. Angela is now eighty-four years old and she started life as a shepherd/farmer in the highlands mining town of Oruro. As a child she broke her foot and the bone was never set properly so she hobbled throughout her life. As a young woman she converted to evangelical Christianity and soon met the charismatic pastor Jaime Goytia. When he got married to Marina, Angela offered to be their domestic servant, and she lived in their household for 30 years, cooking, cleaning, helping to raise four children, caring for their parents in their old age, and then helping to raise the grandchildren. She never married and was often in demand to help her brothers and their families as well.

Angela and I had a unique friendship the first year I lived with the Goytia family. Neither of us had ever met anyone like the other. We couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds, but we liked each other instantly and taught each other things throughout the year. Angela talked to the various household pets and to pictures of animals on the wall, and she didn’t believe that man had walked on the moon. If anyone asked her what she was cooking, she would say “It’s a dish called shut-up-and-eat” (come callado). When I was older and took her to a fancy restaurant, she announced to the wait staff loudly that she “needed to piss” (¡tengo que hacer pis!) She never stopped dressing like a shepherd and she always favored what she calls “screaming colors” (colores chillones). She’s one of the most fiercely independent women I’ve ever known.

Whenever her hands were not busy cooking or cleaning, they were spinning wool, knitting or weaving. One of the things she taught me to do was to place a stick between my toes and weave a watu, a special cord that is often used as the border of a larger weaving or festooned with pom poms and tied around a hat.

As a teenager, I noticed that Angela had a distinctive way of speaking Spanish that was heavily influenced by her native tongue which was Aymara (Quechua was her second language). She often formed words way in the back of her throat and I grew very fond of that way of speaking just because it was hers. After I returned to the US, she and I wrote to each other several times, which I knew took quite an effort for her since she had learned to read and write as an adult. When I came to visit Bolivia in 1987 with my mother, Angela had made each of us an exquisite homespun, handwoven belt with figures of birds and other animals in motion in successive squares. Today she pressed another watu into my hands as a gift. I told her that my family always thinks of her in our living room because we wrap ourselves in an afghan she crocheted.

As Miriam and I drove Angela home tonight, we left the center city and went down into the rough side of town where she lives with her nephew and his wife and their grown kids. It struck me that I feel at home in this dusty place because it is her place. Miriam and I managed to unlock the gate opposite the truck wheel vendors and walk with her back into her room.


Angela Choque, age 84 at Goytia house

And then, the surprise: as we turned on her light there was a portrait of me and my family hanging above her bed, next to a few photos of the Goytia family and her own. We haven’t written to each other in nearly forty years and we’ve only seen each other for brief moments in the past couple of decades. She has moved several times. I was almost shocked to see my own face from 1976 on her wall – until I remembered her afghan in our living room and her weavings that I take everywhere with me. I guess the appreciation is mutual.

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