Friday my students and I sat at a set of pushed together tables with Valentin Quispe and his two sons in the pilgrimage town of Copacabana, Bolivia (across the lake from the Apu Inti Elder Rasband discusses.) Some three decades ago, Valentin was a leader in people from his Aymara speaking community’s joining the LDS Church. As a twenty-four year old graduate student of anthropology I found my way to Valentin’s community where he and his family befriended me while I studied ethnographically that watershed event.
Almost a quarter of the community became LDS in a small series of mass baptisms. In their new town of adobe houses, the Church built a building of white cinderblock with a brown metal fence and gate. But there has been little growth and many people have become inactive. Nevertheless, the branch continues, as does Valentin. He is proud to tell of how he and his wife made the trek from their rural community to the temple to be sealed for time and all eternity.
Valentin, his family and community are unusual in Latin America. Almost all the members of the Church live in cities and speak Spanish. There are few cases where indigenous peoples, in their communities, have joined the Church. Yet, at the same time, rural, indigenous Latin America has developed strong Protestant congregations.
Among the Urus, the people of Apu Inti, where we were prior to going to Copacabana on the other side of the lake, the Adventists are strong; they claim perhaps a third of all Urus. Only a few individuals and families have become Latter-day Saints. While the Adventists have built schools and churches on the floating islands, the few Latter-day Saints take their boats to the mainland city of Puno to attend Church.
Very early, the Church attempted to proselyte Indian communities. President Reinholt Stoof , the first President of the South American mission, moved beyond the German immigrant communities that were the basis of the Church in Argentina and Brazil in the twenties to share Mormonism with the Lamanites. He sent missionaries to the northern Argentine province of Jujuy by Bolivia and personally visited Indian communities in the Chaco near Paraguay. Nevertheless the effort failed and President Stoof found himself frustrated by the cultural and social difference between the Indians and what he felt the Church required. As Frederick Williams noted in his important history of the South American Church, From Acorn to Oak Tree (p. 47) President Stoof “decided to have the missionaries devote all their efforts for the time being to the millions of cosmopolitan people of Argentina.”
Many later mission presidents have been similarly frustrated and made similar choices. At the same time, however, Protestants were laying early foundations of what became a massive growth of their religion among indigenous communities in the twentieth century. In relative terms, there is a higher percentage of Protestants in the countryside than in the cities. Mormons and Catholics are strong in Latin America’s cities.
Nevertheless, there are rural, Indigenous Latter-day Saints. Valentin and his family are examples as are the people of Apu Inti island.
When Valentin heard my students and I were in Copacabana he and one son walked for an hour and a half over the mountain to see us. The other son left La Paz before dawn to come to the Lakeside town to join us. And, as I always do, I invited them into my world. They let me, a stranger from halfway around the world, come and live in their community and they spent many days tutoring me in their ways and their thoughts. Valentin may well have been the most important of my graduate school professors, even though he has never been to college. So it is only fair I welcome them into my world.
We went to a restaurant that mostly caters to foreigners about half a block from the shore of Lake Titicaca. Valentin and his sons had ordered hamburgers, while the students were trying various cosmopolitan Bolivian dishes. I was teasing them about eating gringo mankha, gringo food, since they used to always ask me what gringos ate and I would try to make some in their community. After a bit I noticed Valentin and his sons were eating their fries and burgers with a toothpick. At the same time a student said in English “they did not get any silverware.”
I called the restauranteur and told him there was missing silverware. He brought it and Valentin and his sons switched from toothpicks to forks to eat. I apologized to them, but they had never said anything. They never complained.
Later I struggled with the missing knives and forks. The lack seemed deliberate and I remembered how many townsmen over how many years had told me that the people from Valentin’s community were savages. Could the restaurant owner just have assumed that since they were from the countryside they did not eat with silverware but only with their hands? Valentin and his sons were scattered among us. How was it possible otherwise that only they had been given no silverware?
I do not know the full answer. But unequal treatment and racism are very real forces in people’s lives here. It is not surprising they should also arise as themes driving politics. It is also not surprising that they should be part of the context for Church growth in Latin America.