Ideas Post-Copacabana

Two ideas compete for space in this post.  The first is a thought about all those people who are missing when Church claims about membership numbers are compared with censuses like those of Mexico or Chile.  The second is about belonging to the Church as a minority in a non-voluntarist society.

How did these two ideas get so intertwined that I cannot seem to separate them this morning?  Well…

I went to Bolivia the end of January to document the rather complex set of rites around the annual feast of the Virgin of Candelaria, which falls on February 2, in the ancient and important pilgrimage center of Copacabana.  For many years I have done sporadic ethnographic fieldwork in Copacabana and environs on topics such as the growth of non-Catholic religion as well as on other social movements.  Last year, I did a bibliographic search and realized very little has been written documenting the mainstream rituals that draw probably hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and tourists annually to this small town on Lake Titicaca.   While, over the years, I have seen many feasts there, I have never documented them as part of my work.

In August, I attended the annual feast of the Virgin of Copacabana.  It was massive; the town was overwhelmed with visitors from all over central and southern Peru who came in devotion to the Lady of Copacabana.  A number of anthropological themes seemed pressing, such as the cult of fertility, including a cult to the toad, and the social organization of devotion that extends from the image in Copacabana to much of the southern Andes.  I returned six months later for the feast-day of the Canary Island Virgin of which Copacabana is a advocation, the Virgin of Candle-mass, as Candelaria is translated, although the Lady of Copacabana has developed great power in her own right.

While the first feast depended on the pilgrims from many areas of Peru, this feast emphasized the social order of the town, and the ties still held by people who either used to live there or had kin ties there.  It also had a wide draw; people came from as far away as Spain and Los Angeles.  These are just people I spoke with.  There obviously were many others with whom there was no chance to speak.

My ethnography of the feasts could easily take over the post, at this point.  It is a very rich and demanding topic in its own right.  And, I suspect, it is intriguing to Latter-day Saints given the strong contrast with our religious tradition.

However, the reasons for writing this note took place really on the edges of the Catholic feast.  Copacabana has no LDS ward or branch.  The nearest branch is on the other side of the mountain in the Aymara-speaking community of Huacuyo.  Yet the first mayor after municipal reform in the nineties, as well as one other mayor, have been Latter-day Saints and several members reside in the town.  I know most of these people.  They are my friends and have been over many seasons of work.

Ok.  Enough context.  Now a story.  So, one morning, early, I am talking with one of my friends.  I shall not give his real name, but for stylistic reasons let’s call him Remigio. I have known Remigio since he was a teenager and he is now in his mid-forties.  He is a member of the Church.

This morning, as most mornings of the fiesta, he is hung over.  His face is drawn with anxiety and pain.  What’s wrong, I ask him.  “At night, when I drink, I don’t sleep.  I walk the patio all night long.  I feel a knot of pain in my stomach.”

I thought he was going to describe a stomach ulcer or some problem with acid reflux.  Instead he said the pain was “a feeling he had done something wrong”.

The next day, late afternoon, I leave the annual bullfight to go to the home of the prestes, the main sponsors of the fiesta.  Being preste is a major responsibility, an enormous cost, and brings honor and respect to the people who assume this rotating burden.  They had invited me to come to their celebration.  Around town there are perhaps eight celebrations of lower level prestes who are feasting all the people who came to dance through the streets with them, often spending three and a half months income on costumes and accoutrements in order to do so.   But I am going to the home of the main sponsors of the entire feast under which the other eight take place.

As I get to the gate of the home, Remigio is in the street with a couple of people.  He is drunk, like you can only get from three days of drinking from dawn to well past dusk.  He sees me and grabs my arm.  “This is David. He is my friend.  You are my friend, aren’t you?”

I meet his companions and he ushers me into the home.  Before climbing the stairs to the main hall, he holds me and talks with me.  He says, “I am so happy.  Yesterday Moises was here, you know.  He stayed and got really drunk.  We drank together.  I asked him if I could get permission to build another story on to my house.  For a long time now, when I ask for permission, they block me in the municipality.  Moises said yesterday, since it is you, I will give you thirty days to do the construction.  If you do it and finish it, we will not see it and you will have it.  I am so happy.  He will let me finish my house.”

Moises, not his real name, is a prominent public official in the town, and he is a returned missionary.  I was not there when this conversation happened, but I was at the gathering earlier and Moises was drinking.   Lest you think Remigio’s drinking is unusual, let me note that almost everyone at the celebration was as drunk as he was.  Remigio almost never drinks, but on feast days like this, when his family or close friends are celebrating, he feels enormous social pressure to drink, as does Moises.

Some years ago Moises told me how before he entered local politics he could get by without drinking, that is with keeping the Word of Wisdom, but that as a leader in the town he had to accept the offered drinks, he had to participate in the feasts.

We can argue with Moises, perhaps.  But Copacabana is a town whose society is tightly integrated by feasts and obligatory drinking.  To be anything but marginal requires drinking.  In La Paz, the country’s capital, a city almost a third larger than the Wasatch Front megalopolis, it is possible to find spaces where one can live without drinking.  One can build a social network outside of he dominant order of feasts and drinking.  But even there it is hard, if one still has friends and family who feast and drink.  In Copacabana that option is almost not available, unless one wishes to be marginalized.

So, my second idea.  When we, here in the US, think of becoming a member we think of a person in a voluntarist society, who is basically a free agent and can make choices about groups to belong to and identities to take on.   On the whole, Bolivia is not that kind of society, although voluntarism is increasingly an option.  Nevertheless, for most people, becoming and staying an active member means becoming marginalized by breaking ties with family, friends, and local society.  Unless the people are fortunate to live in a space, a social niche, where such independence is fostered, the constant challenges of being marginalized are likely to wear them down and draw them back into the social mainstream.  Long term, active members are those who have found the social support and inner strength to accept such marginalization and magnify it to find meaningful lives.   This is a very different task than is faced by most of us who are members in the US.

My first idea.  It is not surprising, as a result, that most people cannot find the inner and outer resources to succeed at this task.  Indeed, it is an almost impossible task.  But, that they do not manage to stay “faithful” does not mean that their Mormonism does not have meaning for them.

A student accompanied me to Copacabana on this trip.  He is from Utah and recently spent two years as a missionary in Bolivia.  We were discussing the Saints in Copacabana and their challenges and Michael, the student, told me that on his mission at least weekly he and his companion would run into someone on the street who was drunk and was a Latter-day Saint.  They would approach the elders, often crying, because they loved the Church and considered themselves Mormon, but had to drink.

If nothing else, their experience as members of the Church, even if they could not live according to Church standards, marked them.  It provided a complication that made their drinking different.  In Bolivia it is ordinary to drink.  For them, it was not because they were Mormon.

I do not know if this is part of the knot of pain in Remigio’s stomach, but I suspect it is.  The anthropologist Kaja Finkler writes about how people in Mexico experience the tensions and contradictions of their life as body pain: the social-psychological stress she calls life’s lesions is somaticized as bodily pain, morbidity.  Given a similar propensity in Bolivia to somatize depression and psychic distress it is likely Remigio feels stress about his commitment to Mormonism which conflicts with his social obligations to the people around him who enable him to live meaningfully. And that may well be a big part of the knot of pain in his stomach.

These days that he was drinking, he talked about the Church.  He also talked about his older brother, now deceased, whom he adored and who was a leader in the Church.  He felt anguish at betraying his brother.  His inactivity in the Church was part of that betrayal.

I do not wish to overemphasize this point, but Mormonism brought a tension, a complexity to Remigio’s life, which was not present in most of the celebrants.  It also has brought a complexity to Moises’ life, though he has not spoken to me about it for many years.  His wife has, though.  Of course, I was one of the missionaries who taught her family the gospel, even though I now return as an anthropologist.

In any case, attending the fiesta in Copacabana earlier this month not only provided me with a rich set of data about Copacabana, it also gives me pause about the study of Mormonism.  I think we need to look more openly and positively at the lives of people who may figure on the Church’s roles but who are not active.  Sociologists may discount them as part of an effective membership, given the dedication to an institutionalist bias.  But, like Remigio, many if not all of these inactive members are still LDS, if not in outward Church activity at least somewhere in their inner lives.

I also think we need to be wary of the voluntarist assumptions of our theories of religious change and, as a result, have more scholarly empathy, as well as Christian empathy, for the challenges people face when they enter the waters of baptism.  Life is long and a person’s actions do not solely depend on his or her will and choices.   They also depend on the context of possibilities afforded them.

This post is already too long.  I shall leave the philosophical argument for another post.  For now, I just wish I could take you guys with me and introduce you to Remigio, Moises, and Moises’ wife, lets call her Marisol.   They have taught me lots about life and left me with lots to think about.  But, yes Remigio I am, and will always be, your friend!


  1. This is very interesting. You can see the leadership of the church approaching this issue in some of the talks about culture, and having members of the 12 live outside the USA for extended times helps them understand what this is like. I recently read a description of the church in Russia which made some of the same points relative to the Word of Wisdom.

  2. What a splendid write-up, David. Very rich. I think early Mormonism has some fun interaction with holy festivals. Think of the criticism of the post dedication Solemn Assembly in Kirtland! Your interaction with all these folks is not only academically interesting, but inspiring on a human level. Keep up the great work.

  3. I agree with David. That is part of the reason why I am looking into developing a facebook application that can reasonably estimate whether people in your network are Mormons (regardless of whether or not they list their religion on their FB profile). We need to become better at connecting with these people, especially in urban metro areas where it is so easy for them to get lost. I don’t expect it will be easy to reactivate these individuals, or that even most of them will want to come back to church, but if we don’t use the technology and social skills at our disposable I think the Lord will say to us that we should have left the 99 and gone after the 1.

  4. It is unfortunate that there is not enough of a support network there to allow one to more easily adhere to the word of wisdom. David, you mention at least a few members that live in Copacabana- how many members do you think there are there? Was there a ward or branch there at some point in the past?

    I see the tension that would cause a member there to drink, but honestly it is hard for me, as a lifelong member currently residing in Utah, to fully understand what this must be like. I guess what I don’t understand is how Copacabana is different than any other city. Is it the size of the city that matters such that a member in La Paz is more likely to be able to keep the word of wisdom where a member in Copacabana is less likely? What makes Copacabana different from other cities of its size that have an active, teetotaling membership? Obviously there are costs, but at some point, someone has to pioneer the way to make it more safe to not drink…But like I said, I can at least partly understand their predicament, and I definitely feel for the pain that they experience.

  5. Great post.

    I wondered about this in Iquitos. I only saw Mormons with other Mormons there, so of course I never saw them drinking. But all the men I worked with did this thing where they stand in a circle with one glass and one bottle of beer, they’d pass it around, bottle then glass, and get drunk together (depending on how much many they had to buy more beer). It’s this huge communal man thing and turning it down is rude in a way that North Americans don’t understand. And, like you say, your best case is that you are marginal if you turn this communal drinking down.

    On my mission in Japan, I was too young to understand this but I remember feeling so much frustration that people wouldn’t just stand up and be different. Join the Church. Be a Christian. Live the Word of Wisdom. Be chaste. I spent a lot of time praying that people would be brave. Really I needed to pray that they would make lots of great Mormon friends, then they could have made the transition.

  6. davidknowlton says:

    Thanks everyone. Jim, as Amri writes, drinking is a key part of social interaction and is a requirement to belong to social networks. This means every network, outside of the very small one of the Church. To have a life that is not only contained within the walls of the Church means to constantly be pressured to drink or ostracized for not drinking. Furthermore, drink means much more than simply something to consume. It is a historically sanctioned sign of warmth, acceptance, and a seal of reciprocity. It connects people to the earth and to each other, and is holy, like a sacrament.

    Our society is far more pluralistic and there are simply many mainstream people who either do not drink or only do so occasionally, so one can belong and still be different.

    In Copacabana there has never been a unit of the Church. I am not sure entirely why not. The branch across the mountain has succeeded because the rural people, as an entire group, made a break with the dominant society and quit drinking. But even there not drinking has proven very difficult over time and most people have not succeeded in the effort, though some have.

    A pluralist society, such as ours in the US, is really the rare one that needs explaining, I think. I suspect most societies on earth are simply not as open to change. Religion is not a voluntaristic thing, but is something deeply embedded in social organization and identity.

  7. Rameumptom says:

    In 1978-80, there were only 18,000 members in Bolivia. Now there are over 100,000. Still, in small towns, the pressure to be part of the group must still be astounding.

    I recall when working in the mission office in Santa Cruz, going to Valle Grande, and closing the branch there. The power of the local Catholic priest was just too much for most of the members there. Their children attended the Catholic school, the only school around, and were expected to attend Mass every Sunday. Our kind discussions with the priest concerning religious freedom fell on deaf ears.

    It is amazing how much influence peer pressure can have in people almost anywhere. How often here in the States, does someone come close to being baptized, only to have a friend or parent bring in the pastor to do an intervention?

    In Potosi, many of the members worked in the mines. There in the mines, it was common to worship and offer baby llama sacrifices inside the mines – occasionally to God, but others to Satan (the god of wealth). Members often had their items blessed by a priest still, or hoped that Pachamama would bless them with material items.

    Interestingly, just as spiritualism and Catholicsm were mixed together by many Bolivians, so too we can find Mormonism mixed with other cultural issues, as well – including drinking during festivals.

  8. And all we have on Feb 2nd is Groundhog’s Day.

    Thanks for sharing some perspective.

  9. I think you can find similar circumstances here in the states if you look at lower and lower-middle class behaviors. If everyone in your family smokes and drinks, and you love your family, then living the WoW is going to put you in a very uncomfortable position. Frankly, you probably won’t get a lot of help from other church members, either, as most seem to be repulsed by those who are on a lower social level. The shame of it is that those whose lives could be improved the most by the gospel frequently are the ones who end up on the fringes.

  10. This is a stunning and compassionate post, without showing the least bit condescention to the subjects. (On the subject of compassion, of which no one has asked, I (this has nothing to do with Mormonism) have often have noticed that it comes attached, esp. when a first worlder is talking of someone in the third world with just this hint of, yeah, that -CON- word.) [Egregious shout out to Chomsky here for never ever ever doing such a thing. ]

    The Word of Wisdom has only been required since G.A. Smith. Surely Mormonism is big enough to welcome sub-groups with slightly different rules; esp. in cases like this where the rules were perfectly valid in Mormonism, for at least awhile. (And, I understand can, worms.)

  11. djinn, public drunkenness has always been grounds for church action. The WoW was required to greater or lesser degrees (more flexibility was given to older people, for example, in the JFS administration, but was an “unwritten rule” nevertheless); but it was in the Grant administration where it became a written requirement for a temple recommend.

  12. David,

    Thought provoking post. I was in Copacabana when the priest blessed some cars, it wasn’t during this holiday, it was late August or early September. Is it a regular ritual?

    I had a very proper older investigator who refused to say Titicaca, he would pronounce it Tikitaka.

  13. Thanks for this thought provoking post David.

  14. Cynthia L. says:

    This is beautiful and thought-provoking. It’s hard to see things from outside our perspectives, especially on things that are so fundamental as to be completely invisible to us–like the inherent individualism of our culture.

    I see some of these struggles with my husband who is the only member in his family, who are immigrants with a much, much stronger communal lifestyle than ours.

  15. david knowlton says:


    The blessing of cars happens almost every day in Copacabana, although on weekends and especially during feast days the demand increases enormously. But cars are only part of a cult of fertility at the shrine whose basic question is how do you obtain material goods and how do you keep them functional, safe, a reproductive. I think those are good questions, particularly when seen as a set.

    I like what you write djinn about the dangers of compassion. It so easily slides into condescension. There is something amazingly challenging in the Savior’s admonition to love other people. In so many ways the hardest part of that is to learn to walk arm in arm, rather than extending an arm up. The direction implies higher status and less than full love. Furthermore, so much “help” is built on anything but a good walk in the other’s shoes. I think we need to be wary of thinking we know what is good for other people. End of soapbox.

  16. david knowlton says:

    Noray, As you note, class strongly influences our notion of morality and acceptability. Yet, in so many ways this is troublesome. I think the Book of Mormon is a strident critic of our tacit classism.

  17. They would approach the elders, often crying, because they loved the Church and considered themselves Mormon, but had to drink.

    For someone, who has members of their immediate family who could be described this way and as a function of their cultural upbringing are subject to acute somatization, this post strikes a pretty personal note. I look at the photo of the man holding the beer and I see the red eyes and ruddy complexion of drunkenness and see forward 12 hours to someone, laying on the floor or ground somewhere, having pissed themselves or been sick on themselves. I see a wife and kids somewhere who worry about where dad is at the same time worrying about when he is going to come home. Cultural significance be damned, there are parts of this festival (as described) that are destructive, damaging.

    I question whether the tension can really be distilled down to simply Mormon vs. Cococabanian, it must be more complex than that. Even the happiest, least-externally-exposed, festival drunk will feel a regret where they end up at the end of their binge or what they said or did to their family while under the influence. IMO The filter of mormonism doesn’t create the tension it simply clarifies the source of conflict.

    And while I understand that the objective of your post is to expand the argument beyond active/inactive, to contextualize the ability of these people to adhere to a foreign standards of behavior, that so many members of the Church take for granted as natural, to expand empathy towards those that succumb to social/cultural pressures. But at the same time I wonder if this inclination should not be tempered with a little certitude about the social benefits of living the WOW and challenging the unhealthy and detrimental aspects of a culture. Do we love Remigio and Moise more by looking so far past their challenges that we fail to provide them with a distinct pattern of firm and enduring happiness, possibly the only thing that will release them from the tension that they feel?

    Do we mourn those aspects of a culture that mormonism may destroy if those aspects are damaging to the collective psyche of that culture?

  18. #16: “there are parts of this festival (as described) that are destructive, damaging….”
    This could be said about beer at our football games, drinking at our colleges, the Prom Night where 50% of teenagers who die of car accidents.. do so on Prom Night. (Maybe even America Christmas shopping).
    But you are right..the line shouls be: is heavy drinking helpful or hurtful in this Culture? It could be helpful(?). Therefore care needs to be taken in judging their failures in trying to live our Culture. (WoW).

  19. Interestingly, my great grandfather, John Rowberry, was stake president in Toele (?). He had a problem with the WoW and drank beer. (Where he could have got beer in Toele is interesting.) A member of the stake complained and he was released. His successor was Heber J. Grant, a 22 year old young man being fast tracked to the presidency.

    They became fast friends and H.J. Grant was mentored by John Rowberry. Grant was heard to mention that who could judge John Rowberry, since he was a man of prodigious girth, as to what he needed and did not need in his diet.

    Just a story.

  20. david knowlton says:

    Mac, your questions and comments are so good and so difficult. I too have a personal relationship to this issue that is painful (a member of my family I am close to who is an alcoholic) to the point that my innate reaction is very negative toward drinking. The ethnographer (and dare I say Christian) part of me is drawn to comprehending the experience of people I am living with and working with. That required, for me, a bracketing of my normal frustration with alcohol (this is not about the WoW, it is about my personal feelings vis a vis actions of people in my family I love).

    In the post, because of emphasis and because of length issues, I did not mention there is an indigenous critique of drinking. A story:

    During the fiesta I spoke with a woman who owns and runs a store. She and her family are quite successful. Both her husband and her two brothers were participating in the feast–her husband is also an important local politico. She shook her head, while talking to me about the drinking. She said “the men drink so much and it is not good. Women don’t drink like that. We have to follow them to take care of them.” More head shaking and a very pained sigh.

    What she says is not true of all women, nor of all men, but does express a general cultural logic. It is both a logic of gender and a critique of alcohol.

    Also, as I did say, the community across the mountain broke with feasting (and hence drinking) as a large group. In this they express a critique that focused on drinking as symbolic of the entire fiesta complex and its problems.

    My MA and Ph.D. theses deal with those people, and with family members of the woman mentioned above, lets call her Laura, who became Evangelical (Baptist and Methodist) as a means of avoiding drinking. But, those people remained marginal and, despite the indigenous critique (Laura’s and many others), over the years I have seen person after person, Evangelical or Mormon, drawn back into the feasting complex.

    Mac also points out that the gospel by definition is in tension with earthly culture. But I think we need to be careful to not replace one culture’s ideas–i.e. voluntarism in this case–for the other culture’s–the fiesta complex with its notions of relational persons in Bolivia. Individual notions of choice and religious affiliation are probably not really adequate, either as a moral philosophy, or as an explanation of religious and social change. I do not have a replacement, but I am arguing for an opening that will allow one to be considered.

    The gospel may be in tension with earthly ways, but that, of necessity, will include our notions of individualism, free will, and so on, to the degree such are not adequate or universal descriptions of human life.

    Remigio’s anguish is much more complex than I could possibly express. You are right to a good extent Mac. My point, however, was not to argue Mormonism as a cause of his tension, but as a contributor, something that gives a different phenomenology to his particular existential issues. This is not meant as a critique of Mormonism or the WofW, but rather to suggest that we need to see how our norms work in people who are not the minority who hold a temple recommend and keep the commandments. I want to also understand the majority of Latter-day Saints who do not. I want to understand not just the people in Bolivia, but all those who come to their stake centers here in Utah for twelve step programs, as well as those who stay far away from them and live what to the Temple Recommend holders would not seem a Mormon life, but which still involves Mormonism.

  21. Are Mormons who smoke or drink less LDS than Mormons who don’t? I don’t think so. Each of us has our own challenges to righteousness; theirs are just more obvious.

    At a Stake Conference in Utah a few years back, I heard a recently reactivated Brother plead with the rest of us not to turn our backs on someone who smokes or drinks. I was looking around the room when he said that and did not see a single person nod his or her head in agreement.

    I am sure that a community such as you descibe in Bolivia
    would be a very difficult place for any native member to live up to gospel standards. Perhaps it will take more than one generation to establish consistent gospel practices in that area. But it won’t happen any more quickly by ostracizing those who can’t quite do it yet.

  22. On a different note, I have heard an awful lot of LDS stories about families praying fo their cars to work. Wouldn’t these count as preisthood blessings?

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