Luz y verdad | Women’s football in the heights of La Paz

Editor’s note

The following is an updated version of a letter that mission worker Susan Ellison wrote to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as part of her assignment facilitating church connections to Joining Hands against Hunger. In establishing her women’s football initiative, Ellison shows, as it says in her mission profile, that she “intends to listen to the indigenous people before taking action.” Ellison says, “For me, faith is a part of everyday life and so my sense of mission is not easily divided into spiritual and earthly matters. Whether I advocate for just economic policies or work toward the health and wholeness of all of God’s children, I feel I do ministry. I feel called to work towards a just world, and I believe that in doing so I am working to achieve God’s kingdom here on earth.”

“The real killers on the field are Aymara women ‘de pollera,’ who wear the long, multilayered skirts that characterize Aymara women’s dress.” (All photos copyright © 2004 Susan Ellison)

La Paz, Bolivia | Periodically, unrest grips Bolivia as the marginalized and oppressed indigenous majorities clash with ruling European-descent elites. Years of struggle have taught poor Bolivians that official channels for lodging their complaints and bringing about change are useless.

And so they blockade. Rural indigenous communities and working-class urban neighborhoods pepper the roads with stones, build earthen barricades, burn tires, go on strike and try to bring the country to a standstill. Scattered rocks make the streets impassable.

Instead, they become fútbol fields.

For two weeks in Oct 03, the high-plains region surrounding the nation’s capital, Nuestra Seí±ora de La Paz (Our Lady of Peace), shut down. Violence flared in surrounding rural communities and in the adjacent city of El Alto. Encircled by the blockades, La Paz began to run out of food and cooking gas.

Following one of the worst days of violence, several of my neighbors and I ventured out of our homes, enticed by news that some beef or chicken had arrived in nearby butcher shops. We walked down the main avenue of our neighborhood and watched as groups of boys played soccer using stones that had been placed in the road as part of the blockades. At night those stones became goal posts. Unable to go about the usual business of life, and gripped by an overwhelming uncertainty, people still played. Along the entire length of Tito Yupanqui Street, teenagers and children sprinted between the stones, although it wasn’t always clear where one game left off and another began.

Fútbol is the great world sport that we Americans don’t seem to get, unless the women’s national team is playing. Then we’re frenetic. Even my stepmom threatens to rip off her top like Brandi Chastain in the 1999 World Cup. Fans of U.S. women’s soccer may reach levels of hysteria seen in South America.

I came to Bolivia with the Presbyterian Hunger Program and soon found my Bolivian church community. And they liked to play fútbol. Some Bolivians consider fútbol the Source of Life itself. But while the boys are handed soccer balls while still in the crib, the girls are just now getting the opportunity to play.

Growing up as part of a generation of American women who were taught that we were just as capable of playing sports as the boys, I have tended to be more aggressive and less self-critical than many of the girls on our Bolivian church team. My years playing bench for Louisville Collegiate School’s field hockey team (The Amazons) paid off. I am now the unofficial soccer coach and teen-angst counselor for the girls team at my church, Light and Truth Presbyterian.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page