La Paz, Bolivia, 4 May 2005 | 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."
For more on Bolivian sportswomen, see the New York Times article on women wrestlers (Juan Forero, "In This Corner, in the Flouncy Skirt and Bowler Hat . . . ," 21 July 2005).
"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)
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.
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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 October 2003, the high-plains region surrounding the nation's capital, Nuestra Señora 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.
"On our team, we like for Petrona, who plays de pollera, to serve as goalie. If it gets past her hands, she's got a thick skirt to back her up."
I am no soccer expert, but years of playing team sports taught me the basics, and that camaraderie is often as important as technique. Still, no amount of training ever diminishes the dizzying effect of playing soccer at 12,000 feet. Evolution has left Bolivia's indigenous Aymara descendants with a bigger lung capacity, more red-blood cells and a real advantage when playing opponents, like myself, raised at sea level.
We have been working on the basics for about a year now. Stop the ball. Control. Pass. Stop. Control. Pass. Do not yell at your teammate!
Kicking the ball randomly only sends it into the sludgy "river" that runs by the concrete field. Fishing the ball out, you start to wonder what parasites are burrowing into your skin and when they will hatch. And so we practice: Stop. Control. Pass.
The real killers on the field are Aymara women "de pollera," who wear the long, multilayered skirts that characterize Aymara women's dress. In the shanty city of El Alto and in the countryside, it is not uncommon to see whole teams of women de pollera playing on the dusty fields, framed by adobe homes, the Andes mountains towering in the background.
Many Aymara empleadas (domestic workers) play on their Sundays off. They're deadly. On our team, we like for Petrona, who plays de pollera, to serve as goalie. If it gets past her hands, she's got a thick skirt to back her up.
Susan Ellison has served in La Paz as a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission worker since 2001.
Since most soccer fields in La Paz are either concrete or rock-scattered, staying on your feet is vital. My first game with Light and Truth I took off toward the goal with the ball. This was it! My moment of glory. Until someone else took the ball from me. And I kept going, soaring into the air and landing daintily on my stomach, where I skidded for a while before coming to a stop at the goalie's feet. Blood everywhere. Horrified Bolivians rushing toward me. Teenage boys straining not to laugh.
The crowds love to see a flying gringa. I spend a lot of my time playing fútbol feeling mortified, falling down. What they don't tell you during the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s orientation program is that much of this work is about your humiliation as entertainment for others.
That, and my Bolivian teammates would be disappointed if I gave any less than my body for the game.