Along the winding streets of La Paz, through a hidden alleyway and down a dim market corridor, a butcher wields a cleaver, bringing it swiftly down upon a glistening slab of scarlet beef. Another butcher lifts a swollen aubergine heart, nestling it carefully atop a heap of other hearts. Yet another lays medallions of blushing pink pork along a stall window as if arranging gemstones at a jeweler’s counter. A fourth smiles warmly through a curtain of mottled sausages, her teeth enrobed in gold, a bowler hat tilted back upon the crown of her head.
These carnicerías are part of the patchwork of vendors who run the stalls at Mercado Rodriguez, La Paz’s central food market. A city of dizzying altitude (12,000 feet, more than twice as high as Denver) carved into the base of Bolivia’s Altiplano, La Paz and its neighboring city El Alto were settled by the Spanish but remain densely populated with indigenous people of Aymara, Quechua, and other Amerindian descent. As of 2018, 60 percent of Bolivia’s population identifies as indigenous. The Mercado Rodriguez’s vendors, including the carnicerías, consist mainly of cholitas, an affectionate name for Bolivia’s indigenous women, who dress in swishing layered skirts, Technicolor shawls, and jaunty hats.
From pre-dawn sometimes until early evening, these produce purveyors, food-cart doñas, and cheesemakers sit awaiting their regular clients or curious passersby. Potatoes and tubers in a spectrum of colors and sizes, bouquets of herbs, and cabbages as plump as toddlers’ cheeks overflow from each stand. On Sundays, the stalls spill into the hilly streets surrounding the indoor market, and even more cholitas sell their wares in the brisk, wintry-feeling air.