Social Organization

In pre-Spanish times (and through the colonial period in some regions) the Aymara were organized by ayllu, a local patrilineage that held land communally. The political and economic head of the ancient ayllu kept careful account of usufruct landholdings and periodically redistributed land and produce when a family had more than its share.

The modern Bolivian and Peruvian republics have legislated bilateral inheritance, with all children inheriting. This inheritance pattern functions somewhat as a haphazard redistribution pattern. Landholdings are rearranged and consolidated somewhat by allocation of plots according to the marriage choices of the children. For example, a family may include a plot of land in a particular daughter's inheritance because she marries a man whose family has a contiguous or nearby plot.

Today's communities are the rough equivalent of the ayllu in the spatial arrangement of land and families. They are organized politically with a group of elected officials who lead periodic town meetings, settle minor disputes, and represent the community to the larger political units of districts, departments, and the nation.

The rural Aymara are a socioeconomic class occupying the bottom of a hierarchy rigidly controlled by the tiny minority of whites (mestizos) who live in the altiplano, and they are allowed only slight participation in the social and economic affairs of Peru and Bolivia. The land reform and revolutions of the 20th century have removed the legal statutes preventing the upward social mobility of the Aymara which were still operative in the 1930s. Today, the barriers are economic, cultural, and ethnic. People who speak little Spanish and read less and who wear indigenous dress are marked as country bumpkins. They are targets of discrimination, rudeness, and financial trickery by people from more sophisticated or powerful social classes.

Communities vary in their character, depending on their size and their proximity to the lake or the foothills, roads, market towns, or the cities of La Paz, Bolivia, or Puno, Peru. Rural villages may have fewer than 300 people, often descended from a few founding families (Brown, 1987; Mitchell, 1986), but can have as many as 800 or more people (Lewellen, 1978). Communities closer to roads and market centers are larger; for example, Compi, the community in Bolivia studied by Buechler and Buechler (1971), had a population of 1,230 during their study period. The people were involved in production of onions as a cash crop and in many market ventures in nearby La Paz. Since the 1980s, many lake-shore communities have become involved in (and prospered considerably from) the international smuggling of coca products between Bolivia and Peru.

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