A black and white archival photo depicts several women brewing chicha, a corn based beer produced by Andean Indigenous societies, in the rural Moxos Province, Bolivia

By Benjamin Dangl

Chicha and ritual had a central role in what was one of the most consequential meetings in Andean history: the first encounter between Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and the Incan ruler Atahualpa Yupanqui in 1532. Atahualpa’s nephew, Titu Cusi Yupanqui was the only Incan to write down their version of this event. In his account, Atahualpa offered the conquistador chicha, corn beer, from a golden cup on their first meeting. “The Spaniard, upon receiving the drink in his hand, spilled it which greatly angered my uncle,” Titu Cusi Yupanqui recalled.[i]

When Pizarro offered Atahualpa the Bible, Atahualpa threw down the book because he had been “offended by the spilling of the chicha.”[ii] This clash of cultures was proceeded by the capture of Atahualpa at the hands of the Spanish, the end of the Incan empire, and the beginning of Spain’s colonization of the Andes. That this initial historic encounter centered around chicha was not coincidental: chicha was at the heart of the Incan empire.  

The drink was a key part of the vast and intricate economic and political web of the Incan state’s agricultural production, labor cycles, celebrations, feasts and ceremonies. Chicha was used in rituals where Incans communicated with gods and was an essential part of agricultural, social and religious rites, fortifying Incan culture and traditions. Atahaulpa therefore offered chicha to Pizarro as a sacred symbol of the Incan state’s legitimacy, power, and spiritual clout.[iii]

Chicha is a corn-based beer that has been produced by Andean Indigenous societies for centuries. The brewing, sharing and consumption of this drink has deep cultural and political meaning; chicha is a glue which binds communities and drinkers together in networks of reciprocity and solidarity. Chicha has held a central and symbolic power in Andean culture as a tool for remembering, celebrating, and empowering Indigenous communities and culture. 

Throughout history, chicha ritualized the social and labor relationships in many Andean Indigenous communities. Workers and farmers shared chicha during communal building projects and among guests and hosts as a symbol of hospitality. Furthermore, producing the drink was a complex and cooperative effort that involved many people. Andean bonds of mutual aid and reciprocity were strengthened in part through the production and sharing of chicha.[iv] In the act of ritually sharing chicha, the drink was “emblematic of the hospitality through which reciprocal obligations are performed.”[v] Offering chicha to another person was a “widely recognized metaphor for this (reciprocal) relationship.”[vi]

Chicha in Bolivia’s Breadbasket

Cochabamba, Bolivia is at an elevation of 8,360 feet above sea level and in a fertile valley cradled by the Andes Mountains. Because of its soil and relatively mild climate, the city has been known historically as a breadbasket for the country. Dating back to the seventeenth century, Cochabamba and its surrounding region was celebrated as a grain and chicha producing area which largely supported the mining communities in the highlands. The region persisted through the Independence Wars in the early part of the nineteenth century as a major agricultural center. After independence, the hacienda system flourished, further establishing the area’s robust agricultural production.[vii]

From the mid-nineteenth century to the early years of the twentieth century, the market culture of Cochabamba expanded dramatically. New migrants to the city, who were formerly rural peasants, entered this market as a way to escape the hardships and exploitation of haciendas and subsistence farming in the countryside. Such migration fundamentally marked the city as a crossroads between urban and rural culture. A central element in this market culture was chicha production and commerce, which was run in the markets and the city center largely by women with rural roots. Both small and large farms in the Cochabamba region provided corn for this demand, further binding the urban to the rural within chicha’s network of supply and demand.[viii]

Anthropologists working in Cochabamba in the decade leading up to Bolivia’s 1952 National Revolution noted the wide proliferation of chicha vendors in the region. In one ethnographic work dating from the period, Hugh C. Cutler and Martín Cárdenas wrote that typically in rural areas where chicha was sold, a white flag was put outside of the building or establishment to indicate the availability of chicha. In fiestas, signs were decorated with flowers and colorful ribbons. Signs marking chicha vending had names such as Buena Chicha, Chicha Puñatena and Chicha Clizeña. Chicherias also often had a parrot sign on the door “so that the illiterate also know where they can drink.” One parrot signified good/standard chicha, two parrots meant “the chicha is exceptionally good.”[ix]

While the consumption and production of chicha was widespread, it was also looked down upon by elites, business leaders, and politicians as a social vice to repress, control and marginalize. In 1930 the mayor of La Paz outlawed chicha and the import, from Cochabamba, of muko, the main ingredient in chicha. The argument for banning chicha was “to defend the preservation of physical and moral health of the working class.”[x] It was also a move to better control the working class in a space where they celebrated, commiserated about their labor, and sought refuge away from the demands of work. 

During this period, police inspector Max Atristaín told a meeting of Cochabamban political leaders that the municipality had moved forward to close the chicherias, places where “vice and degeneration run wild.” He further claimed that “80% of the crazy people that have been put in mental facilities were or are chicha drinkers. In the jails, 90% of the criminals are also chicha drinkers.”[xi] This was a typical elite viewpoint at the time toward drinkers of chicha: that the drink was a root of social evils, mental illness, and criminality. 

Migration and Elite Crackdowns on Chicherias

With the end of the Chaco War in 1935, a wave of new migrants arrived in Cochabamba. Many veterans were unwilling to return to the exploitative hacienda system, and so relocated to the more economically mobile urban area of Cochabamba instead. A majority of these new migrants were Indigenous and former peasants, people who city elites viewed as an uncivilized threat to the march of modernity in Cochabamba. Chicherias, as symbols of rural and Indigenous culture, were targeted by elites’ frantic responses to Indigenous urban migration.[xii]

By this time, city elites in Cochabamba had made it more difficult for chicherias to operate in the central parts of town. Laws and high taxation pushed them to the margins of the city. Yet chicha drinkers resisted this displacement, and people continued to embrace the drink and its bars as a social tool and cultural symbol of popular classes.[xiii]

Large business owners in Cochabamba in the early 1940s were generally against chicherias, particularly those in the center of the city. Political and business leaders argued that the drinking spaces were poor influences on the population, hurt commercial business. and were impediments to business leaders’ vision of progress for Cochabamba. As one 1942 newspaper report in El País described, the city policy toward chicherias was to push them a minimum of six blocks outside the city center. The city government justified the actions because the process of making chicha and cleaning up the chicherias was bad for public health, and the chicherias themselves were “infectious” centers of vice and filth. [xiv]The sanitation and health argument provided a helpful pretext for the crackdown on chicha, one that attempted to mask city elites’ racism and classism.

One article published in El Imparcial in June of 1945 demonstrated this popular view among Cochabamban elites. The article stated, “The origin of all disgrace that particularly afflicts the habitants of popular [poor] neighborhoods (San Antonio, Curtuduria, Caracota), is the close proximity of the chicherias that serve as a constant temptation, especially for the working class which wastes the fruits of its labor there.”[xv]

This crackdown on chicherias was part of a larger strategy of urban planning that marginalized poor neighborhoods and migrants, and establisheda loosely populated urban center   in response to rural migration. Anthropologist Daniel Goldstein writes that, into the 1940s, “the mounting presence in the city of indigenous ex-peasants, whose purportedly deficient physical and moral hygiene had long been confined to the countryside, now was perceived to threaten the already precarious health and well-being of urban Cochabamba.” By 1946, the city administration, in response to this “threat,” created a “General Law of Urbanization” which put all city services and sanitation strategies into the hands of the city government. This was part of a city plan to modernize Cochabamba while pushing the Indigenous and peasant neighborhoods, markets, and of course, chicherias, out of the city center.[xvi]

Chicheras and Resistance: “The Industry of the People”

As the main proprietors of chicherias, women held considerable power in the changing urban landscape of Cochabamba. As more rural workers and veterans of the Chaco War migrated to the city, the chicheria, and chicha production in general, became spaces where women found new opportunities.[xvii] Bolivian women demanded licenses for opening up vendor businesses, and called for lower (or no) taxes on their commercial operations.[xviii]

While it was relatively easy for large landowners and businesspeople to escape taxation because of their political connections and economic clout, smaller producers and vendors of goods and products – such as chicha – were disproportionately burdened. Chicheras rose up against this taxation. These tax disparities exacerbated existing tensions in Cochabamba’s rural land and labor conflicts. Many chicheras gathered petitions to send to the city’s prefect and the Bolivian federal government in protest.[xix]

Chicheras organized into unions to protect their rights and trade. The Archives of the Prefect of the City of Oruro included one declaration of the formation of an Industrial Union of Chicha, signed on April 14th, 1929. The declaration stated that “the feminine element which occupies the position of chicha production had organized itself into a union to defend its interests; because for a majority of those who make up the membership of this industry’s operations, this is more than a question of commerce, it is a question of life.” [xx]

For the women chicheras of Cochabamba in the midst of the Chaco War, heavy taxation was a reason to protest their plight as the breadwinners in a nation at war. One of the Cochabamban chicheras’ petitions was presented to the Bolivian Senate on August 31, 1933 and signed by over fifteen women. In this petition they question the law, enforced by the “odious and hated” Municipal Government of Cochabamba, which they argued disproportionately and unjustly  taxed the chicha they produce. After describing thechallenges they faced within this system, they wrote that due to the lack of work, they were pressured into the “only industry of the people, which is that of chicha,” and as a result, they were forced to “bear the enormous taxes” in “situations of true misery and hunger.”[xxi]

Chicheras protested the high taxation they had to pay “especially in these indescribable moments of economic crisis and depopulation of the working people due to the war.” [xxii] The women described the challenge of producing chicha and trying to survive when their husbands, brothers and sons were sent off to war. 

These manifestations against heavy taxation continued for years, beyond the 1952 National Revolution. The conflict over taxation sometimes turned violent. The Bolivian newspaper El Diario reported that in early November of 1952, a chicha tax collector was attacked and killed by campesinos who were outraged by taxation efforts.[xxiii]

For those who were a part of this important social space, the chicheria was a powerful symbol of cultural identity and a rebellious meeting place that overturned the social hierarchy of the time. The space of the chicheria, its culture, activities and friendships, write Bolivian historians Gustavo Rodríguez and Humberto Solares, celebrated a “brief upside down world where, for a moment, the popular soul defeated Europeanized modernism…The fraternity of the chicheria accomplished what politics could not.” 

In the “democratic space” of the chicheria, Rodríguez and Solares write, the “oligarchic system was broken down” and friendships were formed “that challenged social preconceptions.”[xxiv] Chicherias were not only joyous social spheres, but they contained “the living presence of a popular culture that subverted the established order in the only place where one could enjoy this without provoking the fury of the state’s authority.”[xxv]

[i] Diego de Castro Yupanqui, Titu Cusi: A 16th Century Account of the Conquest (Cambridge: David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, 2006), 135. Also see Thomas B. F. Cummins, Toasts with the Inca: Andean Abstraction and Colonial Images on Quero Vessels (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002).

[ii] Mary Weismantel, “Chicha, Performance and Politics,” in Drink, Power, and Society in the Andes ed. Justin Jennings and Brenda J. Bowser, (Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2009), 268.

[iii] Robert Randall, “Los Dos Vasos: Cosmovisión y política de la embriaguez desde el inkanato hasta la colonia,” in Borrachera y memoria: la experiencia de lo sagrado en los Andes, ed. Thierry Saignes and C Salazar-Soler, et al., (Lima: Instituto Francés de Estudios Andinos, 1993), 73–74.

[iv] Jennings and Bowser, Drink, Power, and Society, 10–11, 32–37.

[v] Ibid., 4. 

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Daniel M. Goldstein, The Spectacular City: Violence and Performance in Urban Bolivia (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2004), 57–59.

[viii] Ibid., 58-59. Also see Brooke Larson, Cochabamba, 1550-1900: Colonialism and Agrarian Transformation in Bolivia (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 1998), 364–365.

[ix] Hugh C. Cutler, and Martín Cárdenas, “Chicha, Una Cerveza Sudamericana Indigena,” La Tecnologia en el Mundo Andino(1947), 255.

[x] El Diario, April 8, 1930  as cited in Gustavo Rodríguez O. & Humberto Solares S., Sociedad Oligarquica, Chicha y Cultura Popular (Cochabamba: Editorial Serrano, 1990), 149–150.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Goldstein, The Spectacular City, 62–63.

[xiii] Rodríguez and Solares, Sociedad Oligarquica, 71–78.

[xiv] Rodríguez and Solares, Sociedad Oligarquica, 91.

[xv] El Imparcial, June, 1945 as cited in Rodríguez and Solares, Sociedad Oligarquica, 91.

[xvi] Goldstein, The Spectacular City, 64–65.

[xvii] Rodríguez and Solares, Sociedad Oligarquica, 136.

[xviii] Laura Gotkowitz, A Revolution for Our Rights: Indigenous Struggles for Land and Justice in Bolivia, 1880 – 1952(Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2008),108.

[xix] Ibid., 145.

[xx] Sindicato Industrial de la Chicha, “Inés de Aldana, Pres., Modesta C. de Flores, sec. / Oruro, 18 April 1929 / Al Señor Prefecto y Comandante General del Departamento,” (Oruro: Archivo de la Prefectura de Oruro, 1929), 392.

[xxi] República de Bolivia, “Solicitud de los fabricantes de chicha de Cochabamba, reclamando por los impuestos municipales que afectan su industia” Proyectos e Informes del H. Senado Nacional, Legislatura Ordinaria de 1934, (La Paz: Litografias e Imprentas Unidas), 78–79.

[xxii] Ibid. 

[xxiii] El Diario, November 6, 1952, 5.

[xxiv] Rodríguez and Solares, Sociedad Oligarquica, 143.

[xxv] Ibid.142–143.


Dr. Benjamin Dangl is a Lecturer of Public Communication at the University of Vermont. He is a longtime journalist in Latin America and the author of three books on Bolivia, most recently The Five Hundred Year Rebellion: Indigenous Movements and the Decolonization of History in Bolivia, which won a Nautilus Book Award. Twitter: @bendangl