A crop of new mansions springing up in in El Alto, a poor suburb perched above Bolivia's capital, have become an icon of the new found wealth -- and opulence -- of the indigenous Aymara community
La Paz (AFP) - Splashed in bright colors, sporting swank ballrooms and lavish apartments, new mansions are popping up in poor neighborhoods in the Bolivian highlands, built by the booming nouveau riche of the indigenous Aymara.
Locals call them "cholets," a blend of chalet and "cholo," a sometimes derogatory word for Bolivians of indigenous origin.
But their growing prevalence is a sign of the changing times in Bolivia, where indigenous people have gone from being a silent majority long marginalized from the worlds of politics and business -- to major players on the national scene.
The cholets have sprung up in tandem with an economic boom presided over by Evo Morales, who took office as Bolivia's first indigenous president in 2006. He swore in for a new term in January after presiding over average economic growth of more than five percent a year during his first two terms.
During Morales's presidency, increasing numbers of his fellow Aymara have accumulated fortunes in industries such as mining, retail and transport that they are now using to build sumptuous mansions that are reshaping the country's architecture.
Their fluorescent-colored walls tower for up to seven stories at an altitude of 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) in the city of El Alto, a poor suburb perched above the capital La Paz.
"If I were rich, I'd want to live somewhere warmer, but this is where they made their fortunes and this is where they are from," said Serge Ducroc, a Swiss social worker who lives in Bolivia and has been giving guided cholet tours to foreign visitors for the past two years.
"They're not going to go live in a neighborhood full of white people. Their success was built here, and this is where they show it," he said, chewing on coca leaves to combat the effects of the high altitude.
Cholets are typically mixed-use buildings with a blend of commercial properties on the lower floors -- shopping malls, indoor sports facilities, ballrooms and the like -- crowned by a luxury penthouse for the owner.
Built in a new architectural style that has been dubbed "neo-Andean baroque," they cost up to $1 million.
"Besides being clients, (the owners) are promoters of this new architecture," said Freddy Mamani Silvestre, the Aymara architect behind the cholet boom.
- 'Buildings must have life' -
Mamani, 42, grew up herding llamas with his five siblings in the small farming village of Catavi, where he would build mud birdhouses in the hills.
That creativity today drives what he proudly calls an "architectural revolution that transcends borders."
"I've broken the old architectural canon, and yes, I'm a transgressor," said the architect, who does not like the word "cholet" to describe his work.
Like the rainbow Aymara flag itself, the buildings are an explosion of colors, many with two-story ballrooms that look like indigenous-themed Las Vegas casinos.
"They're a polychromatic color gradient. We try to search for our essence, our own culture by applying vibrant colors," Mamani told AFP.
The ballrooms can hold up to 1,000 guests and charge up to $1,500 to host events.
"In Andean culture, we say that everything has life," said Mamani.
"Our buildings must also have life. What does that mean? It means they have to generate income."
Bolivian philosopher Boris Bernal evoked the same idea.
"The Uta (house in Aymara) can't be static or dead. It has to have life, dance, move among the community, serve its people, generating interest and accumulating capital for the whole community," he said.
But outside the cholets, El Alto remains largely poor.
Of its nearly one million inhabitants, roughly half live in poverty.
"We heard that El Alto was basically rich," said one visitor on the cholet tour, 28-year-old Canadian teacher Dominick Fortugno.
"But when we arrived, we saw tremendous wealth in the middle of poverty and people begging. It's powerful to see."