The Big Bolivian Group

A couple of months after the big group left for the USA, we had a large group of Bolivians who were going to be coming in from the CEM in Chile (the local MTC for that part of South America). One morning a young man showed up at the mission office looking bewildered.

“I just got off the bus from Potosi. I’m supposed to be going to the CEM in Chile the day after tomorrow, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do,” he said.

He had no passport and no visa, but he was expecting to pick up his plane tickets and head out. Dannelly and I drove all over town, from the immigration offices to the Chilean consulate to the airlines. Somehow, we got all the paperwork done, and we took him home to stay at our house for the night. He told us he had been a member of the church for a few years and was really excited to be going on his mission. He looked so young and innocent, but at the same time very sober and serious. We made sure we behaved ourselves (no blue darts) and set a good example for our guest. In the morning, we took him to the airport and sent him on his way to his mission.

A week or so later, he came back with his group, about 15 Bolivians and two Chileans. They were all quite enthusiastic, and we enjoyed visiting with them. Common practice in Bolivia had been to send missionaries from the West to the Eastern parts of the country. Two of the sisters in the group were from Huacuyo, a small community high in the altiplano near Lake Titicaca. We noticed right off that they couldn’t speak Spanish; they had grown up speaking Aymara and had never learned Spanish. They were heading to Santa Cruz in the eastern tropical lowlands, where no one spoke Aymara. What’s worse was that many Bolivians in the east were hostile to the Kollas (their name for the mountain people) whom they considered uneducated, timid, and beneath contempt. Conversely, many Kollas disliked the Cambas (the easterners), whom they saw as arrogant and obnoxious. Sending those two sisters there was not a great idea, I thought.

It was hard to keep track of some of them, as they had similar names: there were Roca, Oca, Coca, and Rocha in the group, and I could never remember which was which. We were kind of excited to see such a large group of Bolivian missionaries. This was a sign that the church was growing and that the mission wouldn’t always been predominantly American.

We had a pleasant visit while they were in town and then shipped them off to their areas. At some point, however, the shine must have worn off the mission for these eager Bolivians. The next time I saw our young man from Potosi, he was wearing a leather jacket, with his feet up, listening to contraband music through his headphones. One of the sisters later asked me if I would consider marrying her when I got home to America, and I heard that she asked this of a lot of missionaries. And it was one of the sister missionaries from that group who raised a small insurrection at a zone meeting in Cochabamba to complain about the poor treatment of the Bolivian missionaries by their American counterparts. I heard that it almost came to blows.

One of the big Bolivian group went to Oruro, high in the Andes, where his companion was a football player for BYU, which of course had just won the national collegiate championship. Some coaches from other schools were complaining that, because BYU had a lot of former missionaries on their team, it gave them an unfair advantage. In response, Sports Illustrated sent a reporter to interview three members of the football team who were currently on missions: one in South Africa (the son of a famous motivational speaker/writer), one in Brazil, and of course the guy in our mission, Elder Petersen. You can find the article at Sports Illustrated.

The first two gave pretty much textbook descriptions of missionary life. A couple of years later I asked the guy who had been in South Africa why his interview seemed so unrealistic, and he said, “What kind of answers are you supposed to give when you have an apostle sitting next to you the whole time?” He went on to say that apostle Neal Maxwell had been at his side throughout the interviews. I gathered that something similar had happened in Brazil.

But not in our mission. President Nichols met the reporter in Cochabamba and then simply arranged for him to spend a few days with Elder Petersen and his Bolivian companion. One thing about Petersen was that he was extremely blunt. A tall redheaded guy from California, he was quoted as saying “”This country basically hates me.” He went on to talk about the miserable living conditions, the anti-Americanism (he complained that people called him “monster”), and a few nasty illnesses he had suffered. He talked about being angry, and, as many of us who were missionaries can understand, “After the anger would come guilt for feeling the anger.” One of my favorite quotes: “Before, I had trouble tackling; that was my only real weakness. Now I’ll just go home and pretend every offensive player is a Bolivian calling me a huevo.”

Of course, the article caused an uproar in Bolivia. I remember seeing leaflets at the university in Cochabamba showing photos from the article with swastikas drawn on them. A brand-new missionary said to me, “I read that Petersen article. He must be a lousy missionary. What a terrible attitude!”

“No, he’s a good missionary,” I said. “And he’s honest.” It may not have been smart to let Bolivians know about the hurt and anger we sometimes felt, but it was the truth. It did hurt. Every time someone yelled at us or told us, “CIA go home!” I wanted to ask them how they could hate me if they didn’t even know me. I was there, I thought, to bring something of worth to these people, and what I got was hatred in return.

Three years after my mission, I sat in a restaurant in Utah and heard over the radio that two missionaries, Todd wilson and Jeff Ball, had been murdered in La Paz. All the feelings I had pushed deep down inside came welling up, and for a few days, I walked around on the edge of tears, all the anger and hurt and guilt welling up within. And I couldn’t do anything about it. I pushed it back inside and tried to forget about it.

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2 Responses to The Big Bolivian Group

  1. Kitty says:

    I have been reading your blog for a few hours now and all I can think to say is THANK YOU. I stumbled onto your site from Mormon Curtain and now there will go my whole day. I intend to devour every word. I like your style and I have super good vibes about you. I don’t think you can even completely begin to appreciate what your blog means to people like me. I have worked through my anger and that was not a pleasant time for family and friends. Now I am at peace. I no longer feel the need to crusade for the others who are trapped, I just need to take care of me. Reading your experiences and your well researched comments has made my day.

  2. runtu says:

    Thank you for the kind words. Peace is hard to come by, but eventually we get there. I’m glad you have enjoyed what I’ve written. That means a lot.

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