The first philosopher of El Alto

This fictional chronicle emerges as a tribute to that unique city of El Alto.
The first philosopher of El Alto

Don Eleuterio Mamani was very proud to have become the first resident of El Alto to graduate as a philosopher. Once he completed his studies at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, he returned home with the shiny diploma in hand and a series of streamers and confetti on his suit. The celebrations had just begun and were set to last about six days.

"Six, like the speeches on love that Plato wrote in The Symposium, also known as The Banquet," he used to repeat. By the seventh day of revelry, he realized the harsh reality: he was no longer a star student; now he was just another unemployed person in a city that was starting to grow.

El Alto in the 1980s was very different from what it is now; the city now grows in one year what takes others ten. Eleuterio's neighborhood, as he once described, resembled a highland town with streets and houses made of earth and water. The only available jobs were as construction workers or laborers in factories or maquilas. Occasionally, one could find a cobbler, electrician, or plumber, but there was clearly no chance for a philosopher.

After a few weeks, Eleuterio decided to become a kitchen assistant in a local boarding house; he did it for about two months. The job bored him, but at least in the afternoons and evenings, he could engage in conversations with diners who, after lunch, dedicated themselves to drinking until late at night. They were the only audience he found to deliver his speeches on God, love, religion, and life.

Later, with his savings, he used a guarantee to get a loan for a car and started working as a taxi driver. Some might say it was a great disappointment for a graduate, but Eleuterio loved the job because passengers referred to him as "master." Moreover, he enjoyed the long journeys where he could elaborate on his speeches. He even began offering free rides to people with whom discussions were particularly interesting.

"I once tried to explain Nietzsche's maxim to a lady, the one that says God is dead. But she had always been a devout Catholic and insisted that, yes, He died on the cross, everyone knew that. We argued for about half an hour; the lady showed me her necklace with a crucifix, and I could never make her understand the German philosopher. In the end, I didn't charge her; in a way, we were both right," he would say with a smile.

Although being a taxi driver wasn't his life's dream, Eleuterio took comfort in the fact that none of his Philosophy Faculty colleagues were working as philosophers. In fact, very few completed the degree, letting their theses gather dust while they pursued anything that would bring in money for a living.

Years passed, and it seemed like his destiny was to remain a taxi driver. The city continued to grow rapidly, and competition increased. He was no longer the only taxi driver in his neighborhood; there were now five, and it looked like that number would double soon.

As Eleuterio was open-minded and skilled with words, he thought it best to gather everyone and form a union, at least to establish common rules in the business, such as fares, routes, zones, and working hours. After his initial approaches with the other drivers, he soon realized that most of them were recent graduates in various fields. One was the first lawyer from El Alto, another the first veterinarian, and there was even a dentist.

"We realized that the university was an important training ground for becoming a taxi driver," he would say, laughing.

The union was born without a name or ceremony; the only important thing was that everyone stayed in touch and kept things under control. Obviously, Eleuterio became the first president; however, a lawyer named María Quispe, from El Kenko, didn't take long to undermine him and take over the position.

"She's more ambitious, she has negotiated with the city council, and now they have to pay her a fee if they want to taxi in the city. I don't get anything, but at least I have the pride of having founded something like the Greek masters," he said with some sadness in his voice.

I think by listening to his story, I've circled around and around in this labyrinthine city where every corner is the same as the one before.

"This time, drop me off at the entrance to Río Seco," I ask, and I think he doesn't hear me because he turns the other way.

I don't know where we're going, but it doesn't matter much; we always end up at the boarding house talking nonsense, and I'm in no hurry to get home. I understand little or nothing of what Eleuterio says, but I'm fascinated to listen to him. A moment ago, he hinted that he would talk about sexism in Hannah Arendt's work. I can't wait.