Before his first breath of air, Evo was a survivor. On October 26, 1959 Aunt Luisa, a local healer of the Isallavi community, assisted in the birth of Juan Evo Morales Ayma inside the Morales family’s straw-roofed, adobe home. Inside, on one side of the ten-by-thirteen foot space that operated as a bedroom, living area, and kitchen, María Ayma Mamani lay in the dark (they lacked gas or electricity), soaked in her own blood. Her husband, Dionisio, left in a futile search for a traveling medical professional – as the town of Orinoca lacked both a hospital and trained medical personnel.

Generosity of the neighbors pooled together herbs and water from the nearby Lake Poopó, which were applied to María’s body.

“Maybe you’re craving something and that’s why the little babe can’t be born,” weakly suggested Aunt Luisa.

“I saw bread baking, and I wanted some,” admitted María.

Shortly thereafter, chewing a tortilla made of alcohol and flour, María gave birth to her son over sheared sheep’s leather, so as not to dirty the family’s few pieces of clothing.

Unlike four of his seven siblings, Evo defied Bolivia’s high infant mortality rate (54 per 1,000 live births). He and his family survived one Orinoca winter off three meals of corn a day. When they had finished their single sack of corn, Evo and his father walked for three weeks in the cold rain to trade 50 male llamas for corn, salt, and dried meats. By age five, Evo had learned to work; he was responsible for herding the family’s remaining llamas. When sick, he was cured by his mother’s herbs; when fevering, his mother would place a coca and sugar concoction under his armpit. His education was frequently interrupted, both due the family’s need for Evo’s labor and their spoken Aymara, which made Spanish-based lessons a challenge for young Evo.

At age 13, Evo organized his first movement: “The Fraternity,” Orinoca’s community soccer team. As captain then later coach of the team, many in the community thought Evo would make a good manager or leader – words that he was ashamed to ask the meaning of. However, Evo continued to study, moving to Oruro for high school. To finance his studies, he work two jobs: as a baker and a brick-layer. In his third year he received his best marks (out of 70) in: geography (53), civics (52), and history and English (51).

Obliged to register for the draft, Evo entered the 4th Ingavi Cavalry Regiment in 1978 at a time when the Armed Forces dominated politics in Bolivia. President Hugo Banzer was finishing his dictatorship and the 14 years of Bolivian military rule from the Burned Palace. Finishing his military service, Evo returned to Orinoca to help his family. But El Niño destroyed 70% of agricultural production and 50% of livestock in that region, which forced the Morales family to move from the Andean Highlands. Attempting to settle in Los Yungas, the family found itself without the means to borrow and purchase land, and so they went on to El Chapare. Here, they settled on 25 acres of land purchased by $5,000 of loaned money from Evo’s maternal uncle. It is here, in the Bolivian tropics, where Evo’s deep connection to coca blossomed.

Further Reading:

Evo Morales: The Extraordinary Rise of the First Indigenous President of Bolivia by Martín Sivak