As the people of Latin America build democracies from the bottom up, the symbols of power are changing. What used to be emblems of poverty and oppression -- indigenous clothing and speech, the labels "campesino" and "landless worker" -- are increasingly the symbols of new power. As people-powered movements drive the region toward social justice and equality, these symbols speak, not of elite authority limited to a few, but of power broadly shared.
The symbolism was especially rich last year in Cochabamba, Bolivia, when the new minister of justice made her entrance at an international activists' summit. Casimira Rodríguez, a former domestic worker, wore the thick, black braids and pollera, a long, multilayered skirt, of an Aymara indigenous woman. As she made her way through the throng, Rodríguez further distinguished herself from a typical law-enforcement chief by passing out handfuls of coca leaves.
Throughout the region, marginalized people are rising up, challenging the system that has kept them poor, and pursuing a new course. In country after country, people are selecting leaders who strongly reject the Washington-led "neoliberal" policies of restricted government spending on social programs, privatization of public services such as education and water, and opening up borders to foreign corporations.