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Google™ Image Search service helps reconstruct colonial architecture in Bolivia
Shahid Mujtaba & Beatriz Escobar-Mujtaba


Thanks to a picture found through Google Image Search service, the tower and parish building of the Church of San Salvador in Totora, a Colonial City of Bolivia, were reconstructed according to the historical  colonial architecture of the golden era of the City.

Demolishing the New and Reconstructing the Old



1959, The Church and Pozo family residence, by Prof Hans Ross.

TOTORA is a Colonial City in the Department of Cochabamba, Republic of Bolivia.  In the mid 1950s, the majority of its inhabitants left Totora in search of a better life because the economy changed due to the opening of the new CochabambaSanta Cruz highway that bypassed the city, and also because of the Land Reform of 1952.

The webmaster of, when researching material for the site, used Google Image Search ih service for pictures of the city, and found one of the tower of the Church of San Salvador (patron saint of Totora), and an adjacent building belonging to the Pozo family.  The picture was from a photograph taken in 1959 by Prof Hans Ross, et al during a Botanical Andean Potato Expedition, and part of the online library of Prof. Kurt Stüber of the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

Herminia Escobar Q, a Totoreña proud of her Totora roots, saw the photograph on a trip to California and recognized the façade of the church and tower as being those of her youth.  She proudly showed an 8"x10" print during a meeting of the Mayor and the members of the City Council to share a piece of history. The Council members decided to demolish the newly renovated parish building and replace the façade so that it looked like it did in the past.

The official dedication and opening of the completed church and parish occurred on November 12, 2006. Reverend Monsignor Ivo Scápolo, Apostolic Nuncio of the Sanctity Pope Benedict XVI, presided over the Consecration ceremony.  Pictures of the occasion are available here, here and here.

Changes to the Tower and Discontent of San Salvador

The original tower before 1959 was located between two private residences.  The bells chimed on the quarter hour and tolled on the hour and the melody could be heard for several Kilometers around the city, and together with the clock provided the official time standard.  Beatriz Escobar, another Totoreña, recalls the beauty of the tower and the harmonious melody of the bells.

Along with the modernization of the customs of the Catholic religion, the Priests in charge of the Parish replaced the tower and its façade with a more modern appearance, and the adjacent Pozo residence with a red Parish building

1976, Church Tower with flat top, Newspaper Clipping

This change without public review or discussion caused widespread discontent.  A newspaper clipping at the time of the Centennial celebration of the city in 1976 showed the tower with a flat top. That same article criticized the design, and many believed that San Salvador, the Patron Saint of Totora, was not pleased with the modern design.

Later pictures show the tower was a rectangular structure with a pyramid top, rather than the gentle tapering structure with gently curved top of the original. The modern tower is shown in these photographs by Jose Novillo in his book.

Photos showing the pyramid top of the tower, by Jose Novillo


Two earthquakes (of magnitudes 5.9 and 6.3 on the Richter scale thirteen minutes apart) that struck Bolivia’s Carrasco province on May 22, 1998 hit Totora very hard. Colonial residences made of wide adobe blocks withstood the tremors, while the newly modernized brick and concrete homes and buildings suffered the most damage.

Among the most damaged structures were the modern church tower and the Parish building. The statues of the saints, except that of San Salvador, toppled from their pedestals and suffered cracks.  After falling off the Main Altar, the statue of San Salvador landed upright on its feet.  Although it stood on the highest pedestal in the church, it suffered only a broken finger, otherwise surviving intact. The faithful believed that our Niño was not content with the modern temple, and wanted it rebuilt according to the original design.

Announcing the Official Inauguration of the
Church of San Salvador on November 12, 2006

Totoreños around the world felt great sorrow at the tragedy.  Recognizing their birthplace was calling upon its children, they responded with overwhelming support.  Although reconstruction was not easy, the unwavering push of committee members and the generous outpouring of aid from Totoreños and other well-wishers made the reconstruction a reality and brought to life the melody of the bells. Totoreños living in Virginia, Texas and California in the US contributed not only for reconstruction of the tower, but also for the altars and statues. They contributed funds to construct the altar of individual saints in memory of some dearly departed loved one or family member. The website shows progress of the church reconstruction at various times. On November 12, 2006 the statues of all the Saints were on display in full glory for the first time. The Church is now as beautiful as before, and our Niño is finally content with his new church.

On behalf of Totoreños, a big Thanks to the Committee Pro Templo.

June 2002, tower and parish rebuilt after the earthquake, by Jose Caero. April 25, 2003, Parish Building,  by Herminia Escobar November 2003, Renovated Parish Building being torn down, by Herminia Escobar September 2005, Reconstructed Parish Building being built, by Roberto Escobar

Three Niños Re-unite!

During the annual feast of San Salvador in the first two weeks of the New Year in Totora, the townspeople pay respect to their patron saint. Native Totoreños return from distant places, and many joyful reunions occur among people who have not seen one another for years. During that time, the Niño from the church and several other statues belonging to individuals go in procession from the church, around the plaza, and then from residence to residence, where the clothes are carefully and lovingly changed, and they stand in places of honor among flowers and candles. A newly revived historical tradition is the adoration ceremony, where people dress up as different characters, and recite their lines. Highlighting the ceremony is a visit of the statues to the “Calvario”, a chapel on the steep hillside on the outskirts of the town.

Beatriz Escobar recalls from her childhood days that on Calle Cochabamba, the street where she lived, there were two private statues of San Salvador.  One belonged to the Terceros family, and the other to the Novillo family. These two and the one in the church always participated in the festivities every year.  When the Terceros family members left for La Paz and Cochabamba, they left the statue in Totora for the traditional celebration to continue, and came back for the festivities every year.

January 1999, Two Niños in procession around the Plaza, by Shahid Mujtaba.
The Novillo family statue (the more popular of the two) went with the family to Cochabamba, much to the dismay and disappointment of the townspeople, who felt that it belonged to the city. For a long time, the processions only had these two major statues (the church and the Terceros statue) during the celebration of the feast.

In 2005, the Novillo family statue came back to Totora, and is now resident in the church. Details of the return will be provided at a later date.

During a visit in the late 1990s, the webmaster observed that during the festivities, two large statues were in procession (one from the church, and the other from the Terceros family) together with some smaller statues that appeared and disappeared from year to year. In recent years, the three Niños are together, and the faithful are happy that they were re-united. They know that the three playful Niños, who enjoy the love and attention of their devoted worshippers, and the celebration and partying around them, were instrumental in arranging for the joyful reunion so that together they may look over and protect the city and its residents.

Private Traditions Around the World

Around the time of the feast of San Salvador in Totora, Totoreños around the world hold their own ceremonies (although not for the one or two week celebration) in their private residences, and hope to make it an annual tradition for those who cannot go back to the original site.  In 2006, instance, Beatriz Escobar held a mass and celebration in Milpitas, California.




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