Bolivian Wedding 101

Last Saturday, one of my dear Bolivian friends got married and I had the joy of spending the day in those celebrations. Zulma had asked me, one of her remaining single friends, to be the madrina* of her bridal bouquet. Delighted to be asked, I readily accepted, but turns out it was a little more complicated than I’d anticipated. I soon discovered I was supposed to procure not only her bouquet but also a simpler substitute for the toss-and-catch bit at the party, and a boutonnière for the groom. This last part was what got confusing, and started my crash course in La Paz weddings.

On Friday I checked in with Zulma over the phone to make sure I understood everything, and what I heard her say was, yes: “necesitas buscar la flor de azahar para el novio.” Which would translate as “You need to get the citrus blossoms for the groom.” This seemed to make sense to me, since some ancient memory of Federico García Lorca’s Bodas de sangre from Spanish lit class taught me to associate azahar with weddings. The only problem was that the florists had been offering roses, and when I asked about azahar they only seemed confused.

I went ahead and ordered the package deal from one shop, but took a bus up to the popular market area around Max Paredes Street and did some more hunting. One woman in a bridal shop suggested I go down to Mercado Lanza instead, since I wanted fresh (rather than silk) flowers. So I wandered back down the hill in the rain, stepping carefully so as not to slip and tumble into the excavated street under repairs alongside, until I reached the covered market near San Francisco church. There I found a florist who seemed to know what I was talking about, and she told me she could have it ready for me first thing Saturday morning. Relieved, I went home and carried on with my own preparations.

Before dawn on Saturday the first florist came by my apartment to deliver the two bouquets and not just one but three elegant boutonnieres, each with a single white rose. A few hours later I was off to pick up the azahar from florist number two, and to my surprise she handed me a boutonniere nearly identical to the other three! Confused, I decided to investigate.

“I thought you needed until this morning because you needed to order the azahar flower,” I said.

She gave me a blank look in response.

“You know, azahar, like jasmine or citrus blossoms.”

“Oh, you can’t get those here,” she answered.

I paused, wheels turning in my brain. Then I held up the boutonniere.

“Is this thing called an azahar?”

“Yes, of course.”

Oh. Chalk up a few extra hours of worry and wandering to cultural-linguistic confusion! (I later clarified that it’s actually called an azar, meaning chance–these words sound exactly the same when spoken–perhaps because the groom traditionally tosses it for the single men at the wedding to try to catch. What I want to know is why the first few florists I talked to didn’t recognize what I was talking about!)

The rest of the wedding day went beautifully. Zulma’s sister kindly met me at a familiar location and helped me find my way to the chapel, a lovely, brand-new Catholic church with a pastel mural of the city of La Paz and its mountains behind the altar.

DSCN5090The service was a full mass, and I was invited to offer the first reading. Even though I am not supposed to take communion in the Catholic church and might expect to feel excluded, here in Bolivia I always find the Catholic Eucharistic liturgy exhilarating and moving, with its familiar and powerful words–perhaps because there’s so little structured liturgy in the Presbyterian churches here, and they so rarely celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

The ceremony was at noon, with reception to follow. So said the invitation, and I went expecting that the reception would be a lunch instead of a dinner. Silly me! There was a bus arranged to take the guests (few of whom have cars) from the chapel to the banquet hall, which was (mostly) ready to receive us. But few of us stayed for long. Everyone else knew that the wedding party typically takes a tour of the major plazas in town, stopping to take photographs. The indecisive weather, with occasional clouds and raindrops, slowed this down a bit but didn’t keep them from making the rounds. The guests who waited were served hot dogs and potato chips, but most chose to go home for something more substantial to eat and to change into their party clothes. The bride and groom arrived shortly after 4:00, and that’s when things got going.

The formal dances–the new couple’s first dance, then dancing with the various padrinos and the parents–were waltzes. Then the toast, and a great deal of alcohol to follow (a clear indicator that this was not a protestant wedding!). Flower petals were in abundant supply, thrown at the new couple as they left the chapel and placed by the fistful on the heads of the new family. We did this first in the receiving line outside the chapel, and then again when presenting gifts at the reception hall.

DSCN5135After the formal dances and the toast, we lined up with our presents and went once more through a receiving line to congratulate the padrinos, parents, and the bride and groom. As new guests arrived with gifts throughout the evening, the wedding party would assemble to receive them with greetings and a series of toasts. There were two live bands and lots of dancing–a somewhat slippery trick on a tile floor liberally sprinkled with flower petals, confetti, and beer; and surprisingly orderly, since Bolivians tend to assemble in two long lines to dance, with couples facing each other.


Note the awesome decor!

The first band played various rock and latin pop covers, and lots and lots of cumbia, but the second band was the big hit, playing traditional Bolivian music.

A fancy dinner was served, and then the first band returned. Evidently someone thought they weren’t loud enough the first time around, because the volume got bumped up from merely excessive to dangerous and heart rhythm-altering. I couldn’t bring myself to brave the inevitable headache and hearing loss to stay very long after that, so I missed the cake and the tosses, but I hear things turned out very well.

God bless Zulma and Franz in their new life together!



*The terms madrina and padrino would typically translate as godmother and godfather, but in Bolivia padrinos can sponsor many things besides a baptism. At a wedding, the “religious” padrinos are a married couple chosen to serve as mentors for the new couple in their life together. But often there are padrinos who provide the cake and the rings and other significant items as well. There is a connotation of care and responsibility for the person/couple that is taken on by the madrina and padrino. My role in this wedding as madrina of the bouquets is unusual in being particularly for a single woman. It’s a relatively minor one, but one that I took very seriously and that makes me feel more closely tied to my dear friend the bride. And the flowers suited her beautifully!


About Sarah

I serve with Presbyterian World Mission as Peace Initiative Promoter and Young Adult Volunteer Site Coordinator in Colombia. This blog is a place to share stories, experiences, and observations, both my own and those of friends and colleagues and the occasional item of news.
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1 Response to Bolivian Wedding 101

  1. revjoe01 says:

    Beautiful description of the wedding!

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