LA PAZ, BOLIVIA — WHEN Victor Hugo Cardenas was elected as vice president of Bolivia two years ago, he broke through a wall of discrimination that had been standing for over four centuries.
As late as the 1930s, Indians were not welcome in the white sections of La Paz, the nation's capital, and were often forced to bathe and change into Western clothing before entering the city. A 1925 decree barring Indians from the areas near the main square was not revoked until 1944.
Mr. Cardenas was born in the Aymara village of Huatajata, in western Bolivia along the banks of Lake Titicaca. His father, Pedro Choquehuanca, was a school teacher who was barred by law from speaking his native language in the classroom.
When Mr. Choquehuanca failed to get a state-approved teaching job, he changed his name to Cardenas so his children wouldn't suffer the same discrimination.
In 1985, Cardenas founded the Tupac Katari Revolutionary Movement of Liberation, named after the Aymara martyr who led a rebellion in 1781 against Spanish domination. That same year, he was elected to Congress, and four years later he ran unsuccessfully as the party's presidential candidate.
In 1993, Cardenas joined forces with mining entrepreneur Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and helped him win the presidency by running as his vice president.
The two are truly the odd couple. Mr. Sanchez de Lozada was raised in the United States and speaks Spanish with a US accent. Cardenas's first language is Aymara. Critics quickly dubbed them as ''the gringo and the indio.''
Yet few deny that Cardenas's presence on the ticket helped Sanchez de Lozada win La Paz, a predominately Indian city with the nation's largest voting population. For the president's National Revolutionary Movement Party, it was its first electoral victory in the capital in more than 30 years.
Cardenas as vice president serves as the president of Congress and heads the president's educational-reform campaign, which finally permits Indian language and culture to be taught in schools.
On most days, Cardenas wears a vicuna-hair scarf, a present given to him by an Indian priest who told him it symbolizes authority and social control. At the end of his term, he must return the scarf to the priest and give account of his actions in government to the Indian community.
And at most public forums, Cardenas speaks in Spanish, Aymara, and Quechua, while preaching a message of conciliation. ''Don't be ashamed of our native tongue -- Aymara,'' he told residents of the town of Patacamaya last month. ''Learn it to perfection without hatred for Spanish.''
''He permits us to believe that we can create a society,'' Sanchez de Lozada says, ''where diversity means unity rather than conflict.''