Julia Flores Colque still sings with joy in her indigenous Quechua tongue and strums the five strings of a tiny Andean guitar known as the charango, despite a recorded age of almost 118 years.
In her long life, she has witnessed two world wars, revolutions in her native Bolivia and the transformation of her rural town of Sacaba from 3,000 people to a bustling city of more than 175,000 in five decades.
Her national identity card says Flores Colque was born on Oct. 26, 1900, in a mining camp in the Bolivian mountains. At 117 and just over 10 months, she would be the oldest woman in the Andean nation and perhaps the oldest living person in the world.
But a spokeswoman for Guinness World Records says she’s not aware of receiving any application for her and Flores Colque doesn’t seem to care that her record hasn’t been confirmed. She hasn’t even heard of the reference book.
These days, she enjoys the company of her dogs, cats and rooster. She is lucid and full of life, and she loves a good cake and singing folkloric songs in Quechua to anyone who comes to visit the dirt-floor adobe home she shares with her 65-year-old grandniece.
“If you would have told me you were coming, I’d have remembered all the songs,” she said jokingly while playing the diminutive guitar. She then dipped a finger into a cake, and smiled while she licked the frosting.
“She’s always been active, easygoing and fun,” said the grandniece, Agustina Berna.
Growing up, the now-centenarian herded sheep and llamas in the Bolivian highlands until she moved in her teenage years to a valley, where she began selling fruits and vegetables. The produce became her main source of sustenance, and she still maintains a healthy diet though she does indulge in the occasional cake and glass of soda. She never married and has no children.
The previously world’s oldest person, a 117-year-old Japanese woman, died earlier this year. Nabi Tajima was born on Aug. 4, 1900. Her passing apparently leaves Flores Colque as the world’s oldest living person.
Birth certificates did not exist in Bolivia until 1940, and births previously were registered with baptism certificates provided by Roman Catholic priests. Flores Colque’s national identity card, however, has been certified by the Bolivian government.
Her longevity is striking in Bolivia, which still has one of South America’s highest levels of mortality, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the U.N.’s regional arm.
The Sacaba mayor’s office has named Flores Colque a living heritage. The office and a private foundation have improved her home, building a brick path where she walks, and a shower and toilet with a railing so the centenarian can safely make her way to the bathroom at night.
Sitting in the sun on a rustic bench, she seems eternal or like an ancient statue carved in stone. She is hard of hearing, but she remains sharp and scolds her smallest dog whenever Blanquita tries to venture out into the street.
Just a few years ago, she still walked briskly. But then she fell and hurt her back. The doctor said she would never walk again. She proved the doctor wrong.