Academic journal article Ethnology

Converting Difference: Metaculture, Missionaries, and the Politics of Locality

Academic journal article Ethnology

Converting Difference: Metaculture, Missionaries, and the Politics of Locality

Article excerpt

In recent years, Catholic missionaries have initiated a set of pastoral reforms in Aymara-speaking communities of Bolivia, predicated upon an evangelical equivalence between Aymara identity and Christian identity. Working with Aymara catechists, missionaries endeavor to codify a set of pan-Aymara traits held to reflect Christian values. In this doubly metacultural discourse, authentic Aymaraness is often displaced to a Christianized indigenous past. This article addresses this construction of ethnic inclusion and its limits, focusing on the complex assimilation of this politicized discourse of Aymaraness by the catechists across a range of social contexts. (Aymara, missionaries, locality, ethnic identity)

During the course of fieldwork, a consultant, Alejandro, borrowed my copy of Huanca's (1989) El yatiri en la comunidad aymara, which presents a linguistic analysis of a life-history interview with a yatiri, an Aymara ritual specialist. After some weeks, Alejandro (who is marginally literate) returned the book, expressing disappointment that it was not a manual for yatiri practice. Alejandro had hoped to find condensed in the book the knowledge necessary to undertake the practices of yatiris, including the preparation of specific offerings, the divination of the causes of disease and other misfortunes, and healing. His motives, I think, were twofold. On the one hand, he had hoped to team up with a friend, himself a yatiri, and earn some cash by offering their ritual services to urban whites in La Paz. On the other, Alejandro was a Catholic catechist, a church-trained agent of missionary practice, increasingly exhorted in recent years to remember, recuperate, and revalorize Aymara culture. Alejandro's interest in learning to be a yatiri (arguably one of the most marked of Aymara cultural phenomena) was continuous with a broader consideration of what pastoral workers see as Aymaraness, undertaken within a missionary framework of evangelization and conversion.

In the Andes as elsewhere people often manifest a keen nostalgia for lifeways and knowledge thought to be traditional, and lamented as otherwise forgotten, degraded, and increasingly inaccessible. This concern has emerged as a salient dimension of political action and consciousness (e.g., Albo 1987, 1994; Briggs 1996; Jackson 1995; Rappaport 1994; White 1991; Whitten, Whitten, and Chango 1997). The recuperation of such tradition is often held both to constitute an authorizing local identity and to forge solidarities taken as the natural base of ethnic and national inclusion (e.g., Foster 1991; Handler 1988). Harris (1995:105ff.) has recently pointed out the ironic links between this sense of forgotten tradition and the knowledge forms of colonial chronicles and scholarly discourse; official genres of indigenous history and the subordinate identity it is held to convey, which have served at once to attribute this lack of self-knowledge to indigenous Americans, and redeem it through "the creation of a lost object." Addressing these "antinomies of loss" in Highland Bolivia, Harris examines the potency of such objectified (and alienated) knowledge and the poignancy of local nostalgia in the context of the modern nation-state and counter discourses of indigenous nationalism. Garcia Canclini (1995) has similarly noted the debt traditions owe to modernity. In a related observation, Kearney (1996:10f.) draws attention to "the creation of indigena ethnicity as a process of image formation occurring also within the dominant sectors of society (the media, nongovernmental organization, state agencies, anthropologists, etc.), generating new symbols and images of the indigena for consumption by indigenas, who enact and embody them for further recycling." These processes and connections are certainly evident here as Alejandro sought traditional knowledge through a published book; a potent metonym of a sort of modernity often held to be at odds with tradition. The irony is sharper given Alejandro's status as a catechist, once devoted to denouncing yatiris in the name of the church, and now exhorted by Catholic priests to embrace indigenous tradition and model himself on his former enemies. …

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