Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Reworking the Spaces of Indigeneity: The Bolivian Ayllu and Lowland Autonomy Movements Compared

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Reworking the Spaces of Indigeneity: The Bolivian Ayllu and Lowland Autonomy Movements Compared

Article excerpt

1 Spectacles of identity and region

On a Saturday afternoon in May 2011, in a crowded La Paz coliseum, Bolivian President Evo Morales Ayma presided over a mass indigenous wedding. The 355 couples wed that day represented eleven different ethnic groups; they wore 'traditional' dress typical of their home communities, ceremoniously chewed coca leaves, and watched an elaborate theatrical performance representing the violence of the Spanish conquest. Aside from the president's joke that the ceremony made him want to abandon his life as a bachelor, the ceremony was earnest, with Morales asserting that the day's events helped to place the indigenous family at the center of Bolivia's purinational society, as promoted by the state and its recently rewritten constitution (La Razon 2011). This public performance of indigeneity is an assertion of the growing influence of indigenous peoples in Bolivian cultural and political life, and demonstrates the 'mainstreaming' of indigenous cultural politics currently underway in modern Bolivia (see Albro, 2005).

A few years earlier, on the other side of the country, intensifying protests in the city of Santa Cruz brought thousands of people onto the streets during the run-up to the city's raucous carnival celebration. The mass mobilization was a focal point for manifold grievances, particularly demands for regional 'autonomy'. The concept of autonomy, in the discourse of regional elites, constitutes a rejection of the growing influence of Andean indigenous social movements and what crucenos, or residents of Santa Cruz, widely view as their domination by Andean interests. Protests involved a variety of public spectacles, including hunger strikes, occupations of public buildings, the naming of a 'preautonomous council', and a cabildo (public assembly) that attracted an estimated 250 000 people (Fabricant, 2009). A festival featured dancers wearing provocative costumes intended to represent lowland Guarani and Guarayu indigenous peoples (Gustafson, 2006). These middle-class and upper class mestizo (non indigenous) dancers, dressed as brave indigenous warriors and sultry indigenous maidens, performed a version of 'acceptable' indigeneity and regional unity, in contradistinction to the highland (Quechua and Aymara) immigrants to the region, who are explicitly and at times violently rejected by cruceno nationalists as unwelcome invaders. Such performative appropriations of lowland indigenous identity aim to construct a shared regional history as a basis to oppose emerging Andean indigenous movements. As with the mass wedding, indigeneity here is self-consciously represented as part of a broader political, cultural, and territorial project.

That indigeneity has assumed a central role in Bolivian society is not in doubt. What is less clear, however, is just what this shift means in political and spatial terms. It is this conundrum that we explore in this paper. We take as axiomatic that all identities are relational: that is, they are produced through the frictions of historically constituted social relations. The 'indigenous' is, by definition, an identity that exists only in relation to the non indigenous: the conquistador, the colonist, the settler. Our aim in this paper is not to query who is and who is not indigenous in Bolivia. Such a project, useful though it may be, is fraught with problems, not the least of which is its reliance on indigeneity as solid, settled fact. Rather, we are concerned to examine the shifting terms of Bolivian indigeneity and the political work it is made to do in the service of certain ethno-territorial projects. In particular we set out to address two interrelated questions: first, in what ways are understandings of indigeneity and the indigenous changing in Bolivia, and to what effect? And, second, how does indigeneity inform conceptualizations of territory and the nation? We will explore these questions through a comparative examination of two ethno-territorial projects and the organizations that represent them, in two different regions of Bolivia. …

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