Bolivian historian and social theorist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui is author of the classic work Oppressed But Not Defeated: Peasant Struggles Among the Aymara and Quechua in Bolivia, and has recently emerged as one of the country’s foremost critics of President Evo Morales from an indigenous perspective. Indian Country Today Media Network spoke with her in New York City, where she recently served as guest chair of Latin American studies at New York University’s King Juan Carlos Center. The complete text of the interview appears for the first time on World War 4 Report.
I am part of a collective that produced hand-made books and hand-woven bags frmo recycled plastic, as well as lettuce and potatoes and fava beans and sweet peas and medicinal herbs. Grown in community gardens in La Paz. And we sell them at the traditional markets in La Paz.
And we have made campaigns—a campaign against plastic bags, a campaign to promote walking instead of taking trucks or buses or cars. Walking is very difficult in La Paz if it’s uphill, because of the altitude. So we have a slogan, Camina La Paz, aun que sea la bajada—Walk through La Paz, even if it’s only downhill! At least just get a bus ticket one way!
So we try to link every public issue where human rights, indigenous rights, and the rights of the Pachamama are involved. So we joined with TIPNIS, we joined CONAMAQ, we joined the support network for the human rights office that was almost taken over by the government. We are defending the CONAMAQ people who were kicked out of their office… We are just there for them, if they need shelter for the night or a good breakfast, we go and do that. We are not many, but we do whatever we can.
We call ourselves Colectivo Ch’ixi—from the Aymara word meaning “stain.” We are mestizos, but we have a strong Indian stain in our souls. We are “impure.” We are not “pure” people. And we have to recognize also that there is a European stain in our bodies and in our subjectivities. And the good part of that stain is the idea of freedom and individual rights. From the Indian part we get the idea of community and of cycle, intimacy with the cycles of nature. But we do recognize the value of individual freedoms and rights—sexual rights, the right to have a sexual identity that is different from the rest, or of abortion. All this comes from the best contributions of European civilization and the Enlightenment.
I would say that the strength of Bolivia is not the state but the people. And the people have been strong and stubborn enough to be what they are, and to put their own desires as the terms and conditions of what is going to be the change. And that is what saves this process of Evo. What saves him is that there are people behind him who have not been bought completely, and they rely upon themselves.
There is a peculiarity of the Bolivian people in general, with a lot of diversity, a lot of community, a lot of locality, a lot of ability to network and to make friendships. There is also a huge diasporic Bolivianess. I would say half the population of Bolivians live outside Bolivia. There are probably 9 million Bolivians in the diaspora—in Argentina, in Spain, in Italy, Chile, the United States. All over the place—even China now!
But you cannot say that we Bolivians are being well-treated by whatever strength our state has. It is not the weakness of the state that has thrown people away—it is the strength of the state that has thrown people away! Because they are starting to normalize, homogenize, totalize, control and make difficult the lives of the people.
The most important asset that the Bolivian people has is knowledge of the environment. The environment of Bolivia is very rare. Only two peoples in the world live at such high altitudes—the Tibetan people, and we. For this land, you don’t need tractors. You don’t need huge harvesters or huge machines. For that, you need to know what the weather is going to be next month. And for that, you need the people who know how to look to the stars. That is the big asset. The stars and other predictive knowledge tell you when to sow, and when an early rain is coming. The ability to understand nature and its cycles and its messages.
We still have the culto de los muertos—the cult of the dead. You should come to my house in Bolivia and meet the skull of my ancestor. I am one of many, many, many paceños, many people from La Paz, who has this Cult of the Dead, very, very strong. Now a skull is a thing, you can just see it as inert material. But it’s not… There is a spirit there; there is a spirit everywhere. You have to be attuned to that. And Marxists don’t believe in that shit. [Laughs.]
And that is completely outside the ideas of Marxists. But it is part of the Indian epistemic that we, the mestizos, have within our bodes.
there’s much more, on indigenous and mestizo identity, the bolivian state, and the revolutionary imperative, from upside-down news, Interview with Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui