Evo Morales

Evo Morales is certainly not the traditional politician. He gets his hair cut at a simple barbershop and drives himself around in his own car. He refuses to pay people for votes, and even if principle did not forbid it, his own finances would. Although he has a security team, they are dressed in plain clothes, and will strip down to their underwear to swim on Morales’ land. And, most importantly, he is indigenous in a country in which an indigenous person had never been elected to the country’s highest office. By conventional political reckoning, he doesn’t stand a chance.

But he did stand more than a chance, as we now know from his victory in Bolivia’s 2005 elections. And as it turns out, he stood a chance for precisely those reasons that at the time made him seem doomed to fail. His relative lack of wealth and plainspoken style made him seem like the man of the people he claimed to be. His indigenous status, far from handicapping him, created a connection between him and the country’s indigenous majority population.

Morales did not simply appeal to the people; he gave them the tools by which to make their voices heard. The documentary Cocalero shows his supporters teaching the members of the coca labor unions, many of whom are illiterate, how to vote based on the colors of each candidate on the ballots. He not only appeals to the people, but also equips them to make their choice of him as their leader known. By appealing to the indigenous and working class majority and by giving them the tools to vote for him, Evo Morales broke all the rules of conventional politics and by doing so won the Bolivian presidential election.

1)     Compare and contrast Evo Morales with Rafael Correa.

2)     Why was CONAIE successful where similar indigenous advocacy movements had failed?

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Both The Lettered Mountain and Unending Struggle draw attention to the role of literacy in social control. Salomon and Nino-Murcia emphasize the fact that, although writing may have initially been a means by which the Spanish exerted colonial control, it slowly became a tool of freedom for Creole revolutionaries, and finally for indigenous peoples to assert their authority over their own communities. Despite outsiders’ tendencies to view Latin and South America’s indigenous people as illiterate and backward (perhaps in part due to the paucity of books themselves), the percentage of those who have at least basic reading and writing skills is somewhere in the eighties. For Salomon and Nino Murcia, literacy is an empowering tool for the people of Tupikocha.

On the surface, the view of literacy in Unending Struggle is similar to that in The Lettered Mountain. The somber narrator states, “For over three quarters of the world’s population, there is simply the passing of years from birth to death.” United States intervention, he asserts, will help change that, enriching the lives of the people of Ecuador by bringing them into the twentieth century.

In reality, however, the United States’ educational initiatives were nothing more than poorly disguised ideological imperialism. At every turn, the diplomats portrayed were trying to sniff out Communist sympathizers. Is anyone in your union a Communist? Who put up these posters? Of course the dictatorial junta will eventually set up a constitutional government, and even if they don’t, at least they’re not Commies, amiright? At one point the narrator explicitly states that the Ecuadorian people’s lifestyle provides a breeding ground for revolutionary rabblerousing. Literacy empowers indigenous people in The Lettered Mountain but serves as a tool for their subjugation in Unending Struggle.

1) How did the indigenous Peruvians described in The Lettered Mountain use the written word to assert and maintain their own cultural independence?

2) How did the United States use literacy to assert its in cultural values in Unending Struggle?

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Questions for The Lettered Mountain

1) How did the incorporation of western concepts of literacy aid the indigenous peoples of Latin America? How did it hurt them?

2) Would the khipu system have provided any advantages to the people of Tupicocha over an alphabetic system? If so, what were they? What, if any, were the disadvantages, aside from potential limitations on the kind of information that could be communicated?

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The Indigenous Voice

In watching the film The Mission and reading this week’s assignment in The Return of the Native, I was struck by the disregard for the voices of the indigenous peoples even by those who claimed to have their best interests at heart. In The Mission, the speech of the natives is never translated into subtitles. Most of the time we have no idea what they are saying, and when their words are translated, it is through the mouth of Father Gabriel. Their words, then, are always passed through a Spanish filter.

Similarly, while The Return of the Native talks extensively about what Creole elites think of the indigenous people, does not discuss what the indigenous people themselves thought about the conquest. The natives must have had something to say about their rule by creole elites, but their voices are not the ones that we hear. Through The Return of the Native, we see the indigenous people through the eyes of those who came to identify more with the Spanish than with their indigenous ancestors.

The Mission‘s Father Gabriel comes the closest of anyone in this week’s sources to actually listening to the concerns of the native people. He is the only Western character who regularly speaks Quechua, and through him we hear something of what the natives think of the incursion of the Portuguese. It is also significant that in his mission, many of the natives retain their traditional style of dress. Even he takes a paternalistic tone toward them, treating them in much the way that environmentalists treat an endangered animal species.

It is the elites who write the history. The intentions of the elites may be demeaning, as were those of the Portuguese and Spanish governments in The Mission and those of the indigenous elites in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, or philanthropic, as were those of the participants in the indigenismo movement, but they are all confined to a Euro-centric cultural paradigm.


1) How do different Latin American nations’ treatment of material culture reflect the similarities and differences in their attitudes toward the indigenous peoples of their territories?

2) Is the indigenismo movement actually rooted in the culture of indigenous Americans, or is it simply another Europeanization of the culture? Or is it some of both?

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Use of Indigenous Culture by Creoles

After creole revolutionaries gained independence from Spain, indigenous people were no more included in the government of their homeland than they had been under the Spanish. Yet in stirring up revolt, creole leaders used indigenous symbols to evoke the glory of pre-conquest civilizations and the tragic valor of their people in their resistance of the Spanish. For the creole revolutionaries, who were themselves born of the offspring of Spanish and indigenous unions, the glorification of the indigenous people and subsequent exclusion of them required a somewhat contradictory rationalization.

During the revolutionary era, creole thinkers claimed that the pre-conquest cultures, particularly that of the Inca, the Mexica, and the Auraca, had rivaled the great classical European civilizations. At the same time, however, three centuries of Spanish had transformed them into savages. As the descendants of these indigenous peoples, the creoles asserted that they were duty bound the avenge the murder of the leaders of these civilizations by the Spanish. Meanwhile, they tended to gloss over the reality that they were also descendants of the conquistadors. If they did mention it, it was to praise the valor of the Spanish conquerors while at the same time criticizing the oppression of the native people.

The creoles claimed all of the benefits of their heritage and none of its foibles. They had the bravery of the Spanish conquistadors and the vibrancy of Iberian civilization, but the duty to throw off the yolk of the Spanish conquerors for the sake of their indigenous ancestors. They, and not the native peoples themselves, were heirs to the great civilizations of South and Central America.

Creoles tended to avoid the uncomfortable idea that in overthrowing the Spanish, they were simply the new oppressors. When they held power and no longer needed the symbols of indigenous culture, they distanced themselves from them, instead claiming the Spanish as their forefathers. They, like the Spanish before them, justified their conquest with an ideology of inferiority of the indigenous people.


  1. Why do you think the creoles were so reluctant to include indigenous people in the independent governments?
  2. Compare and contrast the idealized role of the female as a revolutionary symbol and the real role of women in Middle and South American culture during the revolutionary era.
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The Economy, Stupid

I’m beginning to believe that almost every rebellion ever has the economy as one of its root causes. The Andean peoples had long had reason to revolt. As Tupac Amaru himself says to the audiencia of Lima, Native Americans had suffered under the mita system of forced labor for a long time. Population decline had made this system more oppressive over recent years, it is true, but the mita system was not new, nor was it enough to push Tupac Amaru to armed rebellion. He was not himself inspired to revolt until his own pocketbook was directly harmed with the overtly unjust reparto system, in which native peoples were forced to pay for goods they had no received, and to buy things that they did not need.

The economy, too, inspired the increased oppression leading up to Tupac Amaru’s revolt. The Bourbon dynasty’s efforts to increase the prosperity of their colonies in Peru led to the institution of new taxes as well as an increase in old ones. Furthermore, the crown did not address the abuse of the native peoples by the colonial governments because to do so could jeopardize their economic gain in the region.

A drive for more money led the crown’s acceptance of increasingly oppressive policies toward the people in the Andean regions. Likewise, though the oppression of his people was undoubtedly a prime motivator for Tupac Amaru’s rebellion, its direct cause was money.


1) What common traits do Tupac Amaru’s appeals to the king have with earlier appeals we encountered in Mesoamerican Voices?

2) Do you think that Tupac Amaru would still have revolted had he not himself had personal experience with oppression through the reparto system? Would the mita system of forced labor that harmed his people but from which he was personally exempt have been enough? With the answer to that question in mind, was this rebellion a populist revolt?

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La Otra Conquista

La Otra Conquista is a reflection on the survival of aspects of indigenous religious culture through its union with Spanish Catholic tradition. Weaved through the film is the implication that such a synthesis is possible because, at their core, the religions and indeed the cultures at large are not so different, a thoroughly anachronistic sentiment expressed both by Topiltzin and Friar Diego.

Early in the film, the culture of the Mexica seems doomed. The Spanish interrupt the religious ritual of virgin sacrifice, and the codex Topiltzin had offered to the Mother Goddess is burned. Topiltzin’s own brother turns him in to the Spanish and he is made into a monk. As the movie continues, however, it becomes clear that, despite his nominal conversion, indigenous religious tradition survives in Topiltzin. This survival is most clear in Topiltzin’s fever dreams. In his eyes, the figures of the Mother Goddess and the Virgin Mary fuse. He becomes obsessed with a statue of Mary, and wishes to perform the indigenous ritual of virgin sacrifice on her. In a striking symbol of this fusion, Topiltzin manages to steal the statue, and dies with it by his side.

The similarities and points of fusion between Catholicism and worship of the Mother Goddess are also illustrated in less obvious ways. The statue of the Mother Goddess and that of the Virgin Mary are juxtaposed as objects of worship, or at least great reverence, by both religions. In one scene, Friar Diego flagellates himself, a practice that is strikingly similar to the bloodletting rituals of Mesoamerican nobility. Finally, and to those familiar with the Eucharist most strikingly, the repeated phrase, “This is my body, this is my blood,” is very similar to the phrases “This is my body, broken for you,” and “This is my blood, shed for you,” found in the Last Supper.

La Otra Conquista depicts the merging of Catholic and native religious traditions through its juxtaposition of native and Catholic religious rituals, particularly the reverence for the Virgin Mary one side and the Mother Goddess on the other.


1)   Our text for this week in Mesoamerican Voices contains several excerpts pertaining to legal and political relations between the Spanish and the indigenous peoples. In what ways did the native peoples of Mesoamerica use the Spanish sociopolitical structure to advance their own interests? To what extent were these attempts successful?

2)   How do Spanish forces’ destruction of Saqsaywaman and subsequent use of its stones to build churches larger destruction and transformation of the Inkan culture of stone as a result of the Spanish conquest?

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