A Window on Indigenous Life

Against the Current, No. 177, July/August 2015

Waskar T. Ari-Chachaki

Intimate Indigeneities:
Race, Sex and History in the Small Space of Andean Life
By Andrew Canessa
Duke University Press, 2012, 344 pages, $26.96 paperback.

THIS BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN book is a very important contribution to scholarship on race and sex in Latin America. Andrew Canessa concentrates on a small and remote Bolivian indigenous village, yet his goals are broad and complex in understanding crucial factors in the making and trajectory of contemporary indigeneity.

The author works in dialogue with the most recent and innovative literature on the subject such as Race and Sex in Latin America by Peter Wade, and the essays in Histories of Race and Racism: The Andes and Mesoamerica from Colonial times to the Present edited by Laura Gotkowitz.

While Gotkowitz’s volume focuses on the construction of indigeneity in a racialized context in relation to indigenous political movements, Canessa explores the making of indigeneity in Latin America in intimate terms: sexuality, eroticism and spirituality.

Canessa’s focus is on the community of Wila Kjarka in connection with regional, national and international structures of power and culture.  The author situates the construction of contemporary indigeneity in relation to sexuality, which in Wade’s vocabulary is a privileged field or intimate dimension for understanding race.

Intimate Indigeneities has three main topics. The first is about the social geography and regional and national history of Wila Kjarka, a pseudonymous name as the author has protectively changed the identities of the village and people in his research.

This section also shows the long history of this Aymara community with an emphasis on the hacienda era previous to the Agrarian Reform of 1953, and the impact of the National Revolution of 1952. It illuminates very well how the people of Wila Kjarka get along with the neighboring community members and social groups, and how they engage in national and international relationships of power and culture even though they are relatively isolated.

In Canessa’s approach, one particular event has especially shaped the memory of Wila Kjarka –– the conflict or “war” with Jankho Kjarka, another ex-hacienda in the era of the national revolution. This account is especially useful in order to understand the different designations of identity and levels of indigeneity and non-indigeneity, as well as the meaning of intimacy in the region and the way in which all of these issues are racialized and related to each other.

The Powers of Spirituality

The second section deals with Aymara spirituality, fears and racialization. This extraordinarily rich chapter describes the indigenous people of Wila Kjarka’s relationship with Mother Earth or Pachamama inside and outside the house, and the powerful roles that conception, birth, death and rutucha (children’s first haircut), as well as the emergence of the child as a social person, play in community making.

In all these aspects of spirituality, Canessa sees the strengthening of the Aymara community in the past but also facing rapid change today.

This deep research also describes the current fears that rural Aymaras have about the mythic figure of the kharisiri or fat stealer. The cultural meaning of the kharisiri goes back to the practice of Spanish soldiers who used the fat from Indians’ bodies to salve their wounds after battle in the early colonial era; today the kharisiri is sometimes associated with the fear of whiteness.

Indeed, whiteness is a great concern for the indigenous perspective of Wila Kjarka because it is a strong force of assimilation. With these connections, the author shows the ways in which indigenous “intimacies” and beliefs are linked with national events in Bolivia and the Andean region.

The last section deals with the effects that the dominant economy of desire and hegemonic ideas of sex have had in the racialized context of remote Wila Kjarka, especially in the 21st century.

The racialization that indigenous people face outside the community, whether working in the mines and tropical agriculture or serving in the army, generates a great frustration that Canessa sees expressed in domestic violence.

Canesssa discusses the foundational myths of Bolivian nationhood that exalt mestizaje and whitening, and argues that this racialization has not changed despite the emergence of  Evo Morales. He provides excellent examples of how women are exposed early in life to hegemonic ideas of sex. Their preference for Barbie dolls demonstrates how indigenous girls are trained to believe that lighter skin leads to more and better life opportunities.

Indeed, Canessa argues that Morales, because of his many lovers and children born out of wedlock, behaves like a mestizo by rejecting the indigenous ethic that privileges marriage. He concludes that the nation is becoming accustomed to a new body politics and system of racialization, which Morales has introduced into Bolivian society.

While Canessa accurately describes patriarchalism and domestic violence in Bolivian society, he entirely ignores the extraordinary progress that women have achieved toward regulating or erasing male domination under Morales’s government. One example is that at least 50% of the members of the Bolivian parliament are women today, and the same is the case in regional legislative bodies.

Intimate Indigeneities not only provides a unique view of indigenous intimate experience in the Andes and in the Americas, but also shows how racialization works today in Bolivia and Latin America. Since Khitipxtansa, written by Xavier Albo in 1976, I have not seen a book as rich and profound as Canessa’s regarding the question of what it means to be indigenous.

Canessa, of course, is writing in a different context about a country that recently reelected an indigenous president. Although the author does not address other complexities of sexuality such as gay life in an indigenous context, this book has tremendous value for a general reader because it explains modern Bolivia through the making of the “intimate citizen,” the individual in a concrete case study, but also in a network of complex relations of power.

This work also represents an excellent resource for those interested in Andean and American indigenous experiences. Now that it’s available in a reasonably priced paperback edition, this will be a welcome addition to graduate and undergraduate courses in Latin American and Native American Studies.

July-August 2015, ATC 177