Is It Possible to Decolonize Mestizaje? Part I

Photo by Hugo José Suárez
Photo by Hugo José Suárez

This semester the King Juan Carlos I Center hosted the Visiting Scholar, Professor Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Andes Bello Chair in Latin American Literature & Culture. Professor Cusicanqui is a Bolivian sociologist, historian, activist, filmmaker, and public intellectual. She is a Professor of Sociology at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, La Paz, Bolivia.

On April 11 and 12, Professor Cusicanqui organized a Colloquium entitled: “Is It Possible to Decolonize Mestizaje?”

The event commenced with the spiritual practice of prayer. Alongside an Aymara tapestry, she and other speakers from the event shared traditional prayers from their respective indigenous communities. The ritual concluded with an informal but sincere circular greeting. “This practice,” said Tiokasin Ghosthorse of the Lakota Nation, “is called a turtle island. It is a tradition that is thousands of years old, much older than any nation. It represents ‘us,’ [as a people], living a reality.” In this reality, he urged, “we are all related, as equal souls. Keep me as your equal.” As the opening ceremony suggests, the colloquium was anything but typical. It deliberately challenged the rigid Western epistemological structures that persistently colonize the mestizo intellect. Instead of a formal panel, presenters oriented themselves in an unoppressive semicircle around “la silla,” the white chair of mestizaje. Similarly, information was not delivered throughout the two-day event; instead knowledge was shared through an interactive dialogue between the audience and presenters. From the start, Professor Cusicanqui clearly expressed that the event was not a presentation of papers but rather “it is an orality with no start or ending.” It was, and still is, an active dialogue about indigeneity, spirituality, and coexistence in the context of oppression, neoliberalism, and patriarchy.

Sinclair Thomson, professor of history from New York University, and Pablo Uc, a member of the Zapatistas and a professor of history from the Autonomous University of Chiapas, brought their insight into Friday’s introductory discussion of mestizaje. Professor Thomson initiated the conversation with the historic parable of Juan Manuel Cáceres, a mestizo living in the Bolivian highlands at the turn of the eighteenth century. In close proximity with the Aymara community, Cáceres wrote an ardent manifesto that sought the enfranchisement of the local indigenous community. Among many declarations, the manifesto required an end to forced labor and tribute and demanded the protection of indigenous sovereignty. Yet, Professor Thomson argued the most progressive aspect of the manifesto was a specific article that proclaimed everyone to be Indian. Cáceres reasoned that there were two types of Indians, “white Indians” and “true Indians;” however, despite the distinction, all inhabitants of the region were indigenous. Professor Thomson further complicated this mestizo narrative by comparing Cárceres’s manifesto to the Haitian Constitution of 1805, which similarly declared all Haitian citizens “Black.” Although this declaration aimed to empower the former black slaves of Haiti by undoing the white male patriarchy, it also “blackened” the remaining white settlers on the island. In such a violent and forceful revolution against their white oppressors, it seems odd that framers of the Haitian Constitution would later incorporate all people into their nation regardless of their skin color. Professor Thomson used Toussaint Louverture’s anecdote of wine in water to clarify the role of racial homogenization. Toussaint equated the black population to a cup of water and reasoned that every white person granted citizenship was merely a drop of wine in that vast body of water. In the end, the presence of wine in the water was so negligible that it went unnoticed. Toussaint and Cáceres understood that harmony in a postcolonial world involved altering the notions of what was perceived to be “Black” or “Indian.”
The attempts to homogenize race and ethnicity that transpired in Haiti and the colonial Bolivia highlight something important about the construction of mestizaje. “In these instances,” argued Professor Thomson, “identity is not racially constructed or determined by phenotype.” Instead, it is understood culturally and spiritually. In declaring all mestizos “Indian,” Cáceres did not intend to alienate certain sectors of society. On the contrary, he was trying to integrate people under a common identity. He was creating an identity that transcended colonial prejudices and recognized those who, through subjugation, had been estranged from their lands. By embracing a dual-sided indigenous identity of “white” and “true” Indians, Cáceres was actually fostering a mestizo identity. He understood that mestizaje was a process of indigeneity. As a narrative contrary to the civilizing, whitening, and Christianizing of the “native” race, mestizaje is also the story of criollos assimilating, adapting, and reproducing what was understood as “Indian.” Eighteenth century Bolivia had changed since the pre-Columbian era and what it meant to be indigenous had changed as well. Although mestizos were in fact ethnically mixed Indians, the idea and the word were fabrications of the colonial period. Many mestizos, like Cáceres, declared themselves indigenous because there was no real distinction between “Indian” and “mestizo.” There was simply nothing more than just white and true Indians.

Through his presentation of the Zapatista-organized school system, “La Escuelita,” Professor Uc shifted the dialogue away from the past and contextualized it in the present. He agreed that mestizaje changes with history and argued that the production of knowledge is best understood through these changes. Professor Uc’s presentation addressed indigenous autonomy and the “pedagogy of micropolitics.” The Zapatista goal, said Professor Uc, is to “build a world that can hold many different worlds.” It is an endeavor that works around the state project to guarantee autonomous rights for the oppressed. The curriculum of La Escuelita interacts with oppression and violence by promoting awareness and a critical reflection of one’s social environment. It is an ideology that endorses tolerance and sustainability. “Serve and don’t be served,” “propose and don’t impose,” and “view and don’t destroy” are just a few perspectives La Escuelita upholds throughout its curriculum. Zapatista knowledge merges ideas of democracy, justice, and peace with communal understandings of land, work, and responsibility in order to facilitate a conscientious outlook of world. They live the “everyday of autonomy” through “collective thought and learning from outside of institutionalized structures.” Thus, schooling becomes synonymous with living. The simultaneous indigenous, Chiapaneco, and Mexicano experience works as a pedagogical process that allows Zapatistas to understand and engage with their ever-changing reality. It is a pedagogical process that embraces both mestizo and indigenous knowledge to locate channels of resistance and defend autonomy.
In the dialogue after the presentations, Professor Uc complicated the issue of mestizaje by addressing the modern nation-state. He critiqued “the nation as an artifice of human design and male domination” and discussed the manner in which privatization affects sovereignty and autonomy. This segue into the discussion encouraged Luis E. Cárcamo-Huechante, an Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin and member of the Comunidad de Historia Mapuche, to elaborate on the imported ideologies of the Western hegemony. Luis argued that ideas of patriarchy, domination, and the nation-state were imported by “conquerors” through the process of colonization. He claimed these notions have been so engrained into Western thought that education and wealth often transform indigenous people into colonizers themselves. In this way, “mestizaje can be seen as a commodification process,” contended Luis, “in which the [project of the] nation-state is a Trojan horse for capitalism.” It became clear from the dialogue that intellectualism is not enough to combat the nation-state, that communal traits of humility and respect are also required. At this moment towards the end the conversation, Silvia intervened. She looked at the audience and posited “Is it possible that indigenous communities are the last resources of humanity?”
Silvia’s unforgettable statement framed the substance of Friday’s dialogue. “Decolonizing the Mestizaje” is a discourse about the perseverance of indigeneity. In the globalized and neoliberal world, mestizos are an embodiment of indigenous heritage, cultural, and tradition. Mestizaje is about how indigenous people have survived and adapted to hegemonic subjugation. In this process of mestizaje, it is the individual indigenous communities that are paramount. The strength of the indigenous communities derives from their organic nature. Like the basic elements that constitute all things on earth, indigenous communities are the fundamental elements of mankind. They have outlived every empire, dynasty, and nation in the history of the earth and they have yet to fade away. Within these communities lies knowledge about sustainability, humility, and cooperation, concepts that are often overlooked in a world ruled by politics, violence, and power. Rifled with economic instability, environment degradation and mass genocide, the current condition of the “modern” world seems bleak. As Tiokasin Ghosthorse suggested, it seems evermore apparent that “colonization came to the Western hemisphere to die.”

Posted by Antonio Manuel Tlaloc Torres – MA Candidate at CLACS

Read>> Is it Possible to Decolonize Mestizaje? Part II

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