Indigenous Puno?


Posted by Ximena Málaga Sabogal – PhD student in Anthropology at NYU

It has been a couple of weeks since I arrived in Puno, one of the biggest cities in the southern Peruvian Andes. I have a long history with this city, having researched in the area throughout my bachelor and masters degree. Still, Puno was always a place to go through, in order to get somewhere else. This time I am going to spend two months in the city, going through the archives and talking to people who can somehow enlighten me on my research topic. Although I am an anthropologist, I also have a background in history and always try to bring these two together in my research. I am interested in the Aymara and Quechua identity definitions and its connections with the international indigenous movement.

Who is indigenous? What does it even mean? For a long time, this was not a question being asked in Peru. El problema del Indio (the Indian problem) became a topic at the beginning of the 20th century but the question about who is indio was not put forward until the last decades. As in Latin America more broadly, ethnicity in Peru is constructed through a combination of quite fluid physical and cultural categories that are sometimes claimed as means of self-identification, but more often ascribed by others. During the first half of the 20th century, the category of race became culturized (and culture became racialized) which led to even more complications in the definitions of who the indio was. From an elite and “white” perspective, national progress required de-indianization of the country’s population, to be accomplished through education and literacy, while the growing rural-to-urban migration process watered down distinct cultural characteristics of those who only a decade before were considered by the state as definitely Indian. Velasco Alvarado’s revolutionary government (1968-1975) further advanced the process of de-indianization, although for different reasons, advocating for the use of the term “peasant.

The curious thing is that when we look closely at historical processes, we will see that for there to be a de-indianization in the 20th century there was an indianization before. That is a process of distinguishing Spaniards from Indians, creoles from peninsulares, and each of these from a complex mixture of kinds of personhood that took centuries to cook. The Spanish colonial state put all the natives in two categories: “Indios” (mostly inhabitants of the mountains and the highlands) and “Indios de Montaña” (inhabitants of the jungle). Since the jungle maintained its almost independent status for most of the duration of colonial rule, Indio became the generic term to describe the native inhabitants of the Andes. The Spaniards constructed a racial category (itself confounded with old distinctions of social estate and equated with tribute-paying commoner laborers) that blurred the ethnic or “nation” divisions among the region’s native peoples that had prevailed before Spaniards’ arrival. This process of mono-ethnification served administrative purposes of the colonial state, and elevated Spaniards into a racialized aristocracy of rentiers.

Although the term Indio has not been used in Peruvian policy making for a long time, other categories came to be almost synonymous with indigeneity, especially when put together: rural, illiterate, denizen of the higlands/jungle, subsistence farmer, member of a collective with commonhold rights, Quechua (or another native language) speaking. These are of course the antitheses of literate, Spanish-speaking, urban, private-property holding individuals, and hence also “non-modern”. An answer to the question about who is indigenous today must be informed by an understanding of the complex historical processes of mono-ethnification on the one hand, and de-indianization, on the other. But it also requires a careful analysis of the distinction between ascription of such categories onto others, and their use for purposes of self- or group-identification. When such issues arose during the 1980s and 1990s in the context of growing indigenous movements in the neighboring countries of Ecuador and Bolivia, who began to claim indigeneity in various ways to help forward political and economic projects, particularly those concerning their rights as peoples under international law, Peruvians, who had suffered through the period in a state of internal warfare, did not know where to start. It may seem easy to define who is indigenous when racial slurs are used on daily basis on the streets of Lima, but defining it for political processes (by the state, for its internal others, or by local or regional peoples, for their own purposes)? That is a different story.

During the summer I will be sharing with you my findings on these topics, as well as my personal anthropological journey of defining an area of work and establishing a fieldwork network.

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