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Reading the Literate Andean Past

From: Latin American Research Review
Volume 48, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 213-220 | 10.1353/lar.2013.0015

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Reading the Andean past involves a series of translations. First, like any other historical investigation, we must locate the documents and make sense of them from our own modern vantage point. But, on top of that, when writing the history of native Andeans, we must attempt to read documents from an indigenous perspective, despite the fact that oftentimes they were composed by members of a dominant culture who partially—sometimes completely—obscured the intentions, language, and arguments of the Andeans who participated in some way in their creation. This is an issue upon which many anthropologists, art historians, historians, and literary scholars have fruitfully reflected during the past few decades. In his masterful meditation on the process of writing history, Michel-Rolph Trouillot lists a series of key moments: “the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance).”1 At each of these moments, the challenge of reading from an Andean vantage point intrudes. Native Andeans have at least partially influenced the sources available to us today, particularly in those instances when they controlled the process of writing documents in their localities. Their archives are different from those of the courts or notarial records of the dominant society because sometimes they include types of information that our society would not accumulate, such as rosters of participants in collective tasks. Moreover, when native Andeans have had occasion to assemble their own evidence, the criteria by which they did so are unique. The facts retrieved in Andean narratives and the ways they are woven into history are also different from Western models.

However, one essential lesson we have learned over the years is that the Andean voice in historical documents is, without question, hybrid. It is the product of transculturation, a process through which cultural referents are transformed by intercultural negotiation, misunderstanding, and reinterpretation by both Andeans and Europeans. It therefore becomes difficult to draw clear boundaries around these two groups in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, particularly with the rise of mestizo populations in the colonial era and the appropriation of Andean symbols in the construction of nationalist discourses. It is, then, impossible to sustain the notion of a pristine and primordial Andean voice. We must instead look for a colonial, republican, or modern Andean voice in historical documentation, and we must question what is Andean, keeping in mind the historical contingencies in which Andean peoples have found themselves and the influences that they have had on others.

This is particularly true in the area of history making, where, early on, native Andeans adopted European alphabetic literacy, literary and visual conventions, legal discourses, and theological arguments, and entered into sustained communication with nonnative interlocutors who, in turn, borrowed from Andean sources. This is not to say, of course, that Andean forms of inscription completely disappeared from the literate landscape; the khipu knot record, for instance, adapted to the colonial environment and was transformed by it, surviving in altered form to the present. But we can say that literate communication furnished a prime stage on which transculturation unfolded.

The four volumes under review expand our understanding of Andean literacy and problematize the meaning of the term Andean in novel ways. Burns’s Into the Archive and Salomon and Niño-Murcia’s The Lettered Mountain lead us, respectively, through colonial and modern moments of fact creation and fact assembly, providing a nuanced ethnographic picture of how archives are created. Burns’s close attention to the practices of Spanish and Creole notaries in colonial Cuzco opens an important window into the often hidden negotiation and manipulation that went into the production of notarial documents in the colonial era, thus suggesting avenues for interpreting the participation of indigenous peoples, although Burns focuses primarily on Spanish practices. Salomon and Niño-Murcia examine how native Andeans in modern Huarochirí record locally relevant events for their own posterity, often in highly stylized and ritualized forms.

The other two volumes—Dueñas’s Indians and Mestizos in the “Lettered City” and Flores Galindo’s In Search...

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