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Latin American Research Review 38.1 (2003) 248-266

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The "Indian Question" in Latin America:
Class, State, and Ethnic Identity Construction

Gerardo Otero1
Simon Fraser University

The Friendly Liquidation of the Past: the Politics of Diversity in Latin America. Donna Lee Van Cott. Foreword By Crawford Young. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000. Pp. XV+340.)
Exiles, Allies, Rebels: Brazil's Indianist Movement, Indigenist Politics, and the Imperial Nation-state. By David Treece. (Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 2000. Pp. VIII+271.)
The Indians and Brazil. By Mercio P. Gomes. Translated By John W. Moon. (Gainsville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 2000. Pp. Xvi +301.)
Indigenismo E Territorialização: Poderes, Rotinas E Sabers Coloniais No Brasil Contemporâneo. Edited By João Pacheco De Oliveira. (Rio de Janeiro: Contra Capa Livraria, 1998. Pp. 311.)
Telling Maya Tales: Tzotzil Identities in Modern Mexico. By Gary H. Gossen. (New York and London: Routledge, 1999. Pp. XXXIII+309.)
Indigenous Autonomy in Mexico. Edited By Aracely Burgete Cal Y Mayor. (Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 2000. Pp. 291.)

The purpose of this essay is to assess a group of recent books about the "Indian question" in Latin America. We have witnessed widespread and vigorous mobilization by indigenous peasantries throughout the [End Page 248] region in the past two decades, so it is no coincidence that these and many other books have recently been published on this issue. For the case of Mexico, following the 1994 uprising by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), Carlos Monsiváis (1999) has claimed that more books were published about the Indian question between 1994 and 1999 than during the rest of the twentieth century. Even if this is an exaggerated statement, the fact remains that this topic is of growing scholarly interest and of paramount political relevance for Latin America's weak democratic regimes. In fact, one could argue that the manner in which Latin American states address their relations with their Indian peoples will largely determine the character and depth of democratic transitions. The ruling classes have the choice: to keep Indians as the most exploited, oppressed, and politically excluded groups in society, or to acknowledge and institutionalize their rights, not only on paper but in fact. To an increasing extent, though, this is not just a matter of choice from above, but also an increasingly imperative exigency from indigenous mobilization from below.

Three core arguments that I will make in reviewing these books are as follows. First, in contrast to some recent theorization about social movements in Latin America, which emphasizes either a class-based approach (Petras and Veltmeyer 2001) or an identity-based approach (Alvares, Dagnino, and Escobar 1998), I will argue that in the case of indigenous-peasant mobilization, class and identity struggles are actually inseparable. Emphasizing one or another determinant or "variable" will necessarily lead to an incomplete and one-sided analysis. If there is any subordinate social group in Latin America for which both class grievances and identity rights issues are similarly important in their constitution as political subjects, it is the indigenous population. Paradoxically, this population was constituted as "Indians" by the conquering forces from Europe. By the late twentieth century, Native Americans began to use this same label, historically employed to exploit and oppress them, to liberate themselves. In many cases, they are using colonial documents to demand land rights and they are adopting the term "Indians" to designate themselves. The concluding section offers some research questions on Indian mobilization based on a synthetic approach to its study.

The second argument regards the relation between globalization and the nation-state. Along with the implicit positions of most of the books under review, I will argue that the nation-state continues to be the ultimate terrain of struggle for indigenous peasants, even if transnational or international solidarity is welcome and can help in some dramatic instances. This is an argument against those who claim that the forces of globalization have fundamentally debilitated nation-states, and that the fate of social movements now depends...


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