- Intimate Indigeneities: Race, Sex, and History in the Small Spaces of Andean Life by Andrew Canessa
The "small spaces" of Wila Kjarka are the focus of Andrew Canessa's poignant and deeply insightful ethnography about the everyday lives of the villagers of this Andean highland community in Bolivia. Canessa draws on over 20 years of field work in Bolivia—dating from 1989—to show how these small spaces are integral to a far broader canvas across which the specters of colonialism, nationalism, capitalism, transnationalism, and the celebration of heritage and indigeneity march. Several major arguments and themes weave in and out of the narrative, much like a fine Andean textile. The overarching question Canessa asks is: what does it mean to be jaqi—"proper people" who are indians—in Wila Kjarka. To answer the question, he delves deeply into a few key themes—the nature of exchange, specifically, reciprocity; the ways in which racialized and sexualized relationships come to constitute differentiation and inequalities both between indians and non-indians (q'ara), as well as among indians themselves; how these inequalities are produced and reproduced by institutions such as the army, the school, and beauty pageants; and the complexity between being indian and being indigenous, especially on the national and even international stages. From the start, he makes it clear that to understand the meaningfulness of indian culture and identity entails collapsing scales in which even the most intimate of sexual fantasies or the daily activities of working, eating, and dressing are bound up with "broader global questions" (32).
Narrative has great potential but it is nevertheless an immense challenge to demonstrate at one and the same time the dynamic nature of identity construction, the sustained rhythms of everyday life that people [End Page 625] engage in, and the ways these rhythms and dynamics also harden into cultural assumptions, ideologies, and institutional practices at multiple scales. Canessa mostly succeeds in these endeavors. He stretches the narrative genre to its limits, by combining a keen analytical lens and lucid prose. His telling anecdotes and stories, culled from his long acquaintance with the Wila Kjarkanos, draw the reader in, again and again.
One of the important arguments that Canessa immediately lays out and then proceeds to provide evidence for in the remaining chapters is that, in the lived reality of Bolivians, their world is not a binary one, divided between white racists and indian victims. Rather, racism is so pervasive that it goes unnoticed. He therefore makes the choice to use "indian" rather than "indigenous" in order to call attention to "the long history of colonial oppression" (32). While he finds that indigeneity plays a significant role in Bolivia, it is not a "meaningful analytical category for distinguishing one group of people from another" (66). Any number of groups of native peoples can be clustered into the category "indigenous." To be labeled indigenous or to call something or oneself indigenous has political and cultural implications, but it does not tell us much about what it means to be an indian living in Wila Kjarka.
When Canessa began his field work, Wila Kjarka resembled so many other highland Andean hamlets nestled far from the infrastructure of roads, schools, markets, and mass communications. Yet, they were the site of deep inequalities, some of which lay just below the surface, others that were nearly invisible. What it means to be indian begins with history, but historical consciousness in Wila Kjarka is hardly transparent. Canessa became intrigued by the codes he encountered and the challenges to the assumptions he himself implicitly had about what mattered to Wila Kjarkanos. The reach of large landed estate owners (hacendados) had been felt by the entire region. They wreaked havoc with land tenure and labor regimes. The first puzzle Canessa tries to solve is why—if the Bolivian Revolution and concomitant Agrarian Reform in 1952 were so central to diminishing the power of hacendados—the Wila Kjarkanos hardly speak of this moment, but rather of the battle they fought with another village, Jankho Kjarka...