- Between the Andes and the Amazon: Language and Social Meaning in Bolivia by Anna M. Babel
This book is about language and social categorization in Saipina, a town in the foothills connecting the Andean highlands and the Amazonian lowlands of Central Bolivia. Saipina lies halfway between the highland city of Cochabamba and the lowland city of Santa Cruz, and the book explores how people in the town constructed social identities by negotiating a set of aligned binary oppositions related to that highland-lowland distinction. These oppositions included, respectively, the ethnic categories of colla (indigenous Andean) vs. camba (nonindigenous lowlander); affiliation with the MAS vs. Autonomista political parties; the pollera skirt (emblematic of indigenous highland women) vs. pants or miniskirts; Quechua vs. Spanish, most significantly for this book; and many others besides. Babel argues that these oppositions make up the local semiotic field, a concept used throughout the book to theorize how such geographic, ethnic, political, sartorial, and linguistic signs cohere into a broader system of meaning. A major point of the book is that the first terms in each of those oppositions are aligned (e.g., MAS, the pollera, and Quechua), as are the second terms (e.g., Autonomistas, pants, and Spanish), such that any of the first can stand in opposition to any of the second. The book is thus full of fascinating contradictions that can only be interpreted in light of the local semiotic field, for instance, “How can she wear pants when everyone knows she’s a Quechua speaker, one of those people from MAS?” (p. 224 and passim).
However, befitting an in-between place like the Santa Cruz Valleys, people in the region have staked out an in-between valluno social identity. Instead of camba miniskirts or the long pollera skirts associated with collas, women in the Valleys wore kneelength skirts; MAS supporters in Saipina were moderates, not radicals, and they spoke Spanish with notable Quechua influence. In this manner, despite the starkly dichotomous nature of the signs themselves, people constructed a social identity that was gradient and negotiable. It was also relational: as one man says, “when we go to Cochabamba, people say we’re cambas. When we go to Santa Cruz, they say we’re collas” (p. 39).
Babel draws on fifteen years of experience in Saipina to take us on a tour of the town’s semiotic field that is both comprehensive and nuanced. Each chapter takes an indepth look one of the binary oppositions, beginning in chapter 1 with Saipina’s intermediate geographic situation and the colla vs. camba ethnic distinction. Chapter 2 presents some of the most salient Quechua contact features that are found in the local Spanish. This chapter makes the important observation that many of these features are, in fact, used by both collas and vallunos, but that they can be interpreted according to negative stereotypes in the former case, and positive ones in the latter. Chapter 3 continues this focus on language to explore the social construction of Spanish speakers (castellanistas) and Quechua speakers (quechuistas) as identity categories, despite substantial bilingualism and language mixing among most people in Saipina. Saipina’s racially-tinged identity categories of legítimo ‘legitimate’, conocido ‘acquaintance’, and desconocido ‘stranger’ are introduced in chapter 4, and contextualized in the history of [End Page 442] Andean migration and language use in the region. Chapter 5 takes a close look at the political conflict between supporters of Evo Morales’s highland MAS party and the lowland Autonomista party, and the barely concealed racial undertones of anti-MAS political discourse. The tension between tradition and modernity is discussed in chapter 6, along with the exclusion of recent immigrants from a normative vision of Saipineño tradition. Chapter 7 examines the distinction between pollera skirts, associated with the figure of the highland cholita woman, and the straight skirts of señoritas in the Valley. Chapter 8 focuses on the distinction between rural and urban spaces. Migrants from Saipina to the city of Santa...