Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui: Against Internal Colonialism


Sil­via Rivera Cusi­can­qui is an Aymara activist, soci­ol­o­gist, and oral his­to­rian who has worked with indige­nous move­ments in Bolivia over the last four decades. In August 2015, she vis­ited Buenos Aires to par­tic­i­pate in a sem­i­nar orga­nized by the Insti­tuto de Altos Estu­dios Sociales (IDAES) of the Uni­ver­sity of San Martín, the Soci­ol­ogy Depart­ment of the Uni­ver­sity of Buenos Aires and the Pen­sar en movimiento pro­gram of the Uni­ver­si­dad Nacional de Tres de Febrero. Rivera Cusi­can­qui also pre­sented her recent book Soci­ología de la ima­gen (Soci­ol­ogy of the Image) and vis­ited the Ezeiza women’s prison while in Buenos Aires. In this piece, Verónica Gago reflects on Rivera Cusicanqui’s visit, giv­ing us insight into the devel­op­ment of her thought and method, her cri­tique of cer­tain forms of indige­nous iden­tity pol­i­tics, as well as the state of anti­colo­nial strug­gles in Bolivia more broadly.

Read­ing Lenin like one reads the I Ching, open­ing it up ran­domly and find­ing the phrase: “We must dream, but on the con­di­tion of firmly believ­ing in your dreams, of day to day com­par­ing real­ity to the ideas that we have it, of metic­u­lously achiev­ing our fan­tasy.” Sil­via Rivera Cusi­can­qui recounts that this quote was the key to her res­cue when she was faced with a the­sis panel that demanded evi­dence of purity that her the­o­ret­i­cal work did not have. Nobody was going to object to a phrase from Lenin, and find­ing Lenin speak­ing of fan­tasy was a dis­cov­ery to trea­sure. It was the 1970s in Bolivia and Sil­via was grad­u­at­ing as a soci­ol­o­gist. Later, her Mas­ters’ the­sis was lost in a raid by the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment. She went into exile in Buenos Aires, at the begin­ning of that decade, when she was preg­nant with her first daugh­ter and after hav­ing been a pris­oner. But she didn’t last long: she was con­duct­ing sur­veys in the urban periph­ery and peo­ple barely responded to her. “I seemed invis­i­ble,” she remem­bers. She went to the north and there she felt more com­fort­able and acquired a last­ing knowl­edge of smug­gling and a habit of never buy­ing fur­ni­ture, but rather mak­ing it out detach­able items, with bricks and boards.

Sil­via Rivera Cusi­can­qui derives a series of method­olog­i­cal prin­ci­ples that become a feast for the more than one hun­dred stu­dents that meet dur­ing the three day sem­i­nar in Buenos Aires. To be “icon­o­clas­tic and irrev­er­ent” with the­ory are two words heard over and over again, like a mantra: first they are repeated, then they are tasted, and when they acquire a rhythm in har­mony with the breath, they open other means of trans­mis­sion.

In Bolivia, acad­e­mia was always an “elu­sive and dis­tant” good, Sil­via com­ments. That “dis­ad­van­tage,” how­ever, became an advan­tage when it came to relat­ing with books and the­ory in gen­eral. “We dis­cov­ered Euro­pean provin­cial­ism. For exam­ple, the British don’t read the French. Obvi­ously, this is not seen from here, because we attrib­ute a uni­ver­sal­ity to them. But we are less provin­cial on this con­ti­nent: we read every­thing that comes to us, and under the prin­ci­ple of selec­tiv­ity that every­thing is use­ful accord­ing to social emer­gences. Thus we have the luck of skip­ping over var­i­ous fads, because they arrived late or because they seem to come from another world, and of train­ing our­selves in a com­bi­na­tional free­dom.” Hav­ing few books, in con­trast to the “cur­rent hyper acces­si­bil­ity,” required “extract­ing as much as pos­si­ble from them, but also to make the secu­rity of our thought frag­ile, begin­ning from real­ity, as Marx pro­poses, for whom the real takes prece­dence over thought.”

To have curios­ity, fig­ure out, com­mu­ni­cate 

With these three verbs, Rivera Cusi­can­qui strung together her method­olog­i­cal pro­posal as a series of ges­tures. First, curios­ity, which comes from a periph­eral per­spec­tive: that of the vagabond, of the poetic fig­ure of the fla­neur that Ben­jamin evoked, as a capac­ity to con­nect het­ero­ge­neous ele­ments, thanks to the very mode of pass­ing through, tran­sit­ing, wan­der­ing. The periph­eral per­spec­tive incor­po­rates a cor­po­real per­cep­tion. It makes a metaphor out of the exploratory inves­ti­ga­tion. It envelops an alert state. It is made in move­ment and holds onto a cer­tain famil­iar­ity with what has been called cre­ative atten­tion.

A sec­ond step, fig­ur­ing out, is fol­low­ing the clues. It is the focused look. And there­fore, as Sil­via insists: “the first thing is to clar­ify the moti­va­tional ‘why’ between one’s self and that which one is inves­ti­gat­ing.” She says it because it high­lights an irre­place­able task: to dis­cover “the metaphor­i­cal con­nec­tion between research top­ics and lived expe­ri­ence,” because only scru­ti­niz­ing that vital com­pro­mise with the “top­ics” is it pos­si­ble to put forth true hypothe­ses, rooted in the­ory, to the point of turn­ing them into winks that are inter­nal to the writ­ing itself and not rigid cita­tions of author­ity.

Finally, how to com­mu­ni­cate? Speak­ing to oth­ers, speak­ing with oth­ers. There is a dia­logic-expres­sive level that includes “the mod­esty of insert­ing the word,” and, at the same time, “the recog­ni­tion of the autho­rial effect of lis­ten­ing” and, finally, the art of writ­ing, or of film­ing, or of find­ing for­mats almost in the mode of a col­lage. Speak­ing after lis­ten­ing, because lis­ten­ing is also a way of watch­ing, and an appa­ra­tus for cre­at­ing com­pre­hen­sion as empa­thy, capa­ble of becom­ing an ele­ment of inter­sub­jec­tiv­ity. Thus, epis­te­mol­ogy becomes an ethics. Inter­views, a type of hap­pen­ing. The key is the man­age­ment of the emo­tional energy of mem­ory: its poly­va­lence beyond regret and the epic, and its capac­ity of respect for the ver­sions beyond the memo­ri­al­ism of muse­ums.

In a small green note­book, Sil­via has some brief notes that grow and pro­lif­er­ate when they pass into the oral reg­is­ter, build­ing an archi­tec­ture of images, con­cepts, and nar­ra­tives that enable her to affirm – “released from the body,” as she puts it – that soci­ol­ogy is a branch of lit­er­a­ture.

Read­ing Fanon through Fausto Reinaga

A cer­tain alchemy in the process of con­nec­tions reveals a sin­gu­lar­ity. For exam­ple, in Bolivia Frantz Fanon was read through Fausto Reinaga, a leader of Katarismo, the indi­genist guer­rilla move­ment of the 1970s, and the author of the clas­sic La rev­olu­ción india.

Sil­via was involved with that move­ment as a col­lec­tive moment of polit­i­cal rad­i­cal­iza­tion. Years later, in the 1980s, she was one of the founders of the Oral His­tory Work­shop, which explored the com­mu­ni­tar­ian and anar­chist cur­rent of strug­gles, which was cir­cu­lated in pam­phlets and radio dra­mas and had reper­cus­sions in the pop­u­lar move­ments in the fol­low­ing years, espe­cially in the orga­ni­za­tion of the ayl­lus of west­ern Bolivia, the CONAMAQ. The result of that work, Lxs arte­sanxs lib­er­tar­ixs was reed­ited recently (Tinta Limón and Madre­Selva), com­pil­ing the union his­tory of the 1920s, before the Chaco War, but also, fol­low­ing the mas­sacre (more than 100,000 lives were lost from both sides), the pro­tag­o­nism of the fem­i­nine unions that brought together florists, house­wives, mar­ket ven­dors, and cooks.

She had pre­vi­ously writ­ten a book that became indis­pens­able: Oppressed but not Defeated. Peas­ant Strug­gles the Aymara and Qhichwa Strug­gles in Bolivia, 1900-1980, where she demon­strates the “logic of rebel­lion” that nur­tured the revolts of that whole period, until the coup against Gar­cía Meza in July 1980. It was car­ried out while Sil­via lived in the coun­tryside, where she was in con­tact with Katarist and Indi­an­ist mil­i­tants. First edited by an edi­to­rial in La Paz and the Con­fed­eración Sindi­cal Única de Tra­ba­jadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CSUTCB), accord­ing to Sil­via, the book later become part of a “reformist appro­pri­a­tion by part of the ‘pluri-multi’ gen­er­a­tion of intel­lec­tu­als, which has con­vinced me of the rhetor­i­cal abil­i­ties of the elites and their enor­mous flex­i­bil­ity for mak­ing over col­lec­tive guilt and turn­ing it into a matrix of dom­i­na­tion that thus renews its colo­nial dimen­sion.”

Rivera Cusi­can­qui has an art, and it is that of escap­ing clas­si­fi­ca­tions, espe­cially of the exoti­ciz­ing places where they want to place her. She says that for this rea­son they often think that she is an anthro­pol­o­gist. She laughs and bap­tizes her­self as a “non-iden­ti­fied eth­nic object.” Some­times she also refers to her­self as a sochol­o­gist, a mix of chola, Boli­vian par­lance for an urban­ized Aymara woman, and soci­ol­o­gist; the term was once used to dis­credit her, but now she has turned it into a flag. She sim­i­larly plays with the term bir­chola (a com­bi­na­tion of chola and bir­locha, which is what they would, in con­trast, call women whose dress sig­nals upper class aspi­ra­tions), a fig­ure that Sil­via inves­ti­gated among the migrants of the pop­u­lous city of El Alto, the periph­eral belt that sur­rounds La Paz. These are not twists and turns. They are flashes of a deep laugh and a mer­ci­less cri­tique against the essen­tial­iza­tion of the indige­nous. “We are all Indi­ans as col­o­nized peo­ples. Decol­o­niz­ing one’s self is to stop being Indian and to become peo­ple. Peo­ple is an inter­est­ing word because it is said in very dif­fer­ent ways in dif­fer­ent lan­guages,” she stated in the keynote speech at the Soci­ol­ogy Con­fer­ence at the Uni­ver­sity of Buenos Aires. And she added another twist to this idea: “I am opposed to the phal­lo­cen­tric and Chris­tian metaphor of the Tower of Babel because it sees lin­guis­tic diver­sity as a pun­ish­ment. This plu­ral­ity is due to the fact that earth needs many lan­guages to speak of itself and not because of the curse of a Chris­tian god who was angry with men.”

In this invec­tive, the native (orig­i­nario) is another term that Rivera Cusi­can­qui has sub­stan­tially cri­tiqued. “It is a word that divides, that iso­lates the Indi­ans, and, above all, negates their con­di­tion as the major­ity so that they rec­og­nize them­selves through a series of rights that restricts them to being a minor­ity from the state’s point of view.” Addi­tion­ally, impor­tant his­tor­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tions have already demon­strated the ver­sa­til­ity of that fig­ure: for exam­ple, when Tris­tan Platt nar­rates the native’s con­ver­sion into an out­sider, Sil­via remem­bers. Fil­i­a­tions are also the effect of mon­tage, and, when they are not frozen in stereo­types, processes of becom­ing. “It must have to do with the fact that in Bolivia, instead of psy­cho­an­a­lyz­ing our­selves like you do here [in Buenos Aires], we go out par­ty­ing,” she spec­u­lates.

It must be remem­bered that the post­colo­nial debates were first trans­lated into Span­ish in Bolivia, in a com­pi­la­tion edited by Sil­via along with Rossana Bar­ragán. Rivera Cusi­can­qui skips over and turns cat­e­gories around again: “The post­colo­nial is a desire, the anti­colo­nial is a strug­gle, the decolo­nial is an obnox­ious fash­ion­able neol­o­gism,” she syn­the­sizes. To rad­i­cal­ize oth­er­ness, “we must deepen and rad­i­cal­ize dif­fer­ence: in, with and against the sub­al­terns.” This is a for­mula that also allows for cir­cum­vent­ing the per­verse rela­tion­ship that is con­structed when the struc­ture is “indige­nous resent­ment and non-indige­nous guilt,” the affec­tive basis of pop­ulism. It is not sim­ply about “invert­ing the hier­ar­chy with­out touch­ing the dual­ism (Guha dixit)” and using the catch­phrase of Euro­cen­trism to con­struct new limpid bina­ries. This declas­si­fy­ing move­ment that Sil­via describes is what enables us to even under­stand “whiten­ing processes as sur­vival strate­gies: you must read there who is appro­pri­at­ing force and not who wal­lows in pity or who is no longer pure.” Hence too, the force of com­bi­na­tional lan­guages together with the capac­ity for deal­ing with con­tin­gency and inte­grat­ing the for­eign. The effect is a con­di­tion of “palimpsest” with which Sil­via reads the super­im­posed lay­ers in a city (a “stratig­ra­phy of the urban”), in col­lec­tive mem­o­ries, lan­guages, and the com­ings and goings of both resis­tance and com­merce. Colo­nial­ism is expressed negat­ing the human­ity of oth­ers: “this is why dis­pos­able fig­ures appear today over whom the colo­nial dynamic is renewed,” she says in con­ver­sa­tions with the­o­riza­tions like those of Achille Mbe­mbe. But, she clar­i­fies, decol­o­niza­tion is a group task: “You can­not decol­o­nize on your own, because, as Jim Mor­rison and also Fou­cault said, we carry the lords inside of us because of cow­ardice and lazi­ness.”

The con­cept that Sil­via works with for this epis­te­mol­ogy as a decol­o­niz­ing prac­tice is that of ch’ixi: a ver­sion of the notion of the mot­ley the­o­rized by the soci­ol­o­gist René Zavaleta Mer­cado, with whom she main­tained an intense polit­i­cal and intel­lec­tual exchange. “I think that it is a tal­is­man-word, that enables us to go beyond the emblem­atic iden­ti­ties of eth­nop­o­l­i­tics. And I also think that it has its aura in cer­tain states of col­lec­tive avail­abil­ity to make words pol­y­semic. And it also allows for read­ing back­wards and turn­ing writ­ing into a capac­ity for affil­i­a­tion. Sil­via Rivera Cusi­can­qui con­fessed to hav­ing “nos­tal­gia for the ances­tors.” Nos­tal­gia became desire and she finally found a mechanic uncle while inves­ti­gat­ing the anar­chist archive: Luis Cusi­can­qui was the author of an anar­chist man­i­festo addressed to Indi­ans and campesinos in 1929.

Death of a Dis­ci­pline. Birth of an (un)discipline

Sil­via speaks of Aymara as an “agglu­ti­na­tive” lan­guage, because in it the same terms can vary accord­ing to the suf­fixes, con­texts of enun­ci­a­tions, and with each speci­fic oper­a­tion of sig­ni­fi­ca­tion, as well as around rhetor­i­cal strate­gies. She also sub­mits her own the­ory to that same vari­a­tion, to the point of say­ing: “Some time ago, I acquired the habit of pub­licly repu­di­at­ing my pre­vi­ous work.” That this pos­si­bil­ity is con­nected to a fem­i­nine tra­jec­tory is not a minor issue: it enacts again “the advan­tage of the dis­ad­van­tage, the affir­ma­tive side of our deval­oriza­tion.” And it also per­forms its “own epis­teme” which she insists on with dis­re­gard and irrev­er­ence, capa­ble of includ­ing non-lin­ear and oppo­site terms, zones of con­flict and encoun­ter, new points of depar­ture.

When Gay­a­tri Spi­vak vis­ited Bolivia, despite a pro­posed list of offi­cial trans­la­tors, it was Sil­via who decided to do the simul­ta­ne­ous trans­la­tion, but, above all, who show­cased the undis­ci­pline of the text and of lin­ear trans­la­tion. “How to trans­late the term dou­ble bind belong­ing to the schizo that Spi­vak uses into Span­ish? In Aymara there is an exact word for that, which doesn’t exist in Span­ish: it is pä chuyma, which means hav­ing the soul divided by two man­dates that are impos­si­ble to ful­fill.” Addi­tion­ally, these trans­la­tion exer­cises, Sil­via says, reveal that today all words are being ques­tioned: “This is a sign of Pachaku­tik, of a time of change.”

In this quag­mire, there are pro­ce­dures that help: with the flash back and deja vu (that she uses in her books but also in sev­eral videos that she has directed and filmed), Sil­via returns to col­lec­tive mem­ory as a series of mon­tages that are updated accord­ing to the ebb and flow of strug­gles, but that unfold as pro­pi­tia­tory lan­guages of jus­tice. “There is a guide that we make our­selves and that has to do with the thoughts pro­duced pre­cisely in moments of dan­ger.” Thus, for exam­ple, she weaves an alliance with Waman Puma de Ayala, the author of the First New Chron­i­cle and Good Gov­ern­ment (1612-1615 approx­i­mately): a one thou­sand page let­ter to the King of Spain with more than three hun­dred ink draw­ings that Sil­via ana­lyzes under the frame of her “soci­ol­ogy of the image.” That book enables her to smug­gle her­self onto one of those draw­ings, anachro­nis­ti­cally super­im­pos­ing her­self. The mon­tage would give us a poet-astrologer: “walk­ing, meet­ing, cre­at­ing,” the verbs of a method in move­ment, with the hori­zon of an “intel­lec­tual artistry,” that does not allow for expro­pri­at­ing the debate over the idea itself of what is another view of total­ity. This was exposed in the project Prin­ci­pio Potosi Reverso, a book-cat­a­logue that Sil­via cre­ated with the Ch’ixi Col­lec­tive that nar­rates a his­tory going from the colo­nial mines to neo-extrac­tivism.

The image, inter­ro­gated in this way, becomes the­ory. It is not an illus­tra­tion. It requires con­fi­dence in the auton­omy of per­cep­tion that con­sists in see­ing with the whole body, as she said when she pre­sented the new book in the Cazona de Flo­res in front of nearly two hun­dred peo­ple: Soci­ol­ogy of the Image. The Ch’ixi Gaze from Andean His­tory (Tinta Limón).

Find­ing one’s own voice: from read­ing to writ­ing

We entered the women’s prison of Ezeiza with a chill­ing cold, along with work­shop par­tic­i­pants and teach­ers. But once inside, the cli­mate changed. There were some pris­on­ers who were study­ing soci­ol­ogy and oth­ers who par­tic­i­pate in work­shops with the orga­ni­za­tion Yo no fui. The talk spilled over into knowl­edges of sur­vival, the most intel­li­gent ones, those that cre­ate a power out of weak­ness. It was in an audi­to­rium but Sil­via did not go on the stage. She sat down and later started to walk while she talked.

“The voice that is irre­place­able is one’s own. Nar­rat­ing one’s own life to a cell­mate in a night of insom­nia is to co-inves­ti­gate, to already be part of the artistry of oral his­tory. There­fore the key is to care for the free­dom that you feel within your­self and to use it to read through affin­ity: you must feel that you gov­ern the read­ing, read­ing only what smells the best, from back to front, in pieces, and later, writ­ing as a ges­ture of care and fidelity with your­selves, as an exer­cise of free­dom.”

Sil­via recounted that when she gave soci­ol­ogy classes in the prison of Chon­chocorro (the men’s prison of La Paz), she did a “fly­ers” work­shop: kites that they used to com­mu­ni­cate with pris­on­ers in the San Pedro prison, from the patio where they spent the day. “It was only a small ges­ture, but it freed energy. And free­dom is a ges­ture.” For her, the prison was like an “upside down world,” “because what is small out­side is mag­ni­fied on the inside and vice versa.” The pris­on­ers in Ezeiza agreed with that image. They also said that they had never imag­ined read­ing Niet­zsche, but that all of them were impacted by that apho­rism that says that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, of the impor­tance of know­ing that they are there for a while, but that from then on they should also project the out­side and encour­age them­selves to do things that they had never imag­ined they would do. They had also recently car­ried out a sit-down strike against a mea­sure that would deduct the time of study and work­shops from the account­ing of the work hours.

Sil­via, a striker with his­tory, also recounted the strate­gies of resis­tance that they used in 2008 when the indus­tri­al­ists who man­age the rice, oil, meat, and wheat indus­tries attempted a coup against Evo. “All sorts of recipes start­ing cir­cu­lat­ing about how to dis­pense with those food­stuffs, then marked by a class evil. That type of pop­u­lar wis­dom, which demon­strates how con­sump­tion is polit­i­cal, for exam­ple, is made up of small acts but that are essen­tial for cre­at­ing cracks in the rela­tions of force,” Sil­via plot­ted.

And she returned to a recipe, which accord­ing to her is unbeat­able: “When you write, breathe deeply. It is artistry, the ges­ture of a worker. And when you read what you have writ­ten, breathe again until you feel that there is a rhythm. The texts have to learn to dance.”

Think­ing in Move­ment

Again, it is a ques­tion of rhythm: “It is about know­ing with the chuyma, which includes the lung, heart, and liver. Know­ing is breath­ing and beat­ing. And it sup­poses a metab­o­lism and a rhythm with the cos­mos.” Thus know­ing is polit­i­cal prac­tice: “The prac­tice of the hunger strike and walk­ing for days in a mul­ti­tudi­nous march has the value of silence and gen­er­at­ing a rhythm and col­lec­tive breath that act as a true per­for­mance,” she says recall­ing the large protests in defense of the TIPNIS in 2011. “There is then, in these spaces of the unsaid, a set of sounds, ges­tures, move­ments that carry liv­ing traces of colo­nial­ism and that resist ratio­nal­iza­tion, because their ratio­nal­iza­tion is uncom­fort­able, it chal­lenges the com­fort­able dream of lib­eral soci­ety.”

The dis­place­ment of cen­ters is a fact, Sil­via says (addi­tion­ally insist­ing that if we are label­ing it from where we are sit­u­ated, the East refers to Europe!). But in the periph­eries there is also an impulse to con­struct new cen­ters. This is what is hap­pen­ing, she says, in the Boli­vian process: “Evo eclipses the uncer­tainty, the prin­ci­ple of plu­ral­ity of the strug­gles. The entire state appa­ra­tus is directed to that.” Sil­via is cur­rently part of a project called El Tambo Colec­tivo, where they hold courses and activ­i­ties, par­ties and pre­sen­ta­tions. She briefly worked with the MAS gov­ern­ment in its begin­ning, in a cam­paign for the legal­iza­tion of the coca leaf. Today her posi­tion is one of rad­i­cal cri­tique that can be read here in an arti­cle whose title antic­i­pates its argu­ment: “Myth and Devel­op­ment in Bolivia. The Colo­nial Turn of the MAS gov­ern­ment.”

We must dis­cuss what is closed off. For exam­ple, what would be “our own ver­sion of devel­op­ment, almost as an econ­omy of desire. A sort of desire between what one has and what one desires.” Sil­via recounts how the notion of Buen Vivir is part of a broader apho­rism, that places con­crete require­ments, which makes it dif­fi­cult to reduce it to a sim­ple or gov­ern­men­tal for­mula. Addi­tion­ally, the desire for change and “col­lec­tive desire in gen­eral is out­side of real­ism as it is pre­sented from power. That is the ember that must be cared for.” 

–Trans­lated by Liz Mason-Deese and Robert Cavooris 

Author of the article

is part of Colectivo Situaciones, teaches in the School of Social Sciences at Buenos Aires University, and is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET). She is currently working on a project exploring popular economies in post-neoliberal contexts.