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.