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From Peasant Struggles to Indian Resistance: The Ecuadorian Andes in the Late Twentieth Century. By Amalia Pallares (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002) 272 pp. $44.95 cloth

for The Journal of Interdisciplinary History

In recent years, Ecuador has experienced the emergence of a powerful Indigenous-rights movement. A 1990 uprising that demanded land rights and respect for Indigenous cultures shook the foundations of the dominant white society. In 2000, Indians joined with mid-level military officers to overthrow a president, firmly establishing themselves as significant political actors.
These events have created a bit of a cottage industry in Ecuador as social scientists struggle to understand how subalterns emerged from the margins to place themselves on center stage in the creation of the country’s history. Much of this academic discussion has revolved around the construction of identities, often focusing on the politicization of ethnicity. Pallares’ book is one of the best contributions to date on this debate. Based on interviews with movement activists and supplemented with archival documents and secondary sources, Pallares examines interactions between class and ethnicity in the 1970s and 1980s based on studies of local Indigenous organizations in the highland parishes of Cotacachi and Cacha.

There has been a tendency among social scientists to interpret the emergence of the Indigenous movement in Ecuador in an evolutionary framework. Organizations that existed before agrarian reform in the 1960s are typically seen as being class-based entities created by the Left who manipulated Indigenous concerns for their own political purposes. In the 1960s, Indians emerged out of the “false consciousness” of a class struggle to build their own autonomous ethnic movements, which were then politicized in the 1990s with the construction of Indigenous nationalities that struggled for autonomy from a white-dominated nation-state.
It is all a very compelling narrative that serves to legitimize contemporary organizations and enthralls those of us who live vicariously through other peoples’ struggles (in fact, I also originally intended to write a dissertation along these lines) except for one problem–it is a nice academic model but it does not jive with reality. Already in the 1930s, based on ideological currents coming out of the Communist International, Indigenous peoples presented themselves as nationalities, and in Ecuador’s 2000 military-Indigenous coup subalterns eschewed ethnic concerns in favor of largely class-based issues of fighting neoliberalism and corruption.

Pallares frames her study with that evolutionary model of Indians discarding a peasant consciousness in favor of a new ethnic identity, but her most important theoretical contributions are those that extend beyond this problematic paradigm. “Class analysis did not suffice to explain contemporary indigenous activism,” she notes, “and the particularities of ethnic difference had not impeded the launching of a cross-ethnic political movement” (29). Pallares proposes that instead of interpreting “indigenous struggle as either a class or an ethnic struggle, or ... as both a class and an ethnic struggle,” we should examine how “class, race, and ethnicity are remade by the activists in the process of political struggle” (34).

It is important to realize that humans can be incredibly complex creatures and it is a false dichotomy, as Pallares notes, to position class and ethnic forms of identity against each other. Rather, she presents “the use of double consciousness as a theoretical tool” that can “prove useful for analyses of indigenous peasant mobilizations” (222). Pallares presents excellent ethnographic data and analyses of political mobilizations that will be useful to scholars of social movements not only in Latin America but throughout the world.

Marc Becker
Truman State University

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