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South American Intermediaries

Marc Becker

Project Narrative

In 1780 in the central Peruvian highlands, José Gabriel Condorcanqui took the name of the last Inka ruler Tupac Amaru and led a massive uprising against the Spanish colonial government that quickly spread across the South American Andes. Although scholars have typically portrayed this revolt as an Indigenous uprising, Condorcanqui did not come from the class of people he incited to action. He had a Jesuit education when most of the population he successfully mobilized remained illiterate. He prospered from significant trade and commercial interests while the people he led labored in slave-like conditions in the Spanish silver mines at Potosí. He maintained political connections with colonial rulers in a world that was entirely foreign to rural Indigenous communities. What would motivate a member of a privileged merchant class to take up a struggle that was not his against colonial abuses on behalf of a population to which he did not belong?

The story of Tupac Amaru II was a central element of a lecture on Latin American Independence that I gave as part of my teaching demonstration when I was hired at Truman State University in 1999. It is a theme to which I have repeatedly returned on a deeper and more complex level in my Latin America During the National Period (HIST 140), Andean History (HIST 390), Latin American Revolutions (HIST 391), and other courses over the intervening years. Tupac Amaru II is only one example of what I have come to recognize as a widespread phenomenon of members of educated, privileged classes taking leadership roles in struggles that are not their own on behalf of poor and marginalized populations. Toussaint Louverture similarly instigated a successful slave uprising that led to independence for Haiti in 1804, although by all indications he also enjoyed an education and was not a slave himself. In the twentieth century, Ernesto “Che” Guevara was a medical doctor who came from a middle-class Argentine family but joined a peasant movement to overthrow the Batista dictatorship in Cuba in 1959. He subsequently fought in the Congo and then was killed in Bolivia. In 1984, a white, blue-eyed professor named Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente from northern Mexico traveled to the southern state of Chiapas, put on a ski mask, took on the persona of Subcomandante Marcos, and emerged ten years later as the voice of a Maya uprising.

I have come to understand these revolutionary leaders as examples of intermediaries who provided a bridge between two different worlds. Often they belonged to neither world, or alternatively functioned equally well in both worlds, and as such could communicate the material needs and ideological perspectives of one world to the other. Because they could speak the language of both they served as linguistic interpreters, but more important was their ability to be cultural translators. These types of revolutionary leaders are only a highly politicized example of a phenomenon of intermediaries linking two different worlds. On a very mundane level, we see similar dynamics at play when a matchmaker sets up two people on a blind date, or when a friend recommends a medical doctor or auto mechanic.

The need to bridge cultural divides emerges whenever people from two different societies come in contact with each other. Mediators have long provided a variety of services to communicate across such linguistic, economic, and social divides. Negotiating these boundaries at times requires extraordinary skill. Margaret Szasz (1994, 19) observes that cultural mediators’ “grasp of different perspectives led all sides to value them, although not all may have trusted them.” While brokers worked to bridge cultural differences, sometimes they also sought to perpetuate these divides in order to maintain themselves in a position of power. Furthermore, Charles Wagley (1964, 46-47) distinguishes between “traditional brokers” who focused on internal relations within a community and were interested in maintaining the existing social order, and “new brokers” who interacted with external political actors and governments and pressed for social changes. Intermediaries were motivated by many different factors and played many different roles in society, and a deep study is necessary to understand the implications of their actions.

Despite the key roles of intermediaries in both bridging and perpetuating cultural divides, scholars have written little about historical figures who played such roles. Carlos Aguirre (2012, 120) argues that examining legal mediators is important to “understand the actual ways in which ordinary and disenfranchised people experience, understand, and use state law,” as well as to “improve our understanding of the complex negotiations between oral and written cultures, white/mestizo and indigenous groups, and the urban and rural worlds.” While some intermediaries such as Tupac Amaru II assumed very public personas, others worked very quietly in the background, resulting in mythical images of them as elusive subjects, as if they were reflections in a mirror. The work of some intermediaries required leaving behind as few traces as possible, leading to the irony that Andrés Guerrero (2010, 322) notes of their historic ubiquitous omnipresence in rural communities but elusive absence in the archival record or subsequent historical studies that would explain where they came from or why local communities became reliant on their services. Nevertheless, a deeper understanding of their motivations and actions enhances our own abilities to be civically engaged citizens of our own societies.

A common assumption is that in negotiating relations between rural peoples and the government, intermediaries served to legitimize elite interests (Cadena 2000). Baud (2007, 87) postulates, however, that as “bridge” characters, intermediaries “might more appropriately be called a local intelligentsia, popular intellectuals who were able to formulate more or less coherent ideas about society.” As such, they introduced new political strategies to isolated and traditional communities. Similar to Baud, Hernán Ibarra (1999, 80-81) applies Antonio Gramsci’s concepts of organic intellectuals to mediators who negotiated relationships between the government and rural communities. Marginalized peoples could become reliant on intermediaries out of necessity, but they could still maintain antagonistic relations with those who exploited their lack of education and legal knowledge.

We know very little about how people in rural communities viewed the attempts of intermediaries to maintain and extend cultural divides. Instead, we are largely left with stereotypical images in both contemporary writings and the subsequent secondary literature of intermediaries as abusive players involved in power games in rural communities. But if these mediators were exploitative of rural community members, why would marginalized peoples rely so extensively on their services? Ostensibly, if they were not effective (at least part of the time), petitioners would not have continued to turn to them for assistance.


The purpose of this sabbatical research project is to gain a deeper understanding of intermediaries as cultural translators and bridge builders. Rather than focusing on famous revolutionary leaders, drawing on my training as a social historian this research examines a broad range of common people who engaged in the negotiation of everyday aspects of life in marginalized communities. These intermediaries included lawyers, educators, priests, journalists, and others who presented the concerns of disenfranchised people to the government and others in the dominant culture. Pragmatically, the roles of these intermediaries are easy to understand. Typically they brought skills and resources that those in marginalized communities might otherwise not enjoy. The intermediaries might speak both a local vernacular language as well as the official language of the state, but more significantly they understood the underlying cultural assumptions and perspectives of both, and as a result were able to communicate the needs and concerns of the community to power brokers in ways that members of the community could not do themselves.

More important than the roles that intermediaries played, however, is the question of what motivated them to play such a role. Why would someone want to help bridge a cultural divide between two different groups of people? Was it because they could negotiate these interactions to their own material or political advantage? Were these intermediaries altruistically or politically motivated to defend the interests, perceived or otherwise, of a marginalized community? Did they gain social capital in doing so? Even while recognizing that multiple overlapping and contradictory factors inspire human beings to take action, this study will analyze what leads some people to assume such roles. A key importance of this project is to contribute a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of what impelled select individuals to mediate interactions between two different worlds, and to do so in different ways. This project will broaden our understanding of the important but understudied topic of how different people negotiate interactions between various cultures and intellectual traditions.

Both my teaching interests on topics such as the participation of Tupac Amaru II and Toussaint Louverture in anti-colonial revolts and my published research on legal intermediaries in the South American country of Ecuador provide me with the necessary qualifications to undertake this broader research on the multiple and contradictory roles of intermediaries. My first formal research foray into the topic was on informal petty lawyers known as tinterillos who beginning in the nineteenth century commanded attention among their largely nonliterate Indigenous neighbors because of their ability to read, write, and handle documents. That study was published in the Latin American Research Review, but it raised more questions than it answered and led me to realize that the phenomenon of intermediaries was much broader and more significant than what I had initially understood. A second essay in the Journal of Latin American Studies focused on one specific individual, a lawyer named Gonzalo Oleas, who signed petitions for many rural communities throughout Ecuador. Oleas’ actions led me to understand that many different models exist for negotiating interactions between disenfranchised communities and the dominant culture. One of these models was that of urban intellectuals known as indigenistas who pontificated on rural Indigenous realities even though they had little direct experience with that world. I subsequently published a preliminary analysis of indigenista thought and action in Ecuador in Latin American Perspectives. A sabbatical will allow me to expand on these tentative beginnings and explore the multiple and conflictive motivations of various types of intermediaries in much greater depth.


My plan for my sabbatical is to read through documents I have acquired during previous research trips to Latin America, conduct additional archival research in South America, write an initial draft of a book manuscript on intermediaries, and rework my Andean History (HIST 390) class. This project employs a qualitative methodology that focuses on historical research into primary source archival documents. In particular, it analyzes legislative discussions and correspondence among government officials that examine the motivations of lawyers, educators, priests, journalists, and other intermediaries to become involved in rural communities. The sabbatical will provide the time and intellectual stimulation to study and reflect on their actions, and will result in a book manuscript that explores the competing types of interactions that various intermediaries had with rural communities in Latin America.

One of the advantages and hazards of digital technology is that it allows scholars to acquire a vast amount of archival data from research trips in a relatively short period of time, but then we are left with little time to process that data in ways that allow us to make meaningful and effective use of it. During the summer and fall of 2014 I will review and categorize documents I have acquired from various libraries and archives during previous research trips. In particular, I have gathered a large trove of historical documents from the Social Welfare Ministry in Quito, Ecuador. This is a rich and largely unused collection that includes hundreds of petitions from rural communities from the 1920s to the 1950s asking the government to intercede on their behalf. As I process the documents, I will search for common themes and patterns that will form the framework for a book on intermediaries in Latin America since independence with a particular focus on my expertise in the Ecuadorian Andes in the twentieth century.

Reviewing these archival documents inevitably will raise questions that can only be answered by returning to the field for more research. Therefore, I plan to return to Ecuador for a month halfway through this sabbatical leave (January 2015). Much of my previous archival research has been conducted in centralized urban archives, but leading Ecuadorian scholar Andrés Guerrero notes that local archives provide much richer sources of materials on intermediaries. Therefore, this research trip will focus on materials located in local government, church, and property archives in the cantons of Cayambe, Riobamba, and Cañar where I will find the voices of lawyers, educators, priests, journalists, and others who engaged in cultural mediation. I have selected these specific locations because they are spread across the Andean highlands and will provide me with a representative sampling to compare to what I had previously found in the centralized archives in Quito.

During the spring and summer 2015, I will turn my attention to drafting a book manuscript exploring the different roles that intermediaries have played in the Ecuadorian Andes since independence. While I remain open to new ideas and interpretations that emerge as I work through my existing documents and conduct new research, I intend to frame the book around a discussion of competing types of interactions and motivations that various intermediaries including lawyers, educators, priests, journalists, and others had with rural communities. I plan to prepare a prospectus for the book in time to discuss it with editors at the International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) that will be held in San Juan, Puerto Rico from May 27 – 30, 2015. At the present time, I am most interested in publishing the book with the University of Pittsburgh Press. I have previously published with this press and have maintained a positive relationship with the editor through reviewing manuscript submissions. Pittsburgh has a rising reputation in the field of Latin American Studies, and would provide a good home for this study. I will spend the rest of the summer after the LASA Congress completing revisions to the book manuscript.

The new insights and interpretations I gain from drafting this book will also allow me to retool my Andean History (HIST 390) class that I am scheduled to teach during the fall 2015 semester. That course meets the Intercultural Perspectives requirement of the Liberal Studies Program, and with these new insights I will be able to enhance student understandings of the encounters of Indigenous, European, and African worlds in the Andean Region. With a new awareness of and attentiveness to intercultural interactions, students will develop deeper understandings of how culture influences behavior, how cultural differences influence these interactions, and how intermediaries bridge and extend cultural and ethnic differences.


This sabbatical advances the University’s mission through the advancement of knowledge that leads to personal, social, and intellectual growth, thereby modeling as a faculty member the types of activities and behaviors we expect to see in our students. A study of cultural intermediaries facilitates civic engagement that contributes to the development of empathetic, imaginative, engaged, and functional citizens. This project will cultivate a celebration of difference and diversity that we value in our students’ intellectual growth. A sabbatical will enhance my ability to provide transformative learning experiences for our students, including encouraging participation in study abroad and service learning opportunities.

A primary objective of this project is to realize these goals through the writing and eventual publication of a book that interrogates the roles that intermediaries played in negotiating ethnic identities and political struggles between rural communities and political elites in South America. Through an analysis of petitions and correspondence between rural communities and government officials, this project will contribute deeper and more sophisticated understandings to an important but underdeveloped literature on the roles that intermediaries play in bridging wide cultural divides. This research will also provide me with a solid base on which to pursue external funding to extend this investigation into new realms. As the enclosed letters testify, colleagues both at Truman State University and elsewhere recognize the importance of undertaking this study of cross-cultural interactions.

The knowledge I acquire through conducting this research will enhance my classes at Truman State University, including Andean History (HIST 390) and Race and Ethnicity in Latin America (JINS 338), through the provision of new conceptual ideas, interpretations, and content. Intermediaries played a key role in negotiating interactions between Indigenous, European, and African peoples in Latin America, a key theme that runs throughout all of my classes. This research will introduce new material that will make students aware of how culture has been used for political and social ends, including confronting racial discrimination, economic exploitation, and social injustice.

I am always delighted to present the results of my research in a variety of venues on campus, and on multiple occasions have presented at the Faculty Research Conference, the Global Issues Colloquium, and the Women’s History Month conference. In the future I look forward to presenting in the new School of Social and Cultural Studies Research Colloquium. I am already scheduled to present the results of this research to the Truman Faculty Forum during the spring 2015 semester. Without the research I will complete during this sabbatical, I will not be able to comply with that important obligation.

Finally, my research into cultural mediators will enhance my service to both the University and the community. It will provide me with new understandings of intercultural relations that will facilitate my work with the Global Issues Colloquium and with service learning projects. From its beginning more than ten years ago, I have served on the Global Issues committee. Most recently I have chaired the committee as we bring speakers to campus to stimulate conversations that promote civic engagement and lead to the development of critical thinking skills among both our faculty and students. This sabbatical will also facilitate the design of innovative service learning projects similar to the ones that I have conducted with Hispanic immigrants to Milan, Missouri. For example, my JINS class published a print-on-demand book Voices of Milan that examines issues and concerns through interviews with both recent and long-term residents of the community. I am always looking for new and innovative ways to bring what we learn in the classroom to a broader community. These experiences are personal examples of cultural mediation, and this sabbatical will help both my students and me to become more effective intermediaries.


Aguirre, Carlos. "Tinterillos, Indians, and the State: Towards a History of Legal Intermediaries in Post-Independence Peru." In One Law for All? Western Models and Local Practices in (Post-) Imperial Contexts, ed. Stefan B. Kirmse, 119-51. Campus Verlag Gmbh, 2012.

Barth, Fredrick, ed. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1969.

Baud, Michiel. “Liberal Ideology, Indigenismo and Social Mobilization in Late Nineteenth-Century Ecuador.” In Highland Indians and the State in Modern Ecuador, ed. A. Kim Clark and Marc Becker, 72-88. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007.

Baud, Michiel and Rosanne Rutten, ed. Popular Intellectuals and Social Movements: Framing protest in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Cadena, Marisol de la. Indigenous Mestizos: The Politics of Race and Culture in Cuzco, 1919-1991. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

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Ibarra, Hernán. “Intelectuales indígenas, neoindigenismo, e indianismo en el Ecuador.” Ecuador Debate, no. 48 (December 1999): 71-94.

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Muratorio, Blanca. “Los tinterillos o abogados callejeros: el papel de los intermediarios judiciales en una communidad boliviana.” In Procesos de articulación social, ed. Sidney M Greenfield and others, 112-35. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu, 1977.

O'Connor, Erin E. Gender, Indian, Nation: The Contradictions of Making Ecuador, 1830-1925. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007.

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Rappaport, Joanne. Intercultural Utopias: Public Intellectuals, Cultural Experimentation, and Ethnic Pluralism in Colombia. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

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Stavig, Ward and Ella Schmidt, ed. The Tupac Amaru and Catarista Rebellions: An anthology of sources. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 2008.

Szasz, Margaret, ed. Between Indian and White Worlds: The cultural broker. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Thurner, Mark. From Two Republics to One Divided: Contradictions of Postcolonial Nationmaking in Andean Peru. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

Wagley, Charles. “The Peasant.” In Continuity and Change in Latin America, ed. John J. Johnson, 21-48. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1964.

Wolf, Eric R. “Aspects of Group Relations in a Complex Society: Mexico.” American Anthropologist 58, no. 6 (December 1956): 1065-78.

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