RELEASE DATE: 02 Mar, 2020

EDITORIAL BY Caroline Risacher

Cover: © 2019 Gobierno Autónomo Municipal de Cochabamba


The 2012 census revealed that 41 percent of Bolivians self-identified as belonging to an indigenous group, a figure that caused controversy and confusion when compared with the 2001 census in which 58 percent of the population identified as such. The figure from the 2012 census was a surprise because the creation of the plurinational state in 2009 and the government’s official recognition of 36 indigenous groups seemed to mark a new beginning where Bolivia embraced its diversity after centuries of colonial domination and assimilation. Reasons for the drop in indigenous self-identification could be attributed to the way the census was framed, the lack of a mestizo category, a resurgence of racism, social changes, or some combination of all of these factors. Indeed, identity is an incredibly complex concept, and a census wouldn’t be able to reflect that accurately – especially in Bolivia, where identities are shifting and are constantly being reinvented and imposed by a dominant group.

The word itself, ‘indigenous’, may seem harmless enough and has been used by the United Nations since the 1970s to help identify and protect the rights of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples. But for Carlos Macusaya, an indianista-katarista thinker and member of the Jiccha collective, the use of the word ‘indigenous’ comes with a price. According to Macusaya, the word represents ‘a colonial category used to name an undifferentiated population subject to colonisation.’ Macusaya also points out that South American countries only started to recognise and adopt indigenous policies in the 1990s, when they started to come with international funding.

If you ask Macusaya, he will say that he is not indigenous; rather, he is Aymara. To him, the indigenous identity is imposed and represents the interests of other groups. Macusaya also considers the notion that in Bolivia everyone is mestizo to be a colonial concept. ‘We must think of a country not of "indigenous" and not of "mestizos", because these are colonial identities with which the population is racialised to justify exclusions,’ he says. ‘It is useless and even dangerous to be trapped in ideas like "all Bolivians are mestizos because there are no pure races," because it is a mixture of something that does not exist: races.’

The current Bolivian Constitution refers to and recognised the rights and autonomy of inhabitants of rural areas as ‘indígenas originarios campesinos’ (native indigenous peasants). For Macusaya, the ‘native indigenous peasants’ evoke people who live in the countryside and are reluctant to change. Meanwhile, mestizos live in the city. The social changes that indigenous groups experience, moving to new economic spaces, are assumed as biological changes (miscegenation) and are read in racialised terms, Macusaya points out.

A census may need to categorise individuals for practical purposes, but one’s identity is personal and even private. Identities shift over time, and they can’t be reduced to one word and can’t be imposed by anyone else. The next Bolivian census will take place in 2021, and its results will surely be analysed and discussed extensively. As the country goes through a period of political and social change while questioning and trying to assess the legacy of Morales’s presidency, maybe it is time to start rethinking and reflecting on these words we take for granted – mestizo, indigenous, native – in order to avoid repeating the failures of history and create a true and durable ‘plurinational’ state.


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