El Alto, Rebel City: Self and Citizenship in Andean Bolivia

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Combining anthropological methods and theories with political philosophy, Sian Lazar analyzes everyday practices and experiences of citizenship in a satellite city to the Bolivian capital of La Paz: El Alto, where more than three-quarters of the population identify as indigenous Aymara. For several years, El Alto has been at the heart of resistance to neoliberal market reforms, such as the export of natural resources and the privatization of public water systems. In October 2003, protests centered in El Alto forced the Bolivian president to resign; in December 2005, the country’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, was elected. The growth of a strong social justice movement in Bolivia has caught the imagination of scholars and political activists worldwide. El Alto remains crucial to this ongoing process. In El Alto, Rebel City Lazar examines the values, practices, and conflicts behind the astonishing political power exercised by El Alto citizens in the twenty-first century.

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 1997 and 2004, Lazar contends that in El Alto, citizenship is a set of practices defined by one’s participation in a range of associations, many of them collectivist in nature. Her argument challenges Western liberal notions of the citizen by suggesting that citizenship is not only individual and national but in many ways communitarian and distinctly local, constituted through different kinds of affiliations. Since in El Alto these affiliations most often emerge through people’s place of residence and their occupational ties, Lazar offers in-depth analyses of neighborhood associations and trade unions. In so doing, she describes how the city’s various collectivities mediate between the state and the individual. Collective organization in El Alto and the concept of citizenship underlying it are worthy of attention; they are the basis of the city’s formidable power to mobilize popular protest.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This book contributes to Andean anthropology by providing an insightful and wellcrafted ethnographic account of practices and experiences of citizenship in the city of El Alto, and emphasizing the importance of engaging with urban research in the region.” - Melania Calestani, Critique of Anthropology

“Lazar has written a fine study which substantially lives up to its claim to provide an ethnographic analysis of El Alto, and provides new insights for Andean studies in an urban context and of how citizenship is constructed through practice.”
- Graham Thiele, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“Sian Lazar’s book El Alto, Rebel City is a magnificent ethnographic study of a specific neighbourhood in the city of El Alto, Bolivia, in the years before Evo Morales became president. . . . The book is a goldmine for scholars caught between their attachment to the – indisputable – values of classic liberal democracy and the awareness that reality is different. It can teach us something about other possible ways of actually doing democracy – without an inclination to make these practices more attractive than they really are. Like very few others do, this book actually takes us to the work floor of democracy where it is put into practice. Any desire to understand democracy or democratic mores in Bolivia (or elsewhere) should begin by reading it.” - Ton Salman, European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies

El Alto, Rebel City is a terrific book. The author broadly engages the civic life of residents in a working-class city. Offering a coherent account of collective selves in the making, Lazar reveals these to be the foundation of an innovative form of citizenship. The book deserves a broad readership, both of those interested in emergent identities in contemporary Latin America and, more generally, of those studying the new urban citizenries that are shaping global cities.” - Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, PoLAR

“The richness of these chapters provides useful material for those who work in Bolivia and contributes to a body of knowledge that allows scholars to piece together patterns of citizenship in multiple social contexts. . . . This book provides useful and compelling analysis of the dynamics of self and belonging that residents of Rosas Pampa and the Asociación de Pescaderas frame their citizenship practices.” - Juan Manuel Arbona, Journal of Latin American Studies

El Alto offers a clearly written portrait of a city that has become key to understanding current Bolivian politics. This rich case study can inform conceptions of citizenship that emphasize the role of practices, social organizations, and collective traditions. Scholars interested in the making of citizenship in Bolivia and it vibrant and changing society will find this book useful and inspiring.” - Pablo Lapegna, Hispanic American Historical Review

“A marvelous piece of ethnographic analysis written with unusual clarity, El Alto, Rebel City provides a unique lens for viewing (and rethinking) the nature and strategies of contemporary, urban popular mobilization.”—Brooke Larson, author Trials of Nation Making: Liberalism, Race, and Ethnicity in the Andes, 1810–1910

“An important contribution to Andeanist anthropology, Sian Lazar’s innovative treatment of citizenship represents a new take on classic political and urban anthropology. Very few studies have explored with such nuance and personal intimacy the political beliefs and practices of poor residents of an Andean city.”—Daniel M. Goldstein, author of The Spectacular City: Violence and Performance in Urban Bolivia

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822341543
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2008
  • Series: Latin America Otherwise Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 344
  • Sales rank: 1,113,654
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Sian Lazar is a Lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She is a coauthor of Doing the Rights Thing: Rights-based Development and Latin American NGOs.

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All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4129-1

Chapter One


The city is the dominant arena for much citizenship action today, and Bolivia is no exception. The argument of this book is that national citizenship must articulate with local forms of belonging or citizenship, and the setting for my discussion of those local forms is the city of El Alto. For a while its political importance as a city was underestimated by most of those who commented on Bolivian political life in the national media. However, the events of September and October 2003 have proven to be something of a turning point; since then it has become impossible to ignore El Alto. At that time, mobilizations that began as sectoral and local became national in scope, as protests over local house registration procedures in El Alto merged with those of the altiplano peasants with similarly localized demands. They were the first and most effective political alliance of Aymara peasants and El Alto residents at a time when the principal civic institutions in the city were unified and, with the exception of one, run by leaders whose politics were squarely oppositional to the national government. Those institutions were crucial to the organization of the protests and to their success.

El Alto was so central to the protests for three reasons. First, the general strike there effectively besieged the city of La Paz, a tactic of protest that has a long and poignant historical heritage, going back to the rebellion of Tupac Katari in 1781. Food and other household supplies could not get down to La Paz. Second, the repressive military response to the demonstrations in El Alto that were blocking the movement of supplies came to symbolize the inhumanity of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada's regime more generally and enraged alteños (i.e., residents of El Alto) and other Bolivians. In this it is crucial to remember that "Goni" is the single figure most associated with neoliberalism and its attendant structural violence in Bolivia, which has been most acutely felt in El Alto (Gill 2000). More specifically, twenty-six protestors were killed and over a hundred were injured when they tried to stop gasoline tankers from leaving the neighborhood of Senkata, and more deaths followed in other parts of the city (Ramos 1998). During the week of 12-17 October, protests demanding Goni's resignation spread to middle-class areas of La Paz and to other cities in Bolivia. Though accusations that Goni was a murderer were abundant, the opposition focused as much if not more on the question of the export of natural gas. Third, the physical politics of the waves of large numbers of demonstrators marching down from El Alto every day to join those in La Paz reinforced the sense that it was the Bolivian people in general rather than a small and localized minority who were demanding Sanchez de Lozada's resignation. The city's subsequent restiveness has always referred back to October 2003, each mobilization holding the implicit threat of a repeat. That threat was fulfilled when Carlos Mesa resigned in June 2005, prompted by street protests across the country in which El Alto took a leading role.

El Alto's political importance came into sharp focus in October 2003 but is not confined to those specific events. It is of much wider and longer term significance politically, a significance that derives from what makes it distinctive as a city. This chapter is an attempt to outline some of those distinctive elements, highlighting movement, commerce, the strength of local allegiances, the city's relationship with its rural hinterland, and, most important for this book, the high levels of civic organization there. As such, it also serves as an introduction to El Alto as city and ethno-graphic field site.


El Alto is important to our understanding of citizenship only in part because of its entry into the national political sphere; the more local citizenship of the city itself is of equal theoretical importance. Indeed, the nature of the city more generally is central to how we understand citizenship (Holston 1999a; Isin 2000; Goldstein 2004). Engin Isin (forthcoming) has argued that the state must articulate itself through the city. Throughout history, according to Isin, states, empires, leagues, and republics have all been performances enacted in practices that can happen only in the city, instead of entities as such. We might not wish to go quite this far for the case of Bolivia and other countries with considerable rural populations, but we could certainly highlight the importance of the city as a locus of political action in the twenty-first century, as the protests in El Alto and other cities such as Cochabamba have underlined with such force. This recognition pushes us into a consideration of how urban, local citizenship operates and interacts with national citizenship in particular contexts. In modern Western political thought, which Isin characterizes as "scalar," spaces and territories are conceived of as nested scales: cities are subordinated to provinces, which are subordinated to the state in a hierarchical and exclusive relationship. National citizenship thus in theory overtakes and seeks to replace urban citizenship, certainly in the juridico-legal sense of the terms. However, modern (nation-) states in Europe and Spanish America emerged from states that were a conglomeration of separate self-governing towns. The Spanish community of natives (naturales), as it developed during the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, was conceived of as a community of "local citizens," for whom the legal status of citizen (vecino) was granted on the basis of their demonstration of loyalty to the local community through their behavior (Herzog 2003). So national legal citizenship was constituted on the basis of local urban citizenship. This vision of citizenship translated to the New World (Herzog 2003; Thurner 1997), and it retains considerable importance today, once we look beyond citizenship as juridico-legal status and seek to analyze it in a more political and social sense.

Indeed, citizenship has always been about working on the self to create certain kinds of citizens who will behave in particular ways toward the local (rather than national) community, from Aristotle (1992) and Pericles (1999; Castoriadis 1992) through Rousseau, to contemporary talk about "good citizens" (Dagger 2005) and the idea that children can learn citizenship in schools through participation in locally based voluntary projects, as in contemporary citizenship education programs in the United Kingdom. In the Modern period, states attempted to remove all layers of allegiances between the individual and the state, but failed to do so, leaving what is often called "civil society" as intermediary. It is that intermediary sphere that is the subject of this book, especially as expressed through local organizational forms based upon residence and occupation. It is important to remember that the state does not subsume such localized intermediaries, and different allegiances can come into conflict and overlap with each other, overflowing the boundaries between them (Isin forthcoming).

The local public sphere incorporates much more than the institutions of government, having been widened in part by social movements' contestations over public space (Isin 2000; Holston 1999b). Urban public spheres include the streets where people demonstrate as well as the many forms of association where people negotiate the building and defining of society, even where citizens act violently toward one another (Holston 1999b; Goldstein 2004). If citizenship is a practice as well as a status, as I argued in the introduction, the question is, Where does that practice occur? The logical realm for political action for most citizens has always been their local area, and people are often suspicious of those who choose to extend their political action beyond that and become professional politicians rather than citizens (Lister 1997). Furthermore, as Nikolas Rose (2000: 108) has argued, urban governmentality inheres in various arenas, and there has been a "displacement of an earlier notion of social space by the micro-moral territory of the community, and the emergence of new games of citizenship that operate in terms of the relations between community and subjectivity, between collective responsibilities and an ethic of personal obligation. It is in terms of this new ethical space of the community ... that all our new forms of urban governmentality operate." More concretely, it is in the public spheres of the city that these games of citizenship are negotiated, and governance enacted and resisted. As the quote from Rose indicates, the nature of community takes center stage in social and political theory of citizenship. However, as anthropologists have often pointed out, community cannot be taken for granted (e.g., see Amit 2002; Cohen 1985). Much anthropology of the Andes, which has focused predominantly on rural areas, indicates the constructed nature of community there. Anthropologists have seen the expression of collective values in ritual and symbolic structures (Isbell 1978), patterns for organizing work (Urton 1992; Skar 1982), the categorization of people as full persons (jaqi) or not (Canessa 1998), office-holding pathways (thaki), and rotative leadership systems (Abercrombie 1998; Carter and Mamani P. 1989 [1982]; Ticona Alejo 2003). Yet internal contestation over collective values is mostly analyzed in terms of differential participation in such systems (e.g., Buechler 1980), or as a structural principle (Albó 1977), rather than through the practices of those taking part (although see Klemola 1997). The misrecognition of internal differentiation is particularly acute in the popular stereotypes that distinguish starkly between (rural) indigenous communality and (urban) Western individualism.

Such discourses have parallels with Anglo-Saxon communitarianism in the way they assume away conflicts internal to communities, tending toward a homogenizing vision of community itself (Gutmann 1992; Rapport 1997; Mouffe 1992). Iris Young (1990: 300) argues that communitarians do not provide us with a solid basis for a politics that can deal with diversity: "Community is an understandable dream ... but politically problematic ... because those motivated by it will tend to suppress differences among themselves or implicitly to exclude from their political groups persons with whom they do not identify." This is the problem with attempts at differentiated citizenship based on group rights. But the liberal answer to such problems, namely, universal individual citizenship, is also inadequate. Young uses the modern city as a model for overcoming some of the tensions between communitarianism and liberal universalism. Proposing an idealized version of "the unoppressive city," defined as "openness to unassimilated others," as a model for a "politics of difference," she argues against the ideal version of community that implies and relies upon face-to-face communication and values sharing (319). In what is admittedly a discussion of ideal types, she overstates the opposition between the mixing of the city and the face-to-face communities of tradition. However, her vision of the city as a place where people meet and interact with others who are not like themselves is widely shared (Holston 1999a; Isin 2000; Phillips 1993). El Alto is a particularly good example of a city based on the mixing of people, and therefore a productive arena for research into questions of urban or local citizenship.


The city of El Alto fans out from the area known as the Ceja (the eyebrow) to the north, the west, and the south, flowing around the airport. Maps of the city often describe it as a mancha urbana, or "urban stain," and it does appear to have spread as if it were spilled liquid. The streets and buildings stretch out over the high plateau between the East and West Andes. Only the mountains themselves can, it seems, stop the city's progress. Visitors to El Alto may wonder whether they catch their breath because of the thin air at that altitude (4,100 meters above sea level), or because of the great expanse of space, the flatness of the land, the immensity of the sky, the clarity of the atmosphere, the quality of the light, and the frequent glimpses of the beauty of the mountain peaks of Huayna Potosí, Chacaltaya, Mururata, and Illimani.

To the east of the Ceja is the ridge of the bowl-like crater in which La Paz is built, and if you peer over the precipitous clis, you can see houses spilling down the steep banks, which are called the laderas. On occasion, this is more than a metaphor, as landslides are common. At times La Paz seems to be collapsing in on itself, sliding down the banks, or retreating behind locked gates and private security in the wealthy southern neighborhoods. Alteños tell stories of a future flood that will fill the bowl with water. La Paz is claustrophobic, El Alto expansive: the cold mountain air moves there.

El Alto is a new city, formally recognized as such only in 1988. Prior to that, it was part of the city of La Paz, the result of La Paz's spilling over the edges of the bowl-like crater. The first urban settlements there were in the early years of the twentieth century; El Alto has grown to its present population of around seven hundred thousand as a result of migration from the Aymara- and Quechua-speaking countryside and mining centers. El Alto is therefore intrinsically linked to La Paz, having begun as the outgrowth of its indigenous periphery. However, the administrative separation of El Alto from La Paz in 1985 has begun to mean something in the past few years, and El Alto is emerging with a distinctive identity as an indigenous city. It has its own business districts, albeit based upon street markets; its own administrative centers where the alcaldía (town hall) and the offices of the important civic organizations are located; its own transport system; a newspaper since 2002; and a public university since 2000. In the past most alteños worked or studied in La Paz and returned to the city to sleep, giving rise to its nickname ciudad dormitorio; they even had to travel down to La Paz to pay their monthly utility bills. Today, the term ciudad dormitorio is accurate only for some neighborhoods (principally Ciudad Satelite and Villa Adela). Many alteños do not need to "go down to the city" (bajar a la ciudad) during their daily lives-although the use of the term la ciudad to refer to La Paz does betray the hierarchical relationship of the two cities in ordinary people's minds. Now, many go only for special reasons, such as for family gatherings, to participate in political demonstrations outside the seat of the national government, to make special wholesale purchases, or to collect salaries. Nevertheless, the connections between the two cities remain important, politically and socially. Many alteños have family in the peripheral areas of La Paz, who migrated earlier and built houses there before land became too expensive. Many still work in the city or study at the Universidad Mayor de San Andres (UMSA) there, and the two main roads between the two cities are full of traffic, especially in the mornings and evenings. However, El Alto is more than the impoverished satellite or suburb of La Paz, and its role in the recent political upheavals underlines its distinctiveness.


Excerpted from EL ALTO, REBEL CITY by SIAN LAZAR Copyright © 2008 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations     IX
Acknowledgments     XI
Introduction     1
El Alto the City     25
Part 1
Constructing the Zone     61
Citizens Despite the State     91
Place, Movement, and Ritual     118
How the Gods Touch Humans (and Vice Versa)     144
Part 2
Competition, Individualism, and Collective Organization     178
"In-Betweenness" and Political Agency     206
The State and the Unions     233
Conclusion     258
Notes     267
Glossary     283
Bibliography     287
Index     311
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