Histories of the Present: People and Power in Ecuador

Histories of the Present: People and Power in Ecuador

by Norman E. Whitten, Dorothea S Whitten

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The wellspring of critical analysis in this book emerges from the major Indigenous Uprising of 1990 and its ongoing aftermath in which indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian action transformed the nation-state and established new dimensions of human relationships. The authors weave anthropological theory with longitudinal Ecuadorian ethnography to produce a unique contribution to Latin American Studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252077975
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 05/01/2011
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Norman E. Whitten Jr., a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the editor of the University of Illinois Press's series Interpretations of Culture in the New Millennium. Dorothea Scott Whitten is a research associate at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and a Curator of the Spurlock Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They have collaborated on many projects, including Puyo Runa: Imagery and Power in Modern Amazonia.

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People and Power in Ecuador
By Norman E. Whitten Jr. Dorothea Scott Whitten

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07797-5


To Remake the World

One of the principal themes of Histories of the Present: People and Power in Ecuador is "to remake the world." The phrase is coined as a trope of resistance abstracted from a section in the chapter 4 essay where, in the early 1990s, N. Whitten wrote about "the idea of people remaking the world and being in a world refashioned from the conquered one that the European 'discovery' ... of 1492 began." In 1990, as we shall see, indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian people rose up as one not just to protest and to assert themselves, but to announce publicly that an intolerable tension born of long-standing injustices must be openly addressed. They—indigenous Ecuadorian people and Afro-Ecuadorian people—enacted their affirmation that they are fully human; that they deserve rights denied for centuries; and that the European conquest and subsequent colonization of the Americas was nothing to be celebrated in 1992. Mourning was not enough either. People asserted their capacity and intent to remake a social world that had been badly crafted. The reference was to the enduring colonial and hegemonic structures of oppression that originated in southern Europe, moved to northern Europe, were sustained in Latin America, and by the nineteenth century—after the revolutions that promised liberation for all—had come to radiate southward from the United States (chapter 1).

Ethnography, Theory, and Intercultural Experience

Listening to and recording indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian voices during a sustained period of creative and transformative action imparted a plethora of new and expanded meanings and intensities to systems of local knowledge, social relations, structures of signification, and cosmic orientations that we had been gathering, analyzing, and publishing for professional and public scrutiny and criticism. Ethnography—the description of lifeways of living peoples through intensive interaction often called "participant observation"—became our base for understanding ongoing cultural recrafting across multiple borders. Ethnography also became the source of information for the construction of first- and second-level generalizations and the selection and deployment of appropriate abstractions.

Modern and millennial Ecuador (the two are inextricably intertwined; see Whitten 2003a:8, 2003b:357–358), as a unity of tension promoting transformative change, constitutes the national boundaries of a land that lies athwart the equator in northwestern South America. This region, dramatically scrunched up in its topographical and climatic diversity (e.g., De la Torre and Striffler, eds. 2008; Lane 2002), has been long known as a "cultural mosaic" (e.g., Blomberg 1952) or a "country of contrasts" (e.g., Linke 1960). It might seem improbable that a united people could emerge there. But they can; diverse in orientation, histories, historicities, ethnicities, ecologies, languages, and cosmovisions, they often come together in their deep heritage as intercultural ecuatorianos. But when they do not come together during times of crisis, the diversity leads to conflict-ridden distancing and hence the enduring tension between being Ecuadorian and being one of its diverse peoples (Whitten 1996b; N. Whitten and D. Whitten 2008; Whitten et al. 1997).

Serious and extended ethnography should lead to what anthropologists often call theory construction, as opposed to "theorizing" in the sense of "speculating." Ethnography seeks explication while theory is oriented toward explanation, but the two are inextricably linked processually. Anthropologists are constantly challenging one another as to the steps involved in such linkages, and there is no one way to proceed. In our case we have lived with and followed the lives of many Ecuadorian peoples over an extended period of time, visiting at least annually with specific groupings and staying with them from a few months to a year.

The result of such interaction, shared thinking, and intersubjectivity through the reflexivity of ethnographic processes within a framework of sustained academic engagement in anthropology and Latin American and Caribbean area studies has been the compilation of seven chapters for this book. Salient themes arising in ethnography led to the abstraction and deployment of three key concepts: ethnogenesis, alternative modernities, and interculturality. Together these concepts constitute a theoretical perspective called transformative dynamics, which falls into the realm of "action theory" (e.g., Biersack 1999; Geertz 1973; Gerth and Mills 1958[1946]; Greenblatt 1989, 2006; Ortner 1999, 2006).

People express their lives in ways that are often difficult to understand, and theory is supposed to help in the understanding (e.g., Dolgin et al. 1977; Geertz 1973; Turner 1974). Hermeneutics enters here. Imagine a circle with salient theories and methods on the left side and the cultural phenomena we seek to understand on the right side. As we move from our disciplinary tools to the ethnographic realities of ongoing lifeways, we must, as Clifford Geertz once said, "descend into detail, past the misleading tags, past the metaphysical types, past the empty similarities to grasp firmly the essential character of not only the various cultures but the various sorts of individuals within each culture, if we wish to encounter humanity face to face" (Geertz 1973:53).

About a decade after he wrote this, some anthropologists began to claim that Geertz projected an "essentialist" imagery that constituted a "crisis of representation" in our discipline and beyond (contra this perspective see, e.g., Keesing 1994; Gay y Blasco and Wardle 2007:188–195; Geertz 2000, 2002:11–12; Sahlins 2000). Returning to the hermeneutic circle, once we have undergone our encounter and turned back toward our discipline, we may alter, transform, or even discard our theoretical perspectives and refine our methodologies. As we learn more about what we seek, the imaginary vertical zone in the middle of the circle that extends from the top to the bottom—often called the horizon of cultural knowledge—expands. This is the hermeneutic core, the potential increase in understanding that comes from explications encountered on the right side of the circle to inform the left side of the interpretive endeavor. Explicative processes occur as one moves from left to right and then back from right to left, culminating in an expanding cultural horizon, where ethnography contributes to theory—becomes a theory-constructive endeavor—through enhanced processes of interpretation of symbols, metaphors, and tropes extant in ongoing life and in disciplinary canon and criticism. Another way of saying this is that we learn through intersubjective experience with people whose actions and explications in their world offer alternative and often more productive means by which to "sort structures of signification," a process that Geertz (1973:7, 9, 27) argued is fundamental to all cultural analysis. Such alternatives exist in a creative interface between ethnography and theory construction.

If, however, we fortify our theories to "explain away" the phenomena we have encountered, we constrict the horizon and re-create a disciplinary hermetics. These terms, hermeneutics and hermetics, come from the Greek god Hermès. Hermès was a messenger between divinities and humans, a great orator, and one who helped travelers cross boundaries, but also a trickster and a thief. The hermeneutic-hermetic metaphor of processual contrast mediates between ethnography and theory, explication and explanation. Obviously, care must be taken as we enter this process (e.g., Crapanzano 1992:43–69; Helms 1988:111–116; Ricoeur 1974), but with such care it is very dynamic and productive.

Critical to the process of hermeneutics is the opening up of processes of signification. Theoretical constructions and common sense bestow and imprint on our minds relationships between signifier and signified that ethnography and intersubjectivity break down and reassemble, trickster style (e.g., Gates 1988; Hill 2009). Roger Keesing (1987:161–162) called attention to this cultural phenomenon as being constituted of "webs of mystification." As the multiple relationships among a few signifiers and a plethora of signifieds reconfigure into new webs of signification, ethnography contributes directly to theory construction. This is another reason why we treat ethnography as a method through which to understand and interpret transformative dynamics.

During the national Indigenous Uprising of 1990 (chapter 4), some observers—including to some extent the president of the Republic of Ecuador, Rodrigo Borja Cevallos, and his close associates—tried hard to understand what was unfolding and to explicate what "500 years of oppression" meant to the oppressed. This constituted an expansion of the horizon of intercultural understanding—a cultural and political resignification—within the nationstate that continued two years later during an indigenous march from Puyo in the Upper Amazon to Quito (N. Whitten and D. Whitten 2008; Whitten et al. 1997), the capital of the nation. In both cases, explication of the Spanish verb levantar as "to rise up" and "to enlighten" in the national media and in publications intensified the hermeneutic circle's efficacy.

But another side of the discussion over what was happening tried to close down the horizon, to seal off or enshroud enlightenment. Many spokespeople and authors of tracts spoke and wrote about "indians and blacks out of place" (fuera de su lugar) and indios y negros alzados (unruly indians and blacks; indians and blacks gone wild). Instead of furthering a perception of enlightened people claiming their rights and human dignity, this view depicted or theorized the movement as a horde of "out of place," animal-like beings led by ignorant and intrusive ideologues. Since lugar (Spanish, place) can mean "time" in some dialects of vernacular Spanish and in Quichua, there were implications that those in the uprising were "out of time"; relics from the past; savages and barbarians invading civilization; excluded "races" contaminating colonial-crafted hybridity (mestizaje). The ethnographer's job is to sort out the levels and nodes of signification in such contrasts to come to grips with the unfolding of insights proclaimed in the dialogical "heat of battle" when submerged social and ethnic sensitivities become public, explicit, and salient.

People in the contemporary world are well aware of anthropology's progress and dilemmas, and many are wary of ethnographers who, some say, come to "steal our culture." Culture—a corpus and flow of symbols and meanings enacted in social life at a given time in a given place—itself has become a concept of self-recognition and self-promotion. Moreover, peoples who are or have been anthropological and historical subjects challenge received histories that marginalize them or relegate their actions as trivial in the flow of the world's significant events. Here anthropologists encounter more than the "descent into detail" revelations can teach; they also learn that one can "see" and eventually document novel ways of constructing a set of cultural images in academic and popular worlds of letters to express perceived realities gleaned through ethnography. When dramatic, transformative events such as the national Indigenous Uprising of 1990 occur, a horizon of insightful cultural interpretation may be produced that leads us deeper into historical imagination and re-imagined theoretical constructions and significations. It is within these expanding interpretive parameters that the seven chapters in this work are presented.

Ecuador: Contrasts and Coherence

In 2008 a constitutional convention was completed in "Ciudad Alfaro," Montecristi, Manabí Province. The city was chosen and named by the president of the republic, Rafael Vicente Correa Delgado, to honor and commemorate the late-nineteenth-century site of a political and cultural revolution led by Eloy Alfaro Delgado, the president's maternal grandfather. In the constitution's final published form, these words open the 212-page document: "Recognizing our millennial roots, forged by women and men in distinct populations [pueblos] ... Ecuador is a constitutional state of rights and social justice, democratic, sovereign, independent, unitary, intercultural, plurinational, and secular" (N. Whitten translation).

To understand the drift and coherence of the ensuing chapters, we need a bit of information on Ecuador set not only in the geography and political topography of South America, for which there is an ample literature, but also set, perhaps especially, in the broad cosmological system that ranges from antiquity through conquest to modernity intertwined with millenniarity (Whitten 2003a:8, 2003b:357–358). The conquest and extended colonial rule in Latin America established a system in need of remaking, and the reference points for this transformation were taken from preexisting culture and from the colonial reworkings themselves (e.g., Newson 1995). We begin with some pre-European history and reconstructed cosmography.

Whatever the time-depth of people living in coastal, Andean, and Amazonian biomes of this complex area, by six thousand or so years ago expanding populations of highly diverse people had developed emerging agricultural systems in which people traded and visited with one another across contrasting physical topographies (Lathrap et al. 1975; Marcos 1986; Porras Garcés 1987). By four thousand, five hundred years ago, and continuing for a thousand years or more, similar stylistic systems—as revealed especially in ceramics and probably cosmic systems—emerged that ranged back and forth across the eastern Pacific rim regions, the northern Andes, and western Amazonas. Archaeologists call this a "horizon" of "co-traditions."

Squash had existed since about six thousand years ago in western Ecuador; maize had arrived from the moist tropics of Central America and from semiarid zones to the north; manioc with accompanying pottery was well established in Amazonia right up into the Andean piedmont; coastal people had settled into pottery-producing village life based on varied agricultural and sea products and had begun a trade in spondylus shell (Spondylus princeps; thorny or spiny oysters). The shells are native to the Pacific waters off the coast of Ecuador, but the trade system initiated in that area by five thousand years ago ranged north to what is now Mexico and south to southern Peru. Cultural activities in what is now coastal, Andean, and Amazonian Ecuador assumed and sustained a donor role in the dissemination of innovation northward and southward (e.g., Bray 2008; Marcos 1996).

This system of long-distance exchange articulated with varied trade routes and movements of people up through and over the Andes to the Amazonian region, where systems of exchange were also flowing from east to west. From the Amazonian forested lands and great fluvial systems, long-distance movements were also eastward to central Amazonas, north to the Río Negro region and south to the headwaters of mighty feeder rivers to the Amazon itself. Through it all, in spite of claims to the contrary, early indigenous Ecuadorians constituted multiple founts of innovation and knowledge that predated well-known developments to the north (Mexico) and south (Peru). As some scholars put it, diverse Ecuadorians in their interculturality constituted a highly innovative, donor people.

Indigenous Globality before the European Conquest

Let us begin our focus on culture with that which seems to be sacral in South America generally—an overall cosmovision, or broad numinous orientation—to understand the clashes of times in spaces and places in Ecuador and its vast environs. One view of why we focus on cosmology and cosmogony is given by David Guss in his new foreword to the Yekuana (a Carib-speaking people of Venezuela) Watunna tales in which evil brother Odosha constantly subverts and reverses the good brought into the world by good brother Wanadi: "The implacable question of how an all-powerful and perfect deity could create a world filled with death, evil, and suffering is relevant not only to the people of the Amazon but to all humans everywhere" (Guss 1997:xii; see also Guss 1989).


Excerpted from HISTORIES OF THE PRESENT by Norman E. Whitten Jr. Dorothea Scott Whitten Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: To Remake the World 1

Prelude 23

1 Colonial Mentality in Making the World 25

Prelude 43

2 Indigenous Constructions of "Blackness" Norman E. Whitten Jr. and Rachel Corr 45

Prelude 65

3 The Topology of El Mestizaje 67

Prelude 91

4 The Ecuadorian Indigenous Uprising of 1990 93

Prelude 115

5 Ecuador in the New Millennium 117

Prelude 141

6 Indigenous Ethnographers Portray Their World Dorothea Scott Whitten 143

Prelude 163

7 Indigenous Modernity 165

Conclusion: Ethnography and Theory in Cultural Life 187

Notes 203

References 211

Index 243

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