The largest group of Indigenous people in the Bolivian Amazon, the Mojos, has coexisted with non-Natives since the late 1600s, when they accepted Jesuit missionaries into their homeland, converted to Catholicism, and adapted their traditional lifestyle to the conventions of mission life. Nearly two hundred years later they faced two new challenges: liberalism and the rubber boom. In Indigenous Agency in the Amazon: The Mojos in Liberal and Rubber-Boom Bolivia, 1842–1932, Gary Van Valen postulates that as ex-mission Indians who lived on a frontier, the Mojos had an expanded capacity to adapt that helped them meet these challenges. He demonstrates that the Mojos were able to survive the rubber boom, claim the right of equality promised by the liberal state, and preserve important elements of the culture they inherited from the missions. The following excerpt from the book’s introduction discusses the failure of the Guayocho rebellion as an exception to the Mojo’s adaptation to liberalism and the rubber boom.
On a hot day in May 1887, a group of Bolivian soldiers halted their march across a flat savanna laced by lakes and tributaries of the Amazon. They were taking ten Indigenous prisoners back to their headquarters in Trinidad, the local capital, but stopped to administer several hundred lashes to each. The soldiers took special delight in whipping an eighty-year-old man before finishing him off with gunshots. They saw that old man, Andrés Guayocho, not as the pathetic figure who begged them for a drink of water before dying, but as the leader of a major Indigenous rebellion. Guayocho was a Christian shaman who used his ability to throw his voice to convince the Mojo Indians that Jesus Christ and deceased Mojo leaders were speaking to them, and attracted hundreds of Mojos away from the ex-Jesuit mission of Trinidad to a new settlement in the backlands. The local government ruthlessly crushed Guayocho’s millenarian movement not so much because of its religious unorthodoxy, but because it deprived the white elite of the Mojo labor necessary for the extraction and export of rubber for the world market.
The Mojos who survived this massacre shared the same heritage that had informed Guayocho’s movement: a mixture of Indigenous culture and the Catholic, colonial culture introduced by Jesuit missionaries in the late seventeenth century. However, those who began returning to Trinidad in 1888 asked that they be respected not just as natives with original rights to territory or as fellow Christians, but also as fellow citizens with constitutional rights. In the ensuing years, these same Mojos served in the local military, celebrated Bolivian Independence Day, sang the Bolivian national anthem in their church choirs, sought out modern educations, and participated in private land transactions. They clearly knew about and used the European ideology of liberalism, with its language of citizenship and equality before the law. The contrast between millenarian rebellion and participatory citizenship could not be greater, yet it gives some indication of the incredible range of strategies employed by the Mojos in their relations with the state and the local white elite.
During the nineteenth century, the Mojos brought together Indigenous culture, mission Catholicism, and liberalism to form a hybrid identity, which they used to defend their interests. The Mojos’ hybrid identity gave them an expanded capacity for what has been called “agency.” Agency, the freedom to act, can vary among individuals, groups, and classes in any given historical situation. It is relational, for people operate within a web of social relationships, pushing or pulling against other individuals or groups with their own potential for agency. Any attempt to renegotiate power relations is agency, from engagement in overt resistance such as a rebellion or millenarian movement, to the use of discourse, or language encoding a vision or plan for social relations. The value of agency as a tool of historical analysis lies not in insisting that all people have unfettered agency at all times, but rather in studying what factors promote or limit agency in certain contexts. Agency is especially useful for the analysis of complex Indigenous societies like the Mojos, whose internal differentiations can lead individuals or subgroups to take different actions based on what will benefit each the most. It thus allows for a more flexible treatment of Indigenous history than previous theoretical frameworks permitted, whether ethnographic ideas of closed communities from the 1930s through the 1950s, Marxian accounts of peasant rebellion popular in the 1960s and 1970s, or theories of resistance employed in the 1980s and 1990s.
In this book, I weave the theme of agency through an ethnohistory of the Mojos during the liberal reforms and the rubber boom. Until now, this period in the Mojos’ history has largely been an untold narrative. Their history, exceptional because of the Mojos’ unique historical and geographical situation, has at the same time a much wider significance. Our incomplete understanding of the varieties of Latin American liberalism and of the rubber boom is further illuminated by a detailed examination of Mojo history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. [….]
Most scholars dealing with this era have interpreted the period of liberalism and export economies as a time of suffering for poor and Indigenous people. But by looking through the prism of agency, we can see that the Mojos were not inherently victims or powerless in the face of changes imposed by others, and that they would prove to be active participants in shaping the course liberalism and the rubber boom would take in their region.
Liberalism, a compilation of ideas from the European Enlightenment, came to inform political thought throughout the Americas by the mid-nineteenth century. Liberal thinkers discarded inherited, preconceived notions of state and economy, including the legal inequality and state-licensed monopolies of the eighteenth century. They conceived of human reason as the key to creating new and better societies, and assumed that reason dictated a new approach to government’s relationship with individuals and the economy. In an ideal liberal society, corporate groups with unique and differing legal privileges would be replaced by a nation of individuals given equal treatment under the law, and individuals would be citizens, not subjects, of the state. The ideal liberal economy would be of the “free market” type, free from state intervention, ruled by the law of supply and demand. Liberals came to believe that by liberating the individual and the economy, they could open the doors to progress, and that education would ensure the continuing progress of the nation. [….]
Just as independence created new possibilities for Latin Americans to experiment with liberalism, it also opened Latin America to a world market dominated by the industrialized nations of Europe and North America. Their industries and industrial societies consumed vast quantities of raw materials, and Latin America helped meet the demand with its resources. In the Amazon basin during the years considered by this book, local elites and foreign capitalists extracted rubber for export in response to this external demand. According to the traditional historiography, the development of Amazonian rubber extraction resulted in massive movements of people into and within the rubber zone, the conversion of rubber workers into debt peons, and the decimation of Indigenous communities through exposure to disease, warfare, and virtual enslavement. Although this depiction largely holds true for Indigenous groups living outside state authority in northern Bolivia, it cannot be applied to the Mojo region, which was transformed without being devastated by the rubber boom. The Mojos themselves were changed by their experience of the rubber boom, but retained their sense of community. By adapting to political and economic change, they remained Mojos.
The Mojos were not destroyed by the rubber boom, and during some five decades of Bolivian participation in the export of rubber, their opportunities for independent action varied but remained quite high. The period from 1860 to 1880 was a time of increased agency as the Mojos and other ex-mission Indians found new opportunities beyond their home towns. The Mojos’ ability to act was severely challenged only during the decade of 1880–90, and Guayocho’s movement emerged in response. The years from 1890 to 1910 can best be characterized as a time of increasingly creative responses to a narrowing space for action. The greatest limits on Indigenous agency came only after 1910, when the rubber boom ended, Indigenous participation in the export economy became limited, and cattle ranching replaced rubber as the principle economic activity of the Bolivian Amazon. After a thorough examination of Mojo history, the idea that the rubber boom was prejudicial to all Indians at all times becomes untenable. [….]
Earlier interpretations of modern Latin American Indigenous peoples tended to limit their survival strategies to sealing off communities from the outside world or engaging in fruitless rebellions against outside oppressors. I find that the Mojos never tried to isolate themselves, and they never completely rejected change. Nor were they just hapless victims of the rubber boom. While Guayocho’s millenarian movement may appear at first to be a singular and failed resistance to profound change, it is better understood as one facet of native agency. Guayocho’s movement thus was not a onetime reaction to an external stimulus, but an episode in a long history of Mojo action. And as we shall see, his movement was not a failure, but rather the tumultuous birth of a new Mojo community that survived and engaged effectively with the outside world for another three decades.
From Indigenous Agency in the Amazon: The Mojos in Liberal and Rubber-Boom Bolivia, 1842-1932 by Gary Van Valen. Copyright © 2013 by the University of Arizona Press. Used by permission of the publisher.
Gary Van Valen is an associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia.
1. Scholars have used the concept of agency more frequently in studies of Africa and its diaspora than for Latin American Indigenous peoples. My ideas of agency are informed by the introduction to Andrew Apter, Beyond Words (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). Important examples of earlier theoretical approaches include Eric Wolf, “Closed Corporate Peasant Communities in Mesoamerica and Central Java,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 13, no. 1 (1957): 1–18, in ethnographic theory; Eric Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels (New York: W. W. Norton, 1959) in Marxian theory; and James Scott, Weapons of the Weak (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985) in resistance theory. Important studies of Latin American history informed by resistance theories include Steve Stern, ed., Resistance, Rebellion, and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World, 18th to 20th Centuries (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987); Erick Langer, Economic Change and Rural Resistance in Southern Bolivia, 1880–1930 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989); Roger Rasnake, Domination and Cultural Resistance (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1988); John Kicza, ed., The Indian in Latin American History (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1993); William Beezley et al., eds. Rituals of Rule, Rituals of Resistance (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1994); and Catherine Legrand, “Informal Resistance on a Dominican Sugar Plantation during the Trujillo Dictatorship,” Hispanic American Historical Review 75, no. 4 (Nov. 1995): 555–96. The limitations of resistance theory have been raised by social scientists in Deborah Poole, ed., Unruly Order (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994); Michael Brown, “Beyond Resistance,” in Anna Roosevelt, ed., Amazonian Indians from Prehistory to the Present (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994), 287–311; Michael Brown, “On Resisting Resistance,” American Anthropologist 98, no. 4 (Dec. 1996): 729–35; and Jocelyn Hollander and Rachel Einwohner, “Conceptualizing Resistance,” Sociological Forum 19, no. 4 (Dec. 2004): 533–54.
2. E. Bradford Burns, The Poverty of Progress (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), represents the traditional view of the effects of liberal reforms on Indian and mestizo peasants throughout the entire region. See also the introduction to Robert Jackson, ed., Liberals, the Church, and Indian Peasants (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997) for a summary of the literature on Latin American liberalism.