Interview by Maggie Von Vogt
In this interview, journalist and historian Benjamin Dangl talks about the research, background, and focus of his recently published book, The Five Hundred Year Rebellion: Indigenous Movements and the Decolonization of History in Bolivia (AK Press). The book tells the fascinating story of how indigenous Bolivians recovered and popularized histories of past rebellions, political models, and leaders, using them to build movements for rights, land, autonomy, and political power. Drawing from rich archival sources and Dangl’s lively interviews with indigenous leaders and activist-historians, The Five Hundred Year Rebellion describes how movements tapped into centuries-old veins of oral history and memory to produce manifestos, booklets, and radio programs on histories of resistance, wielding them as tools to expand their struggles and radically transform society.
Tell me about you and your interests in oral history and social movements.
I have worked as a journalist throughout Latin America for over 15 years, covering protest movements, human rights issues, leftist politics, indigenous movements, and conflicts over natural resources. My main regional focus over these years has been Bolivia, where people’s movements are particularly strong. I was fortunate to witness and report on a number of uprisings there where people ousted tyrannical presidents through protest, and kicked out harmful multinational corporations.
Over this time, in protests, union and activist meetings, and streets barricades, I kept on hearing these references to the past, and not just to the past decade of organizing, but to five hundred years of resistance. People protesting in contemporary Bolivia spoke about carrying on a struggle that began during the Spanish colonization of the Americas. They talked about 18th century indigenous rebel Túpac Katari. They spoke of the solidarity and rebellions in the country’s 1952 National Revolution. A lot of these histories and discourses were passed down through oral traditions, or in political speeches, or by word of mouth. People were clearly carrying on these histories and narratives in a grassroots way, from below. It wasn’t part of the official state or national discourse at that time.
I realized that as a journalist, in order to understand the present, I had to study and learn a lot more about Bolivia’s past. This led me toward this topic of oral history, memory, and grassroots historical research in Bolivian indigenous movements. It seemed to be an important component that made these movements so powerful and sustain themselves over so much time, through so many different kinds of political circumstances. As a PhD student in history, I conducted research on this topic over many years in Bolivia, interviewing activist-scholars, indigenous movement and union leaders, historians, and spending a lot of time in the archives. The result is this book, which is a revised version of my dissertation.
How did you meet the folks that were involved in the oral history process highlighted in your book? Were people receptive to your research? If so, why? If not, what changed?
I had heard of the Andean Oral History Workshop (THOA) and the work of one of its key co-founder’s, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, through my work as a journalist focusing on social movements in Bolivia. The THOA is famous in Bolivia for its work on oral history and putting marginalized and erased histories of indigenous resistance back on the map. Rivera is one of the most brilliant and original thinkers and scholars on Andean people’s movements and history. Her books are classics in Bolivia, and are required reading for anyone interested in these topics. So I learned about the THOA originally through my reading of the THOA’s work and Rivera’s work, and my interviews and meetings with Rivera.
As a graduate student of history, as I became more familiar with the academic literature on oral history, memory, indigenous histories in the Andes and internationally, I became more aware of how important and profound the THOA’s work was. It was really ahead of its time in the 1980s when it began.
When I decided to focus on the THOA for my research, I reached out to the organization’s members in La Paz. There are well over a dozen former and current THOA members. Some were involved in the early years, some are more recent arrivals to the organization, and others have moved on to different projects. Friends and colleagues introduced me to them, and I reached out to some folks directly.
From the first day I arrived to their offices in La Paz for my first meeting with one of their members, they have been incredibly welcoming, generous, and enthusiastic about my research and focus. I have had many meetings with the THOA members over the years in their offices, and it has been a great pleasure to work with them.
As to the question of why they were receptive to my research, I imagine it was probably for a number of reasons. First, many researchers come through their doors and the THOA greets them warmly, and they have been interviewed by many people from all over the world over the years, and I was one of this group of international researchers drawn to this powerful organization. I think it also helped that I had been working in the country for so many years when I began this focus on the THOA back in 2013 or so. I had published my first book - The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia - in Spanish with Plural Editores in La Paz, and I always shared copies of this with the THOA or anyone I interviewed. This and the introductions from other friends and colleagues helped demonstrate my commitment to doing good journalistic and historical work, and returning the final product of my research.
I was also extremely prepared for all of my interviews, and had read and re-read so much of the THOA’s work, and work on the THOA, and that helped my interviews and our meetings proceed in a nice fashion, where we could really get into the details, meaning, and emotions behind events and moments in the THOA’s history. It was interesting because I was basically gathering an oral history of the Andean Oral History Workshop. People were happy to talk about this history and reflect on it.
How did the Andean Oral History workshop come about? Who were the interviewers and who were the narrators? What did the process look like and how did it unfold?
The THOA was formed in 1983 at the main public university in La Paz among indigenous professors and students who felt that indigenous history, politics, and culture was not represented within the classrooms, libraries, and official histories of the country. They decided to address this by looking to oral history to fill in the gap and provide another version of Bolivia’s history, centering indigenous people, rebels, and stories of resistance. The THOA turned to oral history because of the rich oral traditions among indigenous communities, and they tapped into this vein of memory and historical consciousness.
Essentially, they went out into rural Bolivia and gathered histories from elders, from their ancestors, from people who carried on these oral traditions, and had histories to share of different rebels, or leaders, or bodies of knowledge and culture from indigenous communities. The THOA complemented these oral histories with archival research. From the beginning of the THOA’s work, oral history provided a window into the past that was not accounted for in the written texts, the court documents, the newspaper archives, or the prominent histories of the country.
Is there a particular story that stands out in your mind of how this oral history process was revelatory or liberatory?
The research methods of the THOA were particularly fascinating. In many cases, their approaches were oriented and informed by the people and communities they were interviewing. For example, in one work, rather than focusing on one single leader, a leader which an entire history revolves around, they realized it made more sense to focus on the wider community, and the fabric of history that made up the community - not just the individual. Oral history helped point the way toward the centrality of the community’s history, rather than just one individual’s history.
In other cases, the THOA conducted group interviews which were led by the participants, not the interviewer. The order and process of the discussion and recollection was decided upon and organized by the subjects, allowing for a more horizontal and democratic process. It was distinct from just a single interviewer raising a bunch of questions, and directing the entire gathering of oral history.
In discussing many projects, the THOA members talked about the key component of the community’s direct involvement in the development of the questions, the research process of collecting the histories, and the designing the final booklet or radio program. This bottom-up approach helped put power into the hands of the community and historical protagonists rather than the researcher.
It was not a process where an “expert” showed up to collect information, extracted it, and then left, never to return. The entire process was instead guided by a sense of reciprocity, collective decision-making, and community-directed production and publication. The booklets and final product also served as key tools for further discussion and reflection in the communities.
Can you talk about how the stories collected in the Andean Oral History workshop are (or were) disseminated?
They produced pamphlets and books based on the oral histories and were distributed in rural Bolivia. The THOA focused on returning the final product of their work to the communities where the oral histories had been gathered, or the communities which were the focus of these histories. This was a part of an Andean concept of reciprocity called ayni. Returning the final product of the research, and discussing it and presenting it with the subjects and protagonists of these histories, was a key component of the THOA’s methodology and principles.
One of the most impactful stories of how the THOA distributed its work was with the history they produced on the early twentieth-century indigenous leader Santos Marka T’ula, who led a national network of leaders in defense of indigenous land and communities. T’ula’s story was turned into a radionovela by THOA which was broadcasted throughout the country in Aymara. The narrative of this history of resistance was popularized through the radio program in particular. Often, after the broadcast, people would call in to the THOA or show up at their offices to add onto the history with new documents or to share their own oral histories of T’ula or other figures from this era. In this way, the history was a gathering point for many communities to collectively strengthen historical consciousness.
You mentioned that the THOA is still active. What are they up to currently? Do they still use the oral histories produced as a part of this process? If so, how?
Yes, the THOA is still active and producing books on oral history. They continue to conduct work in rural areas of Bolivia, and throughout the 1990s and into today extended their work beyond highland Aymara communities and conducted further research in lowland areas and parts of southern Bolivia. Oral history remains a central part of their work.
One of the things that has always struck me about Latin American social movements is the notion of historical memory as a foundational concept and practice. It’s something I feel we could learn from in the U.S. Can you talk about the idea of historical memory and its role in current day resistance in Bolivia? What can social movements in the U.S. learn from the theory and practice of historical memory?
In terms of historical memory in Bolivia, I think at the heart of its use in indigenous movements is the extent to which the past is used as a resource to orient, empower, and guide movements. A historical analysis of centuries of colonial and neo-colonial exploitation can be a lens through which activists can recognize the enduring structural systems of oppression in the nation. For example, to identify the system of Spanish looting of Bolivian natural resources in mines five hundred years ago, and to say, look, today our natural resources are being stolen from us by foreign corporations or the state. This is where part of the discourse regarding carrying on centuries of resistance to dispossession comes from.
Rescuing the symbol of indigenous leaders such as Túpac Katari helps rewrite a narrative of Bolivian history based in indigenous resistance. In this view, Katari’s 1781 rebellion eclipses the independence struggle of Bolivia that kicked out the Spanish in 1825. This underlines that after independence, colonialism continued under a new mask, and there remains a need to continue Katari’s rebellion to truly win indigenous liberation.
In the US as in Bolivia, movements have and continue to use people’s history as a tool to build new political projects and imagine a better world. Oral history can be a powerful tool for this. It can help us learn from past mistakes and successes, but also link us to a longer history of resistance, of organizing, of struggling for change. It suits oppressive states and proponents of exploitative capitalist systems to have members of a society feel as though they are alone, without a past, without a historical identity beyond a nationalist or capitalist identity, as a cog in the system.
What rebel memory and oral history from below can do is bring us into the fold of a longer arc of resistance, to challenge the way things are from a point of defiance, and to say we are carrying on many struggles that came before us. This is empowering because it shows we aren’t alone. It also shows that our argument for a better world is rooted in history, with our own historical figures, symbols, and narratives. This can feed a movement’s identity, tactics, and demands in many powerful ways.
What are your hopes for the book? Who do you hope learns from this story and why? How do you plan to use the book as an activist and educator?
I really hope readers get a lot out of what I think is an amazing story of indigenous resistance and the ways in which grassroots historical research and oral history can be used for social change. I hope the book can be tool through which people can think through their own strategies, debates, and circumstances, and apply the histories and lessons in the book to their own work and life.
I was recently in Bolivia in March of this year and met with a lot of the people I interviewed for the book, and met with representatives of the organizations I focused on. I gave them copies of the book and a large section of the introduction translated into Spanish. The goal was to return the final product to the protagonists of these stories.
I met with the THOA and many others, and in these meetings people were really enthusiastic about getting the book out in Spanish. Based on these meetings, and other conversations since, it looks like the book will be coming out in Spanish as a co-edition with the THOA and Plural Editores in Bolivia. Because of the subject matter of this book in particular, this would be a very important step and I’m really looking forward to helping make this happen.
What is one of your favorite memories from the process of researching and writing this book?
One of my favorite memories from researching and writing this book was from one day when I was meeting with folks from the THOA in their offices and someone said, well, if you want to learn more about Santos Marka T’ula, you should speak with his son, Gregorio Barco Guarachi, who is still alive (he was then 96 years old) and is in the neighboring city of El Alto. So I went up there and was able to interview him. I was surprised that T’ula had any living children, and it was very powerful to meet Barco and talk about his father with him. I’ll never forget speaking with Barco, who remembered his father very well after all those years.
When will the book be available and where do we get a copy?
The book is out now! The best place for folks to get it is directly from AK Press, or by ordering it through your local bookstore or library. AK is a collectively-run radical publisher, and ordering it through them supports their work, publishing, and distribution of tons of amazing books.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks so much for doing this interview. I have really appreciated learning more about the work Groundswell does in terms of using and advocating for oral history as a tool for social change. I look forward to keeping in touch and learning more from your organization.
Benjamin Dangl has a PhD in Latin American history from McGill University and has worked as a journalist throughout Latin America for over fifteen years, covering politics and protest movements for outlets such as The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The Nation, Salon, Vice, and NACLA Report on the Americas. He is the author of the books The Five Hundred Year Rebellion: Indigenous Movements and the Decolonization of History in Bolivia, Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, and The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia. Website: BenDangl.com