Latin Americapdf

University of Manchester
Initially published 4 Jan 2021

Cite as: Gledhill, John. (2021) 2023. “Latin America”. In The Open Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited by Felix Stein. Facsimile of the first edition in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Online:

‘Latin’ America is a region constructed in a context of imperial rivalries and disputes about how to build ‘modern’ nations that made it an ‘other America’ distinct from ‘Anglo’ America. Bringing together people without previous historical contact, the diversity of its societies and cultures was increased by the transatlantic slave trade and later global immigration. Building on the constructive relationship that characterises the ties between socio-cultural anthropology and history in the region today, this entry discusses differences in colonial relations and cultural interaction between European, indigenous, and Afro-Latin American people in different countries and the role of anthropologists in nation-building projects that aimed to construct national identities around ‘mixing’It shows how anthropologists came to emphasise the active role of subordinated social groups in making Latin America’s ‘new peoples’. Widespread agrarian conflicts and land reforms produced debates about the future of peasant farmers, but new forms of capitalist development, growing urbanisation, and counter-insurgency wars led to an era in which indigenous identities were reasserted and states shifted towards a multicultural politics that also fostered Afro-Latin American movements. Anthropology has enhanced understanding of the diversity, complexity, and contradictions of these processes. Latin American cities are characterised by stark social inequalities, but anthropologists critiqued the stigmatisation of the urban poor as ‘marginals’ and used their ethnographies to produce novel insights into the nature and determinants of urban violence and the role of criminal organisations. Other areas in which Latin American anthropology has been innovative are analyses of transnational relations and new social movements, including women’s movements and feminism, although issues of gender, religious transformations, and cultural mixing run through this entry’s entire discussion, which concludes with Latin American debates about the decolonisation of anthropology itself.

Introduction: building nations in the shadow of empire

Latin America is a vast and socially and ecologically heterogeneous region. Brazil, colonised by the Portuguese, is more extensive than the whole of Europe (excluding Russia). Most other countries in the region were colonised by Spain, but the French colonies of South America and the Caribbean are generally also included when identifying the region. Emerging in the wake of the nineteenth century division of the Americas into independent nation states, ‘Latin’ America was defined in opposition to an ‘Anglo’ America established through British colonisation. The division was not simply a matter of whether English or a Romance language became the principal language of government, but rather was a consequence of competing imperial ambitions. In the 1860s, the United States of America supported the Mexican republican forces that ended the reign of Maximilian Habsburg, installed as ‘Emperor of Mexico’ by a French military invasion backed by Britain and Spain. Yet Mexico had already lost almost half of the national territory that it inherited from the colonial Viceroyalty of New Spain to its northern neighbour, whose opposition to European imperialism reflected ambitions to make the Americas an exclusively US sphere of influence.

For some elites in the Latin American republics, the United States represented a model to emulate, yet those who looked there or to Europe for models of ‘progress’ often saw the nature of the peoples that they governed as a barrier to achieving it. Most ‘Latin’ Americans were the product of biological and cultural mixing of Europeans with the original indigenous population and African slaves. Whether their concern was with the continuing existence of culturally distinct indigenous communities considered ‘backward’ or rebellious, or prompted by ‘scientific racist’ theories that the mixing of ‘races’ deemed unequal in their capacities produced ‘degeneration’, many who saw themselves as descendants of Europeans born in the Americas (criollos) aspired to ‘whiten’ their nations through new immigration from Europe.

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, new nationalist visions were taking a more positive view of the ‘mixed’ character of Latin American peoples. Cuban revolutionary nationalist José Martí met the issue of growing US domination head on. Insisting that, in contrast to the segregated United States, there could be no racism in Latin America’s future ‘because there are no races’, Martí argued that Latin Americans should develop institutions adapted to the ‘nature’ of their own peoples rather than imitate a threatening northern neighbour ‘who does not know us’ (Martí 1891). Yet more positive views of the capabilities of the ‘mixed’ peoples did not necessarily entail rejecting the United States and Europe as models for ‘progress’. Peruvian socialist José Carlos Mariategui argued that revolutionary politics in his country could not be based on Western models because the role of indigenous Peruvians would be crucial. Yet he also wrote in 1928 that ‘the only salvation for Indo-America lies in European and Western science and thought’ (Mariategui 1971). Positive evaluation of the capabilities of people of mixed European and indigenous ancestry did not eliminate the idea that Latin American countries needed to address an ‘Indian problem’. Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos (1948) turned scientific racism on its head by portraying the country’s mestizos as a ‘cosmic race’, a ‘fifth’ race that brought all previously existing races together in a fusion that provided the region with the ability to develop a ‘universal’ civilisation free of racial oppression. Yet when Manuel Gamio, who was both an archaeologist and socio-cultural anthropologist, asked Vasconcelos, as a government minister, for resources for his research on living indigenous people as well as the archaeological heritage of pre-Hispanic Mexico, Vasconcelos refused, saying that it would be better to imitate the gringo solution to the ‘Indian problem’: ‘the rifle’ (Vértiz de la Fuente 2019: 62). 

‘Whitening’ policies were sometimes pursued with genocidal force, exemplified by the Argentinian military conquest of the territories still controlled by indigenous people in the Patagonian Desert to make way for white settlers at the end of the 1870s. The promotion of new immigration from Europe brought migrants from Germany and Eastern Europe as well as ‘Latin’ Italy, Portugal, and Spain. Yet new immigration was not restricted to ‘white’ Europeans. The region’s population includes significant numbers of people with Middle Eastern and East Asian ancestry. Connections across the Pacific as well as Atlantic oceans remain relevant to Latin America’s geopolitical and economic options for the future. Yet Sidney Mintz (1974) distinguished the plantation societies of the Caribbean islands from mainland Latin America because their indigenous populations were replaced by culturally, ethnically, and racially heterogeneous workers drawn from Africa, Asia, and Europe, producing ‘new peoples’ made up of ‘strangers’ bound together only by European domination. White elites used other ethnics or mixed-race people as middle-ranking ‘buffer classes’ to strengthen their control over black labouring classes (Allen 2014).

The study of Anglo and Latin America cannot be entirely separated (Shukla & Tinsman 2007; Fine-Dare & Rubenstein 2009). The transatlantic relations created by European expansion and reproduced through slavery and commerce shaped both. New migration from the south has contributed to making people who self-identify as ‘Hispanics’ or ‘Latinos’ the largest ethnic minority identified by the US census, at over eighteen percent of the population. Exploring similarities and differences in systems of ethno-racial stratification in the US and Latin America is long established. Points of similarity today include the militarised policing of poor people of colour (Graham 2011), ethno-racial social inequalities increased by deindustrialisation and neoliberal models of urban development (Smith 2002), and what Paul Farmer (2004) termed the ‘structural violence’ underlying the health inequalities so starkly underscored by the Covid-19 pandemic. Narco-violence in Mexico, Central America, and Colombia is clearly related to the demand for drugs within the United States. Endemic political corruption, authoritarianism, and violence sometimes foster a view of Latin America as a region of ‘deficits’ relative to the liberal capitalist societies of the North Atlantic. Yet although this does not absolve Latin American elites of their own share of responsibility, authoritarianism, civil conflict, paramilitary violence, and gang violence in Central America, are directly related to US meddling in the region, which replaced democracy with military dictatorship and counter-insurgency war during the Cold War and continues to undermine left-leaning governments today.

From its beginnings as an academic discipline in the twentieth century, Latin American anthropology has addressed social and political problems. Many anthropologists who were Latin American citizens played important institutional, public intellectual, and political roles in nation-building projects. Later generations have engaged with the demands of social movements as well as state policies. Studying issues that directly affect one’s own life and those of one’s fellow citizens does produce differences of perspective between ‘native’ and foreign anthropologists. Nevertheless, differences of class, gender, and ethnicity complicate anthropological work irrespective of nationality. George Stocking’s (1982) distinction between ‘Euro-American’ and ‘native’ anthropologies as a distinction between anthropologies dedicated to the construction of empires versus anthropologies dedicated to the construction of nations may have been too simple (Archetti 2006). Yet, the tensions between anthropology with a global comparative orientation and nation-centric institutional missions prompted anthropologists such as Myriam Jimeno (2007) in Colombia and Otávio Velho (2003) in Brazil to argue that rethinking of theory and practice by ‘native’ scholars was in fact necessary.

Although Latin American anthropology has addressed social injustice, oppression, violence, and conflict, it is also about intense cultural creativity, in religion and ritual, popular culture, art, music and dance, highlighting social and cultural practices that enable people to maintain resilience in difficult circumstances.

Indigenousness, mestizaje and state-building: historical perspectives

Although the mixing of diverse cultures and the creation of new cultural forms makes studying Latin America attractive, the region was born of genocide. Wherever they came from, the bodies of the European invaders carried germs to which indigenous people had no acquired resistance. Although violence and exploitation also played a role, the indigenous population was decimated by infectious diseases, causing a global fall in temperatures as abandoned agricultural fields reverted to secondary vegetation that absorbed more carbon (Koch et al. 2019). Although Africans shared the immunities of Europeans, contributing to the infection of native Americans, inhuman conditions on the slave ships meant that at least fifteen percent of the more than ten million slaves transported from Africa between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries died before even reaching the Americas, and the trade had devastating effects on the societies from which they were taken (Manning 1990). Yet by the final decades of the twentieth century, social movements founded on the assertion of indigenous and Afro identities were increasingly active in Latin American politics, despite assumptions that these differences would cease to be significant in societies in which states fostered national identities based on ‘mixing’.

Anthropologists often distinguish Latin America’s ‘highland’ zones, dominated by urbanised pre-colonial imperial states such as the Andean Incas and Mesoamerican Aztecs, from ‘lowland’ zones in which indigenous societies were ‘egalitarian’. However, archaeology shows that European colonisation destroyed lowland societies that were different from those that anthropologists studied ethnographically. The lost lowland societies were integrated into stable and extensive regional networks of exchange and ceremonies, in some cases presenting evidence for social and political hierarchy that challenge the notion that social ‘complexity’ was impossible in lowland environmental conditions (Roosevelt 1999). The comparatively small number of Portuguese invaders of Brazil’s coastal regions were able to exploit the indigenous Tupi-Guarani custom of incorporating male strangers into their communities by making them ‘brothers-in-law’ by giving them an indigenous girl to marry. This was the starting point for anthropologist, novelist, educator, and politician Darcy Ribeiro’s (1995) account of the ‘formation and meaning of Brazil’ as a mestiço nation. Ribeiro documented the role of the mixed-race children of Portuguese fathers, and indigenous groups that allied with the Portuguese against others allied to French or Dutch invaders, in the expansion of slave-raiding into the interior. This, along with Jesuit missions, progressively transformed those indigenous people that conserved distinctive ways of life into what is today a small minority (0.4%) of the national population (compared with 21.5% in Mexico, the country with the largest absolute number of indigenous citizens). Ribeiro adopted an evolutionist perspective on the development of ‘civilisation’ which meant that he did not see indigenous people as significant in the future of mestiço Brazil, a country of ‘new peoples’ produced by cultural mixing. According to Ribeiro, Brazil stood in contrast to Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico and Guatemala, formed from the remnants of pre-Hispanic civilisations, and Argentina and Uruguay, where new European immigrants had greatest demographic weight (Ribeiro et al. 1970).

Yet his classification can be misleading. Indigenous people living beyond the southern frontiers of the Spanish Empire interacted culturally and economically, through trade and raiding for cattle, with the areas settled by the Spanish, who created diplomatic institutions to negotiate with the representatives of what became more politically hierarchic societies that also built new relations with each other across the Andean mountain chain (Boccara 2002). Argentina’s genocidal ‘War of the Desert’ in the 1870s was not simply about making new territories safe for white settlers, but also about ensuring that the people of the Patagonian Desert became Argentinian and not Chilean (He 2018). This reinforced racist discrimination that discouraged people from identifying themselves as indigenous. The founders of Argentina’s professional anthropology included immigrants associated with ‘racial science’ in fascist Europe, for whom indigenous people were of archaeological interest as a superseded ‘race’ but not worthy subjects of ethnographic enquiry, a perspective that regained traction whenever the country suffered a military coup (Ratier 2010). Yet the local Mapuches as a ‘new people’ created through a colonial process of ethnogenesis did not go away but regained social visibility. Along with relatives of the Quechua-speaking indigenous peoples of Peru and Bolivia in the north, they participated in ethnic social movements, struggled for indigenous rights, sought to regain lost lands, protected themselves from environmental devastation caused by fracking, or simply accommodated themselves to state-sponsored development programmes (De la Maza Cabrera & Bolomey Córdova 2019). In Argentina, as in Brazil and Mexico despite their different classifications in Ribeiro’s typology, ‘invisibilised’ indigenous people who had lost their lands but maintained many of their cultural practices after they became farm labourers or herdsmen on lands owned by others joined struggles for rights and recognition in new movements that became urban as well as rural (Gordillo & Hirsch 2003).

In the Andes and Mesoamerica, the number of indigenous people who survived the ‘Great Dying’ enabled the rulers of the Spanish empire to reject indigenous slavery in favour of a system in which the supply of tribute by indigenous communities, in commodities or forced labour, became the foundation of the colonial economy. The Spanish repurposed the Inca labour draft system, the mit’a, to supply labour to the silver mines in Potosí, Bolivia. Indigenous patterns of settlement and socio-political organisation were transformed radically, but provided that they met their obligations to the state and the Catholic Church, colonial indigenous communities were granted a degree of self-government in a ‘Republic of Indians’, with communal control over their own lands, forests, and water. Although usurpation of these resources by non-indigenous outsiders became an increasingly serious problem, their defence formed part of the ‘Closed Corporate Community’ model developed by Eric Wolf (1957), which argued that restriction of membership and property rights to those born within the community was a strategy to protect its collective patrimony, accompanied by obligations to expend resources in community rituals to limit consolidation of wealth differences between its members. Wolf insisted that the indigenous communities that ethnographers studied in Mesoamerica were the product of four hundred years of colonial history. Although he accepted criticisms that his original model paid insufficient attention to cases in which enduring inequalities did emerge between families (Wolf 1986), his insistence that indigenous people were active actors in history and did not live in unchanging ‘traditional’ social worlds was paradigm changing. 

Tributary exactions and exploitation based on forcing indigenous communities to buy goods often prompted protests and rebellions. These intensified from 1760 onwards because Spain’s Bourbon rulers, who sought to increase the wealth extracted from the colonies, ignored complaints about extortion by colonial officials and priests, and undermined the power of indigenous authorities. An uprising that had lasting consequences despite its ultimate defeat was the ‘Neo-Incan’ rebellion of Túpac Amaru II in Peru. Born José Gabriel Condorcanqui, he was both an indigenous authority (kuraka) descended from the last Inca ruler, and a merchant and muleteer who crossed the borders between Spanish and Indian society. Adopting the name of his ancestor, he declared a multiclass, multiethnic rebellion against abusive authorities rather than the Spanish Crown (Walker 2014). Yet after Túpac Amaru II, his wife, Micaela Bastidas, and part of their family were executed, the brutal Spanish repression of the rebellion turned the violence of indigenous people towards anyone who spoke Spanish or wore European clothes, as had already been the norm in a separate rebellion of Aymara-speakers in the south between Lake Titicaca and La Paz, led by a peasant coca trader, Túpac Katari. Both Micaela Bastidas and Túpac Katari’s wife, Bartolina Sisa, played leadership roles in these rebellions, indicating continuities in Andean principles of (hierarchised) gender complementarity (Silverblatt 1987). In Peru, as elsewhere in colonial Latin America, the rebellions provoked conflicts even amongst indigenous people of the same ethnicity, but a weakening military situation led the colonial authorities to offer a peace agreement to Túpac Amaru’s surviving sons. When the colonial elite subsequently reneged on this agreement, exterminating the rest of the family, they not only brought the original colonial ‘pact’ with Peru’s Quechua-speaking peoples to a definitive end, but enhanced the mythical appeal of the neo-Incan rebellion for later movements, not simply in Peru but elsewhere in the region, including in Haiti. There, a slave revolution expelled the French to make Latin America’s first independent nation one that was ruled by people of colour, in 1804 (Walker 2014: 249).

The nineteenth century produced conflicts for control of Latin America’s new nations between conservatives who sought to maintain the social and political structures of colonial Spanish America, and liberal reformers who saw the indigenous communities as a barrier to the creation of a modern society based on equal rights for all citizens rather than ethno-racial ‘castes’. The liberals included Mexican president Benito Juárez, whose own indigenous Zapotec descent did not inhibit him from moving to abolish the corporate properties of indigenous communities as well as the Catholic Church. Some indigenous people accepted that they would be better off as ‘citizens’ than remaining in a caste hierarchy in which they were subject to discrimination. Yet it proved difficult to deliver ‘citizenship’ as equality before the law to people who remained structurally unequal in terms of access to justice and economic opportunities. Mexico’s liberal ‘reforms’ redistributed property in a way that converted many indigenous people into rural proletarians whose adoption of mestizo identities Guillermo Bonfil (2010) characterised as forced ‘deindianisation’.

Indigenous people lost control of communal resources throughout Latin America, although some retained enough land to subsist as migrant labourers working on agro-export plantations after being ‘hooked’ into debt-bondage. This laid the basis for heightened twentieth century agrarian conflict throughout the region. Mexico was a special case, since the national revolution that began in 1910 eventually produced Latin America’s first redistributive agrarian reform. That reform was less focused on restoring land that had been lost by indigenous communities than it was on making grants of land to build a solid rural base of political clients for the post-revolutionary regime. This logic was extended by allowing landless workers on large estates to petition the government for land redistribution in the 1930s, eventually dividing the countryside into a ‘social sector’ of state-sponsored land reform communities (ejidos) and a capitalist farming sector. The state wanted land reform beneficiaries to think of themselves as members of a mestizo ‘peasant’ (campesino) social class. Land reform was therefore intended to support a national state-building project based on ending indigenous identities for good. Anthropologists were enlisted into the process of ‘Mexicanizing the Indian’ by employing them in field stations set up in different parts of the country. The aim was to understand the details of different indigenous cultures in order to change local ways of life through education, and to encourage ‘Indians’ to think of themselves as mestizo citizens of the whole Mexican nation rather than the ‘little nation’ of their village. 

This ‘official indigenism’ was replicated in other countries (De la Peña 2005). An interesting case to compare with Mexico is Bolivia. The National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) that overthrew a military dictatorship in 1952 with the support of the country’s mine workers’ union (Nash 2001) also sought to promote a mestizo national identity through land reform. However, they encountered resistance from a novel indigenous movement in the 1970s. The founders of this katarista movement, named after eighteenth-century rebel Túpac Katari, were Aymara university students whose families had benefitted from the MNR agrarian reform. Their politics were based on the premise that indigenous people suffered from a combination of class oppression in the Marxist sense and ethnic oppression that should not be ignored in government policy. They soon formed the largest peasant union in Bolivia, independent of the ‘official’ union which had been created by the Bolivian government as an instrument of control using the same model as Mexico’s National Peasant Confederation. Mexico’s ‘national revolutionary’ regime proved more enduring than Bolivia’s, which was repeatedly interrupted by military coups. Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) enjoyed unbroken national power until the year 2000. Yet by the 1970s, socially mobile indigenous intellectuals in Mexico were also arguing that ethnic inequalities could not be reduced simply to class issues. Thereby they contributed to the collapse of the ‘official’ indigenist project.

The foundational work of Mexican indigenism had been Manuel Gamio’s book Forjando Patria, published in 1916 while the revolutionary wars were still raging (Gamio 2010 [1916]). Gamio did not advocate immediate suppression of indigenous cultures and languages, even in the case of what he called ‘savage’ groups such as the Yaquis, whose communities straddled the US-Mexico border. He argued that priority should be given to addressing socio-economic inequalities, and that the longer-term objective of anthropological studies of indigenous people was to make their integration into nation states less painful, ensuring that it benefited them and not simply the ‘white race’ of their colonial conquerors. The regional projects of what became the National Indigenous Institute did bring indigenous people some material benefits (Nash 2002). Yet modernising revolutionary nationalism was often implemented in an authoritarian manner, exemplified by the punishment of indigenous children for not speaking Spanish in schools that the government provided for them. Official indigenism created a new group of Spanish-speaking community leaders tied to government who often used the leverage this gave them to turn themselves into local political bosses, called caciques (chieftains). 

Because caciquismo was so pervasive and frequently violent, its study became one of Mexican anthropology’s contributions to understanding how national state power was implanted at regional and local levels in the twentieth century. It unveiled the limitations and contradictions of that process in a socially and culturally diverse country in which that state was far from being an all-powerful ‘Leviathan’ in terms of its ability to manage heterogeneous regional cultures (Bartra 1976; Friedrich 1986; Lomnitz-Adler 1992; Rubin 1997). While the direct institutional presence of central governments remained precarious, local and regional boss rule was significant in rural regions throughout Latin America. In the Andes, these figures were called gamonales (Cotler 2005). In Brazil’s First Republic (1889-1930), local affairs and patron-client relations were managed by agrarian oligarchs called ‘colonels’ (Roniger 2005). All acted as political ‘brokers’ intermediating relations with the national state, but Mexico is distinctive because rural caciquismo has persisted up until the present, enabling drug cartel bosses to take on this role. It also developed in urban shantytowns, trade unions, and universities (Maldonado 2005; Pansters 2005).

Agrarian conflict, neoliberalism and multiculturalism 

Mestizo peasants became disillusioned with the ejido system as the Mexican state’s promise to deliver ‘material improvements’ as well as an end to discrimination to indigenous people lost credibility. Many peasants who had received irrigated lands rented them to agricultural entrepreneurs with the capital to grow more profitable crops and invested in migration to the United States to improve their own living standards. Even outside the areas where farming was transformed by incorporation into a global food system dominated by transnational agro-industrial corporations (Friedmann & McMichael 1989), agrarian conflicts developed over illegal logging and the extension of cattle-raising to supply meat to urban and export markets. The corruption of the public officials administering the land reform added to feelings of injustice and efforts to develop peasant organisations not controlled by the state. It was in this context that, in 1969, a group of Mexican anthropologists led by Arturo Warman published a series of polemical essays repudiating indigenism (Warman et al. 1970). By this stage, the political context had become explosive. Mexico’s eternal ruling party had created a civilian regime free of coups, but in 1968 the government massacred student protestors in Mexico City and unleashed an anti-communist counterinsurgency ‘dirty war’ in the state of Guerrero similar in its barbarity to those pursued by Central and South American military dictatorships (Bartra 1996). Although left-wing militants who left the cities to solidarise with peasant rebels in Guerrero were to find that their ‘communism’ owed more to Christian than Marxist principles, Marxism played a prominent role in academic anthropology as the 1970s advanced, much of it reworking earlier European debates around ‘the agrarian question’.

A key issue for Marxists was whether peasants would survive or face mass proletarianisation as the capitalist transformation of rural Mexico deepened (Hewitt de Alcantará 1984). Some protagonists in these debates, including Warman (1980), favoured the theory of peasant economy that Alexander Chayanov was killed for defending in Soviet Russia. Chayanov had argued that, although some peasant families were richer than others and might employ other peasants as wage-labourers, the logic of the peasant economy was about securing an acceptable standard of living, not the accumulation of capital. According to Chayanov, this made it possible to develop a socialist society on the basis of peasant family farms and cooperatives. A deepening crisis in basic food production coupled with growing agrarian conflict promoted a new round of state intervention in the ejidos in the later 1970s, but after Mexico was hit by the debt crisis that made the 1980s a ‘lost decade’ economically for the whole of Latin America, the government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari embraced neoliberal economic policies. These had been pioneered in Chile after the 1973 military coup and were generalised throughout the region in the 1990s, under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund. In the case of Peru, the government of Alberto Fujimori carried out a ‘self-coup’ that closed the congress to allow neoliberal ‘shock therapy’ to be implemented. By ending land redistribution and opening the door to privatisation of ejido land, Mexico’s ‘reform of the land reform’ was widely considered to pose an existential threat to peasant agriculture. Yet ‘bottom-up’ social movement resistance remained an impediment to the neoliberal project (Pechlaner & Otero 2010).

1994 saw an armed uprising in the southern state of Chiapas that called for a global war against neoliberalism. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) was the product of the coming together of segments of the indigenous peasantry with non-indigenous urban leftist revolutionaries whose outlooks were radically changed by the encounter (Leyva Solano & Ascencio Franco 1996). Although it contributed to broader reassertion of ‘indigenousness’ (Rus, Hernández Castillo & Mattiace 2003), its anti-capitalism and eagerness to build a national coalition of ethnically diverse dissident forces led Leandro Vergara-Camus (2014) to argue that the neo-Zapatista movement was closer to the non-indigenous Brazilian Movement of Landless Workers (MST) than a conventional indigenous rights movement. Nevertheless, as the EZLN turned to sustaining long-term civil resistance in Chiapas in the indigenous communities where it retained support, after failing to construct its broader coalition, indigenous practices did provide inspiration for the movement’s approach to establishing ‘autonomous’ forms of local and regional organisation. These rejected all relationships with the ‘bad government’ of the state, and based themselves on the principle of ‘governing by obeying’ through sovereign communal assemblies and rotation of representative offices.

Another aspect of the shift to neoliberalism was, however, the adoption of multicultural state policies. The Mexican government under President Salinas changed the Constitution to define Mexico as a nation with a ‘pluri-cultural’ composition ‘originally based on its indigenous peoples’, adding indigenous rights to universal social rights. Neoliberal multiculturalism offers indigenous people the right to keep their own language and culture, coupled with a modicum of sensitivity to cultural difference in the judicial system. Charles Hale (2006) argued that its aim is to contain more radical demands, such as new agrarian reform or control over the exploitation of natural resources within indigenous territories. He also showed that in Guatemala, state resistance to more radical demands for indigenous self-determination was fortified by an anti-indigenous ‘backlash’. When indigenous people start occupying local political and bureaucratic offices that non-indigenous people previously monopolised, lower-class mestizos can become resentful of what they see as unfair privileges resulting from social and educational programmes targeted at indigenous people. Work by the EZLN had not managed to avoid this tension. The EZLN challenged the post-revolutionary state builders’ undifferentiated mestizo national identity, seeking to persuade citizens to re-identify with their ‘indigenous side’. However, it failed to create a ‘rainbow coalition’ of popular forces. This suggested that mestizo peasant farmers, working class people, and even some indigenous people in the north and centre of Mexico, still saw indigenous Chiapas as a culturally alien world.

Multicultural politics were adopted throughout Latin America (Assies, Van der Haar & Hoekema 2000; Sieder 2002), reflecting both changing national situations and global processes. In Brazil, the 1988 democratic constitution that followed twenty years of military dictatorship also assigned territorial rights to indigenous groups and Afro-Brazilians occupying lands settled by communities of escaped slaves (quilombos). Mexico was the second country, after Norway, to ratify International Labour Organization Resolution 169 on the rights of indigenous peoples, but by the end of the 1990s, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia went further in making constitutional changes that opened the way for indigenous people to obtain jurisdiction over autonomous territories that would allow for self-government. The next decade brought further reforms in Bolivia after the Aymara leader of the coca growers union, Evo Morales, was elected president in 2006 in the wake of popular revolts against neoliberal economic policies. Although Colombia’s indigenous ‘reserves’ (resguardos) were a legacy of the colonial era, the 1990s brought new laws on indigenous territorial rights that were extended to include Afro-Colombian people, and new territories were created (Rappaport & Dover 1996). Progress towards strengthening autonomous local self-government over those territories was, however, limited by interconnected transnational capitalist interest in exploiting their resources and paramilitary violence. Activists therefore worked on linking individual communities into wider social movement networks that could strengthen negotiations with government and increase support from domestic and international NGOs (Escobar 2015). 

Although return to civilian rule after military dictatorships created a political climate in which international agencies and NGOs promoting indigenous and Afro-descendent rights could advance their global strategies, neoliberal multicultural policies clearly did not resolve longstanding problems arising from the importance of natural resource extraction and agricultural exports in Latin American economies. Yet it is important to understand in detail how and why differences in national circumstances and histories produce differences in the local social and political consequences of these general problems. 

Central America suffered socially devastating US-backed Cold War violence. In Guatemala, a democratic regime was removed from power in 1954 after it expropriated land controlled by the United Fruit Company for redistribution to peasant farmers (Adams 1970). As a result, leftist mestizo guerrilla movements that had difficulty mobilising indigenous communities intensified their campaigns from the late 1960s onwards in the absence of democratic alternatives (Le Bot 1992). Even when mestizo and indigenous groups united at the start of the 1980s, and genocidal repression made indigenous communities more receptive to rebellion, the guerrillas proved incapable of defending them against counterinsurgency operations that involved forced displacement and massacres of civilians on a massive scale. Anthropological research made important contributions to understanding such contradictions. It showed that ‘modernising’ indigenous leadership sympathetic to the guerrillas existed, that it had emerged as an unintended consequence of interventions by the Catholic Church, and that it was motivated by the frustration of some younger indigenous people with established age-based and patriarchal systems of communal authority (Wilson 1995; Warren 1998). The revalorisation of indigenous identity and culture, and the—largely urban—creation of a Pan-Maya movement by intellectuals who sought to build an ethnic politics transcending community-based identities, was the work of a new generation of leaders emerging from the violence that exterminated their modernising predecessors. Some anthropologists who analysed Central American counterinsurgency wars documented US responsibility. Leigh Binford (1996) not only reconstructed the circumstances behind the mass slaughter of civilians at El Mozote in El Salvador, but also humanised the victims by investigating the social biographies of the people behind the numbers. Guatemalan specialists observed that conflicts also occurred between indigenous peasants, but most related this to a context in which they were forced to colonise agriculturally marginal areas because most of the country’s land remained in the hands of large landowners, receiving very low wages as migrant workers on their estates (Smith 1999). 

Andean specialists, however, found themselves asking why the Shining Path movement that convulsed Peru between 1980 and 1999 had come as surprise (Starn 1991; Rivera Cusicanqui 1993). Most Andean anthropology had focused on historical continuities in the economic and politico-ritual systems that governed the way Andean indigenous communities related to their environment and to each other, inspired by classics such as John Murra’s model of how those communities were organised into ‘vertical archipelagos’ based on the exchange of complementary products between highland and lowland ecological niches (Murra 1980). Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui (1993) argued that the problem was not that this vision of the ‘Andean community’ was irrelevant, since indigenous alternatives to European models for exploiting the environment provided useful ideas about how to promote more ecologically sustainable and socially equitable ‘alternative development’ in the future. The problem was what it was leaving out in the later twentieth century, in particular the impacts of growing cities and rural-urban migration on peasant activism and agrarian conflict.

Military dictatorships reflected elite anxieties that the growing activism of peasant farmers and rural workers threatened a repeat of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. During the following two decades, accelerating urbanisation made it impossible to understand even indigenous agrarian movements without considering links between town and countryside (Schryer 1990). In Peru, peasant invasions of landed estates to recover lost lands were accompanied by militant action by peasant unions whose political networks transcended the urban-rural divide (Smith 1991). In response, a Peruvian military regime embarked on a programme of expropriating big estates and turning them into peasant cooperatives at the end of the 1960s. Yet many who benefitted from this land redistribution were not happy about the imposition of collective forms of production. These meant that they continued to be rural workers subject to top-down management in a state-capitalist rather than privately-owned enterprise, whilst most of the indigenous communities that continued peasant family farming but wanted more land were not included in the reform (Kay 1982). 

The Shining Path guerrilla movement was an unanticipated consequence of this intervention by a military government. It was led by university intellectuals from Ayacucho whose regional elite families lost their local power as gamonales as the military regime promoted rural development through state capitalism, strengthening central control. Shining Path was a movement based on cadres, university students in the first instance, who diffused its ideology in both urban and rural areas. That ideology was partly inspired by Maoism in advocating agrarian communalism based on peasant cooperatives, but Shining Path rejected both ‘backward’ indigenous culture and the technological modernisation of agriculture advocated by established left-wing movements and peasant unions. Arguing that the state needed to be completely destroyed by violence, the movement not only killed the leaders of these rival organisations but also carried out symbolic ‘executions’ of tractors. The first peasant communities that came to support Shining Path were relatively prosperous and socially differentiated, which is why their young people got into university (Degregori 1991). Rural grievances in the movement’s heartland were more closely linked to the low prices paid to local farmers by mestizo merchants than to agrarian conflicts with landed estates. Ayacucho had the highest rate of migration to Lima in the country, although Shining Path had less support in its urban shantytowns than other left-wing organisations (Poole & Rénique 1992). Like the indigenous leaderships that supported the guerrillas in Guatemala, young indigenous people joined it because it offered a route to transcending community authority systems. However, Shining Path provided a different ideological solution to the problem of securing what Peru’s class and racial hierarchy denied them: ‘knowledge’ of how to build an alternative future in which they could feel empowered (Degregori 1991).

Shining Path was therefore not an attempt by impoverished ‘traditional’ peasants to restore an Andean indigenous utopia, but an effect of contradictory ‘modernising’ processes. Rivera Cusicanqui (1993) insists that change and interactions with the wider society had been a feature of Andean communities throughout their colonial and national histories. Yet she also observes that Peruvian social science had differed from Bolivian social science in terms of the dominance of left-wing class-focused perspectives in Peru, whose coastal capital city, Lima, is characterised by an ‘integrationist’ suppression of indigenous ethnicity in a ‘melting pot’ that also includes many citizens of African and East Asian descent. This stands in contrast to La Paz, where the division between the Spanish city and the indigenous city of El Alto produced ‘a permanent contradiction between an imported citizenship model and the Andean communitarian model that organizes both the practices and collective perceptions of its inhabitants’ (Rivera Cusicanqui 1999: 157, my translation). Nevertheless, Marisol de la Cadena (2005) argues that when market women in the Peruvian highland city of Cuzco define themselves as mestizas, this is to mark their difference from rural indigenous people, rather than to abandon indigenous identity completely, as the assimilationist model of mestizaje normally implies.

‘Indigeneity’ itself is not a simple category. Not only can people think of themselves as being ‘indigenous’ (or not) in different ways that change as social situations change, but there are also differences between what indigeneity means to people and indigeneity as defined by states (Canessa 2014). The proportion of Bolivians self-identifying as indigenous declined from the sixty-two percent majority registered in 2001, to forty-two percent in 2012. The governments of Evo Morales (2006-2019) had promised to transform the country’s ethnic hierarchies in favour of its indigenous population, the principal components of which are Aymara, Quechua, and Guarani. Morales’s attempt to renew his mandate for a fourth term in 2019 was blocked by a coup that temporarily re-empowered non-indigenous elites, although his Movement for Socialism Party easily won new elections held in 2020 with former economics minister Luis Arce as its candidate. The Morales governments’ macro-economically successful strategy of increasing state revenues from gas exports and other extractive industries to improve the economic situations of poorer Bolivians had, however, provoked conflicts between the indigenous president and some indigenous groups that felt threatened by it. Nancy Postero (2017) argues that the root of that contradiction was that the state constructed by Morales remained a ‘liberal’ state, despite its deployment of Andean indigenous symbols in new state rituals designed to emphasise its indigenousness and talk about pursuing an indigenous concept of ‘living well’ as an alternative to capitalist accumulation.

Rethinking race, cultural mestizaje and ontological differences

The concentration of Afro-Latin American populations in cities is the principal factor determining the nature of their politics and social movements today. Afro-descendants have a history of working in urban occupations that goes back to the colonial period. Africans had originally been used as labour on plantations and landed estates, in particular sectors of the export economy and in places where indigenous labour was scarce or extreme heat was considered to make African labour more suitable. Recognisably ‘black’ rural communities emerged in Mexico, as in Colombia and Ecuador, on the Pacific Coast, principally in Guerrero, as well as Atlantic-facing Veracruz (Aguirre Beltran 1946). Yet as bearers of a particularly stigmatised racial identity, most preferred to blend into the ranks of the mestizo population. Although African intangible cultural heritage is detectable in regional cultures generally seen as mestizo, embedded in styles of music and dancing and religious rituals and carnivals, it was when multicultural policies opened up possibilities of claiming land rights that rural communities began to make them as Afro-descendants, generally following the lead set by indigenous movements (Wade 2010). 

In Latin America, in contrast to the US in the past, having some African ancestry was never sufficient to define a person as ‘black’. Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1888, and the emancipated slaves were socially and economically marginalised as the First Republic, established by a military coup in the following year, focused on ‘whitening’ the nation. It exterminated millenarian movements that brought indigenous, black, and poor mestiço people together in the backlands beyond the coastal cities. But the dictatorial regime that Getúlio Vargas constructed after the First Republic in 1930 was more inclusive. Vargas incorporated the cultural contributions of Brazil’s Afro-descendants into his project of national integration, promoting samba music and carnival, albeit in a tightly controlled way under what was a police state. This conformed to Gilberto Freyre’s positive interpretation of racial and cultural mixing in a patriarchal plantation society (Freyre 1986 [1933]). For Freyre, the Brazilian slavocracy combined absolute domination and intimacy, such as the recognition by slave-owners of offspring that they sired with enslaved women. He argued that the roots of this system lay in the close cultural relationship between Portugal and the Islamic Arab world, whose slave systems served as a model for Brazil, as well as in the need for a small Portuguese elite to populate and dominate a vast country (Souza 2000: 78-9). Freyre’s ideas were used to present Brazil as a ‘racial democracy’ from which the racially segregated US might learn. This notion was undermined by a series of anthropological studies published in the 1950s under the aegis of UNESCO, which found abundant evidence of prejudice and discrimination in Brazil even if their expressions differed from US forms of racism (Wade 2010: 54-9).

A long-established Afro-Brazilian movement often looks to the state for support for artistic and cultural heritage projects or educational programmes to help Afro-Brazilians achieve social mobility. However, the fact that victims of police killings in the urban periphery are predominantly young black men has provoked campaigns similar to ‘Black Lives Matter’ in the US. Workers’ Party governments (2003-2016) adopted affirmative action policies to widen the access of poor, indigenous, and black Brazilians to university. These, however, promoted debate amongst Brazilian anthropologists about whether ‘quotas’ for ‘black’ students constituted an undesirable ‘racialisation’ of social issues in a mestiço society (Guimarães 2003). It also provoked some ‘backlash’ from light-skinned residents of poor urban communities who claimed they were being discriminated against. Although members of higher social classes tend to classify all residents of the urban periphery as ‘black or brown’ whatever they look like, many poor Brazilians do not identify with ethno-racial politics. Syncretic religions venerating African gods remain important for some Afro-Brazilians, but more now attend evangelical churches that attack these religious practices as demonic and preach the individualistic self-improvement doctrines of ‘prosperity theology’ (Lima 2007).  

Modern politics present challenges to defining Latin American nations in terms of the mixing of ‘peoples’. Yet, the significance of cultural mixing remains central to understanding all ethnic groups. The idea that everyone would become assimilated to the same dominant culture through ‘acculturation’ developed in the United States, in the context of thinking about the ‘melting pot’ of immigrants from different parts of Europe. It was extended to Mexico by Chicago social anthropologist Robert Redfield (1950; 1956) in his work on Yucatán. Redfield also argued that the people of Latin America would develop according to an evolutionary model in which rural ‘folk’ would over time become ‘civilised’ into urban societies. US scholars’ confidence in the universality of their own country’s path to ‘modernisation’ was not shared by their Latin American counterparts, despite its affinities with indigenist anthropology. In 1940, Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz published a book that introduced multidirectional and multilinear ‘transculturation’, the blending of elements of distinct cultures to produce new, distinctive, and diverse cultural forms, as an alternative concept. Ortiz contrasted the social consequences of the peasant production of tobacco and Cuba’s artisan cigar industry with the slavery, proletarianisation, and foreign domination of sugar production (Ortiz 1995). 

Since the indigenist phase, both anthropologists and historians have shown how cultural mestizaje in the Americas involved multidirectional exchanges and hybridisations, based on continuous interaction and adaptation to new circumstances (see for example, Florescano & García Acosta 2004; Gruzinski 2013). What looks like the ‘acculturation’ of indigenous Brazilians to Western eyes might, from an indigenous perspective, be seen as ‘a labor of domesticating, of pacifying us together with our germs and our commodities’, not to mention religion and saints (Monteiro 2012: 29). By the nineteenth century, cults based on the West African gods (orishas) that the slaves brought with them had adapted to the colonial setting in Brazil by associating those deities with Catholic saints, and also included indigenous spirits called caboclos, to produce the religious tradition called Candomblé. Umbanda evolved from that tradition by adding Spiritism to the mix, a European element imported from nineteenth century France. Whereas Candomblé had its roots in a society based on slavery, Umbanda emerged in Brazil’s southern cities in the 1930s, appealing to working and lower middle class people across ethno-racial boundaries. Candomblé also continued to evolve, to be reborn in the 1960s in the Brazilian Northeast as cultural heritage and a religion for everyone, including tourists (Prandi 2000). 

Mexican anthropology also celebrated hybridity and plurality when studying indigenous legacies in mestizo cultural practices and urban ‘popular’ culture (Bonfil 1991; García Canclini 1995). The deeper meanings of ritual processes between indigenous and non-indigenous participants might differ in terms of ideas about the significance of death, and the role of the souls of the departed in the world of the living, for example. However, popular Latin American interpretations of illness as provoked by spirit attack (susto) are not restricted to people who conserve indigenous identities or ways of life (Glazer et al. 2004). Popular religious practices continue to evolve. The principal meaning that the contemporary cult of Saint Death carries for urban working class Mexicans, for example, is the promise of a more prosperous life for its adherents, despite an exaggerated media emphasis on its links with drug trafficking. Saint Death is therefore competing in a lively religious market with neo-Pentecostalist churches, and the challenge is to understand why some people choose one option rather than another (Argryadis 2014).

It remains important to recognise the reproduction of distinctive indigenous ontologies. In Peru, peasant leaders, for example, were activists in peasant unions and perfectly capable of talking the same language as the urban left, operating effectively in that legal and political world. Yet, at the same time, they remained part of another world, in which open cast mining is wrong because it kills the mountain as a living entity, destroying fundamental relations between human and non-human beings (De la Cadena 2010). Human beings appear to be able to manage different ways of ‘being in the world’ simultaneously. Differences between Western and indigenous understandings of the relationships between human beings and nature also ground a case for defending indigenous territorial rights in Amazonia (Viveiros de Castro 1998). Nevertheless, as Alcida Ramos (2012) points out, there are downsides to non-indigenous anthropologists continuing to speak in the name of indigenous people who are increasingly able to speak for themselves, and even obtain PhDs in anthropology. Ramos herself has explored the contradictions of NGO activism as well as Brazil’s official indigenist institutions. NGOs often need indigenous people to behave in an idealised way to conform to their own agendas, which causes difficulties when indigenous leaders decide that mining might be good for their communities (Ramos 1994). Indigenous people who have been forced to change their lifestyle as a result of past capitalist transformations of Amazonia have difficulties being recognised as such because they do not conform to the stereotypical image of a ‘rainforest Indian’. The majority of Amazonians now live in cities, and the region as a whole is ethnically heterogeneous (Nugent 1993). If we wish to defend the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination of their future development, it is important not to talk about them as if they had never changed. That false claim is still used to argue that they would be better off being ‘modernised’ through new capitalist transformations.

Urban anthropology, transnationalism and new social movements

Latin American cities are spaces of extreme social inequality and the region now has the highest homicide rates in the world. Urban anthropology initially focused on how rural people obliged to live in informal shantytowns built social relations that helped them adapt to a precarious life of working poverty (Adler de Lomnitz 1977; Roberts 1978). The debt and social crisis of the 1980s, and impoverishment produced by neoliberal policies, produced a change of emphasis. People’s mutual support relations that Mercedes González de la Rocha (2004) called ‘the resources of poverty’ became more difficult to sustain because families faced an absolute ‘poverty of resources’. Crisis also provided enhanced opportunities for political parties to deploy patronage relations in ways that impeded ‘bottom-up’ efforts to build community organisations (Auyero 2000). Brazilian research strongly challenged the idea that people who live in irregular settlements (favelas in Rio de Janeiro), are ‘marginal’ to society and politics. At the same time, it recognises that they face marginalisation in the form of discrimination in the wider society, including from working class people who live in less stigmatised neighbourhoods. Janice Perlman (1976) followed up a critique of the ‘marginality’ concept written against the policy of forced removal of favelas. Based on a forty-year longitudinal study of favela development, she shows that some favela residents succeeded in attaining social and spatial mobility (Perlman 2006). This kind of research challenged Oscar Lewis’s concept of ‘the culture of poverty’, derived from his studies of Mexican and Puerto Rican families, which suggested that living in poverty leads parents to adopt values and behaviours that they transmit to their children, perpetuating a ‘failure to make it’ that persists across generations (Lewis 1959; 1966).

Yet ‘progress’ for some families within favelas was accompanied by greater inequality. In Guayaquil, Ecuador, in a poor community in which some women transcended the limitations of informal local labour markets by migrating to work in Europe, there were differences in the extent to which improvements in income levels and housing continued in the next generation, related to the amount of ‘social capital’ families accumulated through links with other non-resident family members and participation in community politics (Moser 2010). Although racialised class prejudice led citizens who did not live in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas to see them as a ‘threat’ to the rest of the city, that prejudice ironically made it easier to argue politically that supposed ‘dangerous classes’ would become less dangerous if they were fully integrated into the urban mainstream through state-financed improvements to the infrastructure of ‘consolidated’ favelas in which residents had transformed their original shacks into multi-storied self-built homes (Cavalcanti 2009). Yet here as in Guayaquil, ‘consolidation’ increased inequality. Rio’s hosting of the World Cup in 2014 and Olympics in 2016 created a real estate boom. The need to improve infrastructure for sporting mega-events led to the forced removal of some favela residents to more peripheral locations in the city, but ‘material improvements’ in some of Rio’s more scenic favelas also stimulated a process of ‘gentrification’ and rising property values and rents within them that also displaced poorer residents (Freeman & Burgos 2017; Cummings 2015).

The problems facing women in favelas include domestic violence and the loss of young male children attracted by enhanced access to commodities symbolising status and to women in what Alba Zaluar (2010) termed the ‘hypermasculine’ subculture of drug gangs. Since police tend to assume that all young men are ‘involved’ in that world (Cechetto, Muniz & Monteiro 2018), people who live in favelas remain ‘caught in the crossfire’ between drug traffickers and police, whose violence and corruption often makes them seem the worse of two evils (Machado & Leite 2007). Zaluar also developed research on the paramilitary groups called milícias (Barcellos & Zaluar 2014). Run by former or serving members of the police, they expelled drug traffickers from favelas only to become criminal organisations in their own right, enjoying the protection of political patrons. Donna Goldstein (2003) showed how evangelical churches might offer an escape route from the world of crime, but her ethnography also revealed the black humour that working women employed in coping with extremely testing lives. An example that female neighbours found hilarious was when twenty-three-year-old Marília recounted how, returning in the early hours of the morning from her night job, she had exclaimed to her husband Celso: ‘Gosh, you’re hard to kill, ehh’. When Celso asked why, she responded: ‘Because I put rat poison in your drink this morning, and you didn’t die’ (Goldstein 2003: 259).

Lynching offers a ‘self-help’ solution to dealing with insecurity in poor communities in which the problem is not the complete absence of the state but the nature of its sporadic presence, as Daniel Goldstein (2012) argued for Bolivia. Teresa Caldeira’s work on São Paulo (Caldeira 2000) offered an anthropology ‘of’ rather than simply ‘in’ the city (Low 1996) by exploring the relations between the social worlds of the fortified condominiums of the rich, lower middle and working classes not living in irregular settlements, and the urban periphery. She showed that many who lived in the latter also subscribed to the view that ‘a good bandit is a dead bandit’, opposed ‘human rights for criminals’, and supported extra-judicial police killings despite being the most exposed to police violence themselves. Yet lynching, homicides, and sexual violence diminished in São Paulo to much lower levels than in Rio de Janeiro after a criminal organisation born in the state’s prisons, The First Command of the Capital (PCC), established a system of ‘criminal governance’ based on their own tribunals with formal procedures in these communities. The police and political authorities were willing to reach tacit accommodations with this parallel authority that made their lives easier and diminished homicide rates (Feltran 2008; Willis 2015). Although this covert ‘pact’ with state authorities periodically broke down, the PCC expanded nationally through the prison system by ‘baptizing’ new ‘brothers’ (Biondi 2016) into a world of crime that became very lucrative and transnationally connected.

As a ‘dark side’ of capitalist globalisation, criminal networks responsible for the trafficking of drugs, arms, and people, including women obliged to work in the sex trade, transcend national borders. Yet Latin American countries are also connected to each other, and to Africa and Asia, by a ‘globalization from below’ that provides livelihoods to informal traders who carry legal commodities across borders (Mathews et al. 2012). The study of these transnational networks has equally transformed our understanding of international migration, since even when migrant families decide to make another country their permanent home, they often maintain ties with their communities of origin. What happens as a result is variable. Nina Glick Schiller & Georges Fouron (1999) show how Haitian migrants in the United States were incorporated into a ‘deterritorialised’ nation-state building process. Thus, even those who had taken US citizenship continued to look to Haiti’s nation-state as the political community to which they owed ultimate loyalty. Whatever they thought about Haiti’s current government or the prospects of the country ever securing ‘good government’, they held on to it as they were victims of strong discrimination in US society. The ‘deterritorialised’ Haitian nation state was mainly built on ‘transnational social fields’ between Haitians abroad and their kin in Haiti. These relationships transcended the particularism of familial networks because migrant remittances were redistributed within Haiti to other families without direct kinship links to the migrants. The downside, Glick Schiller and Fouron argued, was that a ‘bottom-up’ politics based on ‘blood ties’ and racialised personal identity made Haitians in the US less inclined to join larger coalitions to ameliorate their disadvantages. At the same time, poor Haitians at home remained attached to hopes in the informal redistributive networks of the remittance economy. This made them less inclined to challenge domestic elites and their foreign allies and more inclined to try to resolve problems at an individual level through patron-client relations.

Transnational migration of indigenous Mixtec people from Oaxaca provides a contrasting case. The Mixtecs studied by Michael Kearney (1991) and Federico Besserer (2004) remained marginally incorporated into the Mexican national state and many did not speak Spanish. They started migrating working on agribusiness farms in northern Mexico, where they were subject to brutal forms of exploitation and discrimination. This promoted ethnogenesis as they started thinking of themselves as ‘Mixtecs’ rather than people from particular villages. From northern Mexico, they moved across the border as undocumented migrants, working picking tomatoes and in the construction industry, and later finding other kinds of urban jobs. Their ethnic identity thereby sharpened because of discrimination from mestizo Mexican migrants. Today, Mixtecs from Oaxaca and other regions live in colonies in cities and rural areas that stretch from New York through California to southern Mexico. This transnational diaspora still reproduces some indigenous ways of organising things, including communal labour systems, at the same time as it employs new technologies to maintain communication with migrant homelands. For many, English rather than Spanish became their second language. In this case, discrimination north of the border was less likely to produce closer identification with the Mexican nation.

Capital also moves across borders, rather more easily than people, in ways that have implications for gender roles and relations. Latin American and Caribbean countries became sites of offshore production by transnational corporations, in the form of assembly plants, garment factories and agricultural processing and packing plants. Jane Collins (2003) adopted a transnational approach to studying garment production in the US and Mexico. Since these new forms of production offered new employment opportunities for women (Arizpe & Aranda 1981), economic changes impacted on family and household structures. Gender and kinship equally matter in studies of the informal economy, which provides more than half of total national employment in Latin America (Fernández-Kelly 2006). In the case of mestizo migrants to the US, men tended to adapt fully to life in the north, but some resisted full incorporation into the disciplines of northern working class life by continuing to value Mexico as a space of freedom where patriarchal values still ruled and the police did not stop them from beating their wives (Rouse 1991). Although female migration was increasing by the late twentieth century, as their lifestyles changed, women suffered from a major contradiction. They were often being morally stigmatised in their communities of origin but remaining signifiers of the transcendent moral value of ‘the Mexican family’ as mothers and wives wherever they were living. Sometimes they found themselves subject to censure by other women as they tried to renegotiate gender relations within their families (Malkin 2004).

Nevertheless, collective female activism became an important theme in the literature on the ‘new social movements’ of the late twentieth century. New collective movements of opposition emerged within ‘civil society’ under military dictatorships in part because traditional party politics (and the demobilising patron-client relations that went with it) was suspended. The independent trade union movement of São Paulo’s industrialised ABC region laid the basis for the creation of the Brazilian Workers’ Party, led by future president Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva. It promised to do politics in a more democratic way that would give poorer citizens participation in government decisions. Critical anthropological studies have shown that a considerable gap emerged between promises and practice after the party started winning power, first at the local level and, in 2002, at national level (Assies 1999; Albert 2016). Many theorists had seen Latin America’s ‘new social movements’ as politically transformative, assuming that they were democratic in their own internal organisation. Ethnographic research showed that this assumption needed to be questioned.

Women were the principal protagonists in some new movements. Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, for example, demanded that the military produce their children, ‘disappeared’ by a regime of torture, extermination, and theft of its victims’ babies. Feminists were often sceptical about ‘motherist’ movements, despite their contributions to struggles for human rights. The mobilisation of women of different social classes also raised questions of how appropriate Northern middle-class feminist models were for ‘grassroots’ feminisms in Latin America (Stephen 2010), and how Latin America’s structures of class and racial oppression should be factored into the politics of defining the ‘strategic interests’ of poor women of colour in both rural and urban contexts (Alvarez 1990). Women made their voices heard in EZLN-controlled indigenous communities in Chiapas, contesting both patriarchal family structures and their past exclusion from decision-making in communal assemblies (Speed, Hernández Castillo & Stephen 2006). Yet female protagonism was a longstanding historical feature of Andean indigenous movements, and poorer mestizas as well as indigenous women were assuming public roles in marches and protests organised by new rural movements in other regions of Mexico before the EZLN rebellion, sometimes in defiance of husbands committed to the ideology that a woman’s place is in the home (Zárate Vidal 1998).

Throughout urban Latin America, it fell to women to defend the home when the authorities came to irregular settlements to evict families while their men were working outside the community. They faced new problems when men were unable to obtain enough regular work to fulfil their ascribed role as family provider. During the 1980s crisis, women’s informal work often became the main basis for family reproduction, and domestic violence reflected the ‘wounded masculinity’ of men who could not be machos in this positive, provider sense (Gutmann 2006). Yet femi(ni)cide, the torture and killing of women because they are women, represents an intensification of intersections between patriarchy, class, and race. The violence against women practised by Latin American military dictatorships has escalated in the neoliberal era because the armed male actors with the power to abuse women and girls – police, paramilitaries, and criminals – have diversified and are often complicit with each other. Capitalist development has multiplied the number of vulnerable women in public spaces and commoditised them as disposable sexual objects (Monárrez Fragoso 2010). ‘Grassroots feminism’ is, however, continuing to develop within the working classes, as exemplified by the occupations of schools by secondary school students in Brazil in protest against the policies of the new government installed by the ‘constitutional’ coup of 2016 against the country’s first female president. Rosana Pinheiro-Machado and Lucia Scalco (2018) show that female school students were actively raising political issues in class and some explicitly declared themselves to be feminists, despite negative reactions from young men faced with mounting economic precarity and physical insecurity. Yet after ultraright president Jair Bolsonaro won the 2018 elections, Brazil also demonstrated the challenges posed for women’s and LGBT rights movements when a transnational evangelical Christian countermovement reaches the heart of government. 

Conclusion: contesting the hegemony of ‘Northern’ anthropology

Anthropological research on Latin America has made distinctive contributions to broader comparative analysis of issues of race and ethnicity in colonial and post-colonial settings, agrarian change, insurgency and revolution, religious syncretism and conflict, political anthropology and the anthropology of the state, gender relations, informal economies, urban anthropology, and new social movements and transnationalism. Its strengths include attention to history and its challenges to received wisdoms within Latin American societies themselves and within the North Atlantic world.

Postcolonial theorists such as Enrique Dussel (Dussel et al. 2000) and Walter Mignolo (2000) argue that the notion of ‘Western modernity’ as the fount of historical ‘progress’ depended, ideologically as well as economically and militarily, on a transatlantic colonial world in which ‘Latin’ America became the ‘other’ of Euro-North American ‘civilisation’. Postcolonial critiques were taken up in the context of later twentieth century imperialism and capitalist globalisation by Latin American anthropologists such as Fernando Coronil (2003). Anthropologists living in Latin America became increasingly pre-occupied with the relationship between their anthropologies and the ‘hegemonic’ anthropologies of the North Atlantic countries. The existence of global disciplinary hierarchies is undeniable, given the dominance of English as a language of scholarly communication and differences in the opportunities available for international mobility to scholars from the South who have not studied outside their countries of nationality. Some ‘native’ anthropologists also began to argue that their distinctive perspectives were actually being ‘silenced’ by North Atlantic dominance (Krotz 1997). Latin American critics called for global reappraisal of how all anthropological thinking might be enriched by reflection on differences of vision between North Atlantic anthropology and the anthropologies of the former colonial worlds (Restrepo & Escobar 2005; Escobar & Ribeiro 2006). They argue that the ‘hegemonic’ anthropologies remained limited by Eurocentric or even ‘orientalising’ thinking (Velho 2003) and that disciplinary decolonisation entailed ‘provincializing Europe’ (Chakrabarty 2008).

Latin American state-building projects had their own internal colonial dimensions, and Latin American countries have their own academic hierarchies that are influenced, in terms of ideas as well as career possibilities, by class and ethno-racial inequalities. The decolonising critique is not about closing off regional anthropologies from the wider conceptual and comparative thinking that has always influenced their development, but about enhancing their contribution to developing more universal understandings of the human past, present and possible futures. White supremacist ideas are regaining traction in Europe and North America. Anthropology cannot challenge those ideas effectively unless it is purged of all remaining Eurocentrism. Critics of ‘hegemonic anthropologies’ call for more South-South dialogues but also for anthropologists based in the North to reflect on what different scholarly communities consider strategic objectives for anthropological research and the different perspectives on issues that they may offer. The aim of decolonising anthropology is not to promote ‘ressentiment or nativism’ (Restrepo & Escobar 2005: 485) but to build a more inclusive international and intercultural ‘conversation’ about knowledge, power, and the future of anthropology everywhere (Narotzky 2014).


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Note on contributor

John Gledhill is Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester and a Fellow of the British Academy and Academy of Social Sciences. He has published in English, Spanish and Portuguese on his ethnographic and historical research in Brazil and Mexico and also writes on broader comparative issues.

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