Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui is an Aymara/Bolivian feminist sociologist/historian/activist. She is one of the best known ‘decolonial’ thinkers in Latin America who contests the use of the term ‘decolonial’. Her scholar activism goes back to the early 1970s. Cusicanqui has written extensively in Spanish, Quechua and Aymara, often moving between the three languages within a single text. She writes in a multilingual way as part of her decolonial practice (see below), perhaps because of this way of working, Anglo and European scholars seldom reference her as a pioneer in decolonial theory within the Global South. She is a founding member in conjunction with her students at Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (Bolivia) of the Taller de Historia Oral Andina (Andean Oral History Workshop). The taller uses Aymara and Quechua epistemologies to build counter methodologies to Western ways of doing science through oral construction of knowledge. In 2018, she was given a Doctor Honoris Causa in Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, where she was a lecturer for over twenty years. She has been a visiting lecturer at Columbia University (USA), University of Austin (USA), and Universidad Simón Bolívar (Ecuador), among others. She has been an activist in the katarista movement (political movement in Bolivia to recover the political identity of the Aymara people) and the cocoa growers movement. Rivera Cusicanqui’s work is extensive but three concepts/practices can be identified in her work.
First, Rivera Cusicanqui’s concept of historia oral (oral history) and sociología de la imagen (sociology of the image) are key in understanding the dialectics of colonialism and the multi scalar forms of resistance that indigenous people have gone through since the invasion of Europeans of Abya Yala (indigenous name for Latin America). Rivera Cusicanqui argues that oral forms of indigenous history provide a privileged space in which to discover the profound implications and tactics of the colonial order. By viewing through the oppressed eyes, history loses its chronological/linear perspective and becomes a dialectic cycle where colonialism finds a way to renew and transform itself. She argues that colonialism’s newest form(s) come in the shape of neoliberalism, multiculturalism and the ongización (role of NGOs). Historia oral and sociología de la imagen are epistemological, methodological and pedagogical tools that seek to disrupt Western conceptions that situate “the historical” only with the appearance of the written word and criticise how Western history legitimises colonial invasions throughout the globe as a “heroic civilizing mission.”
River Cusicanqui views Bolivian history through diverse cycles. The first one being the colonial cycle with the invasion of Abya Yala by Europeans and the fusion of certain indigenous epistemologies to Catholicism. Then came the liberal cycle in which the elites recognised the concept of equality within a context where citizenship is achieved by individualisation and private property, thus destroying communal concepts of belonging. Finally, within the populist cycle, Rivera Cusicancui retakes Pablo Casanova’s (1965) concept of internal colonialism to develop the notion of mestizaje colonial andino (colonial Andean mestizaje). She argues that indigenous and peasant people within political and union structures have internalised domination. Therefore, their behaviour ends up reproducing the same chains of oppression of which they are victims through clientelismo (patronage in the form of cash or jobs) and most recently via multiculturalism.
Finally, Rivera Cusicanqui is very critical of what she calls the political economy of knowledge. She condemns scholars who are now in positions of power both home and abroad; accusing them of “building a small empire within an empire” and “strategically appropriating” the contributions of Global South scholars for their own economic and professional gain without a meaningful dialogue with their counterparts. Thus, creating new canons in their ivory Global North universities, establishing new hierarchies and gurus like Walter Mignolo, Enrique Dusserl, Catherine Walsh, among others (see Cusicanqui 2012). Political economy of knowledge involves new forms of colonial domination through salaries, privileges, scholarships, degrees and citation practices and by producing the illusion of multiculturalism and diversity within academia. Yet, in reality these scholars tend to neutralise decolonial practices. Finally, Rivera Cusicanqui argues in favour of bilingualism as a decolonial practice which will allow a “we” of knowledge producers and horizontal conversations in the academy beyond our home countries.
Rivera Cusicanqui, S. (2012) Ch’ixinakax utxiwa: A Reflection on the Practices and Discourses of Decolonization, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 111(1): 95-109.
Rivera Cucicanqui, R (2010) “Oprimidos pero no vencidos” Luchas del campesinado aymara y qhechwa 1900-1980, La Mirada Salvaje, La Paz. 4ta Edición (1984). (Oppressed but not defeated: Peasant struggles among the Aymara and Qhechwa in Bolivia, 1900-1980)
Rivera Cucicanqui, S. (2010) Violencias (re)encubiertas en Bolivia, La Mirada Salvaje/Editorial Piedra Rota: La Paz.
Rivera Cusicanqui, s. (2006) “El potencial epistemologico y teórico de la historia oral: De la logica instrumental a la descolonización de la historia” (“The Epistemological and Theoretical Potential of Oral History: From Instrumental Logic to the Decolonization of History”), Voces Recobradas, Revista de Historia Oral, 8(21): 12-22
Rivera Cusicanqui, S. (2010) Ch’ixinakax utxiwa : una reflexión sobre prácticas y discursos descolonizadores, Buenos Aires : Tinta Limón.
Rivera Cucicanqui, R. (2011) La identidad ch’ixi de un mestizo: En torno a La Voz del Campesino, manifiesto anarquista de 1929, Ecuador Debate, (84): 193-204. Discussion between Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui and Boaventura de Sousa Santos (in Spanish)
How can we challenge what we understand as “history” within our own context(s) using a historia oral perspective?
What is the relationship between activism and knowledge production for Riversa Cusicanqui?
What are some of the ways in which scholar activists engaged with anti-racism and decoloniality can resist the practices of “building a small empire within an empire”?
Submitted by Laura Loyola-Hernández