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Ethnic and Racial Studies
ISSN: 0141-9870 (Print) 1466-4356 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rers20
What undecidability does: enduring racism in the
context of indigenous resurgence in Bolivia
To cite this article: Tathagatan Ravindran (2019): What undecidability does: enduring
racism in the context of indigenous resurgence in Bolivia, Ethnic and Racial Studies, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2019.1628997
Published online: 27 Jun 2019.
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What undecidability does: enduring racism in the
context of indigenous resurgence in Bolivia
Departamento de Estudios Sociales, Universidad Icesi, Cali, Colombia
This article deals with the continuities and changes in the racial dynamics of
Andean Bolivia in the context of dramatic transformations the country has
witnessed since the beginning of this century. It departs from the idea that
Andean racial formations are characterized by a constant alternation between
multiple classiﬁcatory logics, which introduces ambiguity and undecidability
in racial discourses. It argues that it is this undecidability of the racial that
maintains racial hegemony. The article then goes on to analyze the
implications of the process of indigenous resurgence Andean Bolivia
witnessed in the twenty ﬁrst century for durable structures of racial privilege
and racialized everyday social relations. It reveals that though this process
posed a frontal challenge to white-mestizo racial hegemony, the undecidable
character of the racial contributes to a perpetuation of subtle forms of
internalized racism and enduring structural racism.
ARTICLE HISTORY Received 17 October 2018; Accepted 15 April 2019
KEYWORDS Structural racism; pigmentocracy; racial hegemony; internalized racism; mestizaje; Bolivia
, a middle-aged white- mestizo woman has been active in tra-
ditional left politics since the 1970s. I met her at the house of a common friend
where we discussed the implications of the exclusion of the category of
mestizo in the Bolivian census. Monica felt that the exclusion of the category
is tantamount to denying an important historical process in Latin America of
biological mixture between the Spanish and the indigenous people. She for-
cefully asserted the rights of those who considered themselves mestizos to
self-identify in those terms, deﬁning mestizaje as a historical process of bio-
However, the very next day, during lunch, she came up with a diﬀerent
notion of the mestizo and the indigenous. She said that many people
outside Bolivia think that Evo Morales is indigenous while he is not. He is
clearly a mestizo because he does not think like an indigenous person, she
© 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Tathagatan Ravindran firstname.lastname@example.org
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES
asserted. Half an hour later, the news channels aired the statement of Evo
Morales that having a relationship with the Embassy of the United States is
like a piece of shit (como una caca). Estrada immediately said, “this is why I
told you that Evo is mestizo and not indigenous because an indigenous
person cannot make such a statement”. What she meant by this assertion is
less important than the shift in her discourse on indigeneity and mestizaje
from a biological to a cultural logic within a day.
This discursive oscillation was striking and through the course of my
research, I realized that it is precisely this ambiguity that deﬁnes Andean
racial formations. What would be the implications of this for an understanding
of racial dynamics in the Andes? Moreover, how does this impact the nature
and implications of anti-racist politics and policies?
The article begins with a critical analysis of various perspectives on race in
the Andes. Building on works highlighting the multidimensionality of the
racial, I argue that Andean racial formations are characterized by a constant
alternation between multiple classiﬁcatory logics (such as the shifts in the dis-
course of Monica Estrada), which introduces ambiguity and undecidability in
discourses about the racial. Furthermore, I also show that it is this undecidabil-
ity that maintains racial hegemony. The article then goes on to show that
though political mobilizations in the ﬁrst decade of the twenty-ﬁrst century
posed a frontal challenge to this racial hegemony, the undecidable character
of the racial contributes to a perpetuation of subtle forms of internalized
racism and also reproduces structural racism.
This work is a product of 22 months of ethnographic research in the
Bolivian city of El Alto between 2010 and 2014. The majority of the resi-
dents of El Alto are of Aymara indigenous origin and the city grew as a
product of migration from rural indigenous communities. This study is
based on participant observation of the residents in multiple neighbour-
hoods of the city in their everyday activities, including festivals, religious
ritual performances, neighbourhood anniversaries, and social gatherings
of university students and youth organizations, as well as 85 semi-struc-
Race in the Andes
Race in the Andean region has been theorized in multiple ways. Marisol de la
Cadena argues that in contrast to the United States, in Latin American racial
formations, “phenotype could be subordinated to culture as a marker of diﬀer-
ence (de la Cadena 2001, 16)”. According to this logic, brown-skinned people
can be considered white and not everyone who looks like an Indian would
self-identify as indigenous. Though biological aspects are not totally
ignored, they are subordinated to the superior force of morality that could
be inculcated through education, which is considered to have a near
“eugenic might”(de la Cadena 2001). In this framework, culture is privileged
For Weismantel and Eisenman (1998), race in the Andes is not mainly about
phenotype but embodied non-phenotypical traits. For them, inherited phys-
ical characteristics like skin colour and blond hair do not function as
markers of race in the Andes. Rather, the racial background of a person is
determined on the basis of “bodily attributes slowly acquired over a lifetime”
like gait and posture, the textures of the skin and the hair, and the presence or
absence of muscles and body fat (1998, 136), which is consequence of a par-
ticular kind of life in a particular temporal and spatial context. In a similar vein,
Colloredo Mansfeld writes, “since the biological reality of Ecuador’s population
did not allow divisions based on natural phenotypic variation, notions of
cleanliness provided another –similarly ambiguous –way to characterize
races (1998, 192)”.
The works discussed above do not necessarily conceptualize race in a uni-
dimensional frame but identify a central and deﬁning marker of it, be it culture
or embodied non-phenotypical traits. One characteristic is thereby seen as
primary and the others as residual. More recent works, however, lay emphasis
on the multidimensionality of the racial in Latin America and elsewhere. They
argue that race/ethnicity has multiple dimensions such as self-identiﬁcation,
skin colour, racial ancestry and ﬁrst language (Roth 2016; Saperstein 2012;
Telles 2017). For instance, in contrast to the studies mentioned above that
consider phenotypical traits as less signiﬁcant in contemporary Latin Ameri-
can systems of racial classiﬁcation, Telles and the PERLA team (2014), in
their multicountry study discover that skin colour tends to be a better predic-
tor of ethnoracial inequality than the traditional ethnoracial categories such as
white, mestizo, mullatto and indigenous through which people self-identify.
Based on detailed survey-based studies in Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Colombia,
they argue that there is a great degree of positive correlation between skin
colour and social indicators like the level of education, income, wealth and
health. They argue that Latin America is a pigmentocracy characterized by
hierarchies based on skin colour.
A continent-wide survey on skin colour and educational attainment sup-
ports the notion that Latin American social hierarchies have a pigmentocratic
character. The study concludes that the Andes is the most pigmentocratic
region and Bolivia the most pigmentocratic country in Latin America in
terms of the relationship between skin colour and educational attainment
(Telles and Steele 2012). Bailey, Saperstein, and Penner (2014), in their study
of the correlation between skin colour, self-identiﬁed race and social inequal-
ity in 19 countries in the Americas also highlight the multidimensionality of
the racial, pointing out that though all of them are racially stratiﬁed, “they
vary in the extent to which one dimension of race or another most structures
a countries racial inequality”(2014, 744). In some countries, skin colour was
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES 3
more salient, while in some others, it was a combination of skin colour and
self-identiﬁed race. In a similar vein, Roitman and Oviedo (2017) observe a
complex interplay between phenotypes and socioeconomic levels in
Ecuador where notions such as money whitens co-exist with racial proﬁling
based on phenotype.
Multidimensionality and undecidability
This leads to an intriguing puzzle: what is the relationship between these mul-
tiple dimensions of the racial, and what implications follow from that relation-
ship? I argue that it is radical undecidability that characterizes Andean logics of
racial classiﬁcations. Andean racial discourses are characterized by undecid-
ability between multiple classiﬁcatory systems based on multiple dimensions
of the racial, neither of which can be privileged over or reduced to the other.
Inherited phenotypical traits, rather than being less signiﬁcant play an impor-
tant role, though in complex interaction with other factors like culture and
acquired non-phenotypical traits. However, the nature of the complex inter-
action is neither predeterminable nor predictable. Therein lies the undecid-
ability of the racial.
The work of Norval (1996)istheﬁrst to use the Derridean concept of unde-
cidability to refer to race. Norval argues that in apartheid political discourse, the
category of race was marked by undecidability in the sense that it was deployed
to refer simultaneously to the cultural diﬀerences between Afrikaners and
English South Africans (both of whom were whites) as well as to the colour
divides between whites and non- whites. Political frontiers were thus simul-
taneously drawn on the basis of two axes, one racial and the other ethnic,
“neither of which can be separated from or reduced to the other”(1994, 9).
For Norval, this characteristic of apartheid political discourse is not only a
product of the semantic ambiguity of the term “race”in that particular
context but also “the result of the political grammar of apartheid discourse, as
a result of its formal and syntactic composition and articulation, which are
embedded in material practices”(Norval 1996, 9). It is to explain this grammar
that she draws on the Derridean concept of undecidability that speciﬁcally
refers to “adeterminate oscillation between possibilities”, which are themselves
“highly determined in strictly deﬁned situations”(Derrida 1988,148).
Norval goes on to theorize the relationship between undecidability and
hegemony. She argues that apartheid hegemony was maintained by the sim-
ultaneous presence of these two distinct frontiers, which made the ideology
appealing to diverse political and social sectors like the Afrikaner nationalists
who, apart from believing in racial supremacy also resisted English
domination and the English who believed in white racial supremacy over
the Blacks, coloureds and Indians. From this, Norval concludes that undecid-
ability is not opposed to hegemony. Rather, in some instances, hegemony
can result from a suspension of decidability marked by an oscillation between
I argue that it is this suspension of decidability that gives Andean racial for-
mations their hegemonic force. Here, undecidability manifested in the form of a
constant oscillation between two classiﬁcatory schemas, one based on acquired
non-phenotypical traits and the other on inherited phenotypical traits creates a
partial opening as well as a partial closure. The system is partially open in the
sense that people from indigenous backgrounds can achieve a certain
degree of upward racial mobility by acquiring cultural capital through formal
education and changing one’s clothing and body language, as long as acquired
non-phenotypical traits remain the markers of race. However, in many cases,
the constant oscillation between a classiﬁcatory system based on acquired
traits and another based on inherited phenotypical traits results in their pheno-
typical traits becoming hurdles in the process of achieving upward mobility. In
other words, even when they try to acquire the embodied non-phenotypical
traits of the dominant white-mestizo elites through a long and hard process,
their phenotypical traits can still mark them as indigenous. Nevertheless, the
ﬂuidity and partial openness inspire them to try hard, forget and dissociate
themselves from their indigenous origins.
This process of seeking upward racial mobility has been theorized by Rivera
Cusicanqui (1993)asadeﬁning characteristic of Andean colonial mestizaje, in
which multiple social strata are positioned on a continuum with two poles,
one white and the other Indian. The degree of discrimination suﬀered by a
person depends on his or her proximity to the Indian pole and there has
been a constant attempt by the people to seek upward racial mobility
(which is a slow process that can even take generations) by imitating those
positioned above them in the continuum and distancing themselves from
those below them. Roitman, in her analysis of racial dynamics in Ecuador
points out that this quest for being included in the mestizo category
through diﬀerentiating oneself from Indians and Blacks diverts peoplés atten-
tion to denying any links with ethnic others instead of resisting the racism of
those who are at the “summit of the ethnic ladder”(2009, 58). This article
builds on Roitman’s work but complements her study of the elites with a
study of those racialized subjects positioned on the lower rungs of the
ladder. As hegemony works through partial incorporation of the demands
of the hegemonised sectors, it is necessary to explore the meanings the hege-
monic ideology of mestizaje holds for indigenous people seeking upward
racial mobility and their aﬀective investment in the idea.
For instance, the experience of Priscila Calcina reveals the dissimulating
character of the discourse of mestizaje. She is a nurse who lives in the city
of El Alto. Her mother is a ﬁrst-generation migrant to the city from a rural
Aymara community and wears the pollera, the skirt used by indigenous
women of rural origins.Priscila not only became a professional but also
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES 5
gradually acquired many of the embodied traits that are generally associated
with elite white-mestizos. She abided by the latest fashions, wore clothes of
prestigious brands and listened to genres of music that were the favourites
of the white-mestizo elites looking down upon chicha music that is associated
with indigenous and popular sectors. Priscila always hides her indigenous
origins and feigns ignorance of indigenous practices such as making ritual
oﬀerings to the Pachamama (Mother Earth). She married a highly successful
professional who is also of Aymara origin. She sends her son to a private
school where there were few students from indigenous backgrounds. Once
Priscila invited me to a function in her son’s school. Students performed a
dance that dealt with Francisco Pizarro defeating the last Inca emperor Ata-
hualpa. The child who played Pizarro’s role had the whitest skin in the class
and Priscila’s son who looked the most indigenous was chosen to play the
role of Atahualpa. The mother of one of her son’s classmates passed by
telling Priscila’s that her son really looks like the Inca. Priscila took that
comment as a big insult and retorted “What is wrong with you? How bad
you are!!”Despite all her strenuous eﬀorts to achieve upward racial mobility
by acquiring white/mestizo cultural traits, she could not stop her son being
identiﬁed as indigenous due to his phenotypical traits.
The experience of Maribel Rodriguez, a teenager living in a popular neigh-
bourhood of La Paz inhabited by traders of indigenous origin is another case
in point. Both her parents sell toys in the large popular market of Huyustus for
a living. Nobody in her family self-identify as indigenous. Rather they distance
themselves from anything related to indigeneity. Since her childhood, she had
wanted to become a journalist and a television anchorperson. Unlike many
other families of traders of popular background,Maribel’s family sent her to
special courses in art and dance throughout the year. She went to study clas-
sical ballet for four years. Maribel has always been full of energy and was sur-
prisingly diﬀerent from many teenagers of her generation. She was proﬁcient
in most Bolivian folkloric dances like morenada, carporal and cueca, apart
from classical ballet, Arabic and Indian dances. For four years, she lived with
the dream of becoming a television anchor. Everything changed once she
met a journalist who worked for a prominent Bolivian private television
channel. She realized that it is going to be very diﬃcult if not impossible
for her to ﬁnd a job as a television anchor as models who are white and tall
with European physical features are generally preferred over graduates
from the Communication studies programmes. Maribel understood that her
indigenous facial features and body type are deﬁnitely going to hamper her
chances. Maribel was forced to painfully gave up her dream.
These experiences also reveal how the fantasy of upward racial mobility is
also enabled by the denial of one’s racial origin. In the focus group I organized
on urban Aymaras, university student Alejandro Vargas’s spoke on why and
how he used to self-identify as mestizo earlier (before reaﬃrming his
Aymara identity), which illustrates this common form in which the fantasy of
Before I used to identify as mestizo. After reading Reinaga
, you understand who
you are, you analyze who you are. When you realize that everything that you
have been told is a lie, you are in shock. Sometimes you don’t want to come
out of the shock. You take out other elements to not take the shock. So you
say that you are mestizo and not Aymara.
Here, it is palpable how the ideology of mestizaje and the undecidability of
the racial enables a person to be in a state of denial of one’s racial origins. In
other words, the possibility, however limited, of upward racial mobility
encourages an indigenous person to be in denial of the unchangeable fact
of his or her Indian origins and inherited phenotypical traits through the
fantasy of acquiring whiteness and overcoming Indianness. Nevertheless,
the state of being in denial gets interrupted at moments when one gets
racially marked, as it happened with Priscila.
I was reminded of Alejandro Vargas’insightful comment on why people
self-identify as mestizo when I was at the doctor’s waiting room in a public
health centre in El Alto. I got into a conversation with three young women
who were waiting with their infant sons. One of them told the other that
her son has brown skin. The mother of the brown-skinned two-year-old
immediately retorted, “No, he got burnt by the sun”.
Though having a brown skin colour is an inherited phenotypical trait, the
degree of brownness can be an acquired trait, thanks to the climate of the
Andean altiplano. The high altitude causes sunburns and makes the skin
browner. As a consequence, the residents of the countryside have browner
skin due to the large number of hours they work in the ﬁelds and the unavail-
ability of sunscreen lotions. The preoccupation about their children getting
their skin burnt is acuter among parents of indigenous origin; hence the insis-
tence on wearing a hat whenever a child is out in the sun.
Here we see how the possibility, though limited, of acquiring a lighter skin
tone through skin care enables denial of the fact that an inherited trait like
skin colour is not absolutely changeable even through the use of sunscreen
lotions. It is this limited possibility and partial openness that keeps the
fantasy alive through the denial of an uncomfortable fact.
From the perspective of the indigenous person seeking upward racial
mobility, mestizaje is an aspirational project of constructing a chain of equiv-
alence with the dominant sectors. According to Laclau and Mouﬀe(
2001), the formation of a chain of equivalence that constructs a common iden-
tity through the articulation of disparate elements is the mechanism through
which hegemony is constructed. For urban and other upwardly mobile indi-
genous sectors, that implies identiﬁcation with the white-mestizos and disi-
dentiﬁcation with other indigenous sectors who are positioned below them
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES 7
in the continuum. On the other hand, even if they hold on to the identity of a
mestizo, the dominant elites do not generally aspire to construct a chain of
equivalence with the indigenous people seeking to become mestizos. They
maintain their diﬀerences with the urban indigenous groups in every possible
way asserting their racial superiority.
However, what maintained the hegemony of the ideology of mestizaje was
the promise that kept the fantasy alive. Racial hegemony is maintained by the
simultaneous working of two processes:
(a) Allowing a partial opening makes the system appear inclusive and
encourages indigenous people to construct a chain of equivalence with
the white- mestizos as an aspirational project and disidentify with the
rest of the indigenous population. This prevents the system from being
challenged from below and makes the unity of people from all indigen-
ous backgrounds diﬃcult to achieve.
(b) The partial closure of the system, on the other hand, makes the project of
upward racial mobility very unfeasible. There may be cases of individual
mobility but the diﬃculty of the process ensures that they are the excep-
tion rather than the norm, thereby maintaining the hegemony of the
dominant white- mestizo elites. Acquiring embodied non-phenotypical
traits of whiteness (as theorized by Weismantel cited on page 2) is an
extremely hard and long process, and even when somebody manages
to attain them, inherited traits like skin colour, eye colour, stature can
act as stumbling blocks. Moreover, apart from the symbolic traits and
racialized cultural capital, racial privileges accumulated over generations
in the form of social and economic capital remain the iron fortress that
shields the hierarchical position of the dominant white-mestizo elites.
As Casaús Arzú (1992) and Roitman (2009) show in their works on Guate-
mala and Ecuador respectively, the reproduction of economic and politi-
cal power through business and matrimonial alliances has been an age-
old strategy of white elites since the colonial era in the continent.
Nevertheless, the promise of redemption through education and “civiliza-
tion”created by the ideology of mestizaje makes the fortress look pregnable.
The undecidable character of the racial that enables one to achieve upward
racial mobility in some situations and instances, and prevents the same possi-
bility in some others keeps the fantasy alive.
Resistance to the ideology of mestizaje
The ideology of mestizaje faced a serious challenge since the beginning of the
twenty-ﬁrst century with a resurgence of indigenous identity. This process
also redrew political boundaries and a new chain of equivalence between
all indigenous and popular sectors emerged. As opposed to disidentiﬁcation
with the rural indigenous, large sections of the urban indigenous population
now adhere to the political project of creating a chain of equivalence with the
former against the dominant white- mestizo elites. The process of the con-
struction of this new chain of equivalence began with the cycle of mobiliz-
ations against racial neoliberalism from 2000 to 2005 and culminated in the
election of the ﬁrst indigenous president Evo Morales.
The aspirational project of constructing a chain of equivalence with the
dominant white mestizo elites was based on the promise of upward racial
mobility through mestizaje. The decline of that aspiration and the redrawing
of boundaries of racial identiﬁcation was a product of the revelation of the
unfeasibility of the promise. The latter appeared to be hollow more than
never before during the neoliberal era that witnessed an increase in racial
and class inequalities. Deindianization through mestizaje came to be seen
by many as a nearly impossible ideal. The belief in the possibility of upward
racial mobility through education and other forms of mimesis despite skin
colour has been declining. The proportion of those self-identifying as indigen-
ous and rejecting the assimilationist project of mestizaje has risen dramati-
cally, which led to the emergence of a counter-hegemonic force against the
existing racial hegemony. This was reﬂected in the 2001 census in which 62
per cent of the population self-identiﬁed as belonging to one of the indigen-
ous groups. Though there was a surprising 20 per cent decrease in the popu-
lation self-identifying as indigenous in the 2012 census, Moreno, Vargas, and
Osorio (2014) attributes this to the diﬀerence in the framing of the question
on self-identiﬁcation in the census. Using LAPOP data, they point out that indi-
genous self-identiﬁcation increases when the 2001 census question is
retained in the surveys conducted in 2012. The increase in indigenous self-
identiﬁcation and a rejection of mestizo identity (in some cases) as a
product of collective pride generated through participation in political mobil-
izations with indigenous protagonism has also been ethnographically docu-
mented (Ravindran forthcoming, 2015). It was this dramatic shift in
collective identities that occurred in the ﬁrst few years of the twenty ﬁrst
century that brought Evo Morales into power.
For these social sectors who proudly aﬃrm their indigenous origins,
upward racial mobility is no longer the concern as the goal is not to climb ver-
tically towards the white pole of the racial continuum. Nevertheless, upward
class mobility continues to be a central preoccupation among Andean indi-
genous sectors. Bolivia has witnessed the emergence of a new class of rich
traders from the indigenous popular sectors who have been replacing the tra-
ditional bourgeoisie from various spheres of the economy. However, in con-
trast to earlier times, when upward class mobility was seen as a route to
upward racial mobility and deindianization, most (economically) upwardly
mobile Aymaras take pride in their indigenous origin. In other words,
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES 9
upward class mobility has been delinked from upward racial mobility, which
subverts the age-old belief in Latin America expressed through the adage
“money whitens”. However, these signiﬁcant transformations in collective
identities should not make us oblivious to the fact that there are still some
people who continue to seek upward racial mobility by denying their indigen-
ous origins, as evidenced by the cases discussed above.
What has been the impact of the resurgence of indigenous identity on
racialized everyday social relations? Has this process been able to make a
dent in structural and institutional racism? The two questions raised above
correspond to the two analytically distinct but organically linked aspects of
race as theorized by racial formation theorists Michael Omi and Howard
Winant. They argue that race is a matter of both social structure and cultural
representation, and that both aspects need to be considered in their intercon-
nection to understand the functioning of race (Omi and Winant 2014). The fol-
lowing section takes up these questions one by one.
Undecidability and everyday racial representations
During interviews and informal interactions with the people of El Alto, the
overwhelming response to my questions on the persistence of racial discrimi-
nation in contemporary Bolivia was that having an Indian president, the
increasing presence of indigenous people, especially women wearing the
pollera in positions of institutional power and the new law against racism
has signiﬁcantly reduced discrimination. Most of them contrast the older
era when racial discrimination was the order of the day and the current era
when they are treated with respect. Gabriela Condori, a vendor of vegetables
in various neighbourhood fairs in El Alto said,
Earlier we cholitas (indigenous women wearing the pollera skirt) were treated
badly. We were told ‘Why do you come with your sack? You have such a
huge sack’. Now we are also conﬁdent. We feel safe, walk with their heads
high and are not scared.
Hilda Apaza, a seventy-year-old fruit vendor is totally in agreement. “There is
no more discrimination. Now people defend themselves. This has changed
because of having a president who is not a q’ara (white-mestizo elite). He is
of our own kind. The campesino (peasant) also has a mouth now”. she
aﬃrmed. There is much truth in these assertions. For instance, it is very
common to see indigenous women wearing the pollera in public spaces
where their presence would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago.
Nevertheless, my research reveals that despite a process of indigenous
revalorization, increasing sense of triumphalism among indigenous people
and a reduction of practices of everyday racism, various forms of internalized
racism persist. Studies on internalized racism have shown how the
10 T. RAVINDRAN
internalization of racial oppression among the dominated racial groups con-
tributes to the reproduction of racial power structures (Hale 1996; Nelson
1999; Pyke 2010).
The contradictory discourses of Fernanda Mamani, a young Aymara activist
in El Alto is a case in point. Fernanda was actively involved in the 2003 rebel-
lion as a young nineteen-year-old. She was also part of a network of indigen-
ous and youth organizations in El Alto and told me that she self-identiﬁes as
“100 per cent Aymara”. Currently, she works for an NGO. When I interviewed
her at her oﬃce one day, she told me that discrimination for skin colour used
to exist earlier, but not anymore. In “neoliberal times”, when people applied
for jobs, those who had white skins and were taller had a better chance,
she lamented. She was also optimistic that things are changing and that dis-
crimination in the job market hardly exists now.
Another day, Fernanda introduced me to Roger Paredes, a friend of hers
whom she said could share with me his experience of participating in mobil-
izations against ex-President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in 2003. Sitting in a
restaurant called Pollolandia in the centre of El Alto, we spoke for an hour
about his participation in the protests. Later, Roger asked me about my
family, where I live in El Alto, what got me interested in Bolivia and so on.
Roger suggested that I marry a cholita from Bolivia. It was not the ﬁrst time
I had received a similar suggestion. Most people used to say that as a joke.
Fernanda told me that I can try it and take her friend’s advice seriously. She
then went on, “In Sorata, there are very beautiful cholitas. They are tall,
white and have blue eyes”. The underlying assumption was that women
with more European features and colour are deﬁnitely more beautiful more
than those with indigenous features and therefore those who have some
European features are the most beautiful among the cholitas. It sounded as
if she was trying to reassure me that there are also beautiful women
among the cholitas and that all cholitas are not ugly as I might have observed.
Fernanda had told me how she grew up seeing her mother who is a cholita
being discriminated against and treated badly in public oﬃces and by resi-
dents of the city of La Paz where she worked. Her statement on the existence
of beautiful cholitas sounded like a defense of cholita pride against the domi-
nant perception that cholitas are dirty, smelly and ugly. However, the fact that
she had to seek solace in the existence of a few cholitas in the far away town
of Sorata with white physical features reveals her internalized racist percep-
tions on beauty.
Through the course of my ﬁeldwork, I came across similar instances of
radical indigenous youth holding on to the dominant idea of beauty,
despite having powerful critiques of colonial social relations in Bolivia. As
Shakow (2014) observes in her ﬁeldwork in the city of Cochabamba, irrespec-
tive of one’s political leanings, beauty is seen as synonymous with white skin
and European physical features. For instance, Evo Morales has been actively
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES 11
promoting beauty contests and their winners with white skins and European
physical features (Canessa 2012).
An analysis of the discourses of Fernanda Mamani brings us back to the
role played by the undecidability of the racial. Here, Fernanda strips the
term cholita of all its phenotypical meanings and considers it as referring to
a woman wearing the pollera. The undecidability of the racial permits an indi-
genous woman to be deﬁned in either cultural or biological terms. Fernanda
does not always deﬁne race in cultural terms. As mentioned above, on a
diﬀerent occasion, she also spoke to me about discrimination that existed
in the job market due to skin colour and physical features. As explained
earlier, undecidability makes one hold multiple concepts of the racial and
keep moving between them even without being self-conscious of the move-
ment. It thus enables someone to be very radically anti-racist in one sense and
simultaneously hold internalized racist beliefs in another. The undecidable
character of the racial thus opens the possibility of the simultaneous co-exist-
ence of radical anti-racist consciousness and internalized racist beliefs and
Undecidability and structural racism
A transformation of durable structures of racial privilege and power is a much
more diﬃcult task than a change in subjective ideas and beliefs about race.
Structural racism has multiple dimensions, such as economic inequalities, dis-
parities in the provision of services such as education and health, and discrimi-
nation in the criminal justice system. Here, I focus speciﬁcally on political
In the Constituent Assembly convened by the Morales government, 56 per
cent of the delegates declared themselves indigenous (Farthing and Kohl
2014). Indigenous people occupy positions of power like never before in
the history of the country. For instance, women wearing the pollera have
been holding positions of high oﬃce like ministers, ambassadors, directors
of institutions and the President of the Constituent Assembly.
However, it is important to note that the most important cabinet positions
in all three Morales governments, except that of external aﬀairs, have been
disproportionately held by those belonging to the white-mestizo middle
class. Farthing and Kohl (2014) observe that the ﬁrst cabinet of Evo Morales
had more ministers of indigenous backgrounds; however, within a year, he
changed half of his cabinet and indigenous representation reduced signiﬁ-
cantly. The positions of the latter were ﬁlled by white-mestizo middle class
left intellectuals. This could be attributed to the fact that the indigenous min-
isters commanded little authority among the bureaucracy that could not shed
its racist and elitist prejudices. For instance, Casimira Rodriguez, the leader of
the domestic workers union who was appointed the ﬁrst Minister of Justice
12 T. RAVINDRAN
pointed this out in an interview with Farthing and Kohl (2014, 58), “I didn’t
receive support from the vice ministers and advisers who resented my lack
of formal training. They couldn’t get used to the idea of a maid being their
boss”. Similarly, Benecio Quispe, the then vice minister of higher education
resigned from his position in 2013 accusing the Minister of Education of dis-
criminating against him for being indigenous and Aymara. “I never thought
that in this process of decolonization, I could suﬀer racism so cruel and
reﬁned but hidden”, he declared in his letter of resignation to President
Perspectives on indigenous political representation in Bolivia range from
aﬃrmations of indigenous people already being well represented to critiques
of the persistence of white-mestizo dominance in political institutions. A
debate between the members of the Movimiento Indianista Katarista
(MINKA) and Generación Evo, a youth organization formed by the supporters
of President Morales in 2013 highlighted these two positions. The members of
Generación Evo are predominantly from white-mestizo elite backgrounds.
Wilmer Machaca, a member of the MINKA wrote an article critiquing the Gen-
eración Evo as an organization of q’aras who try to reproduce their “caste pri-
vileges”and persist in power by associating themselves with the ruling MAS.
He links it to the larger history of the traditional left parties in Bolivia which
have always been led by the white-mestizo elites. He argues that though
there are other youth organizations that support the MAS, it is the Generación
Evo that is given more importance by the government due to the links their
members maintain with the white-mestizo representatives in the govern-
ment. As an illustration, he points out that the leader of Generación Evo,
Valeria Silva, a white- mestizo woman from an elite class background,
became a substitute parliamentarian instead of the members of other
youth organizations aﬃliated to the MAS that are predominantly composed
of indigenous youth. In Machacas’s words,
Surely the members of Generación Evo do not see problems in their relationship
with the indigenous. How would they if the members of the dominant caste
have lived and continue to live the relationship of domination they have over
the indigenous as normal? For them, there is no problem, since childhood,
they are used to be in command of the indigenous. (2015,3)
The q’aras prepare themselves to lead, something which does not happen
among the indigenous youth, he asserts. Machaca aﬃrms that though the
q’ara left might have good intentions, the social structure conditions them
as well as the indigenous to act in ways that reproduce the same structure.
The issue generated a lot of discussion in Indianista circles. It was a major
topic of reﬂection and debate in some of the talks organized by the organiz-
ation MINKA in the Universidad Publica de El Alto. Jesus Humerez, a student of
social work in the university and a member of Trabajadores Sociales
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES 13
Comunitarios (Communitarian Social Workers- TSCB), an organization associ-
ated with the MAS gave a talk on decolonization in which he raised the ques-
tion of why none of the members of the organization TSCB, almost all of
whom are of indigenous origin were imagining the possibility of occupying
positions of leadership in the MAS. He pointed out the stark contrast
between his organization and the Generación Evo, whose members (who
would be in the same age group as those of the TSCB) are already preparing
to assume important roles in the government. The thought of occupying high
positions of power hardly crossed the minds of the members of the TSCB, he
The sense of entitlement, which the white-mestizo elites have, is part of
their habitus, which in turn, is a product of centuries of accumulated racial pri-
vilege. It is that privilege that translates into the conﬁdence that enables them
to dream of occupying positions of high power. Their family and social circles
are full of people in such positions and it is not diﬃcult for them to dream of
holding a high position as it would be for somebody from an Aymara family.
Apart from the internalization of a sense of entitlement, another advantage
the white-mestizo leftist youth have is social and cultural capital. They
belong to a social sphere where they already have connections and networks,
familial or otherwise with white-mestizo left intellectuals who occupy the
majority of positions of high power in the government. The guidance of
these intellectuals who might be part of their immediate social circles gives
them better opportunities to become the left ideologues and political
leaders of the next generation.
To everyone’s surprise, Generación Evo invited MINKA member Carlos
Macusaya to deliver a talk in the Vice-president’soﬃce of Bolivia. After the
talk, Valeria Silva, the leader of Generación Evo took the opportunity to
respond to the critiques made by MINKA of her group. After saying that she
agrees with 99 per cent of what Macusaya said in his talk, she accused the
MINKA of holding a “mechanistic”and “essentialist”perspective.
She argued that Indianness is not a genetic question and is neither
reﬂected in the colour of one’s face or eyes or last name. For her, Indianness
and whiteness lie in the political project which one upholds and works for, and
the kind of life one leads. In her criteria, a white woman can, therefore, con-
sider herself Indian depending upon the political causes for which she
struggles. It does not matter that they (members of Generación Evo) look
whiter than some others as long as their political project is Indian power
and Indian self-government, she said. Just because they have white skins
and live in a particular area of the city (in reference to the Zona Sur of La
Paz inhabited by white-mestizo elites), they do not automatically reproduce
racial power hierarchies, she asserted.
This conceptualization of race may sound strange in other parts of the
world but it has deep roots in previous theorizations of race in the Andes.
14 T. RAVINDRAN
As undecidability characterized the racial classiﬁcation system, it also
marked discourses of resistance to racism. For instance, the element of
undecidability is evident even in the political discourse of the most
radical Indianista intellectual Fausto Reinaga. Sometimes, his positions
border on biological determinism. In the Manifesto of the Partido Indio Boli-
viano (PIB), he constructs an argument on racial purity. He argues that the
Indian race is “pure”, with “uncontaminated blood”. For him, the mestizo
race is a product of rape and violence. He goes to the extent of building
a naturalistic argument that the violence at the base of the creation of
the mestizo race “might”explain its perverse human nature (Reinaga
1969). On other occasions, he explains Indianness in non- biological terms.
His statement “the Indian is not the color of the skin, but of the soul, of
the ideas”(Lo indio no es color del cuero, sino del alma, de las ideas)is
famous. In his writings, he gives examples of people of white origin with
Indian souls and Indians who became westernized.
Here, the undecidability of the racial does not take the form of alternation
between acquired and inherited traits, but that of an alternation between skin
colour and certain cultural characteristics on one hand and political positions
on the other. Nevertheless, this alternation also leads to the reproduction of
structural racial inequalities.
As elaborated earlier, the undecidability of the racial enables someone to
be very radically anti-racist in one sense and simultaneously reproduce
racial power in another. Going by a deﬁnition of race that is based on one’s
political stance, Valeria Silva argued that she has an equal right as any
person of Aymara origin to occupy positions of power in the new indigenous
government because her politics makes her Indian too. Here, the question of
racial privilege and inherited privileges gets buried.
The positions held by the members of the group Generación Evo smack of
ventriloquism. In her analysis of Ecuador, Martínez Novo (2018) points out that
ventriloquist discourses are deployed by dominant groups who speak for indi-
genous people while denying the latteŕs experiences. For her, ventriloquism is
a discursive style that can be traced to Latin Americás colonial past. The Boli-
vian experience reveals how ventriloquism, in some cases, is also enabled by
the undecidability of the racial.
Having an indigenous president was inconceivable two decades ago. The
number of indigenous people holding positions of power has also increased
dramatically. Though it is important to recognize these tremendous achieve-
ments, one cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that structural racial inequal-
ities still persist to a considerable degree as reﬂected in the composition of
the cabinet, the discriminatory treatment received by indigenous oﬃce
bearers in the government and the convenient ignorance of their own
inherited structural racial privileges by elite white-mestizo youth leaders of
the ruling party.
ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES 15
This article shows how the ideology of mestizaje lures racialized subjects into
a fantasy of deindianization and whitening, which can never be fulﬁlled. The
undecidable character of the racial, marked by the constant oscillation
between multiple meanings of race feeds this fantasy, thereby encouraging
racialized subjects to move upwards along the racial continuum rather than
unite with those positioned below them to struggle collectively against the
dominant racial order. It is by making these partial concessions and feeding
the fantasy that racial hegemony gets reproduced. In that sense, it is impor-
tant to see mestizaje as a form of hegemony and the enduring character of
it has to be understood in relation to the construction of identities.
Political mobilizations in Bolivia at the beginning of the twenty-ﬁrst century
seriously challenged existing racial hegemony and set in motion a process of
the revalorization of indigeneity. Nevertheless, as shown above, the same
undecidable character of the racial that maintains racial hegemony also con-
tributes to the persistence of internalized racism and the reproduction of
structural racial inequalities in contexts where racial hegemony is being
This article deals with Andean Bolivia. Though similar processes are obser-
vable in the lowland regions of the country, in the latter, the same logics
operate in articulation with other dynamics such as regionalism (Fabricant
2009) and the discrimination of lowland indigenous people by their highland
counterparts and the state (Postero 2017), an analysis of which is beyond the
scope of this article. The goal of this study is to explore the processes through
which racial hegemony established by the ideology of mestizaje functions,
and the challenges underlying anti-racist politics that challenges the same.
As political mobilizations in El Alto partially challenged the hegemony of
the ideology of mestizaje, the city becomes a privileged ethnographic site
to examine both the mechanisms through which mestizaje as an assimilation-
ist project gets reproduced and the challenges underlying anti-racist politics
that confronts the same, both of which are processes that have resonances
far beyond Bolivia.
The analysis of the relationship between the undecidability of the racial
marked by a constant alternation between multiple classiﬁcatory logics and
the perpetuation of racial hegemony can also explain racial dynamics in
other parts of the continent. Scholarship on race in Latin America has
pointed out the existence of multiple classiﬁcatory systems. A theoretical
movement from multidimensionality to undecidability and its consequences
(that I propose in this article) reveals a crucial underlying cause for the main-
tenance of racial hegemony.
Research on race and ethnicity at the global level have revealed that race is
ﬂuid, mercurial and chimerical (Hodes 2003), chameleon-like (Holt 2000), and
16 T. RAVINDRAN
malleable (Wade 2002), and have argued that it is precisely due to these
characteristics that race continues to wield considerable power in contempor-
ary times, despite all the historical transformations the world has witnessed. At
the same time, scholars have also called for an analysis of the speciﬁc forms in
which race, in all its malleability gets constructed diﬀerently in each context
across time and space (Gotkowitz 2011; Holt 2000), as there are historically
speciﬁc racisms rather than a singular ahistorical racism. This work heeds
that call and analyzes the Bolivian experience at this particular conjecture
marked by signiﬁcant changes but also continuities. However, as the trans-
formations Bolivia has witnessed since the beginning of this century has
been dramatic, this speciﬁc experience has a lot to teach us about racism in
1. Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identity of all the interlocutors in the
2. Fausto Reinaga was the most important Indianista intellectual and political acti-
vist in Bolivia. Most contemporary Indianistas claim to have been inspired by
3. News report in eju.tv available in http://eju.tv/2013/07/viceministro-del-
gobierno-de-evo-renuncia-por-racismo-cruel-reﬁnado-y-oculto/ Accessed 16/
The author would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers, Charles Hale, Jaime
Alves and Circe Sturm for their insightful comments on an earlier version of this work.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author.
Research for this article was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation
[grant number 1259599] and the Wenner Gren Foundation [grant number 8671].
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