A few days ago I arrived at the office to find the very pleasant surprise that Duke had sent me a copy of Marc Becker’s new Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador’s Modern Indigenous Movements. Marc is a very good friend who helped me greatly in my early days as a graduate student when I was working on the very same topic. He was generous even when our work overlapped, in ways that are sometimes hard to come by in the relatively small academic world of those of us who study Ecuador.
I haven’t yet had the chance to read this final iteration of the manuscript, but one of Marc’s central theses is that the emergence of explicitly indigenous movements in the 1980s and 1990s in Ecuador and across Latin America was never so much a post-Marxist New Social Movement phenomenon as an extension of many, many decades of organization by indigenous communities as indigenous actors in concert with leftists from the city. In the book Marc tells this complicated story through the history of indigenous organizing in the city and region of Cayambe, north of Quito, Ecuador. Many scholars in the 1990s (at one point myself included) interpreted the rise of indigenous movements in the region within the context of NSM and cultural theory, privileging positions of cultural politics as a way out of the crisis of marxism and political agency that marked the day. It was very easy to see the demands of indigenous movements as somehow distinct, and disconnected from the progressive class politics of post-Cuban Revolutionary Latin America.
Indians and Leftists provides an antidote to this bit of overstatement that, while recognizing a genealogy of political engagement- in the case of Ecuador reaching to the Shuar in the 1960s- had a tendency to go to far in establishing positions of political subjectivity in terms of culture and citizenship. This tended to mask the very real material underpinnings of the indigenous movements’ politics, underpinnings tied to the long history of left-indigenous organizing documented so well by Becker. In part, the tendencies of the the 1990s to see culture everywhere have been lessened by almost two decades of direct political engagement in Ecuador by the indigenous movement. Likewise, for historians at least, the burden of those theoretical arguments are less strident. In either case, Becker’s work offers a picture of political engagement that sees the 1990s as less innovative, or shiny, or new or something, and more the product of a sustained process of indigenous organizing and political agitation dating from the moments of emergence in the 1910s and 1920s of modern socialist and communist action in Latin America. For that, it is an important book.