REV: Arratia on Lazar, El Alto, Rebel City: Self and Citienship in
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Wed Feb 4 17:02:47 EST 2009
The Anthropology Review Database
Lazar, Sian. 2008 _El Alto, Rebel City: Self and Citizenship in Andean
Bolivia_. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. Notes: xiii, 328 p.
: ill. ; 24 cm. ISBN: 9780822341291 .
Reviewed 16 Jan 2009 by Maria-Ines Arratia arratia at mcmaster.ca,
Anthropology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sian Lazar's work is an innovative ethnographic account that makes for very
interesting reading. Life in the city of El Alto is relatively urban yet at
the same time rural. A significant part of the population is composed of
recent migrants who are still closely connected by kinship ties to their
rural places of origin. Largely indigenous, this population tends to
reproduce in the new setting some of their traditional patterns of human
relations, albeit in an adapted mode. These complex, interlinked, highly
nuanced phenomena are very effectively portrayed.
The book is over 265 pages long, including informative endnotes,
glossary, an extensive bibliography and twenty photographs of events
narrated in the text. A chart at the end of the introduction shows the
various civic organizations and their nested relationships within the
nation-state. In addition, the author has set up her own website where she
has posted videos of her fieldwork (see www.sianlazar.net).
Given the nature of the ethnographic material, the book's structuring
in two parts enables the reader to follow an inductive process that unravels
the nuanced, multi-layered expressions of identity and citizenship in one
particular neighbourhood: Rosas Pampa. Individual stories of the vecinos
(residents) of this 'zone' and events in which the author conducted her
participant observation, illustrate the practices, philosophy and embodiment
of citizenship. This inductive process begins with depictions and analyses
of grounded identities. The narrative shows how individuals experience
citizenship at a personal level, in a context where place is imbued with the
symbolic value connecting the population of El Alto -- largely
self-identified as Aymara -- with their belief system and their ongoing
reciprocity with the Pachamama (a Pan-Andean philosophical 'Mother Earth').
This is the substance of part one, composed of chapters one to five.
In part two, chapters six to eight, the narrative moves into collective
organizational patterns. While the significant organizations are primarily
occupational in nature, they are also linked to the use of spaces for
political purposes, to the positioning of people 'in-between' (the power to
be found in "liminality", as posed by Victor Turner) and to expressions of
citizenship in the face of the broader context of the nation-state. Indeed,
the final chapters provide illustrations of how collectives link with the
state, and how the various levels of organization operate in the presence
and absence of that state.
Lazar's data shows that the political force of the 'multitude' is one
to be reckoned with in Bolivia. In addition, she shows how individuals
strategize within their intertwined memberships. These layers of nested
affiliations connecting individuals with their collectives and in turn with
the structures of power are evidence of how citizenship is experienced in
organized relationships, which people acknowledge and value as vida organica
Agency is central in this ethnography. Through various personal
stories, Lazar sheds light upon the dynamic, complex and multifaceted nature
of gendered agency, as well as on the nature of leadership. Her
illustrations show various forms of agency playing into the constitution of
fluid communities, governing the relationships among people, exerting
pressure upon their leaders, and... of "the multitude's" relationships with
place-made-spiritual. In this regard, the most striking feature of the
narrative is its often dizzying detail, which the author is careful to
connect with the conceptual frameworks found within the Andean literature,
in particular, and more broadly with theoretical discussions in
anthropology. But even though keeping up with the various "characters"
requires some effort in some passages, this certainly does not diminish the
theoretical value of Lazar's contributions.
El Alto, Rebel City would be a tremendous asset to graduate students
planning to conduct fieldwork in any hybrid urban setting throughout Latin
America, and beyond, where historically constituted inequalities based on
ethnicity and class are being played out in a context of increased
consciousness about human rights. The overarching aim in these settings,
where varying degrees of multiculturalism exist, would seem to be the
construction of participatory democratic projects, in opposition to
neo-liberal, global processes. Therefore, the book provides a highly
informative and very rich account of grounded politics that would also
benefit students and researchers in political science, most certainly
students and scholars interested in social justice movements. This, of
course, does not exclude the possibility that the ethnography could be used
in higher undergraduate thematic courses dealing with the complexities of
citizenship, the rural-urban divide, and participation in local, regional
and national politics. However, the complex nature of this work may pose
some challenges to many undergraduate readers.
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