[URBANTH-L] REV: Arratia on Lazar, El Alto, Rebel City: Self and Citienship in Andean Bolivia

Angela Jancius jancius3022 at comcast.net
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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