Anna Babel on her new book, Between the Andes and the Amazon

Interview by Diego Arispe-Bazan

Diego Arispe-Bazan: In between each chapter you feature ethnographic reflections that focus on the context of the city of Saipina (where you conducted your research), the people you spent time with there, including some with whom you are very close. Why did you choose this format to highlight those reflections, separate from the chapters themselves?

Anna Babel: The ethnographic interludes were bits of ethnographic writing that didn’t seem to fit with the themes I covered in the chapters, yet were essential to the way that I wanted to tell my story. I felt it was important to highlight the personal side of conducting research with people I have close relationships with and know very well. (This is a theoretical positioning that has drawn a lot of heat from reviewers over the years, so I know it’s an important one to keep hammering away at!) This is also a way of pointing to my consultants’ own stories and biographies and, as I say in the book, how these ideas that seem so very abstract can have quite real consequences for real-life people. One of the reviewers encouraged me to think of them as a story within a story, connecting with each other like a bridge or a web that draws the chapters together. I hope that is something that I managed to do. Also, I realized after I published the book that Bret Gustafson’s New Languages of the State uses a very similar structure, so perhaps there was some unconscious imitation going on there as well.

Diego Arispe-Bazan:  One of the most important interventions in your book, I would say, is the exploration of the sometimes contradictory ways in which people draw from the semiotic field to both perform and construe behaviors and objects as “authentic,” “traditional,” or “local.” You show how culinary choices, pants, and loan words from an indigenous language—which one might expect to be iconic of certain identities—are clustered and re-signified in unexpected ways. Can you say
more about this interplay between structure and its (re)articulation in interaction?

Anna Babel: Yes! Exactly what you said, social structures are both out there and apparently fixed, and also constantly in play and in interaction. It’s pretty neat that we, as human beings, can do this. People seem more invested in the contrasts or divisions between categories than they are in the nitty-gritty of exactly what belongs where, so sometimes things get classified in surprising ways. Rosalind Howard talks about this in her wonderful article “Pachamama is a Spanish word.” In the case of Saipina, my field site, people use loanwords that come from Quechua, Aymara, and Guaraní, but they’re often coded as local/traditional/authentic rather than as indigenous per se. The range of choices and interpretations of cooking and styles of dress is rather dizzying; but I never get tired of hearing people fight over whether plates like tojorí (cooked corn in milk, highland pronunciation) or tujuré (cooked corn in milk, lowland pronunciation) are authentically local or not. The fact that Saipina has this “in-between” positioning makes it the perfect place to negotiate category boundaries and what, exactly, gets included where. The main point that I make in the book is that no category exists in a vacuum; rather, it’s the contrasts and relationships between categories that people use to make meaning.

Diego Arispe-Bazan: Saipina’s in-between status, geographically and otherwise, allows for encounters between Bolivians who identify (and are identified) in various ways: cambas, collas, MASistas, Autónomos, and so on. In Chapter 5, you give examples of explicit discussions of indigeneity and belonging to indigenous groups, but throughout you give us rich accounts of how the sign-markers I mention in the previous question position individuals differently. How might this approach to notions of indigeneity help us rethink extant notions of race in the region?

Anna Babel: It feels kind of daunting to jump in to that discussion! I am always drawing on Marisol de la Cadena’s work, Andrew Canessa, Krista Van Vleet, and other scholars when I think about race and its fluidity and its connections with gender and class. Yet the way that people talk about race in the Andes doesn’t always fit well with the way that I experienced or interpreted it in Saipina. Language really stands out as an example of this; even people who claim to be Spanish monolinguals often know a lot of Quechua, and/or speak a variety of Spanish that is deeply structurally influenced by Quechua. Yet you have to have the right kind of social positioning in order to use that variety of Spanish, or it can blow up in your face. And, as we’ve seen elsewhere, people can simultaneously discriminate against others because of their racial or ethnic positioning and be discriminated against themselves in different contexts. I think you see
this really clearly in the stories of the young people who have migrated to urban centers and find themselves struggling to figure out where they belong. They’re Spanish speakers who probably wouldn’t identify as indigenous, yet they are racialized and treated as bumpkins in the city because of the way they talk, dress, eat, and so on.

Claims to language and ethnicity are constantly being evaluated against other kinds of
positioning – political, styles of dress, and so on. People use different combinations of signs to position themselves from moment to moment or from year to year, depending on what their goals are and what they think they can get away with. I guess what I’m trying to say, as above, is that race is never just about race, just as language is never just about language. It’s all about comparing how everything fits together, and what stands out.

Diego Arispe-Bazan:  You bring in lyrics from popular songs as well as visuals from their music videos to pair with your ethnographic data at different points in the book. How did you come across them? Did your interlocutors point them out to you or were they playing on the radio, in your media sphere? I was intrigued about the possible linkages between these instances of entextualization of particular gender and language ideologies and what kind of reception they received in Saipina.

Anna Babel: Nick Emlen pointed out in his review of the book in Anthropological Linguistics that I also use a lot of jokes as data in my book! The songs on the radio, the jokes, and other bits of popular culture that I draw on were very much in circulation in Saipina during my research. Back before cell phones were widespread, everyone listened to the radio nonstop, and there was really only one station that got good reception across town, so we all listened to the same songs all day long. People thought the Patas Kjarkas song (about a young woman who migrates to the city), which I discuss in Chapter 8, was pretty hilarious. It really touched something about the zeitgeist of Saipina at that time. Honestly, people love to laugh, and they often embed elements of social and political satire into their jokes.

The other two songs and the music videos were things that I came across later, when people started posting on social media, Facebook and YouTube. My perception is that the vastly greater access to those “new” media really fractured the unity of the experience that I observed in pre-Internet Saipina. But of course it brought new possibilities with it, too; interacting with people long-distance via WhatsApp, sharing memes, Facebook pages, and so on. One of my younger consultants was showing me a series of videos on YouTube that he had downloaded to his cell phone, back when the Internet was really slow, and I asked him:  “How long did it take you to download these?” “Oh, not long,” he answered, “Maybe an hour or so” — for a three-minute video! Anyway, it just goes to show that people are still sharing and circulating bits of popular culture, just in different ways.

Diego Arispe-Bazan: The political divide between MASistas and Autónomos is one of the crucial axes of identity-making in contemporary Bolivia. However, you also mention that instances of political violence in the past inform people’s perceptions of contemporary political affiliation, especially those who lived through them. How are these trajectories discussed among people in Saipina? And thinking about the semiotic field, how do Sapineños themselves openly discuss the processes by
which circulating metapragmatic evaluations of sign-markers of belonging in general (since you show that political affiliation is imbricated in other aspects of identity) become enregistered over time?

Anna Babel: That’s a tough question that deserves a multi-part answer. Regarding politics, I’ve always been fascinated by stories of the hacienda days, when my older consultants lived in conditions of essentially forced labor, with no rights to land ownership. Land ownership in particular has been a really difficult issue; the 1952 Agricultural Reform Act is still being fought out in the area around Saipina. Only a few years ago a group of agricultural workers brought a lawsuit against one of the large landowners that they eventually won. This is a very touchy subject; even people who are generally in favor of social reform don’t like the idea that it could be their land that is taken away from them. Another touchy subject is drug circulation and processing; that’s been an economic reality in the Saipina area for a good thirty to forty years, on and off, and obviously it’s closely connected to Bolivian politics. So I think there’s not only political violence in the past, but the legacy of past policies in the present that affects people.

I’m not sure that people in Saipina would discuss signs and belonging in exactly the words that you chose, but they definitely get at these topics through jokes and gossip (two of my favorite genres). I think that’s what people mean when they joke about two collas crossing the river Piraí and then the first one trying to prevent the second one from getting out of the water, saying “Go back where you came from!” And it’s certainly there when people make fun of migrants picking up different styles of speech, whether it’s the Eastern lowland camba dialect or peninsular Spanish from Barcelona. It’s also one of the things that underlies discussions of authenticity or lack thereof; people are constantly picking out signs and evaluating whether they fit and why. At the same time, it’s easier for me to see the changes since I dip in and out as a researcher; I can look back at my recordings or my field notes and see that oh, so-and-so said or did something completely different back in 2008. That gives me a different perspective than
people who are living and experiencing micro-shifts in social positioning on a daily or a weekly basis, where things seem more gradual and less noticeable.

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