For “Latin America,” the arrival of the Spanish in 1492 necessarily marks the beginning of a relationship of domination by Western civilization1 on the civilizations known today as indigenous; a relationship experienced not only as the imposition of an understanding of social organization based on the European world, but also as the imposition of the concept of “race,” which has surely been the most effective tool for social domination used by the invaders. Since then, one of the fundamental axes of that pattern of colonial power has been the social classification of the population through the idea of “race.”
In practical terms, coloniality led all institutions as well as the structure of society to be formed according to race, ethnicity, culture, and language. This means that for any kind of social advancement what took precedence was, above all, skin color and belonging to a lineage of Spanish or foreign heritage. Knowledge, merit, and effort were not only rendered secondary, but have been made into factors that do not influence the establishment of social hierarchy. In other words, a sociological axiom has been developed whereby the curve of opportunities falls with the darkening of the skin, or rises with the lightening of it.
After the independence of the Latin American countries, the relationship of domination did not change whatsoever. In fact, social classes have been built fundamentally on ethnic and racial belonging, which is to say, indigenous people—regardless of which cultural group they may belong to—have been assigned to the lowest rungs of the social hierarchy and condemned to make up the working class at different levels of the economy and, in general, to the poverty and extreme poverty that are concentrated in this sector of the population.
For their part, the mestizos, who are the children of indigenous mothers and fathers of Spanish or any foreign heritage, were assigned the role of bureaucrats to carry out professional activities in the State’s institutions or in other private settings. This social class always felt ashamed of its indigenous ancestors but admired the whites. Its members were the first who consciously opted to appropriate any paradigm that came from the North or the West. This attitude is a way of escaping their indigenous heritage through emulation.
Meanwhile, the creoles of Spanish descent became the bourgeoisie that took over political and economic power as well as other spaces of society that suggest social prestige.
Even so, the biggest defect of this class was, precisely, its colonial mentality: it expects to obtain profit easily and is accustomed to over-exploiting the indigenous workforce. It inherited from the Spanish a landlord’s logic, therefore it permanently intends to gain through the State, and because of this it failed to become a national and competitive capitalist class. Its mind is permanently focused beyond the country more so than within it, and by no means does it care to learn the values and practices
of the indigenous civilizations.
The worst thing about this societal classification according to race is that it decisively caused the vast majority of the institutions of professional training to likewise be organized according to racial criteria: Normal Rural, Sergeant School, Basic Police School, Technical Studies—where the indigenous study; Normal Urbana, Military School, Police Academy, etc.—where the whites are. This is a reality that no one today can deny.
In this sense, the need exists to transform this social classification based on ethnic belonging. This is only possible through the implementation of a decolonial politics. This concept—decolonization—does not in any way imply a return to the past, but is rather a political and a sociological concept created precisely to overcome the social structures based on the category of race. This implies a total democratization of institutions, be they economic, political, or legal and, fundamentally, the institutions of education and professional training.
It cannot be that at this point in our sociopolitical development, institutions continue to be divided according to skin color or that the division of labor continues to be based on racial classification. Nevertheless, we must accept that until today this has been the manner in which the contemporary capitalist system has been organized and that it is the principal characteristic of the current colonial society; dependence is an expression of coloniality.
Thus, decolonization, in this realm of analysis, means the creation of opportunities in all fields (industrial, economic, political, legal, academic, and others), fundamentally based on the recognition of merit, knowledge, and effort, independent of racial, ethnic, gender, and physical differences. For these new opportunities, the latter characteristics should hold no weight.
This undoubtedly forces us to totally modify all the institutional structures of society; it implies, for example, that the hateful division of professional training centers, some for indigenous people and others for non-indigenous people, cease. Decolonization involves the conception of a single institution that welcomes all, regardless of their racial or ethnic origin. A place of education that will share all academic spaces and collective sentiments without asking the origin of its members, where each may stand out in accordance to their effort and ability, be they indigenous or not, be they men or women. Above all, in the theory of decolonization the value of recognition of ability comes first, without regard to
origin or beginnings.
Hence decolonization, apart from ending that social classification according to ethnicity, struggles against all types of racism and reclaims the inalienable principle that we are all equal—which is nothing more than a principle that the modernists of Western civilization also encouraged, although we should recognize that they failed to overcome this problem.
On the other hand, decolonization also means recognizing all institutionalities—economic, political, legal, cultural, and idiomatic—of the indigenous civilizations as practices that are possible in a national context, including even the possibility of their implementation in societies that are not necessarily indigenous. In this sense, decolonization does not mean considering indigenous institutions as only valid for indigenous populations, as this would be to think in a politics of self-absorption, which is precisely what we want to change.
Now, rescuing the institutions of indigenous societies does not mean maintaining them in their current state, either; it is rather about developing them and adapting them to contemporary, modern society. This is only possible by connecting in a functional way modern technology to the communal structures that are the base of this society. So the theory of decolonization does not deny the advances of science and technology of Western society.
It is necessary to rescue the practices of the indigenous civilizations because only from them can we learn, in a more immediate way, to construct a society without exploited and exploiters; theirs are societies in which there is no private property as such, and pleasure and happiness are conceived as something whole that flows from spiritual well-being (celebrations and rites) into the material world (to provide one with food, clothing, and other articles of consumption).
According to our understanding, this is only possible if we maintain a dynamic equilibrium between nature and human beings, which is why any imbalance, be it with nature or with human beings, affects pleasure and happiness, that is, good living.
Many are the mythical allegories that illustrate how changes in nature provoked by human beings cause drought, flooding, and other phenomena that affect good living; in the same way, they illustrate the selfishness and profit of only a few individuals to the detriment of the majority, which also affects collective and individual pleasure and happiness.
Balance appears to be the ordering theme of all types of well-being and it is only possible to achieve it through reciprocity and complementarity. For that reason, humans of indigenous civilizations conceive of natural elements as homonymous gods and ask them for generosity, which is why the offerings and the sacrifices are intended to ask or give thanks for their benevolence; the rites must have the ability to exercise some influence over the gods, to force them to return the offerings with greater pleasure and happiness.
It is a philosophy that begins from the principle that gods and spirits are a priori superior to men and that the donors (men) are, in principle, inferior to the recipients (gods). But at the same time, not all is inferiority for Man. Eventually, Man demands reciprocity from the gods, demands to be heard, thus it is that in adverse climatic situations the human being overcomes—in behavioral terms—nature. That is why the gods are considered people with whom Man daily strikes up conversation, at times pleading with them, and still at other times reprimanding them. It is an imaginary constructed collectively as a belief, code of conduct, and moral source.
Balance and reciprocity are what order social well-being or good living in a practical manner, which is why the concepts of domination and exploitation are manifestly absent. There is no domination of nature, as was the norm in the West due to the reign of positivist science. Nor is there the exploitation of other human beings. This idea of balance and reciprocity absent of dominance and exploitation, then, would be the philosophical basis fundamental to constructing our ideological program. At this time, the aforementioned indigenous civilization is stuck in antiquity and rurality; the idea now is to rescue the fundamental elements of that society and adapt the aforementioned idea of balance and reciprocity to the contemporary-modern context and, fundamentally, to urban societies.
Félix Patzi Paco is an Aymara politician and academic. He is currently the governor of the Department of La Paz, Bolivia.
Editor’s Note: “Decolonization” is the first chapter of Félix Patzi Paco’s book Tercer Sistema. Modelo Comunal: Propuesta Alternativa para salir del Capitalismo y del Socialismo, published in La Paz, Bolivia, in 2013, by All Press. PDF file here: Félix Patzi Paco’s book
Carlos Motta’s Nefandus (2013) is a video that investigates the construction of sexuality and its categorization in relation to culture, history, and colonization in Colombia. Based on oral histories of
pre-Hispanic indigenous communities, it tells the story of a violent incident that occurred when a group of conquistadors found objects that depicted homoerotic relations. Using a story-telling approach, the tale is narrated by a guide speaking in Kogi—an Amerindian language spoken by the only unconquered Andean civilization. He leads a journey through sites that likely witnessed the brutality of the conquistadors.
The passages in Kogi language are juxtaposed with a series of moments in which the artist, speaking in Spanish establishes a transhistorical dialogue with the indigenous guide, and expresses his own desire to find alternative interpretations to silenced histories of homoerotic representations.
—María Elena Ortiz