"With Skin the Color of Copper”: Reading Race in Bolivia's Military Archives, 1936–64

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 10:00 AM
Denver Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Elizabeth M. Shesko, Duke University
When Bolivian Liberals instituted obligatory military service based on European models in 1907, they explicitly formulated it as a method of incorporating and transforming the indigenous population. Although they prohibited the official recording of race in military service records, racialized difference was certainly not absent in the barracks. Both officers and conscripts routinely broke this silence, as when Maj. Hugo Arteaga described soldier Benedicto Poma as an “uncommunicative indigenous soldier” while testifying about a 1948 accidental shooting. Official records also documented many other details about conscripts’ backgrounds such as surname, physical description, residence, level of education, and languages spoken, which scholars have routinely (and perhaps problematically) used to stand in for race.

This paper analyzes recruitment books, individuals’ military service sheets, and training manuals alongside less standardized official documents, such as governmental correspondence and conscripts’ testimony in military justice proceedings, to reveal slippages in the (non)recording of race and the meanings of racialized terms. It thus explores the difficulties of trying to pin down race through official records generated by a society in which racial categories are seemingly definable and carry immense social import but individual classifications are fluid and situational based on shifting socio-cultural markers. Spanning from the close of the Chaco War to the onset of military dictatorship in 1964, the paper also examines how the recording of race and racialized markers changed after Bolivia’s 1952 Revolution, whose leaders rejected racial identifications in favor a class-based nationalist project. The presence and absence of race in military records reveal the slippery but central role of race in Bolivia’s competing projects of nation-building.


<< Previous Presentation | Next Presentation