Legislating the Subaltern in the Andes and Beyond

Conference on Latin American History 22
Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
River North Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Chad T. Black, University of Tennessee E. Gabrielle Kuenzli, University of South Carolina
Erin E. O'Connor, Bridgewater State College

Session Abstract

Political and economic elites have often used the law and other forms of regulation in an attempt to maintain unequal power structures and control subaltern peoples.  Although racial, class and gender hierarchies were codified in the colonial period, control of subaltern peoples was an ever-evolving process in which laws and strategies were continually refined, debated, and reinvented.  Elite attempts to legislate subalterns were always fraught with limits and contradictions.  Sometimes these problems resulted from changing political, economic, and socio-cultural contexts.  Often, however, limitations were founded in either conflicting or ambiguous elite views, or in subaltern agency.  Indigenous peoples, Afro-Latin Americans, and women (across class and racial lines) often refused to be neatly categorized and controlled.  Instead, they sought some modicum of control over their own classification and rights, either through their own customs or by manipulating legal systems in ways that elites did not intend.  The papers in this panel examine various aspects of elites and subalterns engaging with social regulation and legislation.  Some of these papers focus on negotiations and conflicts over the status of Indigenous peoples.  Marc Becker’s paper explores this problem from the top down, discussing how and why it was so difficult for politicians and political activists in 1940s Ecuador to create a Ministry of Indigenous Affairs.  Kenneth Kincaid and Robert Smale examine Indian-state relations and issues of legislation from the bottom up: Kincaid addresses how highland Indians in the Otavalo region of Ecuador sought to safeguard their access to water by calling upon their rights as citizens; Smale evaluates legal strategies used by Indian community members in Northern Potosí (Bolivia) in order to defend their land rights against an hacienda owned by a mining company.  Nicola Foote takes on a frequently overlooked, but critical, problem in Ecuadorian history: the status and rights of Afro-Ecuadorians during the liberal period (1895-1925).  Foote’s work focuses in particular on the impact that the law eradicating debt peonage had on Afro-Ecuadorians living along the north-central coast.  Erin O’Connor’s work focuses on issues of gender and the importance—and difficulty—of legislating the domestic sphere.  Her paper examines themes and problems common throughout Latin America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as legislators and educators sought to regulate marriage, home life, and domestic service during times of economic, political, and cultural upheaval. By examining the problems of legislating subaltern peoples from different angles, the papers on this panel identify laws, rules, and customs as ever-changing historical processes.  In doing so, they highlight an important development in Latin American historiography that turns to legal debates as a key arena for subalterns to advance their demands.