From the Mines to the Streets provides an engaging introduction to twentieth-century Bolivian political developments that will deepen activists’ appreciation of this country. Written from the perspective of a passionate dedication to social justice, this is a key text to understand Latin American struggles.
Reviewed: Félix Muruchi Poma, with Benjamin H. Kohl and Linda Farthing, From the Mines to the Streets: A Bolivian Activist’s Life (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011).
In memory of Ben Kohl
Félix Muruchi’s life story provides an excellent lens through which to view Bolivia’s twentieth-century political history. Muruchi was born in 1946 in Potosí to a Quechua mother and Aymara father who were trapped is a system of semi-feudal social relations and debt peonage known as pongueaje. He was the fourth of thirteen children, most of who did not survive until adulthood. The family moved back and forth between their farm in Potosí and the tin mines of Oruro. In many ways, this is similar to the story of many poor Bolivians.
Muruchi lived through key events in Bolivia’s history. In 1952, the National Revolution of the MNR (National Revolutionary Movement party) led to a nationalization of the tin mines, the breakup of the hacienda system, and the extension of universal suffrage to the entire population. From Muruchi’s perspective, the reforms that the MNR introduced were too partial, too tentative to address the underlying problems that Bolivia faced. The MNR government came to an end with General René Barrientos’ 1964 military coup that introduced several decades of chaotic military and ineffective civilian rule.
The heart of the Muruchi’s life story takes place during these years of military rule in the 1960s and 1970s. Muruchi began to work in the mines, and quickly rose to positions of leadership in the union. The book provides the perspective of a participant in many key events in Bolivia’s political history, including Che Guevara’s failed guerrilla uprising and the 1967 San Juan Massacre in which hundreds of miners were killed.
Because of Muruchi’s position of leadership, he was repeatedly tortured and exiled. We follow him as he traveled to Chile and eventually to the Netherlands where he lived for several years. When Bolivia returned to civilian rule in the 1980s, Muruchi finally returned to live permanently in La Paz’s twin city of El Alto.
In a sense, this book provides a narrative of the experiences of a common person in the Bolivian mines, and in other ways Muruchi is an exceptional character. Muruchi was very motivated, and while his parents remained illiterate he studied for his high school diploma at night while working in the mines and eventually gained a university education. Even as Muruchi continued to identify with the lower classes, he exhibited characteristics of aspirations to being upwardly mobile. Those motivations and contradictions are what make this book so useful in understanding contemporary Bolivia.
Whenever we read an edited version of a life story, it is always difficult to know exactly whose voice we are hearing. How much of the language is that of the protagonist, and what belongs to the editor? Ben Kohl and Linda Farthing provide a very useful discussion of these dynamics in their preface to this book. Transcripts of a spoken autobiography often do not translate well at all into another language and culture. As a result, we rely on intermediaries to make these stories more understandable, but we do so at the cost of the loss of an “authentic” voice (which in itself is a problematic concept).
Many of these issues came to the forefront with the controversies that David Stoll raised over Rigoberta Menchú’s autobiography. Opponents criticized I, Rigoberta Menchú for embodying the voice of her interviewer Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, as well as for Menchú speaking in a communal rather than individual voice.
Kohl and Farthing attempt to dodge these quagmires by being up front and transparent in their creation of the text. In order to make the book accessible and interesting while still retaining Muruchi’s voice, the narrative is interspersed with text boxes that provide more context for readers to understand his story. The result is a book that could perhaps best be described as a first-person biography.
An inherent tension with this type of first-person narrative is whether we experience life through the eyes of the protagonist at each stage of life, whether these memories become rewritten in retrospect, and how much a mature political person should critique the actions of a younger self.
This tension, and one that I wish the author(s) would have played out more, is apparent in Muruchi’s decision to join the military. Muruchi presents his decision as a rite of passage, as something necessary to achieve adulthood. Those who do not join the military were seen as inferior, as permanent adolescents. Later as a militant in the mines, the same military that Muruchi had so proudly joined arrested, tortured, and exiled him for his political activities. In this book, however, Muruchi fails to make a connection between these twin roles. What would he have done had he been in the military when it massacred the miners in June 1967? This is a missed opportunity to provide a probing critique of the exclusionary nature of societal structures.
All of these compromises and tradeoffs are inherent in the telling of a life story. In engaging these issues, this text succeeds admirably in advancing cutting edge methodologies in how to use and convey oral histories.
Similar to questions about the voice that is presented in the text, a reader could equally question the political perspective that is portrayed through this narrative arch. Muruchi presents himself as coming from an apolitical background, and as a person who becomes radicalized through his work in the mines.
In 1965, Muruchi joins the maoist Marxist-Leninist Communist Party where he meets Domitila Barrios de Chungara who is renowned for her own testimonial Let Me Speak! Eventually Muruchi becomes disillusioned with leftist politics, and provides rather negative comments on his personal experiences in East Germany and Cuba. By the time of his return from Europe, he holds up the Dutch social democracy as a model to follow. Later, when he met Kohl and Farthing he worked with an NGO, and could no longer be considered a revolutionary.
Similarly, Muruchi frames his narrative as coming out of a traditional (some might say superstitious) cosmology, but claims that he did not acquire an Indigenous identity until he returned from Europe in the 1980s and began working in El Alto. By this point, he criticizes his former self for embracing a class consciousness as a worker in the mines to the exclusion of his ethnic identity as an Aymara or Quechua person.
These twin narrative arches (from revolutionary to social democrat, and from worker to Indian) are presented as normative, and in fact much academic literature follows this path. Increasingly, however, I find such depictions as problematic. A common saying in Latin America (apparently taken from an alleged Winston Churchill quote) is that someone who is not a Marxist in the university has no soul, and someone who remains a Marxist after the university has no brain. Nevertheless, often the most serious and dedicated revolutionaries I know are more advanced in years, and it seems that often age makes one more radical, not less.
Similarly, class consciousness and ethnic identities are not necessarily contradictory, and perhaps what is so inspiring about stories such as that of Evo Morales or Domitila Barrios de Chungara is how double (or triple) forms of oppression can build on each other to create a truly radical alternative. Although subtle, attentive readers will recognize those tensions running throughout this text.
A readable introduction to Bolivia
In the preface, Kohl and Farthing indicate that their goal was to produce a highly readable text that a general audience would find compelling. They have succeeded admirably in that goal. From the Mines to the Streets provides an engaging introduction to twentieth-century Bolivian political developments that will deepen activists’ appreciation of this country. Written from the perspective of a passionate dedication to social justice, this is a key text to understand Latin American struggles.
Marc Becker teaches Latin American history at Truman State University. He is the author of Pachakutik: Indigenous movements and electoral politics in Ecuador (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011) and Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador’s Modern Indigenous Movements (Duke, 2008); co-editor with Kim Clark of Highland Indians and the State in Modern Ecuador (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007); and editor and translator with Harry Vanden of José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011).
Book tour information:
Felix Muruchi will be speaking in the northeastern US and Chicago between Oct 21 and Nov 15. Oct 21st, 22nd and 23rd in Philadelphia, afternoon of the 23rd at Rutgers, Oct 24th and 25th in New York City, Oct 28th at Brown, Oct 29 and 30 in Boston, Oct 31st in Amherst area, Nov 1st in Brattleboro, VT, Nov 4th and 5th in Ithaca NY, Nov 5th at Bucknell in Lewisburg, PA, Nov 6th and 7th in Washington DC,Nov 8th in Baltimore, Nov 12-15 in Chicago and Urbana-Champaign. For more exact information on locations and times, please contact Linda Farthing at firstname.lastname@example.org