Recent Book Focuses on Indigenous Agency in the Amazon

September 3, 2013

This year the University of Arizona Press published "Indigenous Agency in the Amazon: The Mojos in Liberal and Rubber-Boom Bolivia, 1842-1932" by Dr. Gary Van Valen. Van Valen is an alum of UNM, having received his Ph.D. in Colonial and Modern Latin American History from the university in 2003. He subsequently maintained his connection to his alma mater by returning to campus in 2009 when the LAII awarded him a Richard E. Greenleaf Visiting Library Scholar award, a funding resource which provides scholars the opportunity to work as short-term visiting researchers with UNM's Latin American library collections, one of the largest and most complete Latin American collections in the country.

Van Valen is assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of West Georgia. He is a historian of Latin America and indigenous peoples who teaches classes in these fields as well as in Atlantic and World history. His research centers on ethnohistory and cultural contact in Bolivia and Mexico.

The largest group of indigenous people in the Bolivian Amazon, the Mojos, has coexisted with non-Natives since the late 1600s, when they accepted Jesuit missionaries into their homeland, converted to Catholicism, and adapted their traditional lifestyle to the conventions of mission life. Nearly two hundred years later they faced two new challenges: liberalism and the rubber boom. White authorities promoted liberalism as a way of modernizing the region and ordered the dismantling of much of the social structure of the missions. The rubber boom created a demand for labor, which took the Mojos away from their savanna towns and into the northern rain forests (University of Arizona Press).

Van Valen postulates that as ex-mission Indians who lived on a frontier, the Mojos had an expanded capacity to adapt that helped them meet these challenges. Their frontier life provided them with the space and mind-set to move their agricultural plots and cattle herds, join independent indigenous groups, or move to Brazil. Their mission history gave them the experience they needed to participate in the rubber export economy and the politics of white society. Van Valen argues that the indigenous Mojos also learned how to manipulate liberal discourse to their advantage. He demonstrates that the Mojos were able to survive the rubber boom, claim the right of equality promised by the liberal state, and preserve important elements of the culture they inherited from the missions (ibid).

According to reviewer Javier F. Marion, associate professor of history at Emmanuel College, "Van Valen bolsters his points with a sophisticated selection of secondary sources to situate the Mojos and their struggles within broader trends in the historiography of Bolivia and Latin America at large. He is clearly an authority on the ethnohistory of Amazonia-subtropical Bolivia."