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Imagine Otherwise: Manuela Lavinas Picq on Indigenous Futures

Imagine Otherwise: Manuela Lavinas Picq on Indigenous Futures

retro
September 26, 2018
Manuela Lavinas Picq wearing silver earrings, a white shirt, and a blue wrap

How do Indigenous forms of governance provide models for organizing beyond the state? How might scholars better work alongside of and in the best interests of the people that they study? How does Indigenous artistic production reimagine the very nature of politics?

In episode 72 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews professor Manuela Lavinas Picq about the powerful ways Indigenous Ecuadorian women are forging new models for international politics; the personal, professional, and political stakes of being a scholar in the Global South; why it is so important for academics to work with and for communities, not just write about them; and how Indigenous communities across the globe are imagining worlds beyond the state.

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Guest: Manuela Lavinas Picq

Manuela is a professor of international relations at Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) in Ecuador, and a Loewenstein Fellow at Amherst College in the United States.

She contributes to international media outlets and has held research positions at Freie Universität, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Manuela’s latest book Vernacular Sovereignties: Indigenous Women Challenging World Politics (University of Arizona Press, 2018) is the fruit of a decade working with Kichwa peoples in the Ecuadorean Andes.

Her work at the intersection of scholarship, journalism, and activism led her to be detained and expelled by the government of Ecuador in 2015, then nominated in a New Generation of Public Intellectuals in 2018.

Manuela Lavinas Picq wearing silver earrings, a white shirt, and a blue wrap. Text reads: The challenge of academics is to be with the communities. Our ideas alone are not enough to stand with the communities; our bodies and our ideas must come together with the communities and in the communities where we work.

We chatted about

  • Manuela’s latest book Vernacular Sovereignties (1:54)
  • The transnational nature of Manuela’s work with Indigenous people in the Andes (06:11)
  • Writing “with” and “for” the communities one studies as a researcher (08:54)
  • Manuela’s new work in Indigenous peoples’ collective land rights and sexualities (12:46)
  • The political nature of Indigenous artistic production (15:19)
  • Imagining otherwise (16:17)

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Takeaways

Manuela’s latest book Vernacular Sovereignties

[I]n world politics we hear very little about Indigenous people and even less about Indigenous women. It’s usually anthropologists who are studying Indigenous women and they’re very much seen as static remnants of the past or the antithesis of world politics. With this book, I want to show through very concrete case studies in Latin American—specifically in the Ecuadorian Andes—how they shape politics on a daily basis and how they’re even building international human rights that non-Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous women in particular don’t even have. So they’re ahead of the game in many ways. The book is bringing the periphery to the core of world politics and showing the agency of Indigenous women and how they can help us non-Indigenous peoples and women build a better world.

Indigenous feminist praxis

There’s a lasting debate within feminist scholarship and activism on whether culture is good or bad for women….What is interesting is that Indigenous women in Ecuador have shown very pragmatic solutions to solve this problem and how to shape culture so that it’s a culture that’s positive for them, that they participate in shaping and influencing. Theoretical problems get solved in the practical world and Indigenous women are a key part of it.

Writing “with” and “for” Indigenous communities

It’s not something theoretical. It’s important to understand how Indigenous people live, the level of exclusion and marginalization, when you start standing with them. The challenge of academics is to be with the communities. Our ideas alone are not enough to stand with the communities; our bodies and our ideas most come together with the communities and in the communities where we work. It’s a challenge because academia is very comfortable and activism is very uncomfortable. It’s a lot of invisible work behind the scenes—and not paid work.

The politics of Indigenous artistic production

Art is very political and the struggles of Maya women weavers show it. For them, [it’s shown in] their huipils, these shirts that are weaved by hand that take months to weave and that go from generation to generation. They’re not just folklore, they’re not just fashion. They’re really territory. There are cosmo visions, philosophies, and mathematics embedded in that fabric. So in this question of writing as art or weaving as art or politics as art comes the question of what is art and whose practices are considered either art or politics or folklore….Living together, living in community, is an art. Surviving centuries of oppression, of genocide, of dispossession is art. Just survival is a form of art.

Imagining otherwise

Indigenous resistance is not just about Indigenous peoples resisting with their own lifeways on their own territory. It’s about the whole world understanding how we can get out of the trap we’re in and what political imaginaries are possible….What I tell my students is, “Imagine a new color.” If we try to imagine a new color, we can’t. And if we can, we don’t know how to express it, what to call it, because we only have words for the ones that we know. Whatever new political form we can imagine—or we have to imagine to survive on this planet—we don’t have a name for and we don’t know what it looks like. We have to invent it. And the only guide we have outside the state are Indigenous experiences of politics. So to imagine a new political color, we need Indigenous perspectives and Indigenous women have been at the forefront.

More from Manuela Lavinas Picq

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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    Transcript

    Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

    [00:23] This is episode 73, and my guest today is Manuela Lavinas Picq. Manuela is a professor of international relations at Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) in Ecuador, and a Loewenstein Fellow at Amherst College in the United States.

    She contributes to international media outlets and has held research positions at Freie Universität (2015), the Institute for Advanced Study (2013), and the Woodrow Wilson Center (2005).

    Manuela’s latest book Vernacular Sovereignties: Indigenous Women Challenging World Politics (University of Arizona Press 2018) is the fruit of a decade working with Kichwa peoples in the Ecuadorean Andes.

    Her work at the intersection of scholarship, journalism, and activism led her to be detained and expelled by the government of Ecuador in 2015, then nominated in a New Generation of Public Intellectuals in 2018.

    In our interview Manuela and I chat about the powerful ways Indigenous Ecuadorian women are forging new models for international politics; the personal, professional, and political stakes of being a scholar in the Global South; why it is so important for academics to work with and for communities, not just write about them; and how Indigenous communities across the globe are imagining worlds beyond the state.

    [To Manuela] Thank you so much for being with us today.

    Manuela Lavinas Picq [01:39]: Thank you for having me on the show. It’s an honor.

    Cathy [01:42]: You’re the author of a really fabulous new book called Vernacular Sovereignties: Indigenous Women Challenging World Politics . Can you give our listeners a little bit of a sense of what that book covers and what got you interested in that topic?

    Manuela [01:54]: Yeah, so basically, in world politics we hear very little about Indigenous people and even less about Indigenous women. It’s usually anthropologists who are studying Indigenous women and they’re very much seen as static remnants of the past or the antithesis of world politics. With this book, I want to show through very concrete case studies in Latin American—specifically in the Ecuadorian Andes—how they shape politics on a daily basis and how they’re even building international human rights that non-Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous women in particular don’t even have. So they’re ahead of the game in many ways. The book is bringing the periphery to the core of world politics and showing the agency of Indigenous women and how they can help us non-Indigenous peoples and women build a better world.

    Cathy [02:44]: One of the things that you talk quite a lot about in the book is the creative ways that these activists are working on simultaneously an international scale and a deeply local scale. I’m curious how you see those kinds of national/local connections playing out and what are some of the challenges that the activists that you were working with on this book encountered and how they navigated them.

    Manuela [03:08]: So this is very much related to how I started this project. It wasn’t originally an idea of mine to write a book about that. I live in Ecuador but I was out of Ecuador for a year teaching in the United States and when I came back for Christmas, I went to see some of my Indigenous friends Cristina Cucuri, who is one of the kids I mention in the book. Cristina has been working with a hundred other women on improving women’s rights on the ground in very small communities.

    She invited me over just for some tea and crackers and she was telling me what she did during the year in a very, you know, laid back conversation. She was saying how her daughter did the swimming competition and how her parents were aging and how this group of women had advocated in the constitutional assembly for Indigenous women to participate in equal numbers as men in Indigenous justice.

    [04:06] She mentioned this very much en passant, as if it was just one of the things she did during the year. And I was like, “Wait, wait, say that again.” She explained that there are now gender quotas; they were able to secure gender quotas for the administration of justice in Indigenous communities. We don’t even have gender quotas in Europe, or in the US, for women to be judges. We have sometimes gender quotas in politics and elections for parties, but not for the administration of justice.

    I just realized I hadn’t heard about it in the press. I hadn’t heard about it from women movements in Ecuador. I hadn’t heard about it from the Indigenous movement. I hadn’t even heard about it from Indigenous human rights organizations. This woman was telling me something that was a milestone internationally that doesn’t exist anywhere—at least I didn’t find it existing anywhere else in the world—and it wasn’t covered at all.

    [04:57] And then I realized that Indigenous women are shaping human rights, law, constitutions and because they’re treated as these invisible marginal entities in society, we’re not even covering these political changes. So from that very specific case study came the idea of writing about these case studies so they gain visibility and can empower other women and inspire us to ask for gender parity in the administration of justice too.

    There’s a lasting debate within feminist scholarship and activism on whether culture is good or bad for women. There’s a book called Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? and the editor discusses the damage of culture, how it imposes gendered expectations and the private sphere on women. What is interesting is that Indigenous women in Ecuador have shown very pragmatic solutions to solve this problem and how to shape culture so that it’s a culture that’s positive for them, that they participate in shaping and influencing. Theoretical problems get solved in the practical world and Indigenous women are a key part of it.

    Cathy [06:08]: The production process of this book has also been quite transnational. You talk a little bit in the very beginning of it about how you’ve been writing and researching and putting this book together over a number of years and it has taken you to a whole bunch of different countries. How did your own movement shape the work that you do?

    Manuela [06:27]: Yeah, I’d say it’s very transnational in what it’s studies and how it was made. It’s transnational national because Cristina, when she was telling me this story, she said, they looked on the internet for Indigenous women’s rights in constitutions elsewhere and they couldn’t find it anywhere. They couldn’t find it in Bolivia, they couldn’t find it in Mexico. So there was none in constitutions and they had to use CEDAW, the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and UN documents like the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They used international law. They brought international law and they imposed it on the [Ecuadorian] state. They forced the state to recognize that they had signed these international treaties and they had to impose the same rights for women within the communities.

    [07:14] So this cascaded from the international to the national, to the local. And they used the internet and regional advocacy to do that.

    As a participant in women’s groups like that and in my work, it’s been also very transnational because I moved to Ecuador in 2004. I’ve been living in the Riobamba, in the south of Ecuador, in the highlands, for quite some years now. Being a scholar in the Global South is very intense, so there are various things. One, we always end up doing activism so we have less time to write and two, we have a workload and a teaching load that is much heavier than in the United States (double usually). So it’s hard to get the time to do activism and to write and to teach. It was only because I got fellowships in the US that I could actually take time off, both from activism and from teaching, to sit down and write the book [Vernacular Sovereignties].

    [08:07] This book started in 2011 at Amherst College in Massachusetts, which is, as you know, one of the most elite places. It has also been on the black list of Indigenous peoples in the US for a long time because of Jeffrey Amherst. And then I moved back to Ecuador until I was expelled from Ecuador in 2015 for my activism working with Indigenous communities and doing journalism with them and supporting their struggles. So the book moved around quite a bit. It was finished in Germany, in Berlin at Freie University. And now it’s coming back to Ecuador: I’m trying to have it translated into Spanish so we can expand the knowledge about Indigenous women’s struggles in across Latin America.

    Cathy [08:51]: Your work across all of the different projects that you’ve been involved with over the years has been incredibly embedded in communities and this is something you write about, something that you talk about, something that your activist work certainly embodies. We’ve had several guests on this podcast who talk about wanting to write books or wanting to create scholarship that has an impact in and is relevant to the people that they’re writing about—so not just writing about people but writing with and for people. I’m curious how your commitments to the communities that you work with shapes the way that you approach your writing style or how you approach your scholarship in relationship to your activist work.

    Manuela [09:30]: The goals of the book itself was to tell their stories. I told Christina that the story has to come out. Indigenous women and non-Indigenous women must know about your struggle and how you successfully shaped the constitution. And she was like, “I’m in the middle of it. I don’t have time to write. You write it.” We worked together and we’re very close friends. We were already close friends, but we became even closer friends trying to write together and think together. So in that sense the book was a direct response to these needs. I think it’s about honoring all these invisible stories by people who are not in official history books.

    [10:16] I was living in Ecuador and a couple of years after starting this book, I met my partner, who is an Indigenous Kichwa lawyer who has been elected twice as president of the Confederation of Peoples of Kichwa Nationality. So I’m very much in the middle of it. Cristina, who is my close friend, became embedded with him too. She’s now working on territory with the Confederation of Peoples of Kichwa Nationality [Ecuador kichwa llaktakunapak jatun tantanakuy/Confederación Kichwa del Ecuador-Ecuarunari]. So what was a desire to just tell one story became something much larger—of institution building and daily political advocacy.

    My commitment has been to tell this story, to work with them [these activists], to help expand tools, and to “socialize” a little bit, as they say in Latin America, all of these achievements and to commit to make it reality.

    [11:10] My partner is a lawyer and as the head of the organization, he often gets phone calls from the community on legal cases. I’m always telling him he must have half of the judges as women. If not, it doesn’t count, it’s not valid. We have gender parity in the law. So this ends up coming from a man who was the president. The theory in the law that is not yet reality fully is little by little being transmitted. It causes a lot of debates, very heated debates, in the couple [Manuela and her partner] behind the scenes.

    As a scholar it’s difficult, this activist work. It takes a toll on the personal life. I mean, I was expelled from Ecuador for three years. I was in jail. It was beaten by the police. It’s not something theoretical. It’s important to understand how Indigenous people live, the level of exclusion and marginalization, when you start standing with them. The challenge of academics is to be with the communities. Our ideas alone are not enough to stand with the communities; our bodies and our ideas most come together with the communities and in the communities where we work.

    [12:12] It’s a challenge because academia is very comfortable and activism is very uncomfortable. It’s a lot of invisible work behind the scenes—and not paid work. This semester I’m taking a semester off to go back to Ecuador. I was finally allowed back in. And I’m taking a semester just to be with them and work on activism and just re-immerse myself with all the people who have supported me and with whom we’ve developed all this work. In a way, the book is just the tip of the iceberg.

    Cathy: What projects are you working on now? Or do you need a little break before jumping into the next one?

    Manuela [12:47]: One of the things I got from being expelled is that I got to travel. I spent some time in Guatemala with the Association of Maya Lawyers [Nim Ajpu] and I started working with Maya women weavers who are fighting for collective intellectual property rights to defend their textile creations that are being appropriated. So there’s really something about artists’ territory as collective rights that is super interesting. That’s one of the lines I’m working with.

    I’m going back to Ecuador next month to work on another project about what is very good news in Ecuador. I work a lot on extractivism and extractive industries, especially gold mining and oil [extraction] appropriating territories that belong to Indigenous peoples. Last month, a judge ordered the stop of a gold mine, a Chinese gold mine, that has been in the making and planning for 20 years but was just opened in May 2018. So it’s a historic sentence. It’s the first time that an open mine has been ordered to close in Ecuador on the basis of collective property rights and prior consultations.

    [13:52] So this is another work I’m developing with them. It’s a lot of activism but it indicates a change of direction in the region where Indigenous rights and Indigenous territories and prior consultation start being relevant enough for conventional justice systems and courts to respect.

    And then a third line of research that’s very exciting, which is Indigenous sexualities. It turns out that there has long been wording for LGBT practices and experiences throughout Indigenous languages in the region, throughout the continent actually, but I’m working mostly on Latin America. So in in Amazonia you have Indigenous peoples like the Ticuna, who have an isolated language, who have long had words for women who have sex with women and men who have sex with men. It preexists LGBT politics by a lot. So the project is an exploration of Indigenous language to challenge notions of modernity—where sexual modernity is located and what it means and how it’s been used by states.

    Cathy [14:59]: I’m curious how you see your work across all of these projects combining your interest in academia, art, and social justice activism.

    Manuela [15:09]: This is a key question because art can be depoliticized, but art is very political and the struggles of Maya women weavers show it. For them, [it’s shown in] their huipils, these shirts that are weaved by hand that take months to weave and that go from generation to generation. They’re not just folklore, they’re not just fashion. They’re really territory. There are cosmo visions, philosophies, and mathematics embedded in that fabric. So in this question of writing as art or weaving as art or politics as art comes the question of what is art and whose practices are considered either art or politics or folklore. I think it’s something that’s unintentionally comes out.

    One of the things that I’ve learned through Indigenous practice and life ways is the daily presence of joy. Living together, living in community, is an art. Surviving centuries of oppression, of genocide, of dispossession is art. Just survival is a form of art.

    Cathy [16:14]: So this brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to ask guests and I really like closing the podcast episodes with this, which really gets at the heart of why you do what you do—the big “so what” behind all of it—and that’s that world that you’re trying to build when you teach your classes, when you write your books, when you do your organizing work with these activists. What kind of world are you working towards? What kind of world do you want?

    Manuela [16:38]: In a nutshell it is to think beyond the state and to think outside the state. And the Indigenous is the only location outside the state. I was born in France from a Brazilian mother who was exiled during the military dictatorship in the 1970s. I had a French education, which is “l’état c’est moi” [“the state is me,” often attributed to King Louis XIV of France]: very state-centric, very colonial, very Eurocentric in which we only exist through the state and the world is organized through nation-states, the United Nations, all of that. And then you move to Brazil. There is race there and all that, but there is not a daily sense of Indigenous belonging. And then you move to the Andes, to Ecuador, to Peru, or even Columbia, and you see Indigenous people speaking their language in the streets of the capital, wearing their arts and math on the streets of Guatemala. And you realize that are other states within the state. There is not one state.

    [17:31] For me, the most interesting thing living in the periphery is understanding that the core is nothing without the periphery, that the state is nothing without Indigenous lifeways and Indigenous nations. Indigenous insight into other ways of organizing the political is the only thing that can save us from this dead end of state capitalism that feeds the current climate crisis and that is based on these extractive industries that are destroying the world. So if we’re trapped in the state model, if we can only think of ourselves as an American, a French, an Ecuadorian, a Guatemalan, a Brazilian, how do we move out? How do we see the state as just one option among many more of organizing politics?

    [18:30] The Indigenous perspective, the Indigenous standpoint, is the only one available because it’s the only one that was allowed to survive. Exclusion, ignorance, racism—all of these negative forms of state violence permitted Indigenous perspectives to survive outside the state and not be assimilated. But Indigenous resistance is not just about Indigenous peoples resisting with their own lifeways on their own territory. It’s about the whole world understanding how we can get out of the trap we’re in and what political imaginaries are possible. They don’t exist. They are to be invented.

    What I tell my students is, “Imagine a new color.” If we try to imagine a new color, we can’t. And if we can, we don’t know how to express it, what to call it, because we only have words for the ones that we know. Whatever new political form we can imagine—or we have to imagine to survive on this planet—we don’t have a name for and we don’t know what it looks like. We have to invent it. And the only guide we have outside the state are Indigenous experiences of politics. So to imagine a new political color, we need Indigenous perspectives and Indigenous women have been at the forefront. They’re really inspiring creators of pragmatism and innovation.

    Cathy: Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing how you and your collaborators imagine otherwise.

    Manuela: Thank you so much and let’s keep thinking otherwise.

    Cathy [20:12]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

    You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]

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