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In mid-1781, Julián Apaza, who took the name Tupaj Katari (Resplendent Serpent), was at the head of tens of thousands of Aymara-speaking community troops from across the altiplano and the highland valleys. Encircling the city of La Paz, he waged a punishing siege that pinned down the meager Spanish forces under the command of Sebastián de Segurola. Katari sent letters to authorities in the city, calling on them to surrender and urging creoles—Spaniards born in the New World—to rally to his cause. Katari was illiterate himself, and hence he relied on scribes to pen his letters. The most prominent of...

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