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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 them was Bonifacio Chuquimamani, said to be an Indian or cholo who had lived for many years in the city and worked as a clerk in the ecclesiastical court. The letters were written in a rough, uneven style. They were dismissed by Segurola as “confused expressions,” and historians have struggled with their meanings. Here they have been partially smoothed out for legibility, based on our best assessment of the intended sense. They are exceptional documents insofar as they come directly from the insurgent camp, unlike the filtered Spanish accounts which make up most of the existing documentation. While diffcult sources, they afford us a rare access to the political voice and vision of this formidable anticolonial leader.

One of the distinctive features of these letters is Katari’s view of a new social order in which “each thing should be in its place” (cada cosa en su lugar). Following the political line of Tupac Amaru in Cuzco, Katari meant that those born in the An-des were the ones who should live, govern, and control the wealth in the territory, whereas Europeans should withdraw or be sent back to their own lands. Also notable is Katari’s effort to assert political legitimacy. He claimed to be acting as viceroy; though he does not name the rightful sovereign, the implication is that it was the Inka Tupac Amaru. While Segurola wrote as if his own authority were unshakeable, it was in fact Katari and his warriors who exercised greater de facto power in this critical historical moment.

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