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The diary of Drum Major José Santos Vargas (1796–1854) provides a view from below and a feeling for day-to-day life that are exceptional for understanding the Latin American wars of independence. Vargas was born in Oruro in modest circumstances and orphaned as a child. He grew up fluent in Spanish, Aymara, and Quechua and joined the patriots fighting against Spain as a young man. He was a writer by vocation, though his style is unpolished, and his diary, covering the period between 1814 and 1825, is an observant account of provincial guerrilla warfare that sheds light on material economic conditions as well as internal struggles and the strategies and tactics deployed against the royalist armies. Vargas fought with Commander Euse-bio Lira in the republiqueta (petty republic) that held out in the valley region of Ayopaya, near Cochabamba, Oruro, and La Paz.

With the old monarchical regime in crisis and the future nation-state still in the offng, what was it that Vargas and his comrades were fighting for? The term they used was “la Patria,” although its meaning was ambiguous to many people at the time. The following passages highlight their efforts to introduce the idea to the local indigenous populations. Vargas wrote, “Commander Lira always made [the Indians] understand everything that the Patria and independence from Spanish government meant, what it involved, and the things it would bring for posterity.” 1 However, some Indians continued to feel loyalty toward the king of Spain, and the notion of Patria could seem disembodied and abstract. One patriot sought to put the idea in very grounded terms for Indian peasants: “The Patria is the place where we exist and our own land” [La Patria es el lugar donde existimos y nuestro propio suelo].2 By implication, the Spaniards were usurpers in the country. Vargas’s own chronicle also sought, in some of its staged speeches, to stir a patriotic spirit in his readers.

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