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In the midst of the 1899 civil war between Conservatives and Liberals, the latter mobilized Aymara communities across the altiplano to fight against the troops of President Severo Fernández Alonso (1896–99). The following letter, from the indigenous military commander Pablo Zárate Willka, reflects the written correspondence among Aymara leaders during the mobilization—using the Spanish language, since there was no Aymara script, and republican state notarial conventions, perhaps as a sign of formal authority. The letter’s loose and uneven syntactical constructions and the Aymara-inflected orthography make it diffcult to translate. It also exposes the command structure that Indians themselves were elaborating and the high degree of indigenous autonomy within the movement. Zárate here gives direct orders to Juan Lero, the respected leader of the local community forces in Peñas, a town on the altiplano of Oruro. Zárate and his cosignatory both carry the prestigious title Willka (sun, in Aymara), meaning an indigenous military-political commander. Lero is addressed as a cacique governor, a title used for indigenous community lords in the colonial period and which community members kept alive in their struggles to defend their lands from expropriation in the republican period. At the same time, the document shows Zárate invoking the authority of the Liberal leader José Manuel Pando and employing the rhetoric of patriotism and the “regeneration” of Bolivia. We can speculate that leaders like Zárate and Lero believed that the nation’s “regeneration” under the federalist system advocated by the Liberals would entail protection for indigenous lands and greater political autonomy.

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