María Lagos’ monograph gives a detailed account of economic relations in Tiraque and its hinterland since the Bolivian Revolution of 1952. Tiraque is a highland pueblo east of the city of Cochabamba, which since pre-Inca times has been economically and geographically important as the gateway to the tropical yungas and today offers access to the cocaine-producing Chapare region.
Taking the revolution—especially the redistribution of land and the disappearance of the former hacendados after the 1953 agrarian reform — as her historical baseline, Lagos explores the complementary processes of accumulation and indebtedness. Some peasants managed to become extremely rich; others sought loans from them and entered into sharecropping arrangements to prosper or to survive.
The strength of the book lies in its detailed account of the diversification of economic activity and the many strands linking the rich, the middling, and the poor: kinship, compadrazgo, sharecropping arrangements, reciprocities, and shared political loyalties, as well as debt, credit, and unequal exchange. The descriptions of chicheras (women who brew and sell corn beer), traders, truckers, and those competing to dominate the peasant sindicato are revealing and sensitively done.
Lagos argues that the concept of class is insufficient for understanding this complex emergent reality. Instead she chooses the concept of autonomy, although why she gives it such prominence is not clear. On the contrary, all her empirical evidence suggests that Tiraqueños attach great value to maintaining and extending as wide a range as possible of binding social relations. If the people she studied really did aspire to self-sufficiency, then we need to be told so, and why.
There is, by now, extensive evidence that neither Chayanovian nor Leninist models can be applied directly to the Andean peasantry, and Lagos herself makes clear that peasants’ political affiliations to Left or Right have more to do with local loyalties and factional disputes than to ideological commitment. And yet, viewed historically, the concept of class undoubtedly continues to have salience. In the everyday context of Tiraque, class may be an “experience-far” concept, but within a generation or two, those wealthy truck owners who still wear sandals and ponchos and work the land themselves will have migrated to the city (if not to Argentina or the United States), cutting the ties with their poorer kin and neighbors and transforming their social and cultural identity in line with their changed economic position.
Lagos is strictly detached in her writing style, virtually never describing the look or feel of the places and people she discusses, let alone quoting them directly. Nevertheless, her material is good. One might wish for a more sustained discussion of some of the themes that emerge briefly, such as the personalized nature of local political culture, the ambiguities of ethnic identification, or the dynamics of conversion to Protestantism. Still, to date few ethnographies of commercial pueblos in the Andes have appeared, and this text makes a valuable contribution.