In these troubled times, Choque Canqui’s works will resonate with all activists and historians dedicated to emancipatory struggle in Bolivia and beyond.
On 16 July, Roberto Choque Canqui, the pioneering Bolivian historian of indigenous rebellions died in La Paz.
His numerous works explored histories of Indigenous resistance in Bolivia, especially among the Aymara speaking communities of the highlands. Choque was born on 3 January 1942 in the town of Caquiaviri, Pacajes province in the Bolivian highlands. His mother was Agustina Canqui and his politically active father Simón Choque was involved with the 1945 Indigenous Congress, a landmark event that brought together Indigenous communities to mobilise over land rights, educational reform and political freedoms.
Perhaps the most celebrated of his works is the recently re-published The Jesús de Machaqa massacre. It documents the uprising in 1921 by Aymara ayllus (communities) around the town of Jesús de Machaqa in the highlands outside of La Paz, who rose up in protest at the loss of their lands and abuses committed by the local authority. In reprisal, President Bautista Saavedra dispatched over a thousand troops who looted, torched fields and killed at least 50 Aymara people in a massacre which looms large in the collective memory of the communities today.
‘Roberto Choque Canqui was a trailblazing historian way ahead of his time. His work impacted generations of historians, activists, students, and scholars in Bolivia and around the world,’ says Benjamin Dangl, lecturer at the University of Vermont and author, most recently, of The Five Hundred Year Rebellion: Indigenous Movements and the Decolonization of History in Bolivia.
‘Choque’s archival and historical research efforts directly shaped and informed the ways that Indigenous and campesino movements in Bolivia, from the 1970s onward, incorporated historical knowledge, symbols, narratives and consciousness into their own organizing and movement-building. He was a kind and generous man, a giant in the field, and put ignored, silenced, and forgotten Indigenous histories back on the map.’
Dangl recalls how Choque himself was a key figure in the Indigenous political struggles of the 1970s and 80s in Bolivia. ‘During our meetings in La Paz, Bolivia, in recent years, he told me of visiting the historic CSUTCB [peasants’ union] leader Genaro Flores while Flores was in jail in the 1970s. Choque said he shared histories of Bolivian Indigenous resistance with Flores. In particular, they discussed 18th century Indigenous rebel leader Tupac Katari and how to recover the symbol and legacy of Katari within the growing Indigenous and campesino movements of the time. Such collaborations, as well as Choque’s hugely influential research and publishing record, helped transform the landscape of historical knowledge in Bolivia.’
In 1989, Choque ran for office in La Paz with the left-indigenous party Revolutionary Liberation Movement Tupac Katari (Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Katari de Liberación, MRTKL), part of the broader katarista movement which mobilised around a radical indigenous politics from the 1970s onwards. Later, he would become Vice Minister of Decolonisation between 2009 and 2010 under President Evo Morales, who was ousted in a rightwing coup last November.
He was also a pioneer of oral history as a decolonial historical practice in Bolivia. Luis Oporto, former director of the Archive of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly in La Paz, describes Choque as ‘the first professional historian who claimed the use of oral sources – in addition to official sources – for the reconstruction of the history of indigenous movements’.
In his youth, Choque attended classes at night school while he worked a day job. He would eventually study at UMSA, the public university in La Paz, as one of the first history students of Aymara origin at a time when indigenous peoples were excluded from the university. He went on to become director of the history and anthropology departments of UMSA and professor at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) in Ecuador.
His death is a great loss to the scholarly community in Bolivia and beyond. The La Paz Archive, which Choque co-founded, stated this week that it ‘expresses its heartfelt condolences for the death of Dr Roberto Choque Canqui, one of the researchers who recovered and disseminated the history and thoughts of the indigenous peoples of the past and present in Bolivia’.
I saw Choque speak in December in La Paz last year at the launch of his book on the Massacre of Jesús de Machaqa. Poignantly, the event was attended by members of communities around Jesús de Machaqa, including descendants of those killed by government forces. His partner, Cristina Quisbert, with whom he co-authored numerous books, had died recently. In a profound discussion, Choque reflected on what it means to be an Aymara historian in a country burdened by deep legacies of racism and the erasure of indigenous knowledge.
Choque leaves behind a Bolivia under the grip of a repressive unelected government and a pandemic that claims more lives each day. In these troubled times, his works will resonate with all activists and historians dedicated to emancipatory struggle in Bolivia and beyond.
Roberto Choque Canqui, 3 January 1942 – 16 July 2020