Indigenous Economy & Ethical Work in Ecuador


A review of Merchant Moralities: Indigenous Economy and Ethical Work in Otavalo, Ecuador, by Kristine Latta.

Drawing on a range of personal experiences and ethnographic fieldwork conducted over a number of years, Kristine Latta’s Merchant Moralities is a detailed and sympathetic account of the moral predicaments faced by Otavalo’s indigenous comerciantes/merchants. Working with Otavaleño communities, indigenous leaders, family members and friends, Latta explores life as it unfolds in and around the town itself, in family homes in the community of Peguche, and also on travels within the United States. Through careful descriptions, we learn of the particular transformations and vulnerabilities that these entrepreneurs face, as they engage in the decidedly transnational textile and tourism industries. These transformations coincide with actions elsewhere associated with a revalorization of indigeneity – both in localised spaces and particular cultural practices, and also more broadly on the national political stage. What can the distinct moral experiences of Otavalo’s merchants tell us more broadly about the dynamics of cultural change, the recalibration of tradition, and the complexities of contemporary indigenous experience? Focusing on people’s responses to shifts in priorities and contested commitments, we see how merchants articulate their own entrepreneurial values as personalised expressions of indigeneity, and do so amidst the novel opportunities and conspicuous disparities that their livelihoods create.

Latta begins with a concise yet comprehensive regional history, tracing the prominence of Otavalo and its renown for commerce and industry from the pre-Inca era through to the present day. Establishing a pattern for the thesis as a whole, valuable use is made of Ecuadorian scholarship in addition to research written in English. Both the legacy of Otavalo’s weaving heritage and the singularity of its recent economic successes resonate through the lives and events that Latta encounters. We are then introduced to Latta’s own journeys through merchant life with her husband, from Otavalo to Quito and on to the U.S. and back. The chapter vividly weaves personal, familial narratives into a historically informed account of contemporary living, and of the current, precarious state of transnational labour migration.

Chapter 2 establishes the theoretical focus of the thesis as a whole, directly addressing the wealth of available scholarship on Otavaleño communities, before drawing on a growing body of work associated with an ‘anthropology of the moral.’ This provides a way to look beyond the dual tensions of fragmentation and cohesion that tend to accompany growing economic inequalities and their analysis. Latta does not dismiss such analyses, however, and instead we are given a very detailed review of leading scholars on the region. Through a close reading of – to pick two examples – the recent and comprehensive work of Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld and Michelle Wibbelsman, Latta’s responses are revealing, clearly positioning her own work and the depth of its contribution. It’s as if the merchants we’re reading about are somehow morally displaced by prosperity, disrupting what are often thought of as persistent narratives of communitas at home, and racialized discourses at the national level. Rather than simply accept this dilemma as the basis of her analysis, however, and examine how merchants are variously judged and excluded for their purported moral failings, Latta considers these issues via the moral experiences of the merchants themselves.

The works of Arthur Kleinman and Jarret Zigon are brought together to specify moral action and moral experience as a distinct domain of inquiry. By paying attention to the conflicted experiences that accompany prosperity – whether that be intra-community disputes, or discrimination at the hands of local law enforcement officials – we learn how Latta’s merchant friends address ‘moments’ of moral difficulty. These are moments when conventions are tested, and established relationships recast. Crucially, though, these are not described as abstract, isolated events, but rather as ‘shared predicaments.’ They are brought to life in connection with a wide timeframe of lived experience – reaching across reinvented rituals, international migration, and business plans for the future. Addressing the emergence of these moral experiences, emphasis is given to the potential for people’s choices to disrupt any sense of our actions taking place in a stable, or neatly dichotomised, world. A clear case is then made for examining how individual questions of morality affect broader processes of social change.

The ways in which people enact and articulate ‘moral improvisations’ are detailed in responses to the ‘double-bind’ that Otavaleño merchants face, introduced in Chapter 3. This stems from the relation between the exercise of economic success on one hand, and institutional and public discourses of indigeneity in Ecuador on the other. Again, here Latta reviews the historical trajectory of relevant national policies accurately and succinctly. In a country where persistent, racialized associations are linked to different cultural practices, livelihoods and locations, successful merchants find themselves the target of pernicious rumours and accusations that link their wealth to drug trafficking. As Latta notes, dominant mestizo discourse is suspicious of cultural difference less than it is of the legitimacy of Otavaleño wealth: an atmosphere of hostility that has only intensified since the economic collapse surrounding the U.S. dollarization of Ecuador’s economy in 2000, an upheaval suffered acutely by the nations’ poorest residents.

Whilst the assimilationist rhetoric of ideological policies of mestizaje championed wealth creation and entrepreneurial activity, it did nothing to address the racialized boundaries that dominant society maintains, and hence the suspicions leveled against Otavalo’s merchants. Navigating their way through these unfavourable worlds has a significant influence on the moral experiences of the merchants. Again, Latta takes the analysis further, looking at the tendency for local people and some anthropologists alike to consider the ‘subsistence ethic’ (as opposed to the world of commercial expansion and business endeavours) as a kind of “Otavaleño indigenous ethos” (p. 107). To do so, Latta argues, is to recreate “the economy-linked racializations of the double-bind” and, in the process, to deny the ethical intentionality of merchants’ attempts to “articulate novel moral discourses” (p. 107). Acknowledging these attempts involves collective efforts to revalue merchant labours, and a training of the analytical eye on these creative projects.

‘Creative’ here encompasses different strands of coordinated activity in the region: exercising the political potential of indigenous collective action and the operation of shared narratives of social suffering (Chapter 4); founding the popular Pawkar Raymi celebrations in mid-1990s, which now extend to an 11-day festival (Chapter 5); and dealing with conflict over the balance between commercial and cultural interests in those same festivities (Chapter 6).

The first of these examines organised responses to the beating of a young merchant at the hands of Ecuadorian police. As Latta points out, “violent acts reverberate through communities and individual lives in ways that often expose the fragilities of moral community and the mutability of subjectivities” (p.109). In addition to underscoring the apparent uniformity of anti-indigenous sentiment among too many of the nation’s police officers – prosperous and poor alike face the threat of violent discrimination – these events around New Year’s Eve 2005 and their subsequent fallout also cast light on the delicate balance of difference and cooperation that underpins comunidad/community in the region. Whilst some took issue with the victim’s merchant status, attempts to rally support from neighbouring communities appealed to a distinct history of shared social suffering. Tying these strands together, Latta shows how such a shared language can be used in a complex variety of ways, particularly around the notion of defending indigenous autonomy, whether communal, political, or economic in emphasis.

Drawing further on Kleinman and also on Viviana Zelizer’s work, in Chapter 5 Latta relates Zigon’s concept of ‘ethical work’ to the production and celebration of the Pawkar Raymi festival – read as a space that enables both work on the self as well as moral re-workings of the social and cultural order. Chapter 6 details Latta’s close involvement with the festival’s planning committee, and examines these issues in greater detail. Taken together, these chapters reveal how merchants negotiate another balance between (being seen to be) ‘doing business’ and creating a ‘cultural event.’ We’re led through both the celebrations and the accompanying rumours of avarice, excess and questioned integrity leveled at the festival’s merchant organisers. Novel relationships of exchange both facilitate and emerge from the planning and enjoyment of the festival. These transfers create and enforce bounded social networks, combine hard cash with ritual offerings, and cut across ties of kinship and friends, whilst also fostering links with local politicians, tourists, and international performers. Latta shows how this ‘circuit’ of exchange creates a space in which merchants can experiment with putting their wealth and experience into practice, effectively combining the reciprocal with more impersonal forms of exchange. In doing this, however, Latta argues that the merchants’ various forms of ‘ethical work’ are reflected precisely in their abilities to disrupt the logic that would separate the two – an unending and ultimately unresolved process.

In the concluding Chapter 7, this process is related to people’s descriptions of the festivals’ value as collective work – work that fosters empathy and camaraderie. Such efforts are seen as an expression of trabajo cultural (cultural work) in and around Peguche. Latta goes on to demonstrate how ‘cultural work’ has flourished at a time when increased wealth and mobility has become a part of the lives of an increasing number of Peguche’s residents – and how these forms of ethical work have themselves become a way for people to reflect upon these changes. Whilst today’s levels of prosperity have undeniably ushered in increasingly sharp divisions and disparities that cannot be ignored, by also paying close attention to the moral outlook of merchants and the predicaments they face, we are presented with nuanced and incisive ideas about the choices people make in turbulent times, and how visions for the future are pursued collectively.

As well as drawing us into emotional and immersive fieldwork experiences, Latta’s thesis directly tackles polarising approaches that expand upon the confrontation of supposedly distinct and opposing ethics (the practices and values attached to subsistence production on the one hand, and those necessary to success in entrepreneurial activity, the market economy and urban life on the other). Doing so clearly recognises how fixed and suspiciously neat analytical oppositions tend to limit our understanding and appreciation of people’s lived experiences. We also see, however, the ways in which persistent racialized hierarchies in wider society perpetuate such divisions, and inevitably play a part in shaping the moral experiences of many indigenous people in Ecuador, including Latta’s merchant friends.

Regionally, this thesis enters an established body of work on the dynamics of social change, cultural renaissance, transnational migration and economic growth among indigenous people in the Otavalo area. Nonetheless, it delivers a fresh perspective on issues including political protest, indigenous ritual and revival, and the morally fraught complexities of communal life. To do this it brings together and utilizes analytical tools that would be of use in studies of intensified forms of difference (along lines of work, consumption, food, language, lifestyle, housing, relations with the past) experienced elsewhere within indigenous communities across the Andes. It would also be of interest to researchers working in two further thematic areas addressed through studies conducted elsewhere in the world. The first is literature on the prominent issues associated with a growing number of people being identified as middle class in many countries across the Global South. The second is literature addressing current debates on the ‘anthropology of the good’ and its relation to questions of value – how certain social values are pursued through particular actions, and how those actions in turn create social value.

This complements, for example, Michael Lambek’s work on the everyday (or ‘ordinary’) nature of ethical action – and how moral experiences are both a formative and pervasive aspect of social action (not least in the deliberate settings of ‘cultural work’ and markedly indigenous commerce). Equally, there are fruitful connections to be made with practitioners linked to an ‘anthropology of the good’ – among them Joel Robbins (cited in the thesis to further develop responses to the objectification of cultural systems, among other ideas) and an examination of how people seek moral resolution, particularly in fraught moments of social change. Latta’s thesis, then, offers revealing insights into Otavaleño life and livelihoods and a vivid account of the moral issues at play, and engages with current anthropological debates on morality, economic change and indigeneity.

Tristan Partridge
Doctoral Researcher: Social Anthropology
University of Edinburgh, U.K.

Primary Sources

Ethnographic field research conducted over three years of intermittent residence in the Otavalo area
Collaborative documentary filmmaking
In-depth accounts of a range of regional festivals and cultural events
Ethnographic reflection on an active role in the planning committee of Pawkar Raymi

Dissertation Information

Princeton University. 2011. 248 pp. Primary Adviser: João Biehl.

Image: Photograph by Kristine Latta.

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