Sunday, July 9, 2017

Can the Conquered Provide an Identity for the Conquerors?

Looking various tourist sites around the Incan capital city of Cuzco, it is rather obvious that the local inhabitants take their Incan heritage very seriously.  From the grand citadel at Machu Picchu to the various museums lining the capital city's main streets, the locals have tirelessly presented an image of solidarity with the Incan tradition.  The rainbow color flag of the Inca still fly the streets along with the Peruvian national flag, and major streets still retain their names in Quechua, the language of the Inca.

But dig a little deeper and one would realize that these efforts to make the Incan tradition is only a recent phenomenon.  After all, looking at the Cuzco cityscape, one would be more in awe with the architectural heritage of the Spanish colonists rather than the Inca that occupied the city for centuries before.  The Spanish, in efforts to stamp out Incan culture, spent decades turning the Incan stronghold into a Spanish one.

It is a strategy that the Spanish employed successfully everywhere in the colonial empire.  Indigenous populations took up Catholicism, Spanish names, and often abandoned their own languages, clothes, and housing in favor of Spanish or Spanish inspired ones.  The Quechua people only survived total assimilation by their sheer numbers and strengths of pre-colonization culture.  The successor states of the Spanish empire maintained the same strategy for decades, sustaining a class divide between white elites and the indigenous poor.

But as the successor states develop, they face a fundamental question of identity.  The reasons for their existence, often pertaining to high taxes and economic restrictions by the central government in Spain, along with limited political voice given to colonial leaders, are no longer valid. Continued emphasis on the Spanish heritage would take away from the independent identities of individual South American countries, reducing them to no more than some inferior copies of the "mother country."

It is certainly not in the interest of the national leadership in places like Peru to be seen as some copy of Spain. Creating a sense of unity among the citizenry is most possible when they share a common identity that is distinctive and not based on some foreign concept. After all, if Peru is a copy of Spain, then wouldn't Peruvians just be some abandoned citizens of Spain. In that case, what legitimacy would the Peruvian government have in case Spain (or another foreign power) decide to intervene in local politics.

For the local political elites, establishing and commanding loyalties of the populace requires creation of an identity that is distinctive and not simply based an abstract and potentially retractable concept like citizenship. In the case of Peru, it was lucky to have in possession a readily available story of Incan greatness.  With a large population of indigenous people still speaking the Incan language, the only thing that government had to do was to convince all citizens (including white ones) that to be Peruvian is to cherish and embrace the Incan heritage.

Of course, this is easier said than done.  For centuries, the victorious Spanish tried to destroy every last trace of the defeated Inca.  A culture of dismissing Inca traditions as heretical and primitive has become part of the collective psyche for centuries, including among the Quechua themselves.  To reverse such cultural dismissal of Incan heritage will require much more than just building a few monuments to Incan leaders and restoring a few sacred sites of the old empire.  A more comprehensive campaign to restore the pride of the Inca will take more holistic policies enacted over generations.

Given that the very idea of appealing to Incan traditions is a political ploy used by elites to cement their domestic rule in the face of friends pressures, it is difficult to know whether the elites are and will continuously be willing to invest in programs of Incan restoration.  As is the case for other post-colonial countries, the calculation of benefits stemming from independent identity versus the costs of financing the creation of the identity coupled with more distant relationship with former colonial masters, has no clear answer.

It will likely take centuries, without new direct foreign influence, for new identities to emerge.  And these new identities may not even resemble those being created with government efforts today.  But one thing is for sure in the case of Peru.  Neither the Incan and the Spanish heritages will likely go away, with one dominant over the other.  Instead, some other unforeseen domestic cultural creations that incorporate elements of both sides will emerge as the new dominant cultural expression, superseding both.

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