El Alto, Rebel City

Demonstration in El Alto October 2003. Students armed with home-made rocket launchers. Photo courtesy of Nacho Calonge. www.nachocalonge.com
Demonstration in El Alto October 2003. Students armed with home-made rocket launchers.
Photo courtesy of Nacho Calonge.

Combining anthropological methods and theories with political philosophy, this book, published by Duke University Press, analyzes everyday practices and experiences of citizenship in El Alto, a satellite city to the Bolivian capital of La Paz. More than three-quarters of El Alto’s population identify as indigenous Aymara. For several years, El Alto has been at the heart of resistance to neoliberal market reforms such as the export of natural resources and the privatization of public water systems. In October 2003, protests centered in El Alto forced the Bolivian president to resign. The growth of a strong social justice movement in Bolivia culminated in the December 2005 election of Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, and it has caught the imagination of scholars and political activists worldwide. El Alto remains crucial to this ongoing process. In El Alto, Rebel City I examine the values, practices, and conflicts behind the astonishing political power exercised by the citizens of El Alto in the first few years of the twenty-first century.

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 1997 and 2004, I contend that in El Alto, citizenship is a set of practices defined by one’s participation in a range of associations, many of them collectivist in nature. My argument challenges Western liberal notions of the citizen by suggesting that citizenship is not only individual and national but in many ways communitarian and distinctly local, constituted through different kinds of affiliations. Since these affiliations emerge in El Alto most often through people’s place of residence and their occupational ties, I offer in-depth analyses of neighborhood associations and trade unions. In so doing, I describe how the city’s various collectivities mediate between the state and the individual. Collective organization in El Alto and the concept of citizenship underlying it are worthy of attention; they are the basis of the city’s formidable power to mobilize popular protest.

I have collected some video clips which illustrate some of the points I want to make in the book, and are referred to in its pages.


They illustrate similarities between Dances, Demonstrations and Civic Parades. I’m currently working on a piece that explores these similarities in greater detail.


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