Doña Carmenia and I sat together on dry ch’iqchi grass just outside the cement building where vendors sold produce at the weekly vegetable market. It was 2011 and I was conducting fieldwork in Sarahuayto, a village located in the mountainous province of Ayopaya, Bolivia. Carmenia was a monolingual Quechua-speaker in her late eighties, one of the last villagers who had lived under the former system of indentured labor. When we spoke, Carmenia recounted her work as a mitani (unpaid domestic servant) in a nearby hacienda from the time of her childhood until the abolition of agrarian servitude in 1953. She lamented, “I tell my children about the hacienda, but they say: ‘If the hacienda were to return, I would escape!’ They ask: ‘How could you have called the landowner mother and father?’ and tell me that in order to call someone mother or father, that person must have conceived me.” She sighed, “I don't think today’s children would survive this. I’m already old. The landowners left everyone fighting.” She paused, and then went on: “I herded pigs and sheep. I made cheese for the patron (landlord). Now sorrow returns to me, confronting what was.”

Carmenia’s words attest to both the violence and intimacy of Bolivia’s former hacienda system. Haciendas were landed agrarian estates owned by Spanish-descended elites and supported by the unpaid work of Quechua- and Aymara-speaking tenant farmers, seasonal laborers, and domestic servants. While originally consolidated by the titling of colonial land grants in 1645, unpaid hacienda labor persisted until the national agrarian reform of 1953. As institutions haciendas were oriented toward profit through the sale of agricultural goods, yet as sites of residence they consisted of extended households built upon various sexual and kinship relations including godparenting, marriage, elopement, rape, and the adoption of out-of-wedlock children and Quechua- and African-descended orphans “gifted” to landlords.

During fieldwork in Bolivia between 2010 and 2012, I was struck by the centrality of the nation’s hacienda past for current reform efforts aimed at achieving indigenous justice. As part of a wide-ranging series of decolonizing reforms, in 2006 the Bolivian government initiated a national program of land sanitation (saneamiento) aimed at uprooting relations of land use, labor violence, and domesticity based in the hacienda. This reform builds explicitly from the Bolivia’s national agrarian reform of 1953, which sought to convert male tenant farmers into propertied heads of (nuclear) household. As in this earlier reform period, agrarian officials today seek to retitle rural lands based on surveys of hacienda property collected in 1953. Organized into field brigades, employees of the Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria (INRA) visit former hacienda villages like Sarahuayto, instructing villagers on land titling procedures and imploring them to abandon hacienda ways, particularly ties to former landlords. Indeed, during my research, INRA officials commonly described Quechua villagers in Ayopaya as childlike, passive, and lacking in critical faculties—sentiments paralleled in Carmenia’s account of her adult children’s admonitions of hacienda subjection.

Despite reform efforts, however, people in places like Sarahuayto remain entangled in hacienda-based relations in myriad ways: Quechua-speaking villagers seek out former landowning families as godparents and religious sponsors, former workers rely upon resources and aid from their late hacienda employers, the kin of former workers labor in the homes and mines of late landowning families and, in some cases, the children or grandchildren of raped mitani servants reside on lands and in buildings left to them by prior hacienda employers. And while officials see ties to former landowners as evidence of continued subjection, for many Quechua groups these ties supply key modalities by which to reckon with past violence. This is particularly so in cases of children born out of wedlock, orphaned, or abandoned to landlords. Indeed, for subjects raised within such hacienda-based networks, the state’s stigmatization of Quechua groups in former hacienda regions offers visceral evidence of the occlusions facing nationalist projects of unified indigenous collectivity and rights-based uplift. In a nation where indigenous groups’ incorporation into history has come to signal political inclusion, some people and histories don’t belong. As the grandson of one mitani noted, “For this government, we are not history.”

The Bolivian case underlines the centrality of household as a fulcrum of modernizing state intervention. Like mid-twentieth century projects of revolutionary land reform, nationalist projects of indigenous awakening today require the remapping of household—in particular, the fragmentation of hacienda-based ties into enumerated bundles of nucleated kinship. And yet, despite state efforts to the contrary, lives in former hacienda villages like Sarahuayto remain bound up in networks of patronage and care at odds with reform models. To use Elizabeth DeLuca’s language in her introduction to this session, these other ways of “living and working in proximity” challenge the legibility of relations afforded by reigning analytics of household both in anthropology and in government policy. Not only this, but their illegibility often calls forth the force of law. Indeed, in Ayopaya villagers worried that these more fluid networks of labor and land relations would get dissolved with the imposition of a reified model of property ownership premised on heads of nuclear peasant households or, in the case of indigenous land collectivization, on a spatially delimited association of peasant households. In a legal memorandum outlining opposition to collective land titling as a Tierra Comunitaria de Origen (Native Community Land), Ayopaya unionists equated the state’s imposition of property designs with being “managed like a park.”

Survey maps
Replanteos (survey maps) drawn up in the 1950s outline the redistribution of hacienda parcels to peasant households, each marked by number.

Tracking the tensions between existing forms of proximate living and state cartographies of post-hacienda household offers new insights concerning the centrality of intimacy to twenty-first-century projects of governance and citizenship. Namely, the reformist targeting of hacienda households shows how domestic spaces operate as “terrains of statecraft” (Ramberg 2014, 11) for the production of modern citizens through the excising of practices at odds with liberal ideals of family and sexuality. By attending to the changing scale and composition of domestic arrangements over time, we see households not only as occluded tools of industrial capital but also as crucial elements in national reform projects that have rendered family life and sexuality key for the production of new, more liberated subjects (Foucault 1990, 140; Larson 2004). In the Bolivian case, nuclear peasant households operate as the implicit if unacknowledged model for healthy family life and emancipatory citizenship. Yet despite this constriction of the appropriate scale of kinship, lives in Ayopaya and elsewhere remain caught up in relational ties that are at odds with state grids of property and personhood. And while they are often disappeared from policy records, such relational ties nonetheless produce something, carving out sites of care, repair, and belonging by which people inhabit life “in the wake” (Sharpe 2016) of an ongoing violence.

Approaching household as an analytic that traverses the relational, the institutional, and the spatial, we might take the overlay or divergence of these spheres as itself a key ethnographic problem. As in Caitlin Zaloom’s account of student finance, in Bolivia too the nuclear family operates as a “social design” that aspires, but ultimately does not fully contain, the collectivities it avows to name, reorder, and assist. Despite the constriction of domestic life via the reformist remapping of agricultural production and land tenure in post-1953 Bolivia, relations of aid and care rooted in hacienda ties endure and get renewed. And while relations beyond the nuclear family are often characterized as indeterminate, flexible, or precarious, in Bolivia they arise also as sediments of deep histories of belonging and violence whose effects, however, are not monolithic or absolute. The trick, then, is to craft a mode of analysis that does not unwittingly mimic state desires for transparency and alignment, annihilating “movement forms” (Carter 2009, 157) through the drawing of lines and grids. While for Bolivian reformers hacienda-based relations arise principally as effects of incomplete state design, we might ponder such relations also as sites of cultivated opacity, refusal, and critique—in short, as a politics against the state. Viewed from this angle, illegibility arises as generative and not simply exclusionary.


Carter, Paul. 2009. Dark Writing: Geography, Performance, Design. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.  

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books. Originally published in 1976.

Larson, Brooke. 2004. Trials of Nation-Making: Liberalism, Race, and Ethnicity in the Andes, 1810-1910. New York: Cambridge University Press.  

Ramberg, Lucinda. 2014. Given to the Goddess: South Indian Devadasis and the Sexuality of Religion. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.  

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.