The impossibility of mestizaje in The Hidden Nation: emblematic constructions in the cinema of Jorge Sanjinés

by Alber Quispe Escobar

translated with explanatory notes
by Keith John Richards

Translator's introduction

Bolivia’s ethnic and cultural configuration is unique in South America; the country’s substantial indigenous presence is divided among several peoples. Of these the Aymara, based in western Bolivia in and around the area of La Paz, are among the most numerous. Urban migration is a particularly influential factor in ethnic and cultural identification, which varies according to social and political circumstances. The phenomenon of mestizaje, or ethnic and cultural mixing, has been a controversial issue ever since the Spanish conquest, as the stigma of backwardness attached to indigenous identity fluctuates and gradually diminishes.

Author’s abstract: In this article the author analyzes the critical representation of mestizaje as presented by Bolivian film director Jorge Sanjinés in his film The Hidden Nation (1989). He claims that the film, which fundamentally expresses concern for the construction of the Bolivian nation, represents mestizaje — as a social category — as outmoded, essentially an impossibility. Sanjinés’ film rather shows a nation founded on an “Andean essence” that the filmmaker seeks to reinforce, not only through the film’s plot but also through the narrative models that he applies, which confirm his political and ideological position.


In the work of the filmmaker Jorge Sanjinés, already celebrated in Bolivian and Latin American cinema, the most profound sociocultural problems occupy a fundamental place. From Sanjinés onwards, Bolivian cinema has not only experimented with alternative narrative models, but also (which is crucial) has marked a phase — ephemeral, certainly — of “a cinema alongside the people” that finds its most immediate expression in the indigenous cultures of Bolivia. These preoccupations are set forth, perhaps in a more precise manner, in his film The Hidden Nation, (1989) in which Sanjinés offers a suggestive reflection on the Bolivian cultural nation. This work is centered, precisely, on the basic crux of the film: criticism of the idealized mestizaje constructed in and for the Bolivian sphere in the early 20th century, to be strongly exalted and diffused by the “revolutionary nationalism” of the middle of the same century. Sanjinés’ film, among other media approaches, has revealed the cultural limits of a homogenizing mestizaje whilst showing us another form of projecting the Bolivian social dynamic. Hence there’s a need — although this doubtless stems from an ideological perspective — to understand the forms of representation and interpretation of the national problem that cinema can reveal to us.

In contrast with the existing bibliography on analysing the film (see García 1998), here I postulate that mestizaje in The Hidden Nation is an outmoded impossibility and affirm, on the contrary, this “Andean essence” in the construction of the Bolivian cultural nation. Thus it is understood that Sanjinés’ final proposal with regard to the construction of an “organic nation” — as the filmmaker has indicated — is founded on an indigenous subject rather than an indigenous/mestizo one. We will examine, then, this alternative means of setting forth the “national problem” through a film which, despite a distance of almost 20 years since its release, reflects some problems that have a bearing on Bolivia’s present sociocultural situation.

  1. A panorama of Sanjinés’ cinema

In a talk given at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in September 1995, Jorge Sanjinés underlined cinema’s “exploratory possibility” in the knowledge of human society. Here, the central features of his filmography are transparent, namely a preoccupation for the “backgrounds” of Andean indigenous culture, the construction of alternative aesthetic forms of representation, and continuity in the underlying political-ideological situation. These parameters have articulated Sanjinés’ extensive work (1962-2004)[1] [open endnotes in new window] with slight variations. In this discourse, similarly, the filmmaker emphasized a central concern of his cinema: the positioning of indigenous people and culture in the possible constitution of an “organic nation.” Sanjinés said on this occasion:

“We have been very much concerned with investigation, through cinema, into the background of our people’s soul. Even when we made denunciation films, which totally opposed the dominant system, we sought to approach what we called the country’s “internal rhythms.” We built a language based on a way of composing and organizing reality that is peculiar to our Andean world, because we are sure that if our society is one day going to make up an organic nation, it will be from assimilation and development of its Andean essence, of its identity, incorporating everything positive that modernity offers us.” (Sanjinés 1996: 74).

This problematic, regarding the position of the Andean world in the construction of the “organic nation” that Sanjinés deals with here, is the chief preoccupation of The Hidden Nation (1989). Through this film the filmmaker reflects counter-discursively, not only on the indigenous Andean identity conflict, but also on the sociocultural structure of the nation. But before going into this subject we will add a few lines on Sanjinés’ cinema as a way of reminding ourselves of its guiding principles.

Sanjinés’ cinema is anything but homogeneous: form, in his film writing and the political-ideological posture that accompanies it, varies slightly — without any implicit rupture — between Ukamau (And So It Is: 1966) and The Children of the Last Garden (2004). Two clearly-marked phases can be distinguished in his production, as the filmmaker has pointed out. Sanjinés explains this as follows:

“The first, lasting until 1978 — when democracy was restored in Bolivia — had denunciation as its axis. Blood of the Condor, The Courage of the People, Get out of Here, and The Principal Enemy, among other productions, were situated within this framework, at a moment when critical spaces were very closed and almost nonexistent."

Later I was able to dedicate myself to themes from a more reflective viewpoint. The Hidden Nation served to analyze, for example, the theme of cultural identity, and To Receive the Birds’ Song touched on the complex problem of racism and discrimination” (quoted in Ferrari 2003: 5).

These two axes — “denunciation” on the one hand, and “reflection” on the other — are, then, the frameworks that differentiate the cinema of “political radicalization” and Sanjinés’ cinema of “construction-proposal.” Here, of course, it is in the light of historical circumstances that Sanjinés’ narrative acquires contrasts, evidently without losing its political-ideological and aesthetic direction.[2]

2. “Circularity” of uprooting and return

In The Hidden Nation the plot’s tension alternates between uprooting and return, through the trajectory of its protagonist. Sebastián Mamani, as a child, abandons his Aymara community (Willkani) to face a chastening experience in La Paz. In this city his marginality leads him into certain apparent transformations in order to deny his indigenous condition. For example, he changes his surname from Mamani to Maisman. This apparent alteration, though, does not modify his sociocultural condition. In his keenness to integrate (camouflage) into the ranks of the citizenry he also adjusts to the repressive dominant regime by becoming a soldier. However, his position as an indigenous person — one he always attempts to deny — repeatedly underlines the cultural marginality that makes his life a torment. Perhaps for this reason his stay in the city is not definitive; after this adverse experience of marginality and racism, Sebastián returns to Willkani. There, on the margins — he is practically a foreigner — he is named jilakata [local authority]. His political leadership, however, distances itself from the community conception of the exercise of power; on the contrary, his decisions are unilateral and only satisfy his own personal interests. As punishment Sebastián is judged, threatened and obliged to abandon the community.

Upon his return to the city, Sebastián resolves to (re)affirm his indigenous belonging through the execution of the “Jacha Tata Danzante,” a dance which constitutes a ritual act executed until the performer dies of exhaustion. The protagonist, carrying an ancestral mask, returns to his community to put an end to his erroneous conduct with the memory of this dance, latent since his infancy. Thus the “rebirth” of his identity is figured in Sebastián’s contemplation at the (very) moment of his burial.

The Hidden Nation, as such, narrates the story of Sebastián’s conflictive identity from the relationship between the indigenous world and the sociocultural spaces of this city. Thus the emblem of cultural identity — a highly complex matter — articulates the narrative of the film.

  1. A little theory

Before going into the film’s perspective on mestizaje, we will prepare the terrain with a few indispensable reflections on this theme and its labyrinthine configurations.

The terms “mestizo” and “cholo,”[3] intimately linked in their origins, are products of complex sociocultural and racial relations constructed during and since the colonial era. This complexity, as Javier Sanjinés (1996) points out, make it impossible for mestizos and cholos to be defined exclusively in terms of race, class, ethnicity or geographical location. The ambiguities and imprecisions are expressed not only because the terminology comes out of a complex historical process loaded with subjective valuations but also, fundamentally, “because one forgets that language marks and conceals the differences and subordinations of a concrete social stratification that implies that the terminology and the discourse of ‘mestizaje’ are indisputably ideological.” (Barragán 1992: 17).[4] Indeed such categorizations, a legacy of the colonial past, conceal and reinforce the power relations founded on the opposition between the Creole-white and the cholo-Indian.[5]

In the Bolivian sphere, as Javier Sanjinés proposes, mestizaje has been built since the early 20th century (after a negative vision of what this term implies at the end of the 19th century) “as a power discourse,” above all with the revolution of 1952, whose identity proposal leant heavily on mestizaje. This means that through a discourse on the national, a homogeneous trawl through mestizaje was brought about in a bid to dissolve the profoundly differentiated character of Bolivian social stratification.[6] These ideas, similarly established in the official discourse of neoliberalism, were attempts by Bolivian reality to “sublimate” and exalt mestizaje as a synthesis of reality, thus overcoming Bolivia’s social and cultural diversity (Sanjinés 2005).

On the other hand, mestizaje is also a cultural fact (at times confusedly seen as a social category) that, far from being a molded structure, rather presents varying contours. According to this logic mestizaje is associated fundamentally with the processes of social and cultural mobility from indigenous groups to urban spheres. Here, certainly, there is a tendency towards a static conception, indicating that any change in what is considered indigenous tends towards mestizaje; however, these theoretical lines — it seems to me — indicate the ‘origin’ of the processes of cultural mestizaje.

In this same direction, these cultural processes also interweave with so-called ‘cholification’ (seen as a Bolivianized form of mestizaje) which would seem, in our view, to be the most pertinent means of analysis, since this term seeks to explain the cultural changes undergone by indigenous people in urban centers. Nevertheless, this term is little-defined and is evoked almost always in a pejorative way. For this reason, for the particular ends of this analysis, I prefer the term mestizaje, considered as the result of cultural interweaving that emerges through the superposition of Andean and western elements but constructed in a complex manner, giving rise to a series of categorizations such as ‘cholo’, ‘acculturated Indian’ ‘chola’, ‘chota' [7] etc., which foreshadow ideological charges and reinforce the strict hierarchy of Bolivian society.

Having made these notes, then, we can return to a reflection on the work of Jorge Sanjinés which will permit us to specify these generalizations upon the particular case of his protagonist.

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