Ritual Encounters: Otavalan Modern and Mythic Community (Interp Culture New Millennium)

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In some cases, as part of a fascination with the compelling phenomenon of speed of travel in the context of modern technology and the dramatic flow of people, goods, capital and ideas, this has produced amazement at the fact that indigenous people move at all, not to mention at such breakneck speeds. In these cases, the pace of mobility has come to stand erroneously in my opinion , in and of itself, as an explanation for indigenous cosmopolitanism and as a conclusive statement about the indigenous migration experience in general.

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This emphasis on momentum has tended to downplay the importance of unique Otavalan experiences in different destinations as specific locations get lost in a kinetic blur. On one occasion when Paci expressed interest in travelling to the United States, she asked him why he wanted to go there, for what purpose?

He answered that he wanted to visit Yellowstone Park.

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He told her that it was because this was the first national park that was established in the country. I have known him since and he has dedicated his life to the preservation of protected wildlife areas. He becomes passionate in his expression when he tells me about the blue green algae at Yellowstone National Park. He also aspires to see the Great Wall of China someday.

His brother went there and also to the Caves of Jumandi. I found it curious that Paci should mention the Great Wall of China and the Caves of Jumandi, which are near the town of Archidona in the Ecuadorian Oriente, in the same breadth. But in doing so, he clearly conveyed his general wonder about the world and his desire to go see these amazing natural phenomena and feats of human engineering regardless of whether they were near or far, large or small, local treasures or world heritage sites. Through these anecdotes, Paci, who is no stranger to scholarly debates and is personally invested in ethnic identity politics, was quite incisively staking a claim about indigenous mobility and cosmopolitanism.

Beyond this, he was troubling ethnic and class stereotypes, challenging reified categories, and shaking enduring hypostasized structures as Norman Whitten would designate them in an act of indigenous self-determination. Paci was also perceptive about the running subtext of the conversation and through his personal example was challenging the preconception that when third world people do travel, it must be exclusively out of economic necessity. His comments, were, of course, also directed toward me and intended as an unspoken suggestion for positioning my project in a way that did not overstate economic hardship as an impetus for transnational mobility and that took into account desire and curiosity among the motivating factors and personal reasons for Otavalan travel.

Most importantly, Paci positioned himself in a field of potential and possibility that fundamentally redefined the relationship between ethnicity and mobility. In doing so he projected an emphatically broader representation of indigenous people from a native, self-determining perspective. Other interviewees reiterated this point, conveying reasons rooted in individual desires for traveling that went beyond purely financial pursuits and asserting the prerogative to move about and beyond that, the right to aspire to mobility or imagine themselves abroad prior to the actual act of traveling.

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He likes dressing up as a North American Indian. Someday he would like to go see those cultures in the United States and Canada. What interests him the most is learning about those cultures. Antonio Caisa, on the other hand, has had plenty of travel experience as a musician and comerciante.

His love of cumbia music had always inspired his curiosity about Colombia.

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So when he had a chance to travel there, he went. That was his first of many international journeys. He tells me about the trials he faced living abroad and says he is fed up with that lifestyle.

Combined, these narratives highlight the heterogeneity of motivations and objectives behind indigenous migration, interrupting analytical models that often default to assertions about economic precipitating factors for migration. My interlocutors consciously cast off biased external gazes that perceive ethnic minorities as inherently limited, disadvantaged, and therefore unable or unlikely to entertain aspirations or ambitions beyond their immediate circumstances. Otavalans I met from all walks of life embodied a disposition of openness, of readiness to conceive of broad prospects for themselves and their communities.

I sometimes overheard Otavalans and foreign tourists in the open market of the Plaza de Ponchos sharing anecdotes about places they had both visited —conversations which unexpectedly put tourists on par with their indigenous counterparts in terms of their knowledge of the world and the privilege of international travel. Interviews with people who had not traveled highlighted in a particularly salient way that this process of ethnic self-determination begins not with the act of traveling itself, but rather with an ability to imagine oneself in a different set of possibilities.

These individual aspirations are bolstered by a recurring statement that traveling the world is an Otavalan tradition. In this process, mobility and travel are recast as central to Otavalan identity and Otavalan values. As such, they provide a platform for jointly conceiving of a future as well as a past and a present that is not geographically bound and that projects Otavalans as protagonists as opposed to incidental participants in transnational mobility.

Akapana : The Whirlwind that Touches Down and is Gone Again Travel and the fascination with global mobility is a topic of frequent conversation among Otavalans. The coming and going of viajeros travelers , which sometimes involves returning home for less than a week before jet setting off to another destination, does highlight kinesis, momentum, speed. On a few occasions I heard travelers refer to themselves as akapana —a whirlwind that touches down and just as suddenly is gone again. David Kyle reports Otavalan travel to 23 countries at the end of the twentieth century and Lynn Meisch lists travel to 32 countries.

Aside from these tallies, neither author provides ethnographic information on this impressive number of travel destinations. Kyle and Meisch do not even name all of the countries they enumerate.


I was initially critical of the lack of ethnographic evidence to substantiate this claim about Otavalan mobility. This made me think back to an interview I conducted in with an Otavalan gentleman who was 75 years old at the time. Often the mayordomo hacienda overseer would catch people in transit and threaten them with this very acial. The mayordomo would confiscate their hats or ponchos and force them to work for a day in order to reclaim these items and gain safe passage to Otavalo.


This historical experience of restricted geographical mobility contrasts with the relative ease with which Otavalans travel today. A staff member of the Municipal Office of Planning and Development in Otavalo indicated that ethnic Otavalans are, in fact, more likely to be approved for international visas than nonindigenous applicants interview. Contemporary Otavalan mobility is a reflection of changing socio-political circumstances and ethnic economic empowerment. As such, there is a premium placed on mobility not just in terms of the ability to move freely across physical distance but also because mobility is emblematic of social, political and economic changes.

Perhaps this notion of ready access to the world is behind the tendency among Quichua speakers to talk about place in terms of proximity and relative distance. Use of the diminutive form ito , ita suffixes in Spanish and iku , gu in Quichua accentuates the impression of proximity. Elsewhere Wibbelsman I write about the conceptual maps at variance with conventional maps this emphasis on mobility and proximity generates among Otavalans who tend to conceive of places around the world as just around the corner and well within reach.

In this conception, perhaps the Caves of Jumandi and Great Wall of China are not so far apart after all…. Indigenous Cosmopolitanism For those who do not travel abroad, the world comes to them. In addition to approximately , foreign tourists who visit Otavalo annually Meisch 2 , Otavalan travelers bring back impressions, experiences, souvenirs, pictures, videos, new forms of knowledge, fashions and different languages from abroad, all of which add to a cosmopolitan atmosphere among Imbaburan communities.

Bishop Barron: Word on Fire

Even for people who have never ventured farther than the limits of Imbabura province, the names of foreign cities roll off their tongues as easily as those of neighboring hamlets. Increasing use of cellular phones and internet access in even the most remote communities contributes to the sense of worldly proximity and familiarity. At the homes of friends in Peguche, business calls from all over Latin America rang in on a daily basis.


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During my visit in it was clear that Facebook had become ubiquitous. Even Otavalans who do not travel think of themselves as participants in the world economy, knowledgeable about and open to diverse cultural ideas, and connected to select global others through a sense of shared values. In other words, they see themselves as cosmopolitan.

This native self-perception, moreover, is not contingent on travel, suggesting that Otavalans are cosmopolitan prior to being transnational.

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The social landscape Otavalans navigate has clearly shifted under the pressure of new means of travel and the flow of people, goods, information, and capital, producing new spaces of identity formation and changes in social interaction. However, the deeply-held value placed on mobility due to a history of restricted geographical movement, the way people talk together about distance in relative terms that render the world nearby, and the claim that traveling is a long-standing Otavalan tradition suggest that Otavalans conceive of mobility as something integral to their ethnic experience and collective identity.

In this sense the emphasis on mobility itself momentum over location both among ethnographers working in the Otavalo area and Otavalans themselves keys us into native perspectives on migration. One important outcome of this outlook on migration is that in the blur of rapid displacements to and fro and in the midst of global circuits, transnational flows and social networks, the only place that remains in focus and functions as a stable referent is Otavalo. As the point of departure, repeat-return and mythical homeland Otavalo serves as an anchor for indigenous migration experiences.

This, nonetheless, may be changing as Otavalan diaspora communities become more settled. New visa requirements, changing economic factors both in Ecuador and abroad, and a host of other limitations on migration have affected the agility of Otavalan travel in recent years. While the number of Otavalan migrants may have increased, the rate and frequency of repeat-return migration seems to have diminished since Although Otavalans clearly constitute an ethnic diaspora in the sense that they maintain a strong connection to Otavalo as a homeland and, for the most part, aspire to return to Otavalo someday, for many Otavalans that day has been postponed indefinitely.


My opinion is that sooner or later some Otavalans will have to reconcile their discourse on an ultimate return to Otavalo with their reality of permanent residence abroad. While the emphasis on mobility provides some productive ethnographic insights, it tends to obscure others. Within this theoretical framework, the experience of migration, for instance, tends to become undifferentiated. The audacity to leave became an important right of passage for young Otavalan men and women.

Their final destination depended on visas, tickets, letters of invitation, and often people did not know until the last minute what country they would travel to. In this process of simply going out into the world, the unevenness of Otavalan global travel was masked. At the time of their first travels young Otavalans came back with narratives of adventure and were received triumphant in their communities who bestowed upon them a new status as viajeros universales universal travelers.

Years later, however, these travelers confide that many of their experiences were not so heroic. They were often challenging, humiliating, frightening, dangerous. They generally refer to life abroad as a life of sacrifice and suffering. Within the gamut of migrant experiences, I heard of pronounced differences in the experiences of men and of women, generational differences and individual differences. I heard of victims of human trafficking and of young Otavalans caught up in international narcotrafficking rings.

An Anthropology of Indigenous Spaces in Ecuador

I heard of police raids, confiscation of merchandise, deportations, sharing of tiny apartments with 15 other people, sleeping in cars in Europe in winter. People also talked about individual challenges of overcoming shyness or battling depression or alcoholism in a foreign land and without a support network. As these personal accounts poured forth, it became evident that the thematic and theoretical generalizations based on the emphasis on mobility could only carry an understanding of indigenous transnational migration part way.