Threads of My Life and New Turns for a Discussion on Indigenous Testimonio: Reframing Identity and The Indigenous as Epistemology

Volcán, Licancabur

“Volcán Licancabur”, Astrid Roldán


Claudia A. Arteaga Olortegui
Rutgers University



Hilos de mis Vida. El testimonio de Hilaria Supa, una campesina quechua (Threads of My Life. The Testimonio of Hilaria Supa, a Rural Quechua Woman) was published in 2001 and tells the story of Hilaria Supa Huarnán, an indigenous activist and former congresswoman of Peru (2006-2011). The testimonio was a result of the collaboration between Supa and Waltraut Stölben, a German activist. It denounces the implementation of a forced sterilization program, a health plan designed to control population growth during Alberto Fujimori’s administration in the Peruvian Andes (where Supa is from) and the rainforest. From 1996 to 2000, more than 200,000 women from those areas were subjected to surgical sterilization practices without their consent, under the belief that they were being examined for general medical procedures (Joselyn E. Getgen n/p). As Supa herself has publicly denounced, the reason for this practice was to demographically reduce a population suspected of being terrorists’ allies, simply for speaking another language different to Spanish, or because the armed actions in the highlands forced people to protect militant terrorists (Huayhua, “Discriminación y exclusion” 9-10).

Once the era of Fujimori’s dictatorship was over, reports about forced sterilizations increased. Between 2001 and 2003, the Peruvian Commission for Truth and Reconciliation (CVR) investigated the damage caused to society during the internal war unleashed in the 1980s through the beginning of the 2000s. While Threads of My Life was being produced, the CVR embarked on collecting testimonies from victims and witnesses of the events. Indigenous people who gave testimonio after experiencing terrorist and state violence did so through mechanisms of production of truth set by the State. Neither Supa’s testimonio nor other women’s accusations of forced sterilizations were included in the Commission’s Final Report. In spite of this omission, Supa uses testimonio as a political tool to denounce state policies and discriminatory practices separated from the State’s implementation of truth, in which indigenous voices were primarily heard as victims. Besides forced sterilizations, Supa denounces a microstructural social motif as prevalent in the everyday life of her community: domestic violence. By aligning the state with domestic violence, she offers her testimonio as epistemology that attempts to look not for justice or recognition from the State, but to offer ways of healing internal and social wounds within Andean communities, especially to indigenous people that have abandoned their lands.[ii]

Supa’s epistemology evaluates social relationships framed on gender ideologies and knowledge across generations, and enmeshed in situations of displacement between rural spaces and urban cities, especially Lima, capital of Peru. In doing so, Supa proposes a concept of memory that is an appraisal of an indigenous identity individually and collectively based on recuperating and reframing knowledge previously dismissed. That knowledge could reverberate and be sustained if women, men, as well non-human beings show respect for each other. In that sense, her idea of community implies the ayni, conceptualized in the testimonio as a way of collective organization based on reciprocity and distribution of labor and resources. Ayni works as an ethical signifier that should pervade all aspects of individual and social life in community. As a cultural attitude it also affirms life in opposition to a State of terror and everyday forms of violence internalized and reproduced by society. Therefore, rather than “being represented” by foreign ideologies or institutions outside the community –which entails subordination and complicity, reduction and the limitations of subjectivity—, in Supa’s testimonio there is a call for the production of a positive subalternity through a epistemology of life, a politics of collective thought, one that could be imagined concretely through social practices and outside state apparatuses. This call implies the redrawing of the configuration of race and gender, ethics and modern knowledge and ways of knowing, that have defined negatively an understanding of indigenous subjects. To reach this purpose it becomes crucial to rethink “the book” as a tool of education.

As book, the testimonio does not imply an unproblematic turn to writing as a means to represent indigenous identities. Nor does the use of alphabetic writing imply a subjection to non-Eurocentric forms of knowledge. I propose that the use of writing does not overshadow other forms of cultural attitudes in Threads of My Life. As the anthropologist Thomas Abercrombie points out for the case of indigenous people in the Andes, “the arrival of writing did not automatically displace all other forms of collective memory” (17). Therefore, it is in this sense that the conjunction of visual and written modes of representations in this book places the discussion about indigenous representation far from the taken-for-granted relevance of what is considered as “colonial media” in opposition to non-modern epistemologies. Joanne Rappaport and Tom Cummins propose the term “interculture” (borrowed from Abercrombie) in order to emphasize that “the written word provided a creative interface within which members of different cultural traditions expounded upon and adjusted to an unequal relationship born of colonialism” (10-11). This “intercultural” attitude is what I propose should be the lens to look at this testimonio, not only as a product of this nature but as a pedagogical tool that aims to place indigenous subjects as active agents of cultural creation. By framing the book as both an educational and cultural tool, Supa’s testimonio –I argue—challenges a colonial hermeneutics reinforced during the Republican era, which places the indigenous world as object of discrimination and exploitation. Rather, she places it as a collective subject of knowledge to be offered to others.


I. Indigenous Writing after The Crisis of Testimonio:


Testimonio as a genre became popular within the US academy after Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia (My name is Rigoberta Menchú and this is how my conscience was born) (1983), provided by the Guatemalan indigenous activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Rigoberta Menchú, together with Elisabeth Burgos. After Menchu’s testimonio was published, scholars like John Beverley and George Yudice associated it with a form of non-fictional narrative that arose in the seventies, the testimonial genre. For these critics, a feature of the testimonio is its emphasis on the oral, which is why the witness “portrays his or her own experience as an agent (…) of a collective memory and identity” (Yudice 44). In this way, the dichotomy between the oral and the written as a representational dilemma for indigenous subjects was blended under the supposition that for political reasons, turning to writing was a valid strategy for making indigenous voices visible. Thus, the indigenous voice was not silenced; it “was being heard” and interpreted. In the 90’s, the genre experienced a shift after the publication of Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (1999) by the anthropologist David Stoll, in which the veracity of the events told by Rigoberta Menchú in her testimonio was called into question. The result was the delegitimization of the testimonio as a vehicle of truth from the perspective of a subordinate voice (Beverley 70-73).

I read Threads of My Life as a text that demands moving away from the dichotomy of orality versus writing as a frame to discuss representations of and by indigenous people and to assess their “authenticity.” I argue this not in the spirit of obliterating Waltraut Stölben’s participation as the person who actually recorded Supa’s narration and put it into writing. My intention is neither to claim that there was a horizontal relationship able to obliterate the reproduction of old colonial dichotomies such as alphabetic writing vs. orality (Beverley 73). Far from proposing that Supa-Stölben is a horizontal relationship and by so doing validating the authenticity of this testimonio and proclaiming its study based on that, I approach the book by considering what Supa herself has said about it: “this is my book and it is one of the most important things I have ever done” (“Personal Interview”). Furthermore, this book is a reaction to a national reality that has been opposed to any claim of cultural difference or racial distinction besides the mestizo-criollo paradigm. The ideology ruling this reality is internalized in everyday forms of addressing issues related to indigenous populations in Peru as Fujimori’s plan of forced sterilization demonstrated. That is why is urgent to keep studying and promoting knowledge that question a multicultural paradigm administrated by the State. As Charles R. Hale poses, “Far from eliminating racial inequity, as the rhetoric of multiculturalism seems to promise, reforms [from neoliberal states] reconstitute racial hierarchies in more entrenched forms” (16). Threads of My Life emerges because these neoliberal reforms referred by Hale (although in the case of Guatemala) proved precisely to be destructive. In contrast, in her testimonio Supa seeks to capitalize upon a knowledge and communitarian practice lost or close to being lost to fight against dependency and state paternalism. Against this destruction, Supa pursues “life” by calling for a return to what she considers an indigenous way of living and thinking.


II. In the beginning, the violence …


In the first chapter titled “The Beginning”, Supa talks about her birth in Anta[iii] and the story of her mother, who was raped by Supa’s father. Being born as a result of a violent act created a mother-daughter relationship that lacked affection and responsibility. During her adolescence, Supa is sent to the capital to work as maid. She suffered gender discrimination through her migratory experience, which distances women from their communities and accentuates racial discrimination and sexual abuse in the capital. Supa was sexually molested at the age of eleven. On another occasion, her working conditions were so poor that she ended up eating the food of the animals that she looked after. Along these forms of violence taking place through generations, Supa explains communal practices. In “The Beginning,” Supa describes childbirth in the community and the rites that occur after the birth, such as the cutting of the umbilical cord and first haircut at two or three years old. At the same time, she talks about the healing done with different herbs and medicinal plants to “close the body, the pores and even the hairs” of the mother after childbirth (5). On one hand, we have the woman’s body raped and converted into a space for degradation and subjugation and, on the other, we have the healing of that body loaded with collective meanings, such as community rituals and the use of natural medicine.

Supa asserts that she received this knowledge early in her life from her grandfather. During Supa’s childhood, her grandfather was a protective figure, who replaced both her mother and the father. He taught her the meanings and uses of plants and the symbolism of animals. In that way, his presence was essential to her recovery what she would claim later on as indigenous knowledge. Such recognition is made towards the end of the testimonio, where she explains that the stories of grandparents must be told to guarantee cultural survival. She implores, “Tell them the stories that grandparents have told you. If you know how to spin, teach them to spin, if you know how to heal, teach them to heal” (160). In her grandfather, Supa sees the possibility of being taught, re-educated in indigenous knowledge, while her mother could not assume that role for her. The fact that the grandfather fulfills a role in her upbringing makes his figure transgress gender expectations in her community. This role synthesizes the integration and the balance that Supa will claim between genders later in her testimonio to cure and heal women’s suffering and, as a consequence, that of the whole community.


III. Contextualizing indigenous women in Cusco


Supa decided to come back to Anta definitely to undertake initiatives with women’s organizations, following her grandfather’s example as a peasant leader in times of popular movements against landowners before the Agrarian Reform[iv] was implemented. However, creating a dialogue with organizations that already existed in the community was not an easy task:


I liked the assemblies’ environment and I liked that people there talked about equality, that there should not be any kind of exploitation from the powerful against the powerless. However, they would never refer to women. They would never say that we are as worthy as they. Every time we wanted to give our opinions, they did not let us talk. It was not part of their mindset that peasant women could express their thoughts in front of them. But little but little, we have become strong and we have claimed our right to speak and be heard (….) Men would also never say that indigenous people have the right to practice their culture. Men only talk in terms of rich and poor people… (Supa 37)


Domestic labor associated with women is not as valued as the labor undertaken by men outside the community, in urban spaces. Therefore, women’s perspectives are built from the margins of political and cultural practices. However, this marginality is capitalized upon to promote organizing initiatives based on identity claims that also embrace the indigenous.

In her piece “Las mujeres son más indias” (“Women are more Indian”), the anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena posits a connection between ethnicity and gender in order to understand everyday forms of subordination operating outside and within the Chitapampa community in Cusco, Peru. At the beginning of 20th century, a series of legislation recognized land possession and the citizenship only for the case of people who knew how to read and write (Mark Thurner 64). As a result, lands were monopolized by socially high-ranking peasant families in Cusco. This land monopoly was a result of marriage alliances and patrilineal inheritance that benefited men over women. Due to this male control of material resources, women held neither economic nor political power. Their domestic and non-domestic labor within and outside rural towns, such as traders and sellers in markets in Cuzco city, were not socially recognized as in the case of men (de la Cadena 10).

After servile labor was eradicated in rural areas with the Agrarian Reform, Chitapampa peasants migrated to Cuzco city (half an hour away by car) and lowland rainforest searching for better-paid labor options. The process of land fragmentation and distribution decreased crop production. As a consequence, land was devaluated as well as rural life. The power distribution according to gender changed by the same token. Women became inheritors and administrators of the lands left by men, while the latter sought access to education, and relying on that for the possibility of social mobility. According to la Cadena, the social stratification related to displacement from the countryside to the city implies a promise of de-indianización (20-21) and, therefore, of the assimilation to the criollo-mestizo hegemonic paradigm prevalent nationally (Huayhua, ¿Ya no hay indios?…7-8). Women in this context are ideologically considered as linked to rural areas and to an anti-modern and static social image that has been associated to Andean societies since the foundation of the Republic (Méndez 75-77). In spite of the economic empowerment of women within their communities, male ties with urban forms of legitimation placed the relation of the city to the countryside not only in racial but in gendered terms. For de la Cadena, men can become “mestizos” while women stay “indias.”

Furthermore, what is implied here is the way in which “indio” and “mestizo” as racial categories are in fact identities not framed by phenotypic features but on a juxtaposition of interethnic and gendered differentiations as result of urban ideologies of assimilation. In de la Cadena’s piece, there is a continuity between state policies implemented during the Agrarian Reform and the effects that the promise of modernity in rural areas caused in social relations in Chitapampa. In her argument, there is a supra-structural power that is indefectibly shaping social relations locally and beyond. As a result, rural life is devalued as it is racialized and put in terms of Indianness. At the same time, women’s initiatives are not put to the fore to counter this process of “Indianization.” Supa underlines that in fact women had an active participation during struggles to recuperate lands from landowners, previously the Agrarian Reform. In this sense, there is a vivid memory of the resistance against exploitation, abuses and inequalities, that provides the momentum for reframing an indigenous women’s agenda years later.


IV. From “india” and “peasant” to “indígena


In spite of proposing a reverse of this “indianization” process we draw from de la Cadena’s study, Supa does not claim explicitly “india” or “indio” as an identity platform. In the testimonio, the term is quoted commonly as an insult against indigenous subjects. Expressions like “india from Puna” (12) and “stupid and lazy india” (13) were used against Supa by her patrons when she worked as a maid on the coast. In those cases, verbal violence is associated to a devaluation of women’s labor and to a vision of them as carriers of a culture to be denied. Furthermore, the insult is a spacial and social demarcation that justifies physical violence and social exclusion (Ramón Pajuelo cit. en Cecilia Méndez 74). Supa reacts against this and asks for respect, and states that education is key to reverse the process of modernization in order to emancipate colonized forms of thought.


In our country, most indigenous people are illiterate. Therefore many people relate being indigenous with being poor. The few indigenous people that have the opportunity to learn and study and be also useful to their communities forget about their origins and they no longer want to know anything related to their culture. They dress as their urban fellows and stop speaking in Quechua. That is why the basis for educating our children needs to be strong. It should be strong to resist and take advantage of the modern world, and above all to gain the respect we all deserve. (70)


Threads of Life is the educational tool that attempts to reverse an education that associates images of poverty with the lack of literacy of indigenous population. Rather, as an epistemology it promotes balance and retribution among the elements to shape a sustainable community, which includes not only humans but non-humans. In this way, literacy is not the kind of knowledge to be valued but the expertise and experience adquired through cultural praxis and other non-literate forms of knowledge. Through this process of cultural recognition, the categories “indio” and “indígena” function as two stages in the identity formation stated by Supa. On her own second stage, Supa obtains “indigenous consciousness” in her travels and public talks abroad. She states:


Above all I learned from indigenous women from other nations and countries who showed so much strength and dignity. When I came back, I was committed to conveying that strength to my community but it has been very difficult. Since most of my indigenous fellows consider themselves peasants, they do not want to be labeled as indigenous. They want to be modern. (70).


The term “peasant” was implemented in Peru during Velasco Alvarado’s government to replace the term “Indian” as soon as the Agrarian Reform was implemented. As a result, “peasant” subsumes rural inhabitants in an economic and objective position, and reduces them to passive producers of agrarian resources. The use of “peasant” also tends to depolitize these subjects that were empowered after leading the land-owning system to the end. Peasants’ refusal to identify themselves with a term they understand as degrading, “indio,” relates to the way in which modernization as a discourse alienated from the indigenous world has been internalized and expressed in everyday language use.

Supa’s ascription as indigenous emerged when she realized the mobilizing effect of using that category to call attention to fundamental rights unrecognized for indigenous populations in a global context. Yet, Supa asserts a position against state power and gendered state policies formulated nationally and internationally for indigenous people through nongovernmental organizations. Specifically, feminist NGOs have occupied an important role regarding health issues and education before the Peasant Women’s Federation in Anta emerged (FEMCA), with Supa, among other activists, as leaders. When FEMCA started to search for autonomy and to demonstrate that “indigenous women were indeed capable of managing our own projects,” (88) NGOs that channeled foreign financial support to the communities started to create conflicts within the organization in order to damage Supa’s reputation. Implied in Supa’s critique is a call to recognize that issues related to rural women should be treated by considering cultural differences. Feminism as discourse institutionalized in a paradigm of development by NGOs is rejected since it does not coherently support autonomous indigenous initiatives. On the contrary, for Supa, both feminism and machismo are ideologies that imply a social unbalance and, therefore, damage to social equilibrium that women’s organizations try to recuperate by claiming for “recognition and natural respect towards us.” (89)

Opposed to foreign influences and ideologies, her indigenous pride is built by a knowledge based on encounters and discussions with other indigenous women abroad. This politics of common thought as I refer to it in the introduction of this piece is the foundation of a proposal that offers to reframe indigenous identity through runas who abandoned their communities seeking the modernity inscribed in cities. This is to say, “Indianization” as signified in de la Cadena’s work is translated into a positive term by embracing an “indigenous” identity that set forth a communitarian life (culture and praxis or culture as a praxis), for which it is neccesary to come back to the land once left behind.


V. Reforming education and the modern book


The healthy life that she proposes literally responds to material well-being based on a series of cultural recoveries and ecological practices. She poses “another piece of wisdom that is part of our culture and living expression of deep lying respect is the balance between two opposing things, such as warm and fresh, Sun and Moon, masculine and feminine, man and woman. Just then do the two parts join and form the union that completes life. The search for balance is found everywhere (88).” “These areas” also include food, which must be directed to the corporeal balance necessary to avoid illnesses: “If the belly aches due to the cold, something warm can be drunk (for example, coca tea), if it aches due to the heat, one needs to drink something fresh (for example, rose mallow) (88).” “Nature” is also based on principles of reciprocity and retribution, all of which can be synthesized in placing a logical community concept known as ayni into practice. If in the chacras –portions of land where sowing and harvesting is done— some members of the community help the owners, they expect this labor to be reciprocated by being helped when needing it themselves. The same logic applies to the Pachamama, “mother earth” in Quechua, who must receive payment through specific rituals of praise (Supa 87). In terms of breaking gender determinations, the Pachamama is both the giving mother and claimant of retribution.

The human and non-human, such as plants and animals, integrate the same worldview, where natural elements have something to teach us as they are in charge of memory and antiquity: “In our vision we are a small part of the whole universe. As humans, we are not superior to anybody. For us, the oldest are the rocks. They existed long before the animals and people and deserve our respect (…). Nowadays, there are very few who know how to listen and understand the old among the walls and within the rocks” (84). The rocks, like the animals and plants, carry a message which is no longer heard or understood by people. Beyond the visual, the experience with nature is associated with a practice, consisting of a relationship not based on the simple extraction of resources, but on generating continuity, through retribution, so that nature continues to produce. If for David Abram, “all meaning includes a perceptual dimension” (qtd. en Mortimer-Sandilands 268), then the knowledge in Threads of My Life implies an appropriate perception (“knowing how to listen”), not accidental but directed and reflexive. The question of an indigenous ecological knowledge, as Supa proposes, follows the relationships between body and the surroundings. For Mortimer-Sandilands on the relation among nature, mind and body, the question to be posed is how “particular modes of thought are located in embodied experiences, on how both symbolic reflection and sensuous perceptions are phenomenally organized in particular techno-historical relationship between bodies and others” (270).

In this sense, the form in which the perception and reflection of the human over the non-human has been organized in the case of the indigenous epistemology suggested by Supa has to do with “techno-historical” tools that are not only written. The acquisition of knowledge implies perceiving and understanding, not primarily reading or writing. It is in this way that knowledge involves acts of memory, which are listening and remembering what has been forgotten. The memory as a living process, at once social, technological and physical, corresponds for Supa to pre-Hispanic cultural alignments, which she considers as having survived the past while guaranteeing a future for the community. For Supa, nature is not just a simple depository for some old stories or Andean myths, for she is not aiming for a metaphysical discourse, but an instrumental one:


Our ancestors knew how to live for centuries and millennia with the animals, hunting them for their use but not making them disappear. They also knew the sacred animals and understood their messages (…) My grandfather always said that the toad is the farmer, because without the toad we could not cultivate well; it also tells us when it is going to rain and if it is going to be good crop or not. (85)


If the use of the toad has been forgotten, it is then through writing that one strategically reaches out to educate or re-educate the runas. This way of educating is based on the exposure to an experience. Experience here is knowledge that does not pertain to theoretical frameworks but to a cultural praxis retrieved from past generations and translated into an indigenous pride as a decolonizing attitude. One way in which the book aims to formulate experience as collective thought and praxis is through concrete exercises offered to the reader. This section of “questions to reflect upon” is placed at the end of each chapter and has the role of connecting oral experiences, be it of violence, as in the case of the chapters dedicated expressly to the life of Supa, or of calling upon the application of cultural methods. For example, at the end of the first chapter and of the exhibition of the rituals related to birth, the questions are focused on entering into dialogue and reflection, not distance or passivity: “How was the birth of your children attended? Are there recognized midwives in your community? Which plants do you know and use during childbirth? Why is that many fathers and grandfathers do not want to pass on their knowledge to their children and grandchildren?” (10). In the chapters about her experience as an activist, some of the questions are as follows: “In your opinion, is the organization of women necessary? How did you learn to express yourself in public? Do you participate in women’s organizations in your community?” (47).

Supa’s narrative weaves connections on several levels, between the human and non-human, between men and women, with herself, her history and the fight and reflections that the reading intends to develop in her fellows. Beyond the concept of the “text” as a fabric itself of meanings given by the writing, Threads of My Life as a book also relies on images as non-literate forms of knowledge reproduction. The book cover is the first approximation to the symbolism of the testimonio as a fabric. In it, we see Hilaria Supa’s profile, which occupies the center of the image. Below Supa’s profile, where the fabric ends, there is a substratum of land and tubers (image 1). Supa’s profile appears to be incorporated into the fabric. This suggests that the fabric is incomplete and finally it closes over the profile integrating the natural and cultural elements.



Image 1: Cover of Second edition of the book. Supa Huamán, Hilaria. Hilos de mi vida. 2da edición. Lima: Ediciones del Congreso del Perú, 2010. *The remaining images are from the first edition Supa, Hilaria y Waltraut Strölben. Hilos de mi vida. El testimonio de Hilaria Supa Huamán, una campesina quechua. Cuzco: Willkamayu Editores, 2001


Inside the book, the threads on the cover are replaced by braids that, in Supa’s words, represent those of her hair (“Personal Interview”). The images framed by braids lie on the upper and lower margins of the interior pages (image 2). Among these images we find one related with the city where we see buildings that look like monsters, contrasting with landscape figures. In another set of images, there is a high-class woman holding a rope tied to the neck of a rural woman, who is washing clothes (image 3). In other chapter, we see an indigenous community gathered around a group of plants. Some people dance and others make pirouettes. At the bottom there is a cross upside down, which expresses a rejection of Catholicism (image 4).



Image 2: pages 22-23




Image 3: page 12




Image 4: page 31


The images that follow, with the exception of the ones in the final chapter, are no longer formed by people but by plants, always in the context of sowing, fed by the sun and close to some mountains. As the book advances, the natural elements in the drawings become more and more common. In the image 5, we see a bipartite scenario, which is found complemented or joined by a plant. The parallel is clear: on one side, we have a boy in the darkness leaned over what it seems to be a piece of textile. On the other one, we have a girl in the field in daytime. Her thread goes beyond the fabric to involve the whole image into her act of spinning. In this image, this girl –representative of a younger generation– is shown as a main creator and builder of a balance that would lead the indigenous community to achieving a good life.



Image 5: page 151


According to Supa, these images “mean life, nature, harmony, the fruits of life” (“Personal Interview”), which are key elements in her testimonio but whose visual symbolism must not be understood in simple correlation with the written text. The visual gives expression to these multiple interconnections between women and men, between human and non-human, between Pachamama and life, which are placed spatially and temporally. Supa states, “it is difficult to tell things in this way [by writing], bit by bit, because all is interwoven, each area depends on the other, health on food, food on agriculture, agriculture on education and all the other way round as well” (104). This continues in the line of the decolonizing project of Supa’s testimonio because, not only does knowledge seek to be taken up again, but old forms of knowledge production are emphasized: “For us, the Gods are not in words, closed in a book. How are we going to believe the words that the invaders bring and that they represent God’s will, if from the first moment that they stepped on our land every word has been a trick?” (90). In repeating an argument stated in early indigenous testimonies about distrust in the writing due to its false sacredness –posed also by Felipe Guaman Poma and Pachakuti Yamqui in Colonial times— Supa’s work refers to another type of expression in order to validate her testimonio as a pedagogical instrument. In the book, visual records put in practice the interconnection proposed in her testimonio at several levels. In this way, the fabric represents not only a demand for cultural differentiation but a political practice that has been retrieved and remembered in a spite of a history of prohibition: “The Spanish tried to repress it [the spinning] but they have not been able to exterminate it. The landowners, when they arrived, also prohibited weaving. This led to women doing this behind their back. Now, in my community, nobody weaves, the women are dedicated to other things” (“Personal Interview”). Supa showed her rebelliousness since childhood when an early inclination led her to learn how to weave, going against her grandmother’s will and that of landowners who prohibited this custom: “I always took a little q’aytu from my grandmother’s basket, and the other girls did the same, and when we got together to pass some time together we tried to weave” (88-9).

The kipu is a written expression existing in the pre-Hispanic Andean world, associated with the act of spinning. Although the kipu is more of a mechanism formed by “colored threads that are joined vertically in a horizontal ribbon” (Lienhard 14), it is related to the acts of memory and knowledge that Supa asserts in her narrative. Gary Urton maintains that the kipu has signs that could be read or interpreted in which he has called a system of binary codes. He wrote, “the knots of kipu may all be assigned strings (i.e., series) of values in binary code. I argue that these coded series were read or interpreted on the basis of conventionalized values that were attached or assigned to particular coded sequences” (Urton 29). For Lienhard, the kipu requires an oral recitation of the stored information following either administrative or historical purposes: “The contribution of oral memory, of little importance in administrative use, is revealed decisively in the historiographical use of the kipu. The Andean communication system (in which the kipu occupies a privileged place) could well be characterized as “predominantly oral”” (Lienhard 16).

Although it is not an alphabetic notation system, it does consist of a type of record that requires different skills for those who read or prepare it (Urton 32). These skills are visual, tactile and mnemonic: visual because of the symbolisms of the colors used and the positions of the knots, tactile due to the complexity and different forms of the latter ones, mnemonic because the kipu is a device that stores information. Urton says “The kipu recorded information (at least partially) in a binary manner, choosing one or the other of two possibilities – in the movement of strings right or left, over or under, and to the front or to the back of other string”. (41) Supa’s testimonio as an epistemology of life is not a fabric, but “acts” as such, in its interconnection of many levels posed above and throughout the formulation of a communitarian readership. The spinning is produced in the reading of the testimonio, and so it becomes a communal act.

Finally, Threads of My Life as testimonio shows that the genre is not “over,” as John Beverley once declared during the Rigoberta Menchu controversy to point out that the “‘state of emergency’ that drove our fascination and critical engagement with it [the testimonio], has undoubtedly passed” (77). This article has attempted to propose that as a genre, the testimonio continues to be used as a tool to question and reframe identities vis-à-vis discrimination and violence in all its levels and forms of manifestation. Along with this, Threads of My Life as a book proposes that in order to reframe an indigenous episteme, an intervention in modern modes of knowledge and knowing is necessary. By shaping an intercultural stance, Threads of My Life proves the necessity of addressing issues of representation and readership beyond the orality versus writing dichotomy that was set up for the genre. Written and pictorial forms can coexist within a practice of testimonio that moves beyond dichotomies between modern and non-modern practices. Threads of My Life works as a tool of transmission of knowledge that aims to create a networking of meanings through communities.

While I have engaged the term “interculturality” for the study of the writing and the visual as platforms of representation in considering Supa’s epistemology, I take her reflections on the dynamics of race, gender and ethnicity as a way to evidence the limits and frictions at play in intercultural/multicultural interactions, where hierarchical structures reconstitute themselves locally and beyond. Having said that, I believe that the book seen as an intercultural medium seeks to reinvent meanings of colonial uses, embedded in technologies of representations and in the “indigenous” as stance that Supa places vis-à-vis modernizing economic logics and –as redundant this may sound— “alphabetic literacy” as a way to produce knowledge. In that way, Threads of My Life shows how the contemporary study of the definition of indigenous identities should consider the capitalization of different historical moments in which responses to social and cultural hierarchies in local, national and global contexts are displayed.




All English translations of Supa’s testimonio have been made by me from this point forward. Also, Hilos de mi vida from now on will be referred as Threads of My Life.

[ii] For the study of this testimonio I consider it divided in two parts. The first one reflects on the Supa family’s disarticulation caused by machismo and domestic violence, translated into racism and degradation against women labeled as “indias” both within and outside rural communities. The second part is Supa’s activist moment, denouncing and formulating a narrative aimed at “reconstructing our indigenous society” (2).

[iii] Anta is one of the thirteen provinces that integrate the department of Cuzco in Peruvian Southern Andes.

[iv] The Agrarian Reform (1969) was officially implemented by General Velasco Alvarado (1968-1977) who overthrew the neoliberal-leaning administration of Fernando Beláunde Terry. Velasco would refer his own government as “revolutionary” and, therefore, would claim that his reforms of the distribution of land and the nationalization of oil companies were to create social and economical justice for the poor, namely, peasants and miners.




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