Ernesto travels across a continent in which, ever since the arrival of the first conquistadors, white Europeans have controlled cultural institutions and historical narratives. European landmarks, religions, and languages have replaced pre-Columbian ones, and serious study of indigenous culture is a rarity. Moreover, the impoverished proletarian classes are mostly comprised of indigenous people whose economic and political oppression coincides with the erasure of their culture. Ernesto makes the connection between class and culture, asserting that these two kinds of oppression are interdependent and that treating native culture with seriousness and dignity is key to empowering the proletarian classes. Eventually, he comes to believe that reclaiming culture and history is both a goal of social change and a vehicle to effect it.
Over the course of his journey, Ernesto learns about the European suppression of indigenous culture and comes to view the perseverance of this culture as evidence of an indomitable Latin American spirit. As an urban South American of European descent, Ernesto has little knowledge of indigenous culture at the outset of the journey, but he quickly acquires it by examining cultural sites and observing the people he meets. He gives evocative descriptions of cultural artifacts that Europeans have either willfully destroyed or neglected. In Cuzco, he conjures up the city when it was the center of the Inca empire, and contrasts this sophisticated ancient society with the “illiterate Spanish conquistadors” who ruined it. Reversing cultural stereotypes which assert the simplicity of native people and intelligence of Europeans, he shows his preference for indigenous to European culture. The fact that Ernesto has to make his point through an act of imagination shows the scope of European domination, both of the physical monuments and of the “proud” ancient cultures he imagines which have given way to the “defeated race” he sees around him today. However, Ernesto also enthusiastically notes instances of cultural survival. In Peru, a native schoolteacher explains to him that a particular mountaintop marked with a cross is actually a pre-Christian holy site appropriated by Catholic monks; the gestures of native travelers as they approach it are a version of an ancient ritual. Ernesto finds this fidelity to pre-Columbian culture poignant but also encouraging; it shows the use of culture as a tool of proletarian resistance, when they often seem to have none.
Through the presentation of his experiences, Ernesto contends that cultural suppression traps indigenous people in the lower classes and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation both by their own society and by foreign powers. In Cuzco, Ernesto connects the “violated ruins of the temples” and “sacked palaces” to the “brutalized race” of indigenous people. Thus, the issue at hand is bigger than the destruction of art or artifacts; disrespect of culture causes disrespect for a people and their political rights. The same Peruvian schoolteacher who explains the cross on the mountain asserts that the perception of indigenous culture as inferior has serious social ramifications. The few Indians who manage to obtain an education are taught the “white man’s” creed of cultural superiority, which “fills them with shame and resentment,” rather than giving them tools for self-improvement. Subsequently, they have to live “within a hostile white society which refuses to accept them” because of this perceived inferiority. Thus, cultural suppression prevents Indians from achieving upward mobility and imprisons them in the impoverished proletarian class.
Because indigenous people are not upwardly mobile, positions of economic and political power belong only to those of European descent or to foreigners. In a Chilean mine, Ernesto sees “blond [and] arrogant” American bosses spirit profits away to other countries while their workforces scramble to secure marginal wage increases. The workers mock their bosses as “imbecilic gringos” but can’t combat them effectively because they don’t have the knowledge or education to do so. This situation is particularly symbolic because it shows the extent of foreign cultural influence over the very earth occupied by indigenous people for millennia. In this way, the denigration of indigenous culture emerges as one of the factors creating the proletariat and preventing them from flourishing in their own society.
Eventually, Ernesto decides that reclaiming indigenous culture and asserting its importance will help the South American proletariat challenge the economic and political status quo. Through the Peruvian schoolteacher, Ernesto voices the necessity to “build schools that would orient [indigenous] individuals within their own world” (in other words, allow them to embrace their own culture and historical narratives rather than that of the European conquerors). This will allow them to “play a useful role within” society, rather than being a marginalized and impoverished underclass. In Lima, Ernesto encounters the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, one of the only institutions to approach indigenous history academically. The museum fascinates Ernesto and its curator, a “pure blood Indian scholar,” is a rare example of an Indian who is able to flourish in European society without abandoning his origins; in fact, he helps promote general understanding and appreciation of his culture. However, incidents like this are rare and by the end of the book it’s clear that Ernesto doesn’t envision increased mobility within the current order as the goal of embracing indigenous culture. Rather, he sees embracing indigenous culture as a tool to catalyze revolutionary social change.
While Ernesto makes a strong case that racial and political oppression go hand in hand, it’s important to note that in discussing this issue, he displays some troubling views on race. Ernesto becomes preoccupied by class early in the book, whereas his interest in indigenous culture comes later and, at least initially, stems from his sense of its utility as a means of unifying the proletariat toward social change. In this sense, he sometimes seems to treat racial issues as subsidiary to class ones, rather than acknowledging that class inequalities often originate in racial prejudice. Ernesto views Latin America as a cultural whole and envisions shared culture as a unifying force that will help the proletariat rise up against corrupt, European regimes. However, this sense of cultural and historical unity seems to stem mostly from his sense the similarities in the current plight of the proletariat in many nations, and it erases the serious differences among various South American cultures. For example, the Inca were themselves a colonial power who subjugated many of the tribes around them. But Ernesto mentions the “formidable empire” of the Incas and the “proud race that repeatedly rose up against Inca rule” in the same breath, ignoring the nuances of cultural history in order to promote his own political narrative. In some incidents Ernesto blatantly romanticizes the Indians he encounters, for example when he notices that, unlike him, they don’t “need” shoes to walk in the snowy mountains. Ernesto sketches the tableau of barefoot Indians as romantic and picturesque, but it’s almost certainly a function of poverty, not a cultural statement. While Ernesto is serious about his advocacy for indigenous people, he sometimes dips into stereotypes when discussing them.
Nonetheless, as Ernesto progresses through South America, he becomes increasingly aware of native culture and the ways in which indigenous peoples have suffered under and persevered through centuries of European domination. Furthermore, Ernesto shows that the inheritors of this culture are the current proletariat, not as a dispossessed and powerless underclass, but as a dignified cultural group brimming with latent power and waiting for “the blood of a truly emancipating revolution.” Ultimately, Ernesto identifies indigenous culture as a catalyst for proletarian unity and revolution.
Suppression and Reclamation of Indigenous Culture ThemeTracker
Suppression and Reclamation of Indigenous Culture Quotes in The Motorcycle Diaries
The huge figure of a stag dashed like a quick breath across the stream and his body, silver by the light of the rising moon, disappeared into the undergrowth. This tremor of nature cut straight to our hearts. We walked slowly so as not to disturb the peace of the wild sanctuary with which we were now communing.
And how many of those mountains surrounding their famous brother enclose in their heavy entrails similar riches, as they wait for the soulless arms of the mechanical shovels to devour their insides, spiced as they would be with the inevitable human lives…
But the people before us are not the same proud race that repeatedly rose up against Inca rule, forcing them to maintain a permanent army on their borders; these people who watch us walk through the streets of the town are a defeated race. Their stares are tame, almost fearful, and completely indifferent to the outside world.
He spoke of the need to build schools that would orient individuals within their own world, enabling them to play a useful role within it; of the need to change fundamentally the present system of education, which, on the rare occasion it does offer Indians education (according only to white man's criteria), simply fills them with shame and resentment, rendering them unable to help their fellow Indians and at the severe disadvantage of having to fight within a hostile white society which refuses to accept them.
The vision of this Cuzco emerges mournfully from the fortress destroyed by the stupidity of illiterate Spanish conquistadors, from the violated ruins of the temples, from the sacked palaces, from the faces of a brutalized race. This is the Cuzco inviting you to become a warrior and to defend, club in hand, the freedom and the life of the Inca.
Even today, when the bestial rage of the conquering rabble can be seen in each of the acts designed to eternalize the conquest, and the Inca caste has long since vanished as a dominant power, their stone blocks stand enigmatically, impervious to the ravages of time.
Afterwards some of [the patients] came to say goodbye to us personally and in more than one case tears were shed as they thanked us for the little bit of life we'd given them. We shook their hands, accepted their gifts, and sat with them listening to football on the radio. If there's anything that will make us seriously dedicate ourselves to leprosy, it will be the affection shown to us by all the sick we've met along the way.