APRIL 28, 2021
ISABEL IBAÑEZ’S INKASISA SERIES, which is thus far made up of the novels Woven in Moonlight (2020) and Written in Starlight (2021), illuminates the complexities of Latinx political identities, especially since Latin American politics do not easily map onto US ones. Woven in Moonlight is a pointed critique of the former Bolivian president Evo Morales, who in 2005 was elected as the first Indigenous president. Part of what Morales’s presidency accomplished was increased rights of Indigenous Bolivians, which more conservative Bolivians would characterize as at the expense of the urban white population who make up the ruling class. However, in interviews Ibañez has characterized Morales as a president-dictator, and the political thrust of her novel relies on her critique of Morales. Of course, critiquing Morales does not necessarily mean that Ibañez supports his right-wing successor, Jeanine Áńez, who famously characterized Indigenous religious rites as “satanic” and excluded Indigenous people from her cabinet. Yet, while Ibañez has potentially well-founded critiques of Morales, these critiques are inseparable from the anti-Indigeneity that permeates her series.
Woven in Moonlight focuses on Ximena Rojas, a decoy condesa for the real condesa, Catalina Quiroga. Ten years before the start of the novel, the Llacsans (modeled on the Incas) attacked the Illustrians, forcing Illustrians (modeled on the Spanish) to flee their city and seek refuge elsewhere. The Llacsans were led by King Atoc (based on Morales) who, at the beginning of Woven in Moonlight, demands the condesa’s hand in marriage, at which point Ximena goes in Catalina’s stead. As Ximena enters the city, she regularly refers to the Llacsans as “infernal Llacsans” and “the Llacsan diablos.” She says the word “Llascan like it’s a dirty word” and makes comments on their appearance, such as “the common Llacsan leather sandals that leave the wearer with dirty feet.” Ximena’s most withering descriptions are reserved for King Atoc, describing him as “[s]hort and squat, with a blunt face and deep bronze skin, dark eyes and hair” with “deep lines at the corners of his eyes, carved into his skin from years of looking at the world in distrust.”
Set against these characterizations of the Indigenous community are Ximena’s critiques of Atoc in which she points out that his policies do not actually serve the Indigenous community he claims to represent. For example, she often critiques his emphasis on the production of the koka leaf and the subsequent upsurge in drug addiction. As Ximena comments,
He claims to want to help Llacsans and the Lowlanders, his people, then he plans for a road to cut through their territory, destroying homes and wildlife, all to easily export the koka drug to neighboring countries. Gratification, wealth, and notoriety are his real gods, and his greed invites dangerous criminals from powerful countries into Inkasisa who worship at the same altar.
Such comments are not without basis since Morales rose to prominence as a cocalero activist and did try “to push a highway through an indigenous reserve” in 2011.
Within the complex political situation Ximena finds herself in, she also undergoes a process of conversion to wokeness as she learns, through Rumi (her love interest), about her own privilege and what living conditions were like for Llacsans under Illustrian rule. Eventually, Ximena realizes, “I’m no longer angry with all of them. Just Atoc and Sajra, and for very specific reasons. Not because they’re Llacsans, but because they’re corrupt.” This leads her to eventually support Princesa Tamaya’s (King Atoc’s sister) claim to the throne as she “want[s] the right person on the throne. Someone who wants a united Inkasisa.” In this way, Ximena continues to rely on individual people, not the structure of the system itself. For example, she never questions the monarchical system or why rulers have to come from the same families. This is a particularly strange choice because of how Morales’s attempt to rule indefinitely is what ultimately led to his downfall.
Written in Starlight features a similar conversion narrative, albeit with less explicit anti-Indigeneity. The novel focuses on Catalina, who is exiled to the Yanu Jungle after refusing to accept Princesa Tamaya’s rule of Inkasisa. Once in the jungle, she fortuitously meets up with Manuel, the son of her general, Ana. With Manuel as her companion — and protector — in the jungle, Catalina quickly hatches a plan to find the Illari (modeled on the Aymaras) and their city made of gold, Paititi. As in Woven in Moonlight, where Indigenous figures like Rumi and Tamaya exist to teach Ximena how to be less racist, in Written in Moonlight, Chaska, an Illari seer, has the role of fixing Catalina’s magic and teaching her the ways of the gods.
Searching for the Illari radically transforms Catalina’s sense of the cosmos when Catalina and Manuel find themselves trapped in a temple. Inside, they find three statues, who they quickly realize represent Luna, the goddess of the moon; Pachamama, mother earth; and Inti, the sun god. As Catalina examines the statues, she notices, “They’re dressed identically, and their faces resemble one another. As if they’re a family — which is monstrous. But look, the artist who carved them designed them as a matching set. They somehow … belong to one another.” While Catalina sees their resemblance as monstrous, this is the first inkling she has that the gods might actually be part of the same family. That Luna does not solely belong to the Illustrians becomes clear once Catalina and Manuel meet an Illari tracker, Chaska. In fact, as Chaska explains, to fix her magic, Catalina must learn to love Luna’s family — her brother Inti and her mother Pachamama.
Even as Catalina seems to be on a path toward greater self-awareness, she still instrumentalizes her magical gift. Since the Illari value seers, she hopes that her newfound ability to use her gifts will make her a more attractive match to their king, Sonco. As queen, she would then be able to use their army to wage war on Inkasisa for her throne. Ultimately, however, Catalina chooses Manuel over Sonco. Nevertheless, Catalina’s personal journey relies on well-known tropes regarding Indigeneity in Latinx novels. As Gloria E. Chacón points out in her article, “Metamestizaje and the Narration of Political Movements From the South,” in Chicanx novels that engage with Indigeneity, there is often a “generic Indianness” at play where “novelists discard specificities of territory, naming, and language.” In both Woven in Moonlight and Written in Starlight, the Llacsans and the Illari speak Quechua, even though the Illari are based on the Aymaras and would presumably speak the Aymaran language. While Ibañez is of Bolivian descent, her treatment of Indigenous peoples follows the tropes Chacón describes in Chicanx novels where
[t]he characters do not stay together in the conclusion of these novels, as one of the characters either dies or disappears. The erotic encounters serve as moments of recognition as well as experiences of the other that, in these novels, becomes necessary for the forging of the Chicano character’s subjectivity. This mirroring technique allows a poetics of solidarity, but only to the point where the Chicano or Latino character becomes a subject and can discard the other from the south.
Although Rumi ultimately lives and Catalina does not have a romantic relationship with Chaska, the Indigenous character who helps forge Catalina’s subjectivity, the instrumentalization of Indigenous characters for solidifying Illustrian/Spanish subjectivity remains the same.
Reading generously, I suspect the decision to focus on white, privileged characters who are racist toward the Llacsans was to show each character’s conversion to wokeness. Ximena goes from someone who views all Llacsans as the same to an enlightened character who realizes how poorly the Llacsans were treated under Illustrian rule and ultimately decides to support Princesa Tamaya as the new Inkasisa ruler over her own condesa. Meanwhile, Catalina realizes that her motivations for seeking the throne are ultimately selfish and she can help more people as a seer. However, given Ximena’s racism and Catalina’s intention to use the Illari people, I’m not convinced we can say that these characters share a sense of solidarity with the Llacsans or the Illari. Centering Ximena’s and Catalina’s journeys emphasizes the hegemonic viewpoint over the oppressed’s perspective. Moreover, both novels replicate the anti-Indigeneity that permeates both Latin American and Latinx communities, even though significant numbers of these communities also have Indigenous heritage. As a Chicana of unknown Indigenous heritage who grew up in a city known for its use of anti-Indigenous racial slurs, this is a pattern I know well. The anti-Indigeneity is particularly irresponsible given that the number of Indigenous Central Americans who only speak Indigenous languages have been significant enough to overwhelm US immigration courts.
Fundamentally, in the Inkasisa series, Ibañez uses Indigenous peoples as mere plot devices who are there for the personal growth of their white protagonists. Rather than fighting for the Llacasans and Illari, Ximena and Catalina merely reach a point where they can tolerate living alongside them. Thus, each novel illuminates the failure of the “woke” conversion narrative as Ximena and Catalina ultimately end up supporting the status quo in terms of monarchical rule and the tendency to homogenize Indigenous people and view them in utilitarian terms. Ultimately, Ibañez’s novels are a missed opportunity to instruct her readers on the complexities of Bolivian politics, which would have had the added benefit of also not homogenizing the experiences of people of Latin American descent, but, rather, illustrating both the diversity of these populations and the diversity of their political positions.