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The Dialectic of Estrangement:

Memory and the Production of Places

of Wealth and Poverty in the
Argentinean Chaco
Gaston Gordillo
Cornell University

In the mid-1990s, the memory of their past labor experiences at San Martin del
Tabacal was a recurrent theme among the Toba who live on the middle course
of the Pilcomayo River. At one point or another, conversations with them led
to anecdotes about this sugar plantation located at the foot of the Andes, over
300 kilometers to the west of their lands in the Argentinean Chaco. These
memories are full of references to the harsh working conditions, the high death
toll among their children, and the fear they experienced in the cane fields,
epitomized in the threat posed by the "devils" (evil spirits) that came down
from the mountains and spread diseases among them. Yet. side by side with
these accounts, most adult members of this indigenous group remember San
Martfn del Tabacal with nostalgia, to the point that this nostalgia often over-
shadows the horror that this place evokes in their subjectivity. This nostalgia is
for a lost source of wealth. This memory of the plantation acquires much of its
force in a complex dialectic that is both temporal and spatial: that is. this mem-
ory is culturally constructed first, in its contrast to the material poverty most
Toba experience in the present, three decades after the migrations came to a
halt, and second, in contrast to a different place—the bush of the Chaco low-
lands where they live, which most of them often associate with poverty and un-
satisfied needs.
In the Toba's experience, these contrasts enacted through practice and
memory have constructed wealth and poverty as conditions inscribed in differ-
ent places, respectively the plantations and the bush. Yet this inscription is
contradictory, because the wealth that most Toba project onto the sugar planta-
tions is as dazzling as the estrangement they feel while remembering it. And
this estrangement, in turn, is informed by people's relative control over their
foraging practices on their lands and by the noncommodified abundance that,
despite conditions of poverty, is available in the bush. In this article, my aim is
to examine how these contradictions contribute to producing the bush and the

Cultural Anthropology 17(l):3-3l. Copyright f) 2002. American Anthropological Association.


plantations as places—as meaningful localities configured through historical

practices and, as a result, necessarily tied to wider spatial formations (cf.
Massey 1994:155). Following Theodor Adorno (1973), I will pursue this
analysis through a negative dialectic that considers the spatial inscription of
wealth and poverty in their connection and negation: that is. in terms of what
one is not vis-a-vis the other. This means dissolving the bush and the planta-
tions as reified entities defined in their own terms, as thing-like poles of a
"dual economy," and examining them instead as the contradictory spatial ex-
pressions of a single historical practice.
In anthropology and geography, important aspects of the social produc-
tion of places through practice, fields of power, and networks of social rela-
tions have been the object of sophisticated theoretical and ethnographic analyses
(Gupta and Ferguson 1997; Harvey 1989, 1996; Massey 1994; Moore 1998;
Raffles 1999; Rodman 1992, among others). Yet a crucial aspect of this proc-
ess is often overlooked: that places are produced not only through social rela-
tions and practices but also, and especially, through the contradictions embed-
ded in them. Henri Lefevbre is among those who addressed this process when
he wrote:

Sociopolitical contradictions are realized spatially. The contradictions ot space

thus make the contradictions of social relations operative. In other words, spatial
contradictions "express" conflicts between sociopolitical interests and forces; it is
only in space that such conflicts come effectively into play, and in so doing they
become contradictions o/space. [1991:365]

Along these lines I will examine how the bush and the plantations are the
spatial manifestation of a contradiction central in the Toba's experience but
also intrinsic to the practice of workers worldwide: the tension between the in-
come and sense of identity provided by wage labor and the exploitation and
alienation it entails (Wallman 1979:22). In particular, I aim to show how the
Toba's senses of place are torn by the memory of having been partial partici-
pants of the wealth of capitalism and the simultaneous feeling of exclusion
from it. The expulsion of Toba men and women from the labor force of the
most dynamic capitalist sectors has increased this contrast as well as their
sense, widespread among social actors in other parts of the world, of being left
out of the promise of prosperity (cf. Comaroff and ComarolT 1999:284). I will
look at the estrangement created by this tension not as a fixed, given condition
of the subjectivity of this group; rather, I will analyze it as a dialectical move-
ment fueled by the contradictory, shifting spatial inscription of experiences of
As a way of showing how this dialectic unfolds in the plantations and the
bush, I will present my analysis as a spatial movement taking us from one place
to the other and back again. In the different stages of this movement. I will ex-
plore how imageries of wealth, commodities, money, and poverty are produced
by a social experience torn between wage labor in the plantations and hunting
and gathering in the bush. Most importantly. I will examine the overall tension

• ^ - * . - •

Figure 1
Relative location of the Toba of the mid-Pilcomavo River.

between estrangement and relative control that permeates these places as well
as the fetishi/ations, ambiguiiies and forms of critical consciousness the) ex-

Trips to the "Countr> of Wonders"

This Toba group—also known as 'western Ioba. naclulamolek 1 oha.

or "Toba-Pilaga (Gordillo 1999b: Mendoza 1998: Metr;iu\ 1937) currenlh
comprises a population of about 1.5(X) indi\ iiluals living in a do/en hamlets lo-
cated on the marshes formed b) the Pilcomavo River near the border between
Argenunaand Paragua> (Figure 1). In Argentina, the Ioba (Guavcuru linguis-
tic family) encompass a total population o\ about 30,000, most of whom tall
into various subgroupings that inhabit the easi of Chaco and Formosa prov-
inces (Aren o 1996: Miller 1979. 1995: Wrisiht ll*() ). \11 these groups cur-
rently use the name Toba to refer to themselves (toha. "big forehead" in
Guarani. refers to the now -abandoned custom of shaving their foreheads)
and share the self-denomination Qom (people). However the Toba I am re-
ferring to form an ethnic unit linguistically distinct from the eastern Ioba and
have been involved in historical processes specific to the western Chaeo. espe-
cially the migrations to the ragai plantations in the San Francisco Valle\ of
northwestern Argentina.3
In the area of the Pilcomavo. members of this particular Toba group first
participated in migrations to these plantations at the vcrj end of the 19th cen-
tury. The western Ioba were then organized in a do/en seniinomadic foraging

bands that occupied both banks of the river and regularly clashed with rival
Wichi and Nivakle groups. At that time, the Argentinean nation slate had not
yet been able to incorporate under its military and political control this area ot
northern Argentina known as the Gran Chaco, a mostly semiarid plain that ex-
tends also into western Paraguay and southeastern Bolivia.4 Despite a large
campaign by the army to the southern and eastern Chaco in 1884. the armed re-
sistance of the indigenous groups of the Pilcomayo persisted for several dec-
ades. As a result, like other indigenous groups of the region, the western Toba
first went to the sugar plantations only sporadically, guided by their attempt to
acquire valuable commodities while keeping a relative autonomy in the inte-
rior of the Chaco. In 1909, the Swedish ethnographer Erland Nordenskiold was
at a Nivakle village located not far from Toba territory when a group of people
returned from the plantations. He noted the Nivakle's excitement at the displas
of the loads of commodities brought from "the country of wonders":

These trips to the "country of wonders" exert a great attraction to them. . . The re-
turn of those who had been working at the sugar mills . . . happened in the midst of
very strong ovations. . . . They displayed everything that they had brought: old ri-
fles, uniforms, sugar, matches, powder, mirrors, adorned military caps, aniline
colors, etc., things that looked extraordinary to the other Indians, who were also in
no less wonder at the stories being told about the trip. It was not less amazing, for
these Indians, than what would be for us the story of an earthling coming back
from a trip to the Moon. [Nordenskiold 1912:6, my translation from the French]

At that time, the western Toba were going through similar experiences.
Drawn into the orbit of the plantations, a "conquest by consumption" they were
involved in that was common in other capitalist frontiers and was based "on
disseminating desire, on manufacturing demand, on conjuring up depend-
encies" (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997:219). This close connection between
desire and necessity was at the core of their gradual dependence on the com-
modities available at the plantations. In the following decades, the final and
violent assault of the Argentinean state on the region of the Pilcomayo further
enhanced this dependence. Several processes undermined the margin of ma-
neuver of the Toba bands and reconfigured their hunting and gathering prac-
tices: land encroachment by Criollo settlers in the 1910s, clashes with the Ar-
gentinean army in 1917, and the foundation of an Anglican mission station
among them in 1930, a station requested by the Toba themselves to find protec-
tion from the army and the settlers (Gordillo 1999a).
Under these circumstances, by the mid-1930s the Toba of the Pilcomayo
were migrating to the cane fields every year. Contractors sent by the ingenios
(sugar plantations) recruited them between March and April and took them
most often to San Martin del Tabacal, a large plantation located near the town
of Oran (province of Salta). On a few occasions, they were also recruited by in-
genio Ledesma (farther in the valley, in Jujuy).5 By then, these migrations en-
compassed between one-half and three-quarters of their total population (in-
cluding men, women, and children) and lasted between eight and ten months a

year. Coming from the lowlands of the Chaco, the visual weight of the Andes
rising to the west of the cane fields was powerful enough to inspire them to call
the plantations kahogonaGd (the mountains).6 At kahogonaG£, the Toba be-
came part of a very heterogeneous mosaic of workers, hierarchically seg-
mented by the administration along "ethnic" lines. The administration assigned
each ethnic group a different set of tasks and paid them different wages. At the
top of the hierarchy were the permanent workers and the cane cutters: Criollos
from several areas of northern Argentina, Chiriguanos, Bolivians, and Coya
peasants from the Argentinean highlands (Gordillo 1995; Rutledge 1987). The
Toba and the other indigenous groups from the Chaco—Wichi, Chorote,
Pilaga*, and Nivakle—were grouped under the category Indios or Aborigenes
and occupied the lowest level of the labor force. They were unskilled laborers
who carried out tasks complementary to cane cutting: clearing forests, shovel-
ing ditches, weeding, planting cane, and chopping wood for the factory. This
ethnically segmented experience of labor deeply shaped these groups' subjec-
tivity. It created a common identity of being not only Toba or Wichf but also
Aborigenes—indigenous actors located at the bottom of dominant ethnic hier-
archies. As we shall see, among the Toba this class-based notion of aboriginal-
ity is a crucial dimension in the spatial inscription of imageries of poverty and
wealth. At the end of the harvest in November or December, Toba men and
women were paid in kind at the stores of the plantation and returned to the
Chaco loaded with goods. In November 1938, the wife of a missionary living
among the Toba wrote to a friend about the commodities brought by those who
returned from the cane fields.

They all seemed very well off for clothes. You should have seen the new trousers,
bombachas [baggy pants], skirts, shirts, coats, vests, shoes, socks, hats, caps,
boaters, handkerchiefs, frocks, cheap rings, balls, soap, cigarettes, food and good-
ness knows what else, ducks, horses, and dogs too. They all look like figures in a
spectacular stage show. [Tebboth 1989:59]

Back in their hamlets, and in a context of tensions with settlers, men and
women lived off fishing in the Pilcomayo, hunting, gathering wild fruits and
honey, practicing flooding horticulture, and selling skins and handicrafts to the
missionaries and local merchants. A few months later, contractors would come
for them again. This pattern of migrations between the Chaco and the planta-
tions of the San Francisco Valley lasted for decades but came to an end in the
late 1960s when the ingenios mechanized the harvest and other labor practices.
Since the early 1970s up to the present, bean and cotton farms have recruited
Toba men and women but these new labor migrations absorb fewer people and
for a much shorter period of time. Most Toba view these farms as places of un-
rewarding efforts that only allow them to bring back home a few staple goods.
As Marcelina, a woman in her fifties, told me about the cotton farms: "It's not
worth it, because you earn nothing. The ingenio was worth it, in the past, be-
cause you earned money."7 In spite of these changes in their experiences of
wage labor and as this last account suggests, the memory of the sugar plantations

continues to inform current senses of poverty and abundance. Even young people
who have never been in kahogonaGa refer often to their parents and grandpar-
ents' past experiences in the cane fields. Among men and women who are oscr
fifty, the abundance of the ingenio haunts their memory like an absent pres-
ence, the dazzling power of which is now beyond their grasp.

"We Returned Rich"

Many remember it clearly. The train stopped at San Martfn del Tabacal
and president Juan Domingo Peron himself emerged from one of the cars. Ex-
cited masses of workers, among them the Toba, had gathered at the train sta-
tion to see him. Peron reached for the bags carried by several assistants and a
few seconds later the air was filled with hundreds, thousands of coins, flying
from his hands to the stretched, desperate hands of the workers. In 1996, Di-
ego, a man in his sixties, remembered with excitement that day in the 1950s
when Peron threw money to them in San Martfn del Tabacal:

In Tabacal, we saw him. It was him that we saw; we didn't see another man. In
those days, he traveled by train. When Peron saw the people, he got off. There
were many people. And all the secretaries had little bags. And people didn't be-
lieve that he carried money, in little bags like those. When he finished talking to
all the caciques and capitanes [indigenous leaders] it was only then that he threw
the money. But coins, new ones! He threw money; he was throwing it like this.
People were bumping into each other, many kids, women. Many 20-cent coins,
when they were worth something. Then, you found a great many pesitos and
bought a shirt. Then, when he left, we never came across Peron again.

Many people remember that their attempt to gather the money thrown by
Peron caused chaotic excitement among them. Some even use metaphors that
remark upon the animal-like or childish nature of their desperate, impulsive at-
tempt to gather the money. Pablo, today in his early seventies, remembered:
"People were like hens being fed with corn." Mariano said of the same event,
which he witnessed as a teenager: "When he threw the money, like candies the
money. . . . And everybody ran, the kids, the grownups, everybody."
The memory of the shower of money emanating from President Peron is a
particularly mesmerizing condensation of the abundance that most Toba asso-
ciate with San Martfn del Tabacal. Whenever I asked people whether they
"liked" going to the ingenio. most would tell me not only that they did. but
they also would emphasize how "nice" it was working there. As Pablo put it:
"It was nice, the ingenio San Martin. We returned rich." This positive memory
hinges on the accounts of the large amount of commodities they were able to
earn, such as clothing, horses, donkeys, firearms, ammunition, tools, or domes-
tic utensils, and it is closely.tied to the particular system of payment at the
plantation. During the eight to ten months they worked there. Toba men and
women were paid half of their salary on a daily basis, and they used this money
to buy food. The administration retained the rest of their wages until the end of
the harvest and paid them all together, in kind and in a gigantic potlatch: the

arreglo grande (big agreement). 8 By then, eacfi worker was owed a relatively
large amount of money. Consequently, the experience of being paid all at once
gave most Toba the impression that they were making huge gams. As Omar, a
committed Anglican in his mid-fifties summarized it: "The day of the arreglo,
happiness among all the people!"
The way the administration organized the arreglo had a further ideological
effect. One by one, the Toba proceeded to the store window and asked the em-
ployee in charge for the goods of their choice, adding to their requests until the
balance of their individual account was canceled. Hence, when remembering
the arreglo, many people present it as if they were somehow in charge of the
situation, as if the power balance at the plantation had been suddenly inverted.
It was they who decided which type of goods they were going to take home.
And—as long as there was a "balance" left—they were able to do it over and
over again, as if they were being served, like good patrons of the house, by re-
spectful employees willing to comply with their wishes. Emphasizing both this
image of being served and the abundance of commodities, Diego remembered.
"You went to the store, and they asked you: 'What do you take?' You asked
what you wanted and the pile began growing: poncho, cloth for women, blan-
ket, shoes. The bag was full like this, but there was still money left. Then you
continued asking." As part of these memories, people would give me long and
detailed lists of the goods they received in the arreglo. They would recite these
lists in a rhythmical tone, which gained momentum and a bizarre, dizzying
strength as the number of commodities increased. Mariano described the ar-
reglo grande as follows:

The money was worth a lot. . . . Then. 1 bought a large blanket, a shotgun, shells,
gunpowder, reins, bit, spurs, cloth for dresses. 1 bought ten pieces of cloth, each
one three meters long, two shirts to go out. five working shirts, cloth for bom-
bachas, eight meters. 1 bought pants, bombacha. as if 1 was chaquefw [Criollo].
hat, boots, shoes, a full suit for Sundays. {The store clerk] summed up and then
there was still a bit left. Then 1 bought a flashlight, needle, thread, soap, mirror,
handkerchiefs, socks.

Among women, their experience of the arreglo and in general of wage la-
bor was particularly important because it enabled them to earn goods inde-
pendently from their husbands. In current labor migrations, by contrast,
women have to include their work within a family account managed by their
husbands. I asked Marcelina, a woman in her late fifties, whether she "liked"
the ingenio. Her answer was informed by the nostalgia for an independent
source of income that women have since then lost:

Yes, I liked it because Patr6n Costas (the owner of Tabacal] gave work to us. We
women gained on our own. We bought something. We bought what we needed. . .
So, we made our own money, separate Now. not anymore, only men |get paid). . . . 1
liked the ingenio because we worked and my salary was separate from men.

In the memory of most Toba, the abundance of the ingenio reached its
peak during the first two governments of Juan Domingo Peron (1946-55),
which were indeed the first in Argentina to pursue a populist, pro-working-
class agenda. Many people associate this plenty not only with the money
thrown by Peron from the train but also with the distribution of free goods by
his government. Still, the abundance they experienced at Tabacal was rela-
tively independent from political negotiations and forms of struggle; rather, it
was an almost intrinsic aspect of the plantation—as taken for granted as the
cane fields, their labor practices, the appalling living conditions in their camp-
sites, or the deadly dangers haunting that place. These dangers included the
paydk or diablos (devils), evil spirits which according to most people were re-
sponsible for the diseases sweeping the cane fields and the high mortality rate
among Aborfgenes, and the Familiar, a devil which has been a central compo-
nent of the cultural landscape of the sugar plantations of northern Argentina
since the late nineteenth century (cf. Jijena Sanchez and Jacovella 1939;
Rosenberg 1936; Vessuri 1971 ).9 The Toba incorporated the Familiar into their
own cultural imageries through their interaction with other workers, and in the
1990s they argued that this devil adopted changing physical shapes, regularly
demanded from the administration the death of workers, and was often associ-
ated with repressive forces (Gordillo 1999a).10 On many occasions, many Toba
would remember with excitement the abundance of goods in Tabacal right af-
ter mentioning their fear of these devils. I was often struck by the ease with
which they were able to shift from one topic to the other and by the way the
memory of commodities would often obscure that of terror. Take, for instance.
Marcelino, a political leader in his late fifties, who was telling me about the
threat posed by the Familiar:

When you saw a black dog you had to escape, because it was the Familiar. . . .
When it wanted to, it killed people. Ooh! At that time there was a lot of work in the
ingenio. But the work was nice; it wasn't much. But when you worked, you earned
clothes, a lot of clothes, bicycles, record players for music, radio, shotgun, don-
keys, horses.

As this quote suggests, and as I shall examine in another section, the

fetishization of wealth was inseparable from the fetishization of devil image-
ries: both were part of the same collective experience of estrangement. Yet it
was the desire for manufactured goods and their dependence on them that
made most Toba return to kahogonaGa every year, in spite of the death toll and
the conditions of political terror prevalent in the cane fields. The desire for
goods was particularly strong, with the most unique and powerful of all com-
modities being money. Coins were the first type of money the Toba experi-
enced, and consequently they called money laikawd (metal). As a result, they
first saw money as its material signifier: small pieces of metal with a qualita-
tive value but whose quantitative value was initially hard to decipher. Due to
decades of high inflation and devaluation of the peso in Argentina, the memory
of money at the ingenio is often shaped by the different values attributed to

money back then and today. Marcelino told me about the ingenio: "The money
was worth a lot, not like now. Even though the coin was a 20-cent one, the
cents were like American dollars." In the plantation, in other words, a few
cents were not simply cents; they were comparable to the symbol of the power
of money worldwide: U.S. dollars (cf. Lemon 1998). Memories that ascribe a
"higher value*' to money in the past are common in contexts of high inflation;
and they express, in the words of Brad Weiss, "a sense of loss and dismay
which can be expressed in terms of the putatively 'true' value of money"
(1997:349). Yet in our case, it is important to note that many Toba project this
"true" value of money not only into the past but also somewhere else: San
Martin del Tabacal.
In another section we shall see how the Toba's experience of money in ka-
hogonaGa* was intertwined with their shamanic practices and their view of the
pay&k. Yet rather than expressing the "incorporation" of money within their
"cultural matrix," as Parry and Bloch (1991:1, 19,21) would argue, the attitude
of most Toba towards "metal" implied the production of new meanings: an im-
provised attempt to make sense of what was initially to them a fascinating yet
hard to understand novelty as a universal means of exchange. And being "the
supreme representation of social power in capitalist society" (Harvey
1989:102), money captured for them the power and mystery of the system at
work in the cane fields. Thus, many Toba actively speculated on the actual ori-
gins of money and the fabulous wealth of the do'okohe (the whites). In the
1990s, the explanations on this issue were not homogenous or systematic, but
some of these accounts take us back to their memory of President Peron. Sev-
eral people told me that the reason why Peron was so rich and powerful, throw-
ing money away and giving away enormous amounts of goods, was that he
owned a "money factory." In the Toba's eyes, the factory owned by Peron pro-
duced money in the same way the sugar mill in San Martin del Tabacal manu-
factured sugar—creating a commodity that was privately appropriated by its
owner. In other words, their experience of labor informed their perception that
money had to be produced and appropriated according to the laws of private
property. This perception also implied a fetishization of "factories" as extraor-
dinary machineries of steel that produce wealth independently of human labor.
These connections between money, state power, and factories made some Toba
conclude that in order to be president of Argentina it is crucial to be the owner
of this money factory. Mariano traced a particular version of Perdn's political
career in which this factory not only enabled him to become president but also
allowed Carlos Menem (president of Argentina between 1989 and 1999) to
succeed him:

The story goes that Per6n had** money factory. .. . And Per6n had a lot of money.
Then, when there was a vote, he was elected to be the government. Since he had
that money factory, he was going to govern, to govern all the people. Then when
he died, they say that Menem became president. They say that Menem stole that
money factory from him.

A remarkable feature of these narratives is that they momentarily dispel
the ideological fetishization of money as a free-floating and self-reproductive
entity; rather, they tie money to production and also to the amalgamation be-
tween private property (the ownership of the factory) and the state (the rise to
power of different presidents). In other words, these accounts ground the
power of money in a central authority outside of money itself—the state (Taus-
sig 1997:137), personified, in our case, in the figure of Peron. A further charac-
teristic of these memories is that they ground the production of money in par-
ticular places. There is some disagreement among the Toba as to the precise-
location of this fabulous factory. Some people locate it in Buenos Aires: yet
others argue that it is "up in the mountains" near the sugar plantations. This
spatial inscription of wealth in the region surrounding the ingenio involves
other sources of riches: boxes "full of money" buried in secret places and white
men who created money out of thin air. I will examine the memories about
them in another section. Yet a common feature of these accounts on commodi-
ties, wealth, and money is that they are all grounded on the sugar plantations
and their surroundings. The Toba, nonetheless, had their home somewhere
else, in a place located far from San Martin del Tabacal and very different from it.

A Place of Poverty
The cultural contours of the plantations as places of wealth, commodities,
and money became particularly apparent when the Toba returned to the bush at
the end of the harvest: to a place where commodified forms of wealth were
relatively absent. This situation was closely related to the uneven spatial con-
figurations brought by the expansion of capitalism into the interior of the west-
ern Chaco. As the indigenous groups of the Pilcomayo were seasonally drawn
into the cane fields, the semiarid territory where they lived, with its poor soils
and scarce rains, was constituted as a region with little value for the direct ex-
pansion of agrarian capital. Thus, most lands in the area continued to be gov-
ernment property and received very little state and private investment. Against
this background, the bush for most Toba emerged as a place defined in contrast
to the commodified wealth of the plantations. This contrast was reproduced lor
decades through their annual labor migrations; yet it was nowhere clearer than
in the 1990s, when the plantations were part of the past and the lenses of social
memory accentuated in people's narratives the abundance of the ingenio.
In this regard, the production of nostalgic memories about the arreglo
grande or the money thrown away by Peron was spatially anchored in the bush,
in a place whose poverty had been accentuated by its partial exclusion from the
main circuits of labor migration. This was also a place where the productivity
of hunting, fishing, and gathering had declined due to the degradation of the lo-
cal environment by the settlers* cattle and a 1975 flooding that, in addition to
destroying the Anglican mission station, transformed the Pilcomayo River into
wide and shallow marshlands. In the 1990s, the memories about San Martin del
Tabacal were informed by these local conditions: and these memories, in turn,
accentuated local perceptions about the poverty of the bush.

Yet if people remembered that decades earlier they "returned rich" to the
bush back from the cane fields, what happened to that wealth? The use of the
goods earned in the ingenio was tied to the collective relations and domestic
strategies organizing production, forms of reciprocity, and exchange in the
Toba hamlets. First, these goods were not only use-values but also commodi-
ties. As a result, people sold many of them to the Criollos in exchange for
store-bought food, beef, or horses. The fact that the settlers had no access to the
clothes or domestic utensils available in kahogonaGa created a local demand
for this barter. Second, these goods entered the webs of generalized reciprocity
with relatives and neighbors, some of whom had stayed home and demanded a
share of those commodities. Consequently, soon after the return from "the
mountains," many Toba had bartered or given away most of these goods. In the
1990s, several people expressed frustration at their "ignorance" on how to keep
them for themselves, an ignorance that some of them tied to their very condi-
tion as Aborfgenes. Enrique, a man in his early sixties, told me when I asked
him about the reasons for the Toba's current poverty:

Because we, Aborigenes Toba, we don't know how to handle things so that we
don't lack anything. . . . We earn money; we earn clothing. What happens? When
we come over here, we don't even think about making a business, we don't even
think about having a boliche [store]. Just spending money all the time. . . . 1 won-
der why people don't understand. 1 don't understand anything. 1 only understand
when it's over. Because the life of the AborigenTobais to be poor. It's not like the

In the 1990s, and as this account suggests, most Toba had a strong identity
of being "poor" (pioGok, or pobres in Spanish)." This identity as "poor" has
been deeply shaped by their labor experience as Aborigenes in the cane fields:
as a result, it is a marker of both class and ethnicity. This class identity as
"poor" is so strongly tied to their aboriginally (or, to put it another way. their
ethnic identity is so tied to a class experience) that people often treat the terms
Aborigenes and poor as synonymous. Thus, when some people want to talk
about "the Aborfgenes" they simply refer to "the poor." Tomas, tor instance,
told me once: "In the past, there were no whites around here; only the poor. I
always remember, only all the poor." But what do the Toba mean by being
"poor"? How does this identity relate to their senses of place and their experi-
ence of the bush? People associate poverty primarily with unsatisfied material
necessities, especially involving clothing, food, and shelter. Many summarize
the condition of "being poor" with the expression "to have nothing" (kaydte
yawand, or no tener nada in Spanish); by the same token, many equate being
rich to "having everything" {yawand yimd, tener todo). In addition to framing
these concepts in terms of absolute dispossession and possession, as we shall
see, many people associate poverty with lack of knowledge. But most impor-
tantly, most Toba see poverty (nachogodek. pobreza), as a social condition in-
scribed in the place that epitomizes their aboriginally: "the bush" (vidq, el
monte), a concept that includes in its broadest sense not only the thick and

thorny forest of the region but also their lands as a whole, and, consequently,
their hamlets and the Pilcomayo marshes within them.
The practices that best symbolize this spatial aspect of poverty are fishing,
hunting, and gathering, nepe or marisca, as the Toba generically call their for-
aging practices. This link between foraging and poverty is partially the result
of the reduced availability of wild lite, wild fruits, and fish; yet it is also de-
fined by the contrast between marisca and the practice that epitomizes the plan-
tations: wage labor or "work" (nontaq, trabajo). People see "foraging*" and
"work" as mutually exclusive practices. Thus, for many Toba marisca is char-
acterized by conditions of mere subsistence and the inability to access the
money and commodities provided by wage labor. This situation often makes
people associate marisca with estrangement from the control over their social
reproduction. In 1996, Amancio, a man in his late fifties, outlined the condi-
tions of necessity that force people to rely on foraging when he told me about
his son-in-law: "He forages all day long. Of course, since he has no job. . . .
There is nothing. There is nothing for people to live from, to eat. He has no
other choice than to forage every day." Those who emphasize the hardships of
marisca and feel most estranged from it are usually public-sector employees.
But young foragers who aspire to obtain a regular source of cash through a
public-sector job often share this view. Gregorio, a man in his late twenties,
complained that in the bush "there's almost no food" and then pointed out that,
even if he finds "fruits," marisca would not provide him with commodified sta-

People are hungry. In the bush, there's almost no honey, fish. It's a lot of work 1
leave early. There's almost no honey. . . . Then. 1 walk all day long and I'm tired.
Then, 1 came back late. . . . Then, the next morning, what am I going to eat'.' Noth-
ing. . . . There's no food, all day long. Then, we go to look for fruits, in the bush.
Just that. Without fat. No salt, nothing.

For decades, the members of most Toba households complemented

marisca with forms of petty commodity production such as craftsmanship (car-
ried out by women) and commercial hunting (a male activity). But these prac-
tices were and still are secondary in relation to seasonal wage labor. In the
1990s, the only relatively important source of cash in the Toba hamlets were
public-sector jobs, locally distributed since the 1980s by various state agen-
cies. However, well-paid jobs are restricted to a minority of political leaders,
male nurses, midwives, and teaching assistants, a situation that is creating an
incipient class differentiation and tensions between poor and better-off Toba.
These tensions are also shaping perceptions of place and creating among many
the sense that their locality is being internally differentiated. I was with
Ramiro, a man in his sixties who lives in poverty. He told me. pointing his fin-
ger to his rudimentary dwelling (made of adobe and straw ) and then to the
nearby brick houses of the local leader and his kin: "Poor over here, rich over
there. Here, there is no work. . . . There is no corrugated iron when it rains.
There is no blanket. There is no pension. There is hunger."

For most people living in poverty, nonetheless, these local pockets of rela-
tive affluence are negligible compared to the fabulous riches located far from
their lands. As a result, most Toba still see "the bush" as the place where "the
poor" live. This sense of place includes not only other Aborfgenes like the
Wichi but also their neighbors, the Criollo settlers (a minority in the area), who
own a few head of cattle but also live under conditions of poverty Similarly,
most Toba tend to see "wealth" {newoyagdk* la riqueza) as a condition charac-
terized by its distance, social and spatial, from the hinterland of the Chaco.
People over the age of 50 project this wealth spatially and through memory
into the sugar plantations. But since the ingenios are no longer part of their di-
rect experiences, they also define the poverty of the bush in contrast to the
fabulous riches associated with large cities, especially Buenos Aires. Mariano
never visited the national capital, but he told me what he thought about it from
what he saw on television at a diner in Ingeniero Juarez (the main town of the

People have everything there. Such a big city . . . it never ends. . . . They're all the
time in their houses. They don't go to work, as you see in Formosa or in Juarez
where you see a man working or in the workshop. [In Buenos Aires] they don't.
They are only in the streets, in trucks, cars, like ants... . You never see the workers.
They have everything. They don't lack anything inside [their houses]. . . . I saw it
on TV.

Views such as this enhance current perceptions of wealth as a distant con-

dition coalescing in places structured along strong class imageries, places full
of rich, idle people who "have everything" and where there is no trace of work-
ers. This sense of locality defined in tension with distant cities is particulars
important among young people who have never been to San Martin del Taba-
cal. But this construction of wealth also relates to the feeling by many Toba
that they were able neither to retain the goods earned in the plantations nor to
create wealth in their own lands, as the whites have successfully done in their
plantations, money factories, and cities. This takes us to a further and impor-
tant aspect of the local meanings of "poor" and "rich." As was mentioned, for
many people wealth and poverty imply having uneven forms of knowledge:
they perceive knowledge as synonymous with power. This view has been
deeply influenced by hegemonic discourses about the ignorance of the
Aborfgenes and the superior knowledge of the whites. In a process similar to
that analyzed by Elena Arengo (1996) among indigenous groups of the eastern
Chaco, the Toba of the Pilcomayo have internalized elements of these
hegemonic narratives through the ethnic hierarchies of the plantations, the mis-
sionary emphasis on self-responsibility, and state agencies that praise a pro-
ductivist rationality at odds wuh their own social relations and practices. Thus,
many Toba argue that they lack the knowledge, customs, or skills to produce
and accumulate wealth. For some public employees, their inability to accumu-
late is attributed to the "custom" of sharing foodstuffs with relatives and neigh-
bors (ef Gordillo 1994). Among the poorer Toba, explanations about their

poverty are very heterogeneous; but some feel that this condition is tied to their
lack of knowledge on how to manufacture money, as the whites do in their
money factories. Angel, a skillful forager in his thirties, told me: "As the old
man says, there are other people who were born with more knowledge. Then
they can fabricate the money. Then they don't have need because they have
[things]. And we were born with nothing, just like this, poor."
These various connections between wealth, poverty, and knowledge/
power also include the realm of the payak (devils) and the shamans (pioGondq)
(cf. Wright 1997). Many Toba believe that the devils of the bush, because of
their power, have access to material riches. These payak are culturally config-
ured through their contrast to the deadly payak of "the mountains." Thus, the
payak of their lands, unlike those of the plantations, often maintain (despite
their potential danger) a relation of reciprocity with humans. They help fora-
gers find their prey and give shamans their healing power and, in a lew cases,
part of their wealth. Along these lines, and as part of the imagery of money as a
privately manufactured commodity, some Toba argue that decades ago a few
knowledgeable shamans successfully replicated in the bush the production of
money. Yet these pioGonaq eventually failed to accumulate wealth. A power-
ful pioGonaq named Carancho was one of the few shamans able to create
money this way. In 1997, Marcelino, one of his grandsons and currently a poli-
tical leader, told me that Carancho was once drinking aloja (made with fer-
mented honey and algarroba pods) with other men and then decided to call his
payak to get money in order to buy wine. Moreover, the money he received
had a life of its own: Once spent in a store it returned to him. According to

Carancho said: "Let's call the money." He raised his poncho, singing. They say
that he asked for money. He was grabbing the money with his hands over and over
[Marcelino stretched his arms and made a wide gesture]. . . But it's true, he
grabbed the money, five pesos. But it was money in those days . . . Then he was
very happy, he was singing, the old man. . . . Then my dad went to Palma Sola to
look for wine. He brought five bottles of wine. He had money left. Afterwards, my
grandfather said: "The money is already coming back. It doesn't stay. That's the
money of the payak. It's going to come back soon."

However, Carancho never used this money to accumulate goods and

wealth; consequently, he never became "rich" (newoydq, rico). Rather, accord-
ing to Marcelino, he simply wanted "five-peso notes" to purchase the very ba-
sic "vices" he was fond of, like wine and tobacco. When I asked him whether
Carancho became rich, he responded:

No, he didn't. He only asked for five pesos, five pesos The old man only
needed it to drink la behida [the drink]. Not much. Five pesos, but exactly like the
five-peso note from the factory: all the numbers, everything, everything, as if it
was from the factory. . . . 1 saw it too. . . . But not a one-hundred-peso note. . .
Just a one-peso note, centavos. when he needed tobacco, because he was a smoker

Interestingly enough, Marcelino emphasized that Carancho had been able

to replicate in precise details the power of the money factories of the whites: to
create bank notes "with all the numbers, everything." This mimesis, nonethe-
less, did not reproduce something else—a logic of capitalist accumulation.
Carancho was happy with just a "one-peso note" and did not care about asking
for a "100-peso note." Another pioGonaq who received money from the payak
and was caught up in a similar situation was Merino. Mariano, his stepson, told
me that Merino was illiterate and consequently "didn't know" how to distin-
guish the value of the different bank notes he obtained. According to Mariano:
"He was singing, and he raised the hand like this. And it seemed that the money
came. . . . But since he didn't know how to read, [he said]: I don't know what
money is this. I don't know if it's fifty pesos, or twenty centavos, or ten cen-
tavos.' " In spite of Carancho and Merino's remarkable powers, which cur-
rently no pioGonaq can replicate, the two of them died as poor as the rest of the
Toba. Their shamanic knowledge was powerful enough to obtain money out of
thin air but ineffective to accumulate wealth or even read its actual value.
These shamans lacked a different type of knowledge: that of the whites to ad-
minister money for the sake of pure accumulation. In the 1990s. the memory of
these failed shamanic attempts at creating wealth was another expression of the
ways in which for many Toba poverty had become culturally inscribed in their
aboriginally and the local landscape, as a social condition from which not
even shamans could escape.
The fact that many Toba associate poverty with a lack of a particular
knowledge does not mean that they are not aware of the historical forms of
domination that are behind their poverty. More often than not. people inter-
twine explanations that naturalize their poverty as a condition of their aborigi-
nality with accounts that, by contrast, blame it on "the rich" (newoxagadi'pi,
los ricos) or "the whites," which for most Toba are almost synonymous. I was
talking to Tomas about the Toba's clashes with the army in 1917 and he told
me that the military "wanted to kill all the Aborfgenes." I asked him why. He

Maybe it's because they, the rich, didn't want the poor to be richer. . . That's why
we're poor, because the rich took everything away from us. the Aborfgenes. It
seems that the whites didn't want there to be rich Aborfgenes. They took everything
away ever since. That's why were always like poor. poor, all the years, ever since.

People currently explain their status as "poor" in different, often contra-

dictory ways. Yet even those who blame poverty on themselves express more
than just an internalized bourgeois ideology. These explanations also convey
that for many Toba the capacity of the do'okohe to produce riches requires a
power beyond their comprehension that often fills them w ith a paralyzing con-
fusion. As part of the threads connecting the bush and the plantations, and de-
spite the abundance projected onto the latter, the estrangement from wealth at
home also includes the memory of kahogonaGa. This leads us back to San
Marti'n del Tabacal, and to the wavs in which the remembered lack of control

over the labor process informs the production of memories of money and

"We Didn't Understand the Money"

Despite the Toba's detailed memory of the money Hying from his hands,
president Juan Domingo Peron never visited San Martfn del Tabacal. Yet in the
campaign for the presidential elections of November 1951—when Peron was
running for re-election—several trains went all around Argentina with func-
tionaries of the government throwing money and gifts to the crowds, a practice
customary during the Peronist government (Pavon Pereyra 1974:68). These
functionaries usually combed their hair like Peron and were surrounded by im-
pressive paraphernalia: large pictures of Peron, the symbol of the Partido Justi-
cialista (Party for Justice, the official name of the Peronist Party), and banners
with the slogan "Peron Presidente" (Eloy Martfnez, personal communication
1997). One of these trains, called Eva Peron Sanitary Train, arrived at San
Martfn del Tabacal on October 28, 1951, a few days before the elections.12
The arrival of the Eva Peron train at Tabacal most probably triggered
among the Toba great expectations as to the possibility of seeing the distant
president from Buenos Aires, about whom they knew very little. In fact, situ-
ations like this were then widespread in Argentina and people often "saw"
Peron and Evita in places where they had never been (Eloy Martinez, personal
communication, 1997). The Toba's memory of Peron arriving in the plantation
is significant not because of the gap between their subjective experience of the
event and the identity of the man who originated that shower of coins. Rather,
as argued by James Fentress and Chris Wickham (1992), what is significant
about memories like this are the meanings they convey to people in the present.
People's recollection of their own desperation at reaching those coins, the fact
that they gathered them like "hens" running after "corn" or "candies," uncov-
ers not only the wealth they associated with the plantation but also, conversely,
their own feelings of alienation.
Fascination and estrangement went hand in hand in the Toba's experience
of San Martin del Tabacal, and this amalgamation was epitomized in the ar-
reglo grande, the final payment at the end of the harvest. Unlike other indige-
nous workers from the Andean highlands who had been immersed for centuries
in monetarized exchanges (cf. Harris 1989), the Aborfgenes of the Pilcomayo
were inserted into a cash economy only at the beginning of the 20th century.
Consequently, even though most Toba experienced the arreglo grande with
great excitement, for decades most of them did not know how much money
they were being paid. I believe I only truly understood the actual dimensions of
this estrangement one day late in 1995, when I was chatting with Tomas. We
were sitting under the shade'in a hot Chaco afternoon when he said, all of a
sudden: "Gastdn, I wanted to ask you something." I said. "Sure, go ahead."
Tomas thought about the question for a few seconds: "Could you explain to me
the difference between a ten-peso bill and a 100-peso bill?" I remember the
cold shivers going down my spine, my initial confusion, and the disturbing.

sad illumination at the taken-lor-granted forms of power associated with "de-

tails" such as this. Still shocked, and while I was clumsily trying to tell him
what that "difference" was all about, I asked him: "So, how did you guys do
when you were paid at the ingenio?" His response was: "Oh, we never under-
stood how much we were being paid. That was for sure something we never
understood, how much they were paying us per day, in pesos." I asked whether
the capitanes, the lenguaraces [interpreters] understood. He responded, "They
didn't understand either.... But since people got many things, they were happy."
As this account patently shows, the actual use of money requires master-
ing a historically specific skill: a capacity to read its public standard value. In
the 1990s, this was a skill that most Toba, especially young people, had already
learned. Tomas, nonetheless, was a living reminder that decades earlier most
Toba were innumerate and consequently were unable to decipher the value of
money (as was also exemplified, as we have seen, by one of the shamans who
obtained money from the payak). This experience resonates with what Marx
wrote in his youth about the dazzling power of money: "Since money, as the
existing and active concept of value, confounds and exchanges everything, it is
the universal confusion and transposition of all things, the inverted world, the
confusion and transposition of all natural and human qualities" (1964:193).
The fact that most Toba were innumerate increased this "confusion and trans-
position" to the point that for them the peso was a unit of currency that, rather
than an objectification of both quantitative and qualitative values (Weiss
1997.352). was a ghostly, obscure, disturbing entity. This situation made them
easy prey for the administration and the employees in charge of paying them.13
Segundo, a man in his late seventies, told me about the work at the ingenio:
"They paid nicely, but we didn't understand the money. I didn't know. One
month I was paid three million pesos; another month I got five hundred." This
account expresses not only that most Toba were cheated on the amount paid to
them but also that in that moment they were torn between fascination ("they
paid nicely") and puzzlement ("we didn't understand the money"). It also illus-
trates that for them it was hard to grasp the actual meaning of concepts such as
"millions," "thousands," or "hundreds," and that they often confounded and in-
termixed them.
The fact that in those days people "didn't understand the money" marks a
further aspect of their experience of this commodity in the ingenio: money
often seemed an entity with a life of its own. moving from one place to another
and breeding more money, independently of human labor and social relations
of production. As shown by Michael Taussig (1980). these narratives are com-
mon in other parts of Latin America and bring to light forms of fetishism and
"magic" deeply embedded in capitalist culture. Furthermore, they recreate the
view that the power of money, seems to emanate "not from the system . . . of
circulation but from the physical substance of money itself (Taussig 1997:
133, emphasis added). In our case, these accounts stand in tension with those
of the "money factories" in that they sever money from its conditions of pro-
duction. And unlike the self-reproductive "metal" created by shamans in the

bush, at San Martfn del Tabacal most Toba felt they were unable to have access
to this type of money. Many people associate the latter, first, with white men
from distant regions, "magicians" or "artists" with shamanic powers who on
Sundays arrived at their campsites and performed tricks to entertain workers.
Their most remarkable skill involved the creation of money out of other ob-
jects or simply out of thin air. Ernesto did not see these "magicians" but heard
about them from his father. Even though he is a well-paid teaching assistant,
when he told me about these tricks he expressed frustration at being "poor" and
not knowing how to do something like that:

They are white people from the ingenio. They were young; some had a beard and
they say they were like magicians. . .. First they pulled out a white paper and then
they transformed it. And a brand new bank note appeared. They also took one [bill]
from their sneakers. One of them put the hand there and brand-new bank notes
came out. . . . They say it's all like that. . . . How come? 1 wish 1 could be like that.
Me, I'm poor. 1 don't know how it is.

According to other people, these men could produce peso notes out of
various objects: burned paper, eggs, or playing cards. They could also make
money breed more money, by turning, for instance, a simple coin into "ten
thousand pesos." Tomas saw these tricks performed at the ingenio several
times and told me, emphasizing the "knowledge" of one of these men: "He
pulled out the money and the money came out, paper money like 10,000 pesos.
from the coin. . . . The coin was already worth 10,000 pesos. . . . The man
seemed to have a lot of knowledge." There was a further feature of the fabulous
money created by these magicians: after a purchase, this money returned to its
owner, bringing more money with it.
In San Martfn del Tabacal, this type of money could also be found in
boxes buried in the surroundings of the plantation and especially in the rocks
heights of the mountains. Thin yellow flames mark the location of these boxes,
an image widespread in the San Francisco Valley and other parts of Latin
America (cf. Crain 1991:76). People call these boxes "the gold" and associate
them with the dangerous payak of the mountains; they also agree that no
Aborigen has ever been able to find them. Only some bold Criollo and
Chiriguano workers discovered them and "became rich." The money included
in these boxes also had the power, once spent, to return to one's pocket and
bring more money with it. People remember that in San Martfn del Tabacal
only once was a Toba man able to see. from the distance, the thin flame mark-
ing "the gold." However, when he was trying to get closer he lost sight of it.
Tomas argued that no Toba ever found one of those fabulous boxes and added:
"That's because we don't know that money of gold. We don't know that. We
don't have knowledge. We don't have knowledge."
These forms of fetishi/ation and estrangement also include the factories
with which the whites create their commodities and wealth. The sugar mill at
San Martm del Tabacal captured this aspect of wealth-creation with a terrify-
ing twist, for the factory was the home of the Familiar, the diablo which had a

pact with the owner of the plantation: Robustiano Patron Costas. In the 1990s,
most Toba agreed that as part of this pact, the Familiar guaranteed the production
of sugar, ensured that the cane fields remained green, and reproduced the
wealth of the ingenio. In exchange, Patron Costas fed the Familiar with work-
ers on a regular basis. Consequently, the capacity of the factory to create
wealth was sustained on the power of a diabolical creature fed with human
flesh: not that of any human being, but that of workers. As Emiliano put it:
"That's why Patron Costas had money. Not because of politics, but because he
had a Familiar."
The fact that in the Toba's eyes the wealth of Patron Costas was the prod-
uct not of political negotiations but of a pact with a devil reveals another aspect
of their estrangement in the cane fields. Because of the ethnic fragmentation of
the labor force, the Toba and in general the Aborfgenes had little interaction
with unionized workers. This situation severely hindered their participation in
organized forms of struggle. Contradicting their own memories of becoming
"rich" at the ingenio, many Toba argue that they were simply too poor to afford
going on strike. Strikes were in their eyes a sort of a luxury of "rich" workers
like the Bolivians or the Criollos who had enough money to feed themselves
while not working.14 The Toba received the money for their daily plate of food
only upon completing their daily task (tarea).15 The prospect of losing this
food was for them a particularly strong deterrent against strikes. Mariano
clearly expressed this fear when he told me: "We didn't go on strike." I asked
why. "Because if we went on strike, what were we going to eat? We didn't
have money. The Bolivians, they went on strike because they have mones
saved. They had a union. We didn't." Most Toba were far from being passive
actors yielding to exploitative conditions. They indeed resisted exploitation on
an everyday basis and through various (if individual and fragmented) means:
the capitanes making face-to-face demands to members of the administration,
people trespassing into the cane fields to chew cane (a practice banned by the
administration) or quitting work to return to the Chaco (Gordillo 1999a). Yet
the Toba's feeling that they were unable to join the most organized forms of
struggle increased their view that the plantation was a place whose codes and
fields of power they had not mastered.
This political alienation and their overall estrangement from the labor
process informed the fetishization of money and devils examined above. These
fetishizations share elements of the commodity fetishism created by capitalist
culture and ideology and analyzed by Marx (1977) in Capital: the rcification
of social relations in entities with a life of their own and the subsequent idea
that capital breeds capital without the intervention of human labor. In our case,
this fetishization coalesces in semantically dense clusters: "factories" as the
embodiment of the wealth and political power of the whites and "the rich,"
"money" as a self-reproductive entity with a life of its own. and "devils" as the
personification ol the diseases, death, and terror created by capitalist social rela-
tions. Indeed, the fantastic monstrosity of the devils of the plantation is insepa-
rable from the very real, fabulous, and monstrous wealth created by capitalism.

a merging which Marx himself (1977:128) identified when he referred to the

"phantom-like" or "ghostly" objectivity of the commodity (cf. Keenan 1993).
Because of this, these imageries are far from expressing a "false conscious-
ness." rather, they are cultural forces that contributed to producing the planta-
tion as a place torn between wealth and alienation, abundance and terror.
Even though in this amalgamation of commodities, money, and devils
most Toba seem spellbound by the memory of San Martin del Tabacal, this
very fusion unravels threads of critical consciousness. The fact that people as-
sociate the wealth of the ingenio with diabolical creatures and death makes it
acquire negative connotations. As suggested by Michael Taussig (1980), this
merger denaturalizes capitalist forms of accumulation and points to a social
and moral order that should be different. In our case, it points to social relations
located in a place different from the cane fields. This takes us, as the final mo-
ment of our journey, back to the bush: to a place where, despite its material
poverty, people can rely on foodstuffs always available to those in need.

"With the Fish, We're Rich"

Even though for most Toba life in the bush is characterized by material
hardships, when they go out fishing, hunting, and gathering they maintain par-
tial control over the rhythm of labor and the most immediate conditions of pro-
duction: the very control they had never experienced while working in the
sugar plantations. This relative control counteracts the estrangement that even-
day conditions of poverty have inscribed in the bush; and it also informs their
memories of the ingenio, accentuating the image of the cane fields as a place
that was not their own. This experience of locality is also part of a collective
political practice in their negotiations over the use of the bush with the settlers
and land claims vis-a-vis the government of the province of Formosa. In 1989.
after years of demands, the association involving all western Toba villages oh
tained collective legal title to most of the lands used by them, which had been
until then the property of the provincial government. These forms oi conten-
tion are intertwined with a local knowledge that nourishes a political confi-
dence relatively absent in the plantations; and they are also informed by the
fact that people living in poverty depend on bush food for their social repro-
duction. Since bush food is available in a collectively owned place, most Toba
living in poverty see foraging as a practice that "the poor" (qua Abongenes)
can always count on. In other words, foraging is associated not only with pov-
erty but also with resources that alleviate poverty.
This aspect of marisca is a crucial component of the Toha's identity of be-
ing poor and Aborfgenes. Moreover, in the dialectic between their poverty and
their aboriginally, most people know that the latter—with the systematic reli-
ance on the bush it implies—provides them with a crucial resilience from pov-
erty and in general from conditions of domination and social suffering. In
1996, Pablo told me about this resilience, with a particularly intense tone:

Sometimes 1 hear that they're going to make a vtfar to kill those who have nothing,
so that the Aborfgenes die, dying of hunger. Sometimes I say. We're Aborfgenes.
We're not going to die because we have the food from the bush. . . I'm poor, but
I'm not going to die, because I have something to mariscar, to fish, to gather
honey. . . . Of course we're not going to die! We're not going to d i e . . . . I remem-
ber, the old people lived like this. They didn't die of hunger. The old man didn't
know the mercaderia [store-bought food]. There were no pensionados [people
with pensions]. Nobody had a cargo [public-sector job]. But they lived, foraging
in the bush.

As this account shows, "foraging in the bush" is for many Toba living in
poverty a crucial symbol of autonomy from the cash economy and the state;
furthermore, foraging is for them a source of resilience that protects them from
death—and not from any death, but from attempts at murdering "those who
have nothing," a perception informed by the memories of death in the cane
fields and the clashes with the army in the 1910s. This resilience is tied not
only to marisca but also to collective social relations, especially the webs of
reciprocity through which people in need receive foodstuffs from relatives and
neighbors. Thus, in tension with their simultaneous view of the poverty of their
lands, it is not rare to hear Toba talk about the bush as a place of abundance.
Despite the relative degradation of the local environment, many emphasize the
wide variety of resources still available in the bush by reciting long lists of
wild animals, fish, wild fruits, and types of honey. These lists become a subtle
counterpoint to the memory of the wealth of the ingenio and its seemingly end-
less display of commodities. As Toma*s put it: "I like the bush. It has every-
thing. It has many things: honey, yana, extranjera, lachiguana, bala [different
types of honey], rabbit, viscacha, deer, birds, fish."
As a further counterpoint, many Toba argue that the bush provides them
with resources comparable to mercaderfas but with one crucial advantage.
They are available to everybody at no cost. By doing so, they imply that bush
food, and consequently foraging in their own lands, enables them to put limits
to their dependence on the cash economy. For people living in poverty, this
praise for "the mercaderfas of the bush" also allows them to claim a noncom-
modified place of autonomy in relation to better-off Toba, who regularly pur-
chase mercaderfas somewhere else—at local stores. Many poor Toba often turn
these images of abundance into metaphors of wealth, in which they define the
latter by noncommodified criteria. In February 1996, Roberto, a man in his
thirties, was telling me about the belated arrival of the marshes' floods, which
ended a long drought and increased the productivity of fishing. He then said:
"With the fish, we're rich." This construction of "bush food" as a particular
form of wealth is also connected to the knowledge needed to be a successful
forager: an indigenous knowledge that counteracts their "lack of knowledge"
of places such as plantations and cities. Referring to this knowledge, Diego
told me that a man who receives shamanic powers from a paya*k increases his
foraging skills and, by doing so, becomes "rich" and obtains "everything":

The payak gives him everything he has. He gives him power When he forages
over there, he finds honey. When he goes over there, he finds whatever he wants
He becomes rich then. .. . That's what [the payak ] gives him. everything, everything,
everything. He gives him the complete thing. Everything, everything, everything.

The Toba's reliance on the resources of the bush in a context of poverty

and labor exploitation, consequently, introduces a further twist in their local
senses of place and the semantic connections between the bush, the planta-
tions, and other places. As part of these connections, many often argue that
their reliance on bush food provides them with a resilience that poor people
living in large cities do not have. In May 1996,1 was chatting with half a dozen
men sitting in a circle and at one point Juan Manuel, a political leader in his
late fifties and formerly a capitan in San Martin del Tabacal, began telling the
rest of us about a recent trip to Buenos Aires. Since most Toba associate this
city with immense riches, he had been surprised and impressed by the poverty
he saw. He described the beggars and street kids who had neither shelter nor a
regular source of food and everybody was listening with close attention.
Florencio, a man in his thirties commented: "Here, we're poor, but we go out
with a shotgun and we have charata [a bird], ducks, animals." Several mem-
bers of the group nodded and Juan Manuel added, with a touch of irony: We
have cats, but we don't eat them yet." He then looked serious, turned to me
looking for confirmation, and said that he had heard on the radio that in
Rosario (the third largest city in the country) people in a shantytown were so
poor and hungry that they were eating cats. I confirmed the news, which at that
time was being aired all over Argentina.16 A general murmur emerged out of
the group. Some men looked at each other and shook their heads. A few were
incredulous that people could be so desperate as to eat cats. Horatio, a man in
his early sixties, was sitting next to me and added, while assenting with his
head: "That's what they say that they do over there."
At that moment, I found those shocked reactions about the hardships
faced by the urban poor to be revealing of the Toba's perception of their own
poverty. Even for a relatively well-off leader like Juan Manuel, this chat about
distant cities made him share local views about the aboriginality and spatial in-
scription of the poverty of his peers. When these men outlined that they are
poor but that at any time they can go out in search of food, they confirmed that
their identity as pioGok (poor) is deeply tied to their experience of the bush: a
place that allows most of them to counteract, at least partially, conditions of
need and the overall sense that they do not control the reproduction of their
life. And they know that this resilience is based on their reliance on bush food:
a resource that—unlike those produced in the distant factories of the
whites—is always available to the Aborfgenes.

The immersion of the Toba of the mid-Pilcomayo in a capitalist political
economy has been inscribed in places that, far from being well-contained entities,
are produced by a complex unfolding of practices and memories. This unfolding is

the result of the contradictions binding the bush'and the plantations as places
significant in their social experience. I have examined these contradictions by
focusing on the type of subjectivity created by capitalist conditions of domina-
tion: the experience of not having full control over one's conditions of produc-
tion and reproduction, of feeling separated from those conditions (Marx
1964:122-125). This experience acquires a particularly complex, spatial ex-
pression among seasonal laborers like the Toba: partially separated from the
control over their conditions of social reproduction (i.e., unable to reproduce
their households and social relations without relying on the cash eco-nomy),
yet not fully separated from means of production, and for whom wage labor
implies migrating between places immersed in different social relations. The
senses of place so created are indeed torn by these tensions, as they shift be-
tween moments of abundance and scarcity, exploitation and relative autonomy,
alienation and relative control, political estrangement and empowerment. The
manifold senses of wealth and poverty that emerge out of this movement nour-
ish each other in their very negation: in a process in which the features of one
place can only be understood in its contrast with the other.
Because of the culturally productive force of these contradictions, es-
trangement is not a fixed or unambiguous feature of the Toba's subjectivity
and sense of place; rather, it acquires diverse expressions as it unfolds in differ-
ent places. The fact that people remember that the "money boxes" buried near
the plantation were unreachable to the Aborfgenes or that the shamans were
unable to handle the money they themselves created in the bush are examples
of these manifold manifestations. Yet these experiences have simultaneously
implied attempts to counteract estrangement: through everyday forms of rela-
tive control over their livelihood, claims of local knowledge, political mobili-
zations, and the production of memories that project positive meanings into the
past: that is, through (we may say. ultimately ideological) claims in the 1990s
that they somehow commanded the distribution of commodities in the arreglo
grande or that San Martin del Tabacal made them "rich."
The members of this Toba group are not all equal participants of these
shifting, contested, often dazzling experiences of estrangement. For young
people, their spatial imaginings of wealth are more closely connected to their
view of Buenos Aires than to the memory of San Martfn del Tabacal. And for
those who depend closely on foraging, their view of the bush as a place of resil-
ience is stronger than among public-sector employees and political leaders.
Yet most Toba tend to view wealth and poverty as contradictorily grounded in
different places and as processes beyond their full control and comprehension.
These features are not exclusive cultural attributes of this social group. Hun-
dreds of millions of people in Latin America or Africa view the United States
as the epitome of wealth and often experience the poverty of their homelands
in contrast to this spatial imagery. Even in North America or Western Europe,
how many people "understand" the dynamic dictating the rise and fall of for-
tunes in the stock exchange? How many would not explain this dynamic
through references to the self-reproductive, almost magical virtues of "capital?"

The specificity of the Toba's experiences of wealth and poverty lies at the
conjuncture of the spatial tensions created by their labor practices. Hnacted
through memory, these tensions are, in turn, shaped by their collective social
relations, shamanic practices, their views of the payak, as well as their interaction
with settlers, missionaries, plantation workers, and administrators. This con-
juncture has created a process of cultural production always in the making and
permanently reshaped, as E. P. Thompson (1966) would put it, by the force of
experience. But I would like to emphasize the tentative, improvised character
of this cultural production and the fact that for most Toba it is difficult to ar-
ticulate a well-structured vision of the forces in which they are immersed. Jean
and John Comaroff (1991:29) captured much of the uncertainty embedded in
the experience of any social group when they wrote:

Between the conscious and the unconscious lies the most critical domain of all for
historical anthropology and especially for the analysis of colonialism and resis-
tance. It is the realm of partial recognition, of inchoate awareness, of ambiguous
perception, and sometimes, of creative tension: that liminal space of human expe-
rience in which people discern acts and facts but cannot or do not order them into
narrative descriptions or even into articulate conceptions of the world; in which
signs and events are observed, but in a hazy and translucent light: in which indi-
viduals or groups know that something is happening to them but find it difficult to
put their finger on quite what it is.

Throughout this article, I have tried to show that the dialectic of estrange-
ment in which most Toba are immersed is embedded in this "ha/y and translu-
cent light." And I have tried to reveal the multiple tensions that produce this
haziness. These tensions enacted through memory are crucial sources of mean-
ing: of ambiguous, rarely fully articulated speculations on the conditions that
create wealth and poverty. Despite remembering that in San Martin del Taba-
cal they were momentarily "rich," these contradictions make most Toba aware,
even if under a foggy light, that the wealth of the do'okohe was and is alien to
them: seemingly within their reach but actually shining on the other side ot an
abyss that they feel unable to cross. The same dialectic applies to the experi-
ence of the bush as a place embedded in conditions of necessity This view mo-
mentarily blurs other dimensions of their senses of locality. Yet the daily forays in
search of bush food are reminders that the estrangement from their lands is
only partial and that "the bush" has historically enabled them to maintain spheres
of relative autonomy in the midst of broader fields of power and domination.
In the Toba's experience, this recurrent tension between control and es-
trangement is not resolved; that is, it does not reach a closure into a "synthe-
sis." As Adorno (1973) would put it, such a synthesis could only be conceiv-
able if one takes the dialectic out of the tensions of history and locks it into the
(Hegelian) realm of abstract thought. This means that the relative control over
the bush does not annul the estrangement of a collective experience of poverty.
Both experiences coexist as testimony of the historical contradictions that define
their subordinate immersion in a capitalist political economy; and they coexist

in a tense unfolding that creates not only ghostly fetishes but also the imageries
that are the condition of their negation.


Acknowledgments. I presented an earlier version of this article in December 1999

in the colloquium of the Program in Agrarian Studies at Yale University. I am grateful to
the colloquium participants for their challenging insight and criticisms. Special thanks
to Stephanie Rupp, my commentator, and Rohan D'Souza, Cindy Hahamovitch, Jeanette
Keith, Kay Mansfield, Joan Martfnez-Alier, Scott Nelson, Gabriele Rasuly-Paleczek,
Jim Scott, and Paula Worby. Very valuable comments by the editors of Cultural Anthro-
pology, Daniel Segal and Ann Anagnost, and three anonymous reviewers allowed me to
improve and sharpen the focus of the paper. Kari Jones read several versions with her al-
ways sensitive and sharp eye. My deepest gratitude goes to the many Toba men and
women who over the years have generously shared with me their voices, experiences,
and friendship. Fieldwork among the Toba of the mid-Pilcomayo was funded at different
stages by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (Predoctoral
Grant 6053), the Secretaria de Ciencia y T6cnica, Universidad de Buenos Aires, and the
Ministry of Education and Training, Province of Ontario.
1. Alfred Metraux (1937) referred to this group as Toba-Pilag£ because of their
cultural and linguistic links to the Pilagl. However, the western Toba and the Pilagl see
themselves as distinct ethnic groups, flachilamolek (people up the river) is the term that
the Pilagd use to refer to this Toba group.
2. In the western Chaco, the name Toba began to be used to refer to Qom groups
shortly after the arrival of the Spanish, often in connection to the Bolivian Toba of the upper
Pilcomayo. By the 18th century, Toba was also used in the eastern Chaco (Miller
3. This group is culturally and linguistically closer to the so-called Bolivian Toba
and the Pilagl than to the eastern Toba. In fact, the western Toba often argue that it is
hard for them to understand the language of the Toba from the east.
4. The indigenous groups of the Pilcomayo had been affected by the Spanish and Cre-
ole presence in the frontiers of the Chaco for centuries, yet they had until then maintained an
important political and military autonomy. In fact, it was only after the military campaign
of 1911 that the Argentinean army established a direct presence in the mid-Pilcomayo.
5. Before the foundation of San Martfn del Tabacal in 1920, the Toba worked not
only in Ledesma but also in ingenio La Esperanza.
6. KahogonaGd—the letter G standing for a voiced postvelar fricative—also
means "thunder." Among the eastern Toba qasogonaGd is a powerful figure that un-
leashes storms and thunder and is also associated with the Andes (Wright 1997). Among
the Toba of western Formosa, the closest equivalent is wosdq (rainbow), also associated
with storms but not with the mountains.
7. All the names presented in the text are pseudonyms.
8. This form of payment allowed the administration, first, to appropriate a huge in-
terest-free credit from the workers for an extended period of time (Rutledge 1987:215);
second, it contributed to inhibiting-them from quitting work and returning to the Chaco,
a practice that was not rare.
9. Historical documents confirm that a very high number of Aborfgenes, especially
children, died every year at the ingenios (cf. Gordillo 1999a). The hospital of the plantation
often treated permanent workers and cane cutters only, and as a result the Aborfgenes

received little medical attention. Additionally, these plantations were infamous for their
private police forces and the repressive measures taken against unions and workers in
general. Indeed, the presence of the Familiar is often associated with the "disappear-
ance" of workers at night, a practice that was not rare at the peaks of political repression,
especially in the 1970s.
10. Different social groups describe the Familiar in various ways: for instance, as
a large black dog (elperro Familiar) or a large snake (viboron). Yet the Familiar is most
often depicted as a diablo with a changing physical shape, including that of a well-
dressed white man (see Gordillo 1999a; Jijena Sanchez and Jacovella 1939.145; Rosen-
berg 1936:133-137; Vessuri 1971.60-62).
11. Most Toba, with the exception of women over the age of 40, are bilingual in Toba
and Spanish. The Spanish words and expressions included in the text are used locally rela-
tively often. I have included both Toba and Spanish equivalents below when appropriate.
12. El Mundo, October 26, 1951, and August 11, 1951. Having in mind the Toba's
vivid depiction of Per6n throwing money to the workers at Tabacal, I devoted weeks
of bibliographical research in Buenos Aires and Salta looking, without success, for
any published reference of this episode. First, none of the most important biogra-
phies of Per6n report a visit to the San Francisco Valley. Second, since the Toba
agreed that the train had arrived at Tabacal close to the end of the harvest (the Eva
Peron Train arrived at that time), 1 reviewed the October and November issues of a
mainstream newspaper during the time of Peron's first two presidencies (1946- 55).
No trip by him to Tabacal is ever mentioned. Tom£s Eloy Martfnez (personal com-
munication, 1997), one of the most distinguished writers on Per6n, agrees that there
is no evidence of such a trip. The closest that Per6n seems to have been to Tabacal
when he was a public figure was in his tour by train to Salta and Jujuy during the
presidential campaign for the elections of February 1946. However, he did not visit
the sugar plantations of the San Francisco Valley. After all, these plantations, and
especially San Martfn del Tabacal, were the strongholds of some of his most bitter
political adversaries. According to Sweeney and Dominguez Benavides (1998:240).
Peron told Patr6n Costas, in an encounter held in 1943, that he had only been at
Tabacal as a low-ranking officer, when he was not yet a public figure.
13. In 1914, an inspector of the Department of Labor wrote about the arreglo
grande in Ledesma: "The employee who pays can write down any type of sum, $ 12 or $96.
The Indian will always pick up the receipt, with any type of amount written on it. because
he does not know how to distinguish the numbers" (Unsain 1914:71, my translation).
14. Many people also argue that they did not go on strike because they "didn't have
documento" (ID. papers, which they received for the first time in 1968). Most Toba inter-
preted the lack of documento as a confirmation of their status at the bottom of the ethnic scale
of the ingenio and as the most powerful symbol of their lack of citizenship rights.
15. The daily tarea included, for instance, cutting down three trees or planting four
furrows of cane. This system of tarea was a highly exploitative form of payment that
forced the worker to keep a steady pace of work (similar to that of piecework) but pro-
vided a reward not proportional to the work done (as in payment by the day). Moreover,
unlike piecework and payment by the day, by leaving "inefficient" workers without any
payment, this system had often the unique feature of extracting surplus value for free
(Gordillo 1999a).
16. See, for instance, Pdgina/12, May 17, 1996.

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