By Ashton Shurson
UI Associate Professor of history Laura Gotkowitz was recently awarded the American Historical Association’s John E. Fagg prize for 2008 for her book, A Revolution for Our Rights: Indigenous Struggles for Land and Justice in Bolivia, 1880-1952.
Gotkowitz has dedicated much of her time at the UI to the study of Bolivian history—but her interest in the country’s history and politics began years earlier.
In 1987 she first lived in Bolivia, one of Latin America’s most indigenous nations. At the time, the country was implementing a multilingual literacy program in Spanish and indigenous languages. After completing her BA degree, Gotkowitz received a Fulbright grant to study the literacy program. She later went on to receive her Ph.D. in Latin American history from the University of Chicago. Gotkowitz taught Latin American history at Swarthmore College before joining Iowa’s history department in 2001.
A Revolution for Our Rights is a critical reassessment of the causes and significance of the Bolivian Revolution of 1952. Historians have tended to view the revolution as the result of labor movements and reformist political projects that emerged in the 1930s, following Bolivia’s devastating defeat in the Chaco War with Paraguay. Gotkowitz argues that the revolution had deeper roots in the indigenous struggles for land and justice that swept through Bolivia during the first half of the twentieth century.
By recounting indigenous mobilization in the decades preceding the revolution, the book illuminates a crucial chapter in the long history behind present-day struggles in Bolivia and contributes to an understanding of indigenous politics in modern Latin America more broadly. The book is based on extensive research in archives of Bolivia and the United States. It was published by Duke University Press in 2007 and is currently being translated into Spanish for publication in Bolivia.
In January 2009, Gotkowitz was awarded the 2008 John E. Fagg prize for the best publication in the history of Spain, Portugal, or Latin America. The prize is conferred by the American Historical Association, the national association of historians in the United States.
Linda Kerber, a UI history professor and former president of the American Historical Association, said Gotkowitz’s book—her first book—was up against other works by senior scholars.
“It’s highly unusual for someone to win with their first book,” Kerber said.
When she received word about the prize, Gotkowitz was in La Paz carrying out research for a new book project on political violence, migration, and democracy in Bolivia before and after World War II. She said it was impossible not to notice the parallels between the tumultuous democratization process of the 1940s and that taking place in Bolivia today.
The San Diego native is also co-organizing a symposium on Bolivia’s 2006-07 Constituent Assembly with her Bolivian colleague Rossana Barragán. Bolivia’s indigenous and social movements have captured worldwide attention during the past nine years or so, Gotkowitz explained, and a constituent assembly to re-write the constitution and “refound” the nation was a key demand of those movements.
The 2006-07 assembly was one of the most far-reaching constitutional reform processes ever to take place in Latin America. It was also one of the most divisive, Gotkowitz said—and that combination makes it an especially rich topic for a day-long symposium. The conference—to be held on the UI campus next spring—will explore the relationship between the 2006-07 assembly and wider efforts to overcome legacies of discrimination and political exclusion. It is funded by an IP Major Projects Grant.
Gotkowitz emphasized that there is a great deal of interest in Bolivia in the world today—not only because Evo Morales is the country’s first indigenous president but also because of the social changes his government has promoted and the opposition those changes have provoked.
The new constitution has been at the center of these battles over the country’s political and social future. Gotkowitz was able to witness a piece of this process during her most recent stay in Bolivia. She feels very fortunate to have lived in the country during such an important time in its history.