The time I last saw Arquimedes Vitonás he was studying for an undergraduate
degree in anthropology through ima, the Missionary Institute of Anthropol-
ogy, which Father Antonio had brought to Toribío and in which many of the
region’s most promising Nasa leaders, even those who criticized Consolata
penetration of the indigenous movement, were enrolled. We exchanged our
thoughts about indigenous control of mayoralties (alcaldías), the topic of the
thesis that Arquimedes hoped to write in pursuit of his degree. He outlined his
research problem by drawing a distinction between the relationship that a
cabildo enjoys with its members and how an alcaldía relates to its constituents.
The cabildo, he told me, is an integral part of the community, beholden to its
constituents because it constitutes a microcosm of the resguardo. Arquimedes
contrasted the cabildo with the alcaldía by pointing out that the latter repre-
sents the state, not the indigenous community. As the state’s agent in the
locality the alcalde is constrained by the bureaucratic rules that he or she must
follow, even if they conflict with the goals of constituents, such as, for example,
in how municipal funds must be disbursed. Thus, despite the fact that civic
mayors, or even indigenous ones, are elected by the local community, they do
not entirely represent it. Instead, they function as an extension of the state in
the locality.
Phillip Abrams (1988) persuasively argues that social scientists mistakenly
idealize the state, treating it as an all-encompassing structural ideal or an
autonomous entity instead of grasping how it functions on the ground, where
it operates within specific social structures and institutions. That is, scholars
commonly mythify the state, treating it as an objective thing that is somehow
separate from civil society. As a solution to this di≈culty, Abrams suggests that
‘‘we should abandon the state as a material object of study whether concrete or
abstract while continuing to take the idea of the state extremely seriously’’ (75).
Ethnography provides a possible venue for teasing out how ephemeral and
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