Landscapes of Devils

Tensions of Place and Memory in the Argentinean Chaco

Landscapes of Devils

Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 60 b&w photos, 6 maps Published: December 2004

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Geography, Latin American Studies > Southern Cone

Landscapes of Devils is a rich, historically grounded ethnography of the western Toba, an indigenous people in northern Argentina’s Gran Chaco region. In the early twentieth century, the Toba were defeated by the Argentinean army, incorporated into the seasonal labor force of distant sugar plantations, and proselytized by British Anglicans. Gastón R. Gordillo reveals how the Toba’s memory of these processes is embedded in their experience of “the bush” that dominates the Chaco landscape.

As Gordillo explains, the bush is the result of social, cultural, and political processes that intertwine this place with other geographies. Labor exploitation, state violence, encroachment by settlers, and the demands of Anglican missionaries all transformed this land. The Toba’s lives have been torn between alienating work in sugar plantations and relative freedom in the bush, between moments of domination and autonomy, abundance and poverty, terror and healing. Part of this contradictory experience is culturally expressed in devils, evil spirits that acquire different features in different places. The devils are sources of death and disease in the plantations, but in the bush they are entities that connect with humans as providers of bush food and healing power. Enacted through memory, the experiences of the Toba have produced a tense and shifting geography. Combining extensive fieldwork conducted over a decade, historical research, and critical theory, Gordillo offers a nuanced analysis of the Toba’s social memory and a powerful argument that geographic places are not only objective entities but also the subjective outcome of historical forces.


Landscapes of Devils should appeal to scholars of various fields. . . . Whether read for its own content of used as a comparative study, Gordillo’s work is a stimulating and valuable contribution to Latin American research.” — Andrew Redden, Bulletin of Latin American Research

“Gordillo’s analysis is nuanced and engagingly written. The strength of this book lies in its deep, ethnographically grounded, and historically situated research, as well as in its emphasis on the ambiguities, tensions, and social contradictions that construct memory and place.” — Silvia Hirsch, American Anthropologist

“I enjoyed this book immensely, not just because I have an abiding love of all that is Argentina but because Gordillo has provided a window on the Toba world that heretofore did not exist. His well-researched and detailed ethnography of the Western Toba provides a solid overview of a society that is alien in its own land and suggests that, despite their many accomplishments, the Toba’s future as a distinct culture group cannot be taken for granted.” — David J. Keeling, H-HistGeog, H-Net Reviews

“In Landscapes of Devils, Gastón R. Gordillo articulates and contextualizes, in well-formed academic prose, the memories and fears of the western Toba of Argentina’s Gran Chaco region. In the process, he also presents a succinct and compelling account of historical and economic struggles in northern Argentina.” — Graham Lyons, Rocky Mountain Review

“The author’s methodology—based on extensive data collection, almost twenty years of sincere relationship with the people in the field, solid archival research, and rigorous use of negative dialectic—has produced a unique ethnography of the tensions of places and memories that could inspire similar type of work among other indigenous peoples.” — Marcela Mendoza, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“This book is at once a superb ethnography and a challenging theoretical reflection on the agency of indigenous people faced with profound economic and political change.” — Arnd Schneider, Latin American Studies

"Landscapes of Devils is an exceptional ethnographic and theoretical contribution to the intersection of political economy, history, and culture in the study of Latin America. . . . The author provides a useful approach for scholars interested in the production of space and place, habitus, power relations, state formation, and capitalism among colonized populations." — Ismael García Colón, Journal of Latin American Anthropology

"[F]ascinating. . . . [A] touching story that is well worth reading. . . . [E]xcellent. . . . [Landscapes of Devils] should intrigue those interested in historical labor migration and its impact on communities." — Donna J. Guy, Labor History

"[I]mpressive. . . . [T]he author's approach (data collection sustained by a long-term sincere relationship with the people in the field, solid archival research, and rigorous use of negative dialectic) have produced a unique ethnography of tensions of places and memories." — Marcela Mendoza, American Ethnologist

"History, geography, sociology and anthropology come together in this gripping, if depressing, account of the destruction of a people's independence and of their environment. The book throws light on events in a part of the world not so well known as they might be and that should be of wider interest." — David Bridgeman-Sutton, International Journal of Environmental Studies

"This is a welcome, fresh perspective that emerges from traditional ethnographic research methods. Highly recommended. All levels/libraries." — D. B. Heath, Choice

“Gastón R. Gordillo has written a superb book about the complex, contradictory world of the Toba of the Argentinean Chaco. Especially memorable is the manner in which he demonstrates the contextual, shifting nature of the meaning of the various places and spaces, activities and imaginings, figures and fetishes that have made up the Toba world ever since the time of the ‘ancient ones.’ He unravels the historical experiences and the memories that configure everyday practices in a world beset by devils—and by some of the less enviable effects of an especially avaricious capitalist economy on its contract laborers. While it is situated in a remote part of South America, this is a work of global importance in both its historical and its theoretical reach.” — John Comaroff, University of Chicago


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Gastón R. Gordillo is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He is coauthor of El río y la frontera: movilizaciones aborígenes, obras públicas y mercosur en el Pilcomayo.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations xi

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction 1

I. The Making of the Bush

1. Landmarks of Memory 15

2. Heaven and Hell 40

3. Places of Violence 53

4. Searching for Our Fathers 70

5. A Kind of Sanctuary 78

6. “In the Bush, You Can Do Anything” 88

II. Bones in the Cane Fields

7. The Promised Land 103

8. “It Seemed Like We Lived There” 109

9. The Breath of the Devils 123

10. “We Returned Rich” 139

11. “Dancing, Dancing, Dancing” 149

12. “We Didn’t Go on Strike” 158

13. “We’re Not Going to Die” 169

14. The Production of Local Knowledge 183

15. “With the Fish, We’re Rich” 198

16. Journeys to Strange Lands 209

17. Locations of Contentions and Hegemony 223

18. The Other Side 239

Conclusions 253

Glossary 261

Notes 265

References 281

Index 297
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Winner, 2005 American Ethnological Society Sharon Stephens First Book Award

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3391-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3380-7
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