No time for revolutions
Panchita watched the Gaucho talking to her father. They were sitting in the shade round the wooden table with some of the other men, sharing coca and strong tobacco and looking serious. Panchita’s father mostly looked serious, but talking with the Gaucho it was even more pronounced, the furrows on his brow even deeper than usual. Panchita knew that the Gaucho and his friends had guns because she had seen them when they had first passed by their house a couple of days ago. That time, they had all run into the forest to hide, and eventually the Gaucho and his friends had gone away. He hadn’t brought his gun this time.
Panchita was struck by how different the Gaucho looked from the rest of them, his long hair, his heavy boots, his white face with the perfect teeth. His funny black hat that offered no protection against the sun. Her own father’s face was brown like pottery clay, his sandalled feet dusty, his hands rough from working in fields that weren’t his.
For some time now, the Gaucho had been talking animatedly while the others listened in silence. Half-hiding in the entrance to her family’s small mud-covered house, Panchita couldn’t catch a lot of what he was saying; his accent was similar enough to their own, but he had a habit of slurring his words, and he was keeping his voice low. Presently, curiosity got the better of fear, and Panchita edged closer to the table.
‘What the compañeros need to understand,’ the Gaucho was saying, ‘is that we are on your side. We are prepared to fight for you, but we will need your support.’
‘We’re not military men,’ one of the other men now responded. ‘We are peasants. We don’t have guns, we don’t have money to buy guns. So how are we going to support you?’
The Gaucho leaned forward, like what he was about to say was of great importance.
‘We have guns,’ he said, ‘and we have a certain amount of money. What we need from you is your support, we need food, shelter, guides… That you support us in any way you can. If there are any young people who want to join us, we will train them, we will give them weapons.’
Panchita’s father stood up.
‘With all due respect, Don Ernesto,’ he said. ‘Our people, we remember well how they took our young people away to fight in the war against the Paraguayans. For the fatherland, they said. We weren’t military men in those days either, but still we had to fight. I was a boy, too young to fight, but my father, my brother, uncles… they all of them had to go, and not all of them came back. I was a boy, but even I remember the sound of the bombs in the distance, how my mother worried: Are they going to come here? Is my husband still alive? —my son?
‘Before that, my grandfather fought with the Tüpa Apiaguaiki when we were still kereɨmba, warriors, and the white people were afraid of us. He was a great leader, the Tüpa, and it was a great uprising — they came, oooh, from all directions to fight with him. But even then, they defeated us. My grandfather often told me when I was little how the kereɨmba got frightened when they noticed that what the Tüpa had told them wasn’t true, that the soldiers’ bullets would turn to water as they came flying at them. He lied, the Tüpa, or he made a mistake, who knows. In any case, and with all due respect, they have killed us enough.’
Panchita’s father sat back down. Panchita knew these stories well, she had heard the older people tell them many times. Her grandmother sometimes cried when she remembered the time of the war; she had lost a son in it, an uncle Panchita had never known.
The Gaucho stared at the table in front of him. A deep line had formed between his brows.
Into the momentary silence, a young voice burst suddenly: ‘National revolution!’
The Gaucho looked up. Panchita turned to see her brother Teyu scurrying away with a big grin on his face, agitating some chickens that were searching for scraps beside the quernstone their mother used to make the vegetable paste for her soups.
‘Get lost! Idiot!’ their father shouted after him as he joined a group of other children who had been waiting for him and now received him with giggling approval.
The Gaucho smiled and turned back to the men.
‘It seems I already have one recruit,’ he said.
Panchita’s father opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, her uncle Artemisio got up and began to speak in the melodic staccato of the Guaraní language. Uncle Artemisio didn’t speak Spanish – not because he couldn’t, but because he refused to. The Gaucho listened until he had finished, then looked at Panchita’s father.
‘He says, there will be no revolutions,’ Panchita’s father translated. ‘Those are things of the Collas, from the highlands. He says they made a revolution not 20 years ago, a national revolution they said, that was going to give land to everybody. But it never got here – they got their land in the highlands, and the revolution withered.’
The Gaucho was frowning harder now as he looked the other men in the eyes, one by one.
‘Compañeros,’ he said. ‘That is the reason we are here with you now. To support you in your struggle for the land, the land that already your grandfathers fought for. We have contacts in the highlands, among the Collas, as you call them, who will also support us in our joint struggle. We are negotiating with our compañeros the miners, they have experience fighting with the government…’
Panchita’s attention drifted beyond the table to where her sister was wheeling a puppy around the dusty yard in front of their house in a little wooden cart their father had made for them. It was the last remaining puppy of five; the others had died one by one after the patrón had shot their mother for stealing eggs from one of his chickens. The puppy sat placidly, too weak to yelp or jump out, its eyelids slowly closing and opening over sand-coloured eyes.
The sudden raising of voices startled Panchita out of her daydream.
‘Go back to the highlands, there are no miners here!’ Uncle Artemisio called to the Gaucho, but the Gaucho didn’t understand him and Panchita’s father didn’t translate it.
‘What I am saying,’ the Gaucho went on, ‘is that with the help of the compañeros from the highlands we can start a revolution that will be not only national, but international. In all of South America there are poor people like you, who don’t have money, don’t have land – sometimes, don’t even have anything to eat. And it is not only the governments of those countries, it’s not only the oligarchs who are oppressing them; it’s also the powerful countries of the world. You, compañeros, are only going to be the first to free yourselves from this oppression. We are going to start a revolution that is going to free all of South America, and we are not going to stop until everyone has access to land and enough to live.’
Uncle Artemisio had held back while the Gaucho was speaking, but now his agitation once again burst forward, drawing the other listeners in.
‘Enough of this talk of revolutions!’ Panchita heard him exclaim. ‘This fool will have us free ourselves from the oppression of the landowners, for what? – just so the Collas can come in and take their place. There are already enough of them here, taking all the land they can get. Or if they don’t drive us out, or the army doesn’t kill us, the Yankis will kill us off for sure! His plans are bad – and who is he to us anyway, that he thinks he can come in and start a fight in our name? I don’t know him, I don’t want to know him. Nothing good will come of knowing him.’
Over his excited words, Panchita’s father addressed the Gaucho in Spanish: ‘Do you know what you are saying? You are talking about starting a fight with the Yankis. The Bolivians will not support you in that. Perhaps you can find men to fight the government, perhaps the Colla miners, it’s possible. But if you’re talking about fighting the Yankis, you won’t find many who will. Not the peasants, not the Guaraní people, and not the miners. People here are afraid of the Yankis.’
Panchita heard her mother calling from the fire where she was cooking soup in a big blackened metal pot. Obediently, she trudged over to her. With the help of a cloth, her mother took an equally blackened kettle from where it had been sitting next to the pot and poured boiling water into a calabash gourd half-filled with mate leaves and some sugar. She stirred the mixture gently a couple of times with the cane bombilla, then, without looking up, handed the vessel to Panchita.
‘Take that to the Gaucho,’ she said.
Panchita shuffled over to where the men had moved the table to keep up with the wandering shade.
‘My mamá sends me to invite you porito, Señor,’ she said.
The Gaucho looked at her and smiled. He had a way of smiling with his whole face, his eyes narrowing and deep creases spreading from their corners to his hairline. Panchita smiled back, a shy little smile. She had never addressed a foreigner before. She had once seen one of the local landowners who she knew was a Gringo when she had gone into town with her mother to buy the kettle that was now back in its place above the fire, and several other things you could only get in the town, but she had never spoken to one.
The Gaucho’s face was as pale as the Gringo’s had been, but it looked a lot kinder even when he wasn’t smiling. When he had first come, Panchita had run away to hide with all the others, but talking to the Gaucho now she could see nothing dangerous in his face.
The Gaucho took the gourd off her.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘Francisca,’ she murmured, as she watched him slurp the sweet poro through the bombilla.
‘But they call you something else, no?’
‘They call me Panchita,’ Panchita said.
‘Panchita,’ he repeated. ‘How old are you, Panchita?’
‘I’m eight,’ Panchita said.
Again, the Gaucho smiled.
‘I have a daughter almost the same age,’ he said.
Panchita was surprised. It hadn’t occurred to her that the Gaucho might have a family; he seemed so very different. She still felt shy of him, the way she felt shy of all strangers, but his bestowal of confidence emboldened her to ask a question of her own.
‘Where is she, your daughter?’ she whispered.
‘She is in my house in Cuba, where I live, with her mamá and her brothers and sisters.’
The Gaucho took another slurp of poro. For a moment, his eyes wandered away from Panchita, fixing on nothing in particular.
‘You keep listening, Panchita,’ he said, as if to himself. ‘If you keep listening, you will learn things that are important, for you and for all your people. You will learn all the things you need to know to live your life in freedom.’
Panchita didn’t reply. She waited until he had finished drinking, then took the gourd off him when he held it out to her.
‘Thank you,’ he said, returning his gaze to hers. ‘Tell your mother her poro is very good.’
Panchita smiled and trotted off back to the fire.
‘He says to tell you that your poro is good,’ she said to her mother.
Still her mother didn’t look up.
‘He’s lying!’ she said, but she too smiled a little. ‘They are not used to taking it with sugar in Argentina. They like it bitter.’
‘He says he lives in Cuba,’ Panchita said.
‘He’s a Gaucho,’ her mother replied. ‘From Argentina. You can hear it in the way he talks.’
She handed Panchita a basketful of corn cobs to shell. Panchita sat down next to her.
The men continued to talk for some time, and though Panchita couldn’t follow their conversation anymore, she could tell from the rise and fall of their voices that they were still disagreeing. Finally, the Gaucho got up to leave.
Panchita’s mother hurried inside the house and came back moments later with a small bundle tied in cloth. She shoved it at Panchita.
‘Take this to the Gaucho,’ she said, without looking at him. ‘It’s tamales, for his dinner.’
Panchita went up to the Gaucho once more and held out her bundle to him.
‘My mamá sends me to give you tamales,’ she mumbled.
The Gaucho gave her a quick smile and for a moment put his hand on her head, lightly.
‘Thank you,’ he said, taking the bundle off her, but again, he didn’t really seem to see her. The deep frown was back on his face now.
Panchita watched him go. Her father came and stood behind her, putting his hands on her shoulders.
‘What did the Gaucho say to you?’ he asked.
‘To keep listening to you talking,’ Panchita replied. ‘So I would know the things that will make me free.’
For a moment, her father didn’t respond, and they just stood watching in silence as the Gaucho walked away into the forest.
‘That Gaucho knows a lot of things,’ Panchita’s father said finally. ‘But he doesn’t understand Bolivia.’
'No Time for Revolutions’ was inspired by two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Bolivia in 2006–08, when I lived with a community of Guaraní people, very close to where Che Guevara had tried to start a revolution among the local peasants in 1966–67. Guevara's contact with the Guaraní peasants was sparse and is hardly mentioned in his Bolivian Diary, and I myself never came across anyone who claimed to have met him, nor could I find any written accounts of such encounters when I looked for them. For this story, I drew on my familiarity with the local culture and knowledge of Bolivian history to imagine what such an interaction might have looked like.
Veronika Groke is an Austrian anthropologist and fiction writer based in the UK. As a writer, she has a particular interest in folklore and speculative fiction, and is intrigued by how ethnographic and historical research can enrich imaginative worlds. Veronika holds a PhD in social anthropology from the University of St Andrews and an MA in creative writing from Brunel University. Her monograph Contested Community: Indigenous Land Rights and Identity Politics in Eastern Bolivia was published in 2021. She is currently working on her first novel.