As Disability Studies (DS) scholars and local advocates work to recover authentic, local, and experienced-based perspectives, these important efforts have focused on communities in Australia, Africa, Asia, and North America rather than South America. Within that region, moreover, Ecuador has experienced its own neglect (Bray 15). Our paper, therefore, examines how Indigenous, Ecuadorian peoples conceptualize and experience disability from their local stance. Thus situated, our paper traces the outline of a local Amazonian understanding of disability as expressed in oral narratives catalogued in the Archivo de historia oral ecuatoriana (AHOE). 1 The AHOE is comprised of hundreds of interviews, conducted from 2018 to the present, with a variety of individuals, primarily those who live in Ecuador and Ecuadorians residing abroad. The archive grew out of student semester projects for a course, "Oral Histories," at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ). 2 The stories we share come specifically from members of the Quijos Indigenous community which occupies the territory around the Napo River on the Amazon's western perimeter, including the population centers of Pifo, Baeza, Jondachi, Cotundo, and Archidona. Among those interviewed are several leaders and other members of the Quijos community.

The Quijos have only recently received official recognition as an originary, Indigenous nationality (nación originaria) within Ecuador, in 2013. This recognition, moreover, occurs within a history of erasures; colonialist practices not only erased the Quijos as Indigenous but also as a distinctive group by dissolving them into a general label of "Indio'' or "Kichwa." Disability Studies academics and advocates have long investigated the dynamics how presumably objective, medical-model based language further disables those already disempowered. In the AHOE interviews, South American, Indigenous individuals discuss how authorities use conventional discourse to characterize their Indigenous communities as inherently disabled, savage, and unworthy of attention. More specifically, the institutional language dislocates their communities from each other and their land, while simultaneously extracting large parts of their resources and disabling Indigenous bodies through exploitative labor. By separating the communities from each other and their collective, embodied whole, this conventional language disables and destroys their wholeness and autonomy. As we show, the narratives in the AHOE confront that linguistic dissolution by describing how colonialists fractured, or dis-membered, Quijos wholeness and how the community re-members its values by speaking in their own language. By reconstituting their community's fractured parts into a bodily whole, their stories re-member their own Quijos heritage in their own terms.

The Quijos, Indigeneity, and Disability

From the onset of colonization, Spanish conquerors characterized Indigenous peoples in typical Eurocentric terms as savages whose bodies were defective, uncivilized, and backward (Lovern). Such mental and physical deficits rendered the Quijos unproductive and undesirable members of society. The European colonialist perspective oppressed the Quijos by framing their disability in terms of labor and autonomy. For example, nineteenth-century Ecuadorian historian Pedro Fermín Cevallos described local Indigenous peoples as "strong and vigorous in so far as the ability to carry heavy loads on their backs and transport them to far distant places" but otherwise "extremely weak and lazy" people who "form a very inactive factor, almost absolutely negative, in the civilization of the country." 3 Although these colonist views meant that the Quijos were incapable of productive labor, they also imply, more insidiously, that the "civilization of the country" would itself depend on disabling Indigenous peoples and dismantling their collective presence and actions in the land.

In turn, these colonialist views of physical disability and weakness silenced the Quijos' identity by subsuming their way of speaking within Kichwa, the dominant language of the area prior to European colonization. But such perceptions did not originate with Europeans. As anthropologist Udo Oberem specifies, the Incan Emperor Atahualpa (c. 1502 - 1533) reportedly considered the Quijos defenseless and unworthy of being conquered (35-36). The expansive influence of the Incan empire virtually erased subsumed Quijos culture and identity, including their language. As the Quijos Women's Leader Lourdes Jipa mentions in her narrative, their ancestral language, Shillipanu, was replaced by the introduction of Kichwa, a language "not our own." 4 Thus, their palimpsestic labeling as disabled through colonial domination compounded the effects of their erasure as a distinctive ethnicity within Ecuador. Only after decades of struggle, the 2008 Ecuadorian constitution finally included language involving equal rights for those with disabilities and legally recognized the originary, pre-Incan communities such as the Quijos within a plurinational framework. 5

Language and Disability in AHOE's Quijo Narratives

The Quijo narratives in the AHOE address how their communities were oppressed and their bodies were disabled by imposing Western language standards on them and how they must speak in their own fluid voice to reconstitute their community. Accordingly, they openly reject Western literacy standards which fix meaning on the written page. Instead, Quijos communication, they note, is grounded in orality and expressed by means of personal histories intertwined into a fluid whole. Bolivian sociologist Silvia Rivera-Cusicanqui captures this communication process when she explains that Aymara 6 thought distinguishes between thinking with a clear head (lup'iña) and with the heart and entrails (amuyt'aña), the latter dealing with the "multiple memories that inhabit the postcolonial subject" (121). By countering colonialist rationalist thinking and representation, oral histories evoke a "chi'xi" space characterized. by "interwoven encounters" and "intertwined memories" which construct characterize the "the Indian" (124, 127) in terms other than their limitations. Thus, the oral histories are not merely decorative subjective stories and subservient to the written official recognition of the Quijos nation; instead, the stories represent the wholeness of their community beliefs as formed through the continued process of communal renewal.

The Quijos narratives describe their community's historical marginalization and their efforts toward individual and collective restoration long before the official recognition of Indigenous and disability rights. For instance, Lourdes Jipa traces the dissolution of the Quijos identity during pre-European conquest in her efforts to historicize contemporary threats to their communal wholeness and well-being. She describes how Kichwa replaced their own language. "Before the conquest, the coming of the Spanish, we were a Quijos government. We had territory, we had a language, but that was lost, it was lost, because they came to introduce the Kichwa language to us here. Kichwa, which is a language … which is not our own." 7 In schools, Jipa recounts, the Quijos were "told […] of the Conquest, histories that weren't true." 8 They were not true as were their stories. From the Quijos' oral perspective, there is no linear time or definitive "Truth" or "truths." The Quijos stories reject the presumably "real," but false history of the colonists. Thus, the Quijos narratives not only "tell the story of their conquest" in their own terms but also ironically "make evident the fragility and tenuousness of colonial power" (Rabasa 71).

Several narratives express this subversive statement in terms of resistance to linguistic colonization. Guadalupe (Lupita) Grefa remembers when a woman left for six months and forgot how to speak Kichwa. The women in the community wondered how she could cry at her comadre's funeral in another language. Those who migrate speak llocando, creolized with Spanish. But Lupita does not forget her (Kichwa) language [creolized with Shillipanu]. The revitalization of Shillipanu is an uphill battle because of this double creolization. 9 Elsewhere, Fermín Tanguila describes Kichwa as his community's "mother tongue" when pressed to communicate with outsiders in Spanish while simultaneously recognizing that his grandparents spoke another ancestral language (he calls it shiripampa). Not only is the Quijos language lost, but so is the means of communicating their stories. This loss also contributes to the loss of identity. "Some families still have their elders," Jipa notes. "But in families that no longer have grandparents, they no longer know history because that history, as we lived before, they did not write. Because ours is not to be writers, because what is ours, which is ancestral knowledge." 10 The loss of their collaborative history and memories separates the communities from each other and, thereby, destroys their autonomy and effectively disables them.

The narrators not only describe how Kichwa replaced their own language but also how linguistic erasure coincided with the loss of their political autonomy. Jipa explains how her identity as Quijos "increased" after the Reconstitution of the Quijos nation in 2013, when the state officially recognized them as a "first nation," (nación originaria). She says, "la lucha ha sido por la historia […] we have millenary roots and we are the seeds of this struggle." 11 Ironically, Lourdes Jipa connects her previous Kichwa identity to Indians exploited in the many corners of Latin America. These Indigenous peoples were used for political purposes and received no support from the state which frequently sought to exploit natural resources in their ancestral territories.

Land and Disability in AHOE's Quijo Narratives

The extraction of their resources not only destroyed their wholeness from their land but thereby disabled their Indigenous bodies and the community. Some of this division is acknowledged through the disabling effect of language loss as described above. But contemporary Quijos struggle also against the extractivist operations of transnational corporations in their ancestral territory not only for environment sustainability but also as part of the Quijos effort to sustain communal wholeness and well-being. In some cases, the division involves the disabling loss of land. Their collective weaknesses (debilidad), as Jipa describes, stem from their continued economic marginalization which compels community members to relinquish their resources – particularly their land – to outside interests. "There are other ways" for "sustainable development" with "less contamination," she continues, which their communal autonomy as an originary nation enables them to resist. 12

Other narratives attest directly to the reconstituted wholeness of contemporary Quijos communities through labor. Whereas Western notions of labor debilitate Indigenous bodies, Quijos narrators describe labor as generating collective strength in their communal activity, a collective process of healing and renewal. Venancio Huatatoca, a farmer from Cotundo in the Napa province, finds it "pleasant to gather ancestral facts" that rekindle memories and today's communities, a double meaning he says gets lost in translation from Kichwa. When asked about his community's current situation, he states that we are "not divided," but that each of the five communities, with their own leaders, "work together jointly" (mancomuniadamente, todos unidos). 13 Huatatoca sees labor as a collective rather than individual act. More importantly, such collaboration is both the means and result of his broader historical narrative of communal restoration. He recounts: "in those times, say the elders, they were building the road. The military wanted to take our territory [8.892 hectares]," an act of dispossession successfully thwarted through community organization. 14

For Huatatoca, this narrative is foundational to Quijos communal autonomy. "This is the first I remember," he concludes; thus, the territorial repossession is inextricable from the ancestral narrative. 15 Western enterprises have dismembered Quijos lands and claimed them for their own. Through their narratives, the Quijos ask all to re-member that no one owns land; instead, and reflecting new provisions in the 2008 Constitution, the land is a resource which is open to all if treated respectfully.


By locating the Quijos stories in a linear, written model, the West dis-membered this Indigenous nation from dominant accounts of history. Within and over generations, the various renditions of Quijos history from within the community preserve its core values as well as provide a means for challenging those dominant accounts that characterize them as ethnically and ability-differentiated peoples. By telling their tales of wholeness and autonomy, the Quijos' stories help to reconstitute their nations. As these Indigenous stories relate, collective labor—the essential and traditional work of the Quijos—is an everyday experience that involves thinking about the community as a whole and autonomy. The body of the individual who is disengaged from work, therefore, is disabled. Likewise, the alienation of individuals from the community through linguistic differentiation disables the collective body of the community. Such representations of labor, Indigenous bodies, language, and community wholeness respond directly to the colonialist notions of disability described above. And, such an understanding and articulation of disability can contribute to efforts to increase access and equity for disabled persons in Ecuador and well beyond. 16

Works Cited

  • Archivo de Historia Oral Ecuatoriana. 2020, Accessed 14 Apr. 2021.
  • Bray, Tamara. "Ecuador's Pre-Colombian Past." The Ecuador Reader. Edited by Carlos de la Torre and Steve Striffer, Duke University Press (2008): 15-27.
  • Cevallos, Pedro Fermín. Resumen de la Historia del Ecuador desde su Orijen Hasta 1845. Lima, Imprenta del Estado, 1870.
  • Constitución de la Republica del Ecuador. 2008. Accessed 24 Apr. 2021.
  • Lovern, Lavonna. "Native American Worldview and the Discourse on Disability." Essays in Philosophy 9/1 (January 2008): Accessed 31 May 2021.
  • Kowii, Ariruma. "El Sumak Kawsay." The United Nations. Accessed 24 Apr. 2021.
  • Oberem, Udo. Los Quijos: Historia de la Transculturación de un Grupo Indígena en el Oriente Ecuatoriano, Instituto Otavaleño de Antropología, 1980.
  • Pengra, Lilah and Joyselle Godfrey. "Different Boundaries, Different Barriers: Disability Studies and Lakota Culture." Disability Studies Quarterly 21/3 (2001): 36-53.
  • Rabasa, José. "Thinking Europe in Indian Categories, or 'Tell Me the Story of How I Conquered You.' Coloniality at Large: Latin America and the Postcolonial Debate, edited by Mabel Moraña, Enrique Dussel, and Carlos A. Jáuregui. Duke UP (2008): 43-76.
  • Rivera-Cusicangui, Silvia. Un mundo Chix'i es posible. Ensayos desde un presente en crisis. La Paz: Editorial Tinta Limón, 2018.
  • United States Bureau of American Republics. Ecuador: A Handbook. 1892. Washington, DC. Government Printing Office, 1894.


  1. The authors are indebted to our research assistants, Gabriela Páez González and Nicolás Hidalgo Robayo, whose work cataloging and transcribing the oral histories has been instrumental in launching the AHOE.
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  2. All interviews in the AHOE, including those cited in this article, have the expressed informed consent of the narrators to be published without restriction. The interview protocol was reviewed and approved by the Internal Review Board of USFQ. Narrators who agreed to be interviewed but did not give unrestricted consent to publish their narratives are not included in this essay.
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  3. See Volume VI (1887) of Cevallos's Resumen de la Historia del Ecuador desde su origin hasta 1845: "Fuertes y vigorosos como son para cargar cosas muy pesadas á sus lomos, y ligeros é infatigables para vencer a pie largas jornadas, así también son endebles y lerdos para otra clase de ejercisos ó trabajos." The translation cited here can be found in a report by the United States Bureau of the American Republics, Ecuador: A Handbook, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1892) [Revised 1 April 1894]), 13-14. All other translations are the authors' own, unless otherwise indicated.
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  4. Lourdes Jipa, Oral interview, 27 April 2019,
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  5. The Quijos struggle for official recognition gained momentum over four decades ago. At a council meeting of elders in 1981, some members identified Marcos Tanguila, a leader from an Amazonian federation, as Quijos—not Kichwa; they also spoke in Shillipanu. Other counsel elders, nevertheless, participated in Kichwa. The new legal framework of the 2008 Constitution cemented this recognition of originary nations by affirming Ecuador as a pluralistic society. Furthermore, the Constitution replaced the Western notion of the social contract with an Indigenous conception of society, the Sumak Kawsay, or living well (not better). As the Preamble states, the Constitution adopted an integrated vision, "a new form of social coexistence, in diversity and harmony with nature, to achieve good living, the sumak kawsay." In this way, such reforms began to dismantle the political paradigms that perpetuated Indigenous oppression through ableist and colonialist discourse described above. Nonetheless, the changes were and have not yet been fully implemented.
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  6. The Aymaran nation stretches across Bolivia, Peru and Chile. The history of its colonization by the Inca and later Spanish colonists share some similarities with the Quijos and other naciones originarias in the Andes.
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  7. Jipa, Oral interview,
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  8. Jipa, Oral interview,
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  9. Guadalupe Grefa, Oral interview, 27 April 2019,
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  10. Fermin Tanguila, Oral Interview, 27 April 2019,
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  11. Jipa, Oral interview,
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  12. Jipa, Oral interview,
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  13. Venuncio Huatatoca, Oral interview, 27 April 2019,
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  14. Huatatoca, Oral interview,
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  15. Huatatoca, Oral interview,
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  16. This perspective may resonate with similar observations made about Indigenous concepts of well-being in other regions. For example, Pengra and Godfrey argue that the Dakota understand disability as imbalance within the community; only harmony can guarantee wellness (43). One Lakota concludes that the "real disability is racism" (44).
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