“I Will Return and I Will Be Millions!” The Many Lives of Túpac Amaru

This post is a part of our “Latin America’s Ongoing Revolutions” series, which explores the colonial and post-colonial angles of Latin America’s revolutionary history. Check out the entire series.

By Miguel La Serna

The image remains etched in the memory of a nation whose citizens never witnessed the event. There lay José Gabriel Condorcanqui, the Andean rebel known as Túpac Amaru, hands and feet stretched out in four opposing directions, each limb bound to a rope. Horses tugged at the end of each rope in an effort to tear the rebel limb from limb—yet, they couldn’t tear him apart. This was not an uncommon outcome for such an unscientific execution, but it would do wonders for the insurgent’s mystique: Túpac Amaru, more powerful than four horses; Túpac Amaru, the Inca incarnate with supernatural strength; Túpac Amaru, the anti-colonial hero who refused to die. This defiance was short-lived, of course. The executioners promptly beheaded and quartered their victim, displaying his severed head and limbs throughout the areas of rebel activity as a reminder of the fate that awaited colonial subjects who resisted Spanish rule.[1]

The way in which Túpac Amaru met his untimely demise, limbs stretched in opposing directions, is an apt metaphor for the way in which his legacy fueled revolutionary politics in the twentieth century. Like the horses that sought to dismember Túpac Amaru, state and non-state actors in Peru and beyond have engaged in a symbolic tug-of-war over his name, likeness, and memory, pulling him in different directions to lend a sense of revolutionary authenticity to their own political agendas.

The Shining Serpent

Map of the territories of Túpac Amaru II between 1780 and 1781.

These twentieth-century actors were merely continuing a revolutionary tradition of symbolic appropriation that Condorcanqui himself had begun two hundred years earlier. Before taking up arms, Condorcanqui had been a kuraka, or ethnic lord (also known as a cacique), from the province of Canas y Canchis, in the highlands of Cuzco.[2] A literate muleteer who spoke both Quechua and Spanish, Condorcanqui claimed to be the direct descendent of the Inca monarch, Túpac Amaru I. This first Túpac Amaru, whose name means the “Shining Serpent” in Quechua, reigned over Vilcabamba, an Inca kingdom-in-exile, before leading a doomed Indigenous rebellion against the Spanish colonizers in 1572. After capturing the rogue Inca later that year, Spanish authorities beheaded Túpac Amaru I before a crowd of onlookers in the main square of Cuzco, the former Inca capital. His death spelled the end of the resistance, the era of the Inca dying with him on that crowded colonial square.[3]

Nearly two hundred years later, Condorcanqui led his own rebellion against Spanish authorities in Peru. His first act of rebellion involved the public execution of Antonio de Arriaga, a Spanish administrative and judicial offical, or corregidor, with a reputation for abuse of the Indigenous population of his jurisdiction of Tinta, Cuzco. Shortly after sending Arriaga to the gallows on 4 November 1780, Condorcanqui declared open rebellion and encouraged all Peruvian-born Whites, Mestizos (people of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry), Blacks, and Indigenous people to take up arms against their oppressors. Condorcanqui claimed, without offering definitive proof, to be a direct descendent of Túpac Amaru, adopting the Inca’s name to cement his royal claims and earn legitimacy in the eyes of his Quechua-speaking followers. This second Túpac Amaru promised a return to Inca rule even while professing fealty to the Spanish Crown and Catholic Church. Above all, Túpac Amaru II fought to preserve Peru for Peruvians—regardless of color—and end the abuses of European-born Spaniards who governed there.[4]

The call to arms produced the desired effect, and within weeks the rebellion had spread throughout the Andes, bringing as many as 70,000 rebels into its orbit and posing a serious threat to the colonial order.[5] The following year, however, Spanish forces captured Túpac Amaru, his wife and rebel commander Micaela Bastidas, and other members of his family, putting them on trial and sentencing them to death. In a cruel twist of historical fate, Túpac Amaru’s captors brought him back to the same square where his Inca namesake had met his end two centuries prior. After torturing and executing the rebel commander’s wife and other family members, the executioners killed Túpac Amaru on 18 May 1781.[6] The rebellion lived on after his death, with new leaders continuing the struggle in Cuzco, Chayanta, Oruro, and La Paz.[7] It died down by 1783, after royal officials had captured and killed its major leaders and conspirators.

An Icon of Twentieth Century Revolution

According to legend, Túpac Amaru II made one final promise before he was beheaded: “I will return and I will be millions.” This version of the story became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, with Túpac Amaru reemerging as a twentieth-century symbol of resistance and rebellion from California to Argentina. In 1960s Uruguay, rebels reclaimed the term tupamaro—formerly used by Spanish authorities to refer to treasonous insurgents—as  a badge of honor, christening their guerrilla movement the Movement of National Liberation – Tupamaros.[8] Made up almost entirely of non-Indigenous people, the Tupamaros waged urban warfare from the streets of Montevideo, staging kidnappings, Robin Hood actions, and other headline-grabbing stunts designed to capture the popular imagination. Meanwhile, Peru’s Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), another predominantly-Mestizo guerrilla organization, christened columns and camps in Túpac Amaru’s honor. For the time being, it appeared  the Peruvian messiah would be forever synonymous with the insurgent Left.

All that changed when General Juan Velasco Alvarado led a military coup in 1968. Adopting a left-leaning social and political platform, Velasco’s Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces (GRFA) positioned itself as the embodiment of Túpac Amaru’s revolutionary agenda, deploying his image as the foremost symbol of the Peruvian government. The GRFA used Túpac Amaru’s name and likeness in everything from government propaganda, to speeches, to memorials and social reforms in an effort to rebrand the state as his true revolutionary heir.[9] Anthropologist Enrique Mayer explains:

Everything revolutionary and nationalistic during the Velasco regime had the name Túpac Amaru. New statues, plazas, and streets were dedicated to him in every city. The Ministry of Agriculture and its agrarian reform posters had Túpac Amaru on them. Expropriated haciendas with aristocratic Spanish names were renamed after him, and even the state-run food distribution system had a stylized stencil symbol of Túpac Amaru with a black-brimmed, tall top hat and a stern face.[10]

Túpac Amaru continued to occupy state discourse even after the GRFA took a right turn. After installing the conservative Francisco Morales Bermúdez as president in 1975, the GRFA rebranded Túpac Amaru as a reformist. Moralez Bermúdez’s principal legislation, El Plan Túpac Amaru, undid many of Velasco’s social welfare programs in the name of the revolutionary icon.

For some on the Left, the appropriation of Túpac Amaru by a conservative military government was a bridge to far. In the decade to come, radical groups throughout the Americas sought to pull him back to the Left. In Venezuela, the Marxist guerrilla organization, the Tupamaro Movement of Venezuela, took up the cacique’s name and revolutionary cause in 1979. In New York, members of the Black Panther Party studied Túpac Amaru as part of their own liberation struggle against White oppression. One of these Black activists, Afeni Shakur, named her son Tupac Amaru. “I wanted him to have the name of revolutionary, Indigenous people in the world,” Shakur reportedly said of the naming. “I wanted him to know he was part of a world culture and not just from a neighborhood.”[11] That boy grew up to be the world-famous rapper Tupac Shakur, better known as “2Pac,” whose own life and career would be defined by rebellion, anti-racist social commentary, violence, and tragedy.

In Peru, Shining Path and MRTA, two insurgent groups active in the 1980s and 90s, situated their own armed struggles within a longer national history that went back to the Túpac Amaru rebellion. Although Shining Path, the armed Communist party headed by Abimael Guzmán, emphasized its origins in Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, it nevertheless conceived of itself as existing within a longer revolutionary tradition that included the Túpac Amaru rebellion.[12] During Shining Path’s Second National Conference in 1982, Guzmán argued that his party’s armed struggle was only the most recent of three “high-level ideological moments” in Peruvian history. The second had been the moment brought on by Peru’s early-twentieth century Marxist thinker, José Carlos Mariátegui, whose writings on the “Shining Path” toward socialism—rather than Túpac Amaru’s translation as “Shining” Serpent—had inspired the group’s name. Nevertheless, Guzmán insisted  the country’s foundational historical moment of ideological clarity was “the revolution of Túpac Amaru.”[13] And while Guzmán and other leaders do not appear to have explicitly acknowledged the coincidence of their historical timing, it is worth noting that their insurgency marked the 200-year anniversary of Túpac Amaru’s 1780 rebellion, and the date they chose to launch it—on the eve of the 18 May presidential election—coincided with the date of Túpac Amaru’s death.

If Shining Path acknowledged Túpac Amaru II’s contributions to Peru’s revolutionary tradition, the MRTA openly embraced them. This group of mostly Mestizo insurgents, which began organizing in 1982 before launching a full-fledged guerrilla struggle two years later, sought to reclaim Túpac Amaru’s name, image, and legacy for the Peruvian peopleonce and for all.[14] Naming themselves the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, the rebels imprinted their namesake’s likeness on their rebel flag, set off bombs every November 4th, tagged their radio broadcast “Radio 4 November,” and named a battalion after his wife and co-commander, Micaela Bastidas. The MRTA anthem, Himno a Túpac Amaru, addressed the rebel leader in the second person, assuring him that his patriotic sacrifice had not been in vain:

 Túpac Amaru, Father of Thunder
 Your Great Nation is Finally Born
 Your Guerrillas Are Finally Ignited
 Great Flames of Insurrection

 Túpac Amaru, Condor of Fire
 You Hear Bellows in the People
 You Are the Fire of Combat
 Song and Flag of Rebellion

 Your Children Know That the Lords
 Will No Longer Feed Off of Your Poverty
 The People Will Finally Not Be Enslaved
 Nor Will They Be Shackled By Exploitation

 Túpac Amaru, Father of Thunder
 Your Great Nation is Finally Born
 Your Guerrillas Are Finally Ignited
 Great Flames of Insurrection

 Túpac Amaru, Son of the Sun
 Your Blood Burns, Your Voice Flares,
 The Oppressed Stand By
 Túpac Amaru Liberator

 Túpac Amaru, Blood of the People
 You Are the Soul of the Nation
 We Will Advance Toward Socialism
 With Your Flag of Rebellion

 Túpac Amaru, Father of Thunder
 Your Great Nation is Finally Born
 Your Guerrillas Are Finally Ignited
 Great Flames of Insurrection.[15] 

The MRTA made the re-appropriation of Túpac Amaru a priority during the early years of the insurgency. Images of the stern-faced kuraka and synopses of his rebellion ran through the publications of the MRTA and its surrogates.[16] Emphasizing Túpac Amaru’s proto-nationalism and the unfinished nature of his rebellion, this propaganda sought to position the MRTA as the revolutionary’s legitimate and necessary heir. Cambio, the group’s principal media surrogate, ran numerous articles, many of them written by historians, outlining Túpac Amaru’s revolutionary life and the significance of the rebellion he led.[17] Through this print literature, the MRTA and its media surrogates sought to pry Túpac Amaru from the grip of the state, pulling him back into the camp of the armed Left.

The MRTA’s successful re-appropriation of Túpac Amaru has made it difficult for the state to reclaim this revolutionary symbol. This has to do in large part with the state and media’s own success in branding both Shining Path and the MRTA terrorists in the eyes of everyday Peruvians. This poses a difficult conundrum for Túpac Amaru’s legacy: If the MRTA is synonymous with terrorism, how can its foremost icon be anything but a symbol of terrorism? This discursive and semiotic association of Túpac Amaru with domestic terrorism has made the re-appropriation of his image on behalf of the state a less appealing prospect than it had been under previous regimes.

The Dormant Serpent

In the twenty-first-century, Túpac Amaru remains largely an icon of the Left and of Peruvian historical memory, but presidents and other national leaders have not been as eager to invoke his memory as in years past. Yet, as we welcome the 240th anniversary of Túpac Amaru’s November 4th rebellion, we should not underestimate Túpac Amaru’s propensity for rebirth, re-appropriation, and re-invention. As long as long as the legacies of colonialism and racism prevail in the Americas—as long as there is a revolutionary cause to champion—Túpac Amaru  lays in waiting, recoiled like a serpent ready to strike.     

Miguel La Serna is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has published numerous works on the armed conflict of 1980s-90s Peru, including the narrative history of the MRTA, With Masses and Arms: Peru’s Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (UNC Press, 2020), and the co-authored book (with Orin Starn) The Shining Path: Love, Madness, and Revolution in the Andes (Norton, 2019).

Title Image: Spanish brutal execution of Túpac Amaru II, 1781.

Further Readings:

Aguirre, Carlos, and Paulo Drinot, eds. Rethinking the Peruvian Experiment Under Military Rule. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.

Asensio, Raúl H. El Apóstol de los andes: El culto a Túpac Amaru en Cusco durante la revolución velasquista (1968-1975). Lima, Instituto de Estudios Peruanos: 2017.

La Serna, Miguel. With Masses and Arms: Peru’s Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020.

Mayer, Enrique. Ugly Stories of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

Walker, Charles F. The Tupac Amaru Rebellion. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.


[1] The literature on the Túpac Amaru Rebellion is too vast to list here. For a general introduction, see, for example, Boleslao Lewin, La rebelión de Túpac Amaru y los orígenes de la independencia Hispanoamericana (Buenos Aires: Sociedad Editora Latino Americana.  Buenos Aires, 1967); Daniel Valcárcel, La rebelión de Túpac Amaru (Lima: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1970); Alberto Flores Galindo, ed. Túpac Amaru II-1780: sociedad colonial y sublevaciones populares (Lima: Retablo de Papel Ediciones, 1976); Scarlett O’Phelan Godoy, La gran rebelión en los Andes: de Túpac Amaru a Túpac Catari (Lima: PETROPERU CPC, 1995);Lillian Estelle Fisher, The Last Inca Revolt (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966); Charles F. Walker, The Tupac Amaru Rebellion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[2] For more on the world in which Condorcanqui came of age, see Ward Stavid, The World of Túpac Amaru: Conflict, Community, and Identity in Colonial Peru (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).

[3] See John Hemmings, The Conquest of the Incas (San Diego: Harcort Inc., 1970); Kim MacQuarrie, The Last Days of the Incas (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007).

[4] See Walker, The Tupac Amaru Rebellion.

[5] See Sergio Serulnikov, Subverting Colonial Authority: Challenges to Spanish Rule in Eighteenth-Century Southern Andes (Durham, Duke University Press, 2003); Sinclair Thomson, We Alone Will Rule:  Native Andean Politics in the Age of Insurgency (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002); Nicolas A. Robins, Genocide and Millennialism in Upper Peru: The Great Rebellion of 1780-1782 (Westport, Praeger, 2002).

[6] Walker, The Tupac Amaru Rebellion,165.

[7] Walker, The Tupac Amaru Rebellion; Serulnikov, Subverting Colonial Authority;Thomson, We Alone Will Rule; Robins, Genocide and Millennialism.

[8] Pablo Brum, The Robin Hood Guerrillas: The Epic Journey of Uruguay’s Tupamaros (Self-published, 2014).

[9] Charles F. Walker, “The General and His Rebel: Juan Velasco Alvarado and the Reinvention of Túpac Amaru II,” in Aguirre and Drinot, eds., The Peculiar Revolution: Rethinking the Peruvian Experiment Under Military Rule (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017); Raúl H. Asensio, El Apóstol de los andes: El culto a Túpac Amaru en Cusco durante la revolución velasquista (1968-1975) (Lima, IEP: 2017); Christabelle Roca-Rey, La propaganda visual durante el gobierno de Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968-1975) (Lima, IEP, 2016).

[10] Enrique Mayer, Ugly Stories of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 43.

[11] Quoted in Charles F. Walker, “Tupac Shakur and Tupac Amaru,” February 26, 2014, https://charlesfwalker.com/tupac-shakur-tupac-amaru/ accessed on 29 October 2020.

[12] For a general history of Shining Path, see Orin Starn and Miguel La Serna, The Shining Path: Love, Madness, and Revolution in the Andes (New York: Norton, 2019).

[13] Documenting the Peruvian Insurrection (Davis Library, UNC Chapel Hill), Segunda Conferencia Nacional del Partido Comunista Peruano (SL), Group A, Box 2, Folder 2, PCP-SL, July 1982, 3.

[14] For a political history of the MRTA, see Mario Miguel Meza, “El Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (MRTA) y las fuentes de la revolución en América Latina (Doctoral thesis, El Colegio de México, 2012); Miguel La Serna, With Masses and Arms: Peru’s Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

[15] MRTA, “El camino de la revolución peruana: Documentos del II C.C. del MRTA,” Cambio, edición especial, August 1988, back cover.

[16] Documenting the Peruvian Insurrection, Group A, Box 1, Folder 2, Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru, “El MRTA y la revolución peruana,” Venceremos 13, September 1986; MRTA, Conquistando el porvenir: Con las masas y las armas. Notas sobre la historia del MRTA (Lima: MRTA, 1990); MRTA, El camino de la revolución peruana; “Túpac Amaru: Hace 208 años,” Cambio 37, 10 November 1988, 20-21; “Imágenes de Tupac Amaru,” Cambio 41, 8 December 1988, back cover.

[17] Alberto Flores Galindo, “La revolución prematura,” Cambio 30, 6 November 1986, 30-31; Beatriz Delgado, “Las letras en la gesta de Tupac Amaru,” Cambio 122, 30 August 1987, 10-11; Yehude Simón, “La Semilla de Tupac Amaru,” Cambio 16, 21 April 1988; 9; Alejandro Montes, “Patriota y revolucionario,” Cambio.

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