Monday, April 4, 2011

Cultural Diversity in Peru. Peruvian Social Reality Blog 1.

(To the family and friends that normally follow my blog - the following post is for my class on Peruvian Social Reality. As always, feel free to skip it. Unless you want to learn some interesting things about cultural diversity in Peru.)


During a conversation with a Peruvian friend of mine I asked about some regional stereotypes in Peru.

“Well, in the North the stereotype is that they are perezosos (lazy people). In the Sierra – tontos (stupid people). But also, good people. And in la selva (the jungle) there are….” (Here he said some words I did not know in Spanish.)

“Sorry, what is that?”

He switched to English, looking uncomfortable.

“Uhhh…there are….hot girls.”

When it comes to cultural diversity, every country has stereotypes. In “Missing the Revolution: Anthropologists and the War in Peru “, Orin Starn uses the example of Andean culture to discuss how the solidification into theory of these stereotypes (even the good ones) is a damaging mental exercise. Cultural diversity is more complicated than laziness, good people or even hot girls. Starn writes about the phenomenon of Andeanism, which he defines as “the representation that portrays contemporary highland peasants as outside the flow of modern history” and “dichotomizes between the Occidental, coastal, urban, and mestizo and the non-Western, highland, rural, and indigenous” (Starn 1991:64, 66). Andeanism romanticizes Andean culture as well as placing it firmly as the “other” for tourists to visit and anthropologists to study. He gives as an example of Andeanism in the mass media some quotes from a certain “Wilderness Travel” (Starn 1991:67) that speaks of the Andean people as untouched by modern culture, pure and unsullied farmers. Their blurb was written in 1990 (making no mention of the violence in the highlands at the time), but some aspects of Andeanism haven’t changed. Check out Peru Travel Adventures that tells us

The Andes of Peru, amazingly stunning with refreshing simplicity. Still home to millions of highland Indians who still speak the native tongue of Quechua and practice the times of 10,000 years past. The colonial preservation of Conquistador legacy that truly never conquered but melded and blended a greater beauty, now known as Peru…the ultimate fascination of South America travel tours.

Starn, though, is concerned more with the work of the Andean focused anthropologists than tour companies. He compares Billie Jean Isbell's To Defend Ourselves: Ecology and Ritual in an Andean Village (1977). and Ayacucho: Hunger and Hope (1969) by the “Andean-born agronomist and future Shining Path leader” Antonio Diaz Martinez (Starn 1991:64). To give the briefest of summaries, he accuses the famous Isbell as focusing entirely on the conservativism of Andean villages and tending, as someone Andean anthropologists do, to “gloss over the overlap and partial interchangeability of Andean personhood” (Starn 1991:72). Simply put, it’s just more complicated than that. These Andean peoples are more than the sum of their rituals. They are more than romantic notions of staying-power or authenticity (such a problematic notion in anthropology!).

On the other hand, Diaz, while still Andeanist in the sense of romanticizing the purity of the Andeanist cultures, saw these communities as rife with unrest. To him, as a soon to be Shining Path leader, “Lo andino became a seed of purity that would flower in a new social order” (Starn 1991: 82). (Diaz’s book, written before his doctrine became “hard line” and filled with interesting anecdotes, according to Starn, sounds like a great read for anyone seeking to understand these turbulent years (meaning me).)

So what can be said, concretely, about cultural diversity in Peru? Is it still full of unrest, is it in flux, is it attempting to grasp “purity” and “authenticity”? To start off with some hard facts – if our friends at the CIA can be believed, indigenous people make up 45% of the population in Peru, with mestizos making up another 37%. (Interestingly enough, Afro-Peruvian, Japanese and Chinese only make up 3% all together – I begin to doubt the “authenticity” of the Chinese influence in the thousands of chifas.) Quechua is spoken by 13% of the people (though whether or not that represents monolinguals (doubtful) is unclear).

Starn writes that “Again our sure sense of authenticity, of who fits where, ends up in question. Instead of easily distinguishable Indians, cholos, and mestizos, we find an interconnected population shifting along positions in the busy circuit between city and country, lowlands and highlands, village and squatter settlement (Starn 1991:74). The Andean peasants (a word I still find it hard to use without feeling derogatory) were, and are, migrating at a steady rate, both for seasonal labor and permanently. The categories of culture that both anthropologists and lay people wish to force culturally diverse groups into are moving too swiftly to be used. Diaz connected all of these culturally diverse groups through economic means, citing poverty as their great common ground, something anthropologists, writes Starn, were not willing to do, focused as they were on culture and not economic or political views. (Starn 1991:74).

Even our friends at Peru Travel Adventures note the results of regional cultural diversity. Speaking on the great geographical diversity in Peru, the website states:

The result is dramatic regional diversity, and considerable inequalities in services and living standards. Health, education and law enforcement programs are unevenly distributed across Peru.

When traveling in Lunahuan√° this past weekend I struck up a conversation with the man who was guiding us through the Inkahuasi ruins. We spoke about beautiful places in Peru and I asked about where he had visited. He ended up telling me about living and working in the jungle. He said the life there was very hard, there was never enough work and the drug trade was everywhere. It was better in Lunahuan√°, he said. Here was a man that many people would picture as a native Lunahuanan who actually had spent much of his life in the jungle, far from the desert, Inca-filled coast of Peru. (I unfortunately didn’t have time to ask more of the guide, as he had to tell us about cool things like columns.) To tourists, maybe this would seem inauthentic, unpure, to have their guide be not a Lunahuan√° lifer, but a transitional worker just as they may be.

But why does it matter if anthropologists (or tourists) hold a simplistic view of cultural diversity in Peru, or an idealized Andeanism theory? Starn’s title holds one answer – “Missing the War in Peru” isn’t about nostalgia, but about the total lack of awareness on the part of anthropologists, people who lived and studied in the Andes and had no idea about the ensuing unrest. This ignorance extended past the anthropologists to the common people in Lima during the time of the violence. In an e-mail conversation with my friend and former professor who had lived in Lima during the time of the Shining Path she wrote:

Most of Shinning Path's doings in the sierra and selva peruanas was not known to us in Lima or even other capital cities. We did not know because things that concerned the people locally did not concern Lima. Centralist Lima just ignored anything that did not affect it directly. When things started affecting us indirectly (like lack of produce from the mountains because of the violence) or maybe massacres that made their way to the news, then we kind of heard about it.

As you can see, we did not know of Sendero Luminoso until it came to Lima because we (even today) don't care about what happens to others outside our borders. When we did learn of the violence and started to care was when violence was done on us directly.

If the truth of cultural diversity is ignored by those that study it, and by those that simply live with it, than trouble may very well visit without any prior notice. As we learned in class, indigenous people face structural violence and discrimination every day. I believe, perhaps naively, that this springs from a misunderstanding of the cultural diversity of indigenous Peru. Discrimination, as well, doesn’t have to take the form of prejudice and hate, but can reside in paternalism and false idealization as well.

Is there a solution to the romantic Andeanism or the stereotypes? Starn says yes. His solution is “to dismantle the binary logic of Andeanism” (based so heavily on structuralism – an anthropologic theory I find very problematic) so that the “plural identities” of modern people can be approached and to stop pretending that “modern Andean identity as a matter of continuity with the indigenous past” (Starn 1991:85). Starn cites Diaz (later killed for his work with the Shining Path) as someone who was able to believe in the good of the Andean traditions while still facing the injustice and poverty so imbedded in the region (Starn 1991:81).

I believe that since 1991 much of Andean anthropology has changed. Colloredo-Mansfield’s well-researched book The Native Leisure Class (1999) is a prime example of a new and expanding literature on the new and expanding nature of Andean peoples. Urban immigration has been widely studied (such as in Villa El Salvador) and the market economy of Otavalo, Ecuador has been written of so many times it is almost its own stereotype.

But what about non-anthropologists? What about the people in Peru and abroad that still think of all Northerners as lazy, Andean people as foolish (if nice) and jungle girls as sexy? Stereotypes and ignorance are incredibly dangerous (as we have seen – that stereotype of an “empty Amazon” has lead to exploitation of the people that do live there). Can these sort of imbedded stereotypes be changed? Starn writes about fearing to produce an “academic commodification of Peru's pain” (Starn 1991:65) when discussing the Shining Path. Agreeing with all Starn writes of anthropologists and their tendency to seek their version of authenticity and to “academically commodify” what they see, I would put forth that common people have commodified the cultural diversity of Peru in order to sell a product. Everything is named Inka. Andean tours, jungle tours, coastline tours are sold through the power of exotic culture. This (and here I am throwing out an unfounded hypothesis that someone should go research) could lead to idealization by the buyers (the tourists) and condescension by the sellers. Or at least, all the selling of culture by Peruvians hasn’t seemed to make respect for cultural diversity a particularly common virtue of Peruvian society, as the continuing discrimination seems to prove.

I must end with only queries – can the mistreating of cultural diversity end in Peru? If so, how? Looking at the US, with our thousands of “multicultural” groups, does not lend any answers. We can only hope that cultural diversity will be treated as what it is - neither a commodity, an idealized search for authenticity or a breeding ground for stereotypes, but a complex and changing kaleidoscope of people groups.

Starn, Orin

1991 Missing the Revolution: Anthropologists and the War in Peru. Cultural Anthropology 6 (1): 63-91

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