Peru: In Search Of Arguedas

(8:00PM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

cross posted from The Dream Antilles


Jose Maria Aguedas (1911-1969) (photo by Jose Gushiken)

I have to begin with Mariategui, the street in Cuzco, Peru, and then the man.

We decided to take a cab to find Don Francisco’s new house in Cuzco, Peru.  He is a Q’ero Shaman.  We wanted to do a shamanic ceremony with him and his wife and eat lunch with them.  We wanted to visit him at his home as he had visited us at ours in the US.  He gave us the address.  He gave us his cell number.  He gave us a land mark. We ended up calling him on the cell phone to say, “We’re parked at the church.  We don’t know where you are.”  He walked down the hill and found us.  Pointing, he said, that street is Mariategui.  That’s where the bus goes into Centro.  That’s where you have to walk.  That’s where the house is.

Did he know who Mariategui was?  Probably not.  I forgot to ask him.  I am quite certain that he never read him.

Please join me in Peru.

Juan Carlos Mariategui (1894-1930), was the founder of the Peruvian Communist Party, and is most famous for his essays, “Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality,” (“Siete ensayos de interpretacion de la realidad Peruana”) which are still being read today.  The shortest Wiki summary:

[In 1928], he published his best-known work, Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality, in which he examined Peru’s social and economic situation from a Marxist perspective. It was considered one of the first materialist analyses of a Latin American society. Beginning with the country’s economic history, the book proceeds to a discussion of the “Indian problem”, which Mariátegui locates firmly within the “land problem”. Other chapters are devoted to public education, religion, regionalism and centralism, and literature.

Also in the same work, Mariátegui blamed the latifundistas, or large land-owners, for the stilted economy of the country and the miserable conditions of the indigenous peoples in the region. He observed that Peru at the time had many characteristics of a feudal society. He argued that a transition to socialism should be based on traditional forms of collectivism as practiced by the Indians. In a famous phrase, Mariátegui stated “the communitarianism of the Incas cannot be denied or disparaged for having evolved under an autocratic regime.”

In Peru in 2008 the Indians still practice collectivism.  The clearest example is in the assignment of fields on the Andean mountainsides.  The higher the field, the more limited the crop.  The highest fields, which are far colder in temperature, are good for growing only potatoes or perhaps turnips.  The lower fields, which are much warmer, are good for growing maiz, and squash, and beans.  The fields are communally owned.  And they are communally assigned.  It would not be fair always to have a high plot, or a low one.  So each year there is a shuffling of the fields.  It has been like this for hundreds and hundreds of years.

And, of course, there are terraced Inca ruins in places like Marrai, near Urubamba, which are thought to have been for experimentation about what will grow best at what altitude and for germinating new temperature resistant varieties of corn and potatoes.  After all, potatoes and choclo, big kernal corn that looks like hominy, are  Peruvian staples and they have been for centuries.

Jose Maria Arguedas was born into the world of the conflicts Mariategui described.  According to a Wiki,

[A] Peruvian novelist, poet, and anthropologist who wrote mainly in Spanish, although some of his poetry is in Quechua. Arguedas was ethnically Mestizo, being of mixed Spanish and Quechua descent himself… He was brought up in poverty amongst Quechua Indians, and learned Quechua before Spanish. He studied anthropology at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos and worked as an anthropologist for the rest of his life.

Arguedas began by writing short stories about the indigenous environment in which he was brought up, in a Spanish highly influenced by Quechua syntax and vocabulary. By the time of his first novel, Yawar Fiesta (the name means “Blood Fiesta”), he had begun to explore the theme that would obsess him for the rest of his career: the clash between white “civilization” and the indigenous, “traditional” way of life. In this he was part of the Indigenista movement in South American literature. He continued to explore this theme in his next two books Los Ríos Profundos (“Deep Rivers”) (1961) and Todas las Sangres (1964). His work showed the violence and exploitation of race relations in Peru’s small rural towns and haciendas, while portraying Indian characters as gentle and childlike.

Arguedas was moderately optimistic about the possibility of a rapprochement between the forces of “tradition” and the forces of “modernity” until the 1960s, when he became more pessimistic. In his last (unfinished) work, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (“The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below”) (1969),… expressed his despair and conclusion that the ‘primitive’ ways of the Indians could not survive against the onslaught of modern technology and capitalism. At the same time that Arguedas was becoming more pessimistic about race relations in his country, younger indigenist intellectuals became increasingly militant, often criticizing his work in harsh terms for his poetic, romanticized treatment of indigenous and rural life. In a deep depression, Arguedas committed suicide in 1969.

I got a copy of Deep Rivers from for $1 plus shipping.  It’s a coming of age novel told by the narrator about his life as a boarding student in a Catholic school in Abancay, Peru, in the Southern Andes.  I’m not giving the plot away.  Suffice it to say that in the middle of the book, the Indians, led by Dona Felipa, a woman who runs a chicheria (chicha is a fermented corn beer), rise up in an insurrection and seize salt from a warehouse, where it is being held by rich land owners, and they distribute it to poor people in nearby villages who need it.  The army later arrives to “restore order.”

The conflict between the land owners and the peasants, between the Spanish and Indian cultures, between the rich and the poor, between the capitalists and the communalists, so deeply analyzed by Maritegui stands at the center of the novel.  But the novel isn’t a polemic.  It remains the poetic story of the coming of age of the narrator in an environment in which it is believed that a special, spinning, toy top can carry thoughts across the mountains to loved ones.  And in which it’s believed that water, too, can carry words. And in which the Church does not appear to conflict with these beliefs any more than the Indiginous Mass, held outside the Cathedral in Cuzco, conflicts with the later one inside the building.

It’s easy to see why by the late 1960’s Arguedas’s description of indigenous people would be criticized.  Arguedas describes the Indians as if they were simple children easily manipulated by the Church and accepting of the repeated violence of the landowners.  He does not find or describe the seeds of incipient militancy that by the 1980’s would spawn Sendero Luminoso and produce in Peruvian fiction works like Mario Vagas Llosa’s Death in the Andes.  Regardless, the book is a remarkably beautiful work full of Quechua poetry and a memory of a world far, far away:

K’arwarasu is the Apu, the regional god of my native village.  It has three snowy peaks towering above a mountain range of black rock.  Around it there are many lakes, where pink-plumed cranes live.  The kestrel is the symbol of K’arwarasu.  The Indians say that during Lent he emerges from the highest peak in the guise of a firebird and pursues the condors, breaking their backs, making them whimper and humiliating them.  Flashing like lightning, he flies over the planted fields, across the cattle ranches, and then sinks down into the snow.

The Indians invoke K’arwarasu only in times of great danger.  They have only to pronounce his name, and the fear of death vanishes.



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    • davidseth on December 28, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    Maybe this will be a small break from a world gone crazy.  Maybe it can lead us to something new or a new perspective.

    Thanks for reading.

    • kj on December 28, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    remains my favorite immersion.

    i read other works by Vargas, but nothing quite catches “Death in the Andes.”  maybe because of the simplicity and beauty in his the descriptions of animal nature, human nature.

    as i get older, i find it harder and hard to read. if i’m not caught by the wave of suspension early, i take the willingness to leap elsewhere.  🙂  “Deep Rivers” sounds like it has a nice suspension bridge to other worlds.  

    thanks, as always, davidseth.

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