Andean Entrepreneurs

[ Latin American Studies ]

Andean Entrepreneurs

Otavalo Merchants and Musicians in the Global Arena

By Lynn A. Meisch

How participation in the global economy has affected a South American indigenous group.



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6 x 9 | 328 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-75259-7

Native to a high valley in the Andes of Ecuador, the Otavalos are an indigenous people whose handcrafted textiles and traditional music are now sold in countries around the globe. Known as weavers and merchants since pre-Inca times, Otavalos today live and work in over thirty countries on six continents, while hosting more than 145,000 tourists annually at their Saturday market.

In this ethnography of the globalization process, Lynn A. Meisch looks at how participation in the global economy has affected Otavalo identity and culture since the 1970s. Drawing on nearly thirty years of fieldwork, she covers many areas of Otavalo life, including the development of weaving and music as business enterprises, the increase in tourism to Otavalo, the diaspora of Otavalo merchants and musicians around the world, changing social relations at home, the growth of indigenous political power, and current debates within the Otavalo community over preserving cultural identity in the face of globalization and transnational migration. Refuting the belief that contact with the wider world inevitably destroys indigenous societies, Meisch demonstrates that Otavalos are preserving many features of their culture while adopting and adapting modern technologies and practices they find useful.

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction: Globalization and Otavalo Life
  • 2. How the Otavalos Became Otavalos
  • 3. Textiles and Tourism Move to the Fore
  • 4. In Search of the Noble Savage: Tourism and Travel to Otavalo
  • 5. Otavalo Music at Home and Abroad
  • 6. Otavalo Merchants and Musicians in the Global Arena
  • 7. Otavalo Wealth and Changing Social Relations
  • 8. Coping with Globalization
  • References
  • Index

On October 8, 1992, a family of indígenas from Ilumán, Ecuador, came into the town of Otavalo in tears, upset by the crash of an El Al Boeing 747 cargo jet the previous day near Schipol airport in Amsterdam, Holland. Radio and television broadcasts brought the news to Ilumán, and it spread like a flash fire through the town and neighboring communities. The crash also made the front page of newspapers published in Quito and Guayaquil which were sold in Otavalo on October 8. The death toll among the crew and residents of the Amsterdam neighborhood, most of them immigrants, totaled fifty-nine.

The reason Otavalo indígenas (the self-referential term for indigenous people) were affected so deeply by an event that took place halfway around the world is at the heart of this book, which examines how the Otavalos, an ethnic group located in a high, verdant Andean valley, cope with globalization, including extensive tourism to Otavalo and transnational migration by Otavalos to countries around the world.

By 1992, Amsterdam had become un pequeño Otavalo (a little Otavalo) with least 700 Otavalos living there, selling textiles and playing Andean music. The family mentioned above had a son in Amsterdam and had reason to be worried. Otavalos were among the occupants of an apartment building that was destroyed in the plane crash and resulting fire; we later learned that they had escaped without injury. Thousands of additional Otavalos are permanent or temporary residents of every continent except Antarctica.

The Otavalos (their preferred name, although some use Otavaleños) have interested researchers because of their ability to participate in the market economy and selectively adopt features from outsiders that they deem useful, especially technology, while retaining a unique dress and other practices that are distinctly Otavalo. In Frank Salomon's words, "Otavalo contradicts the steamroller image of modernization, the assumption that traditional societies are critically vulnerable to the slightest touch of outside influence and wholly passive under its impact..." (1981 [1973]: 421). Recent decades have seen the arrival not of steam-rollers but of commercial jets to international airports in Quito and Guayaquil, bringing more than 145,000 visitors annually to Otavalo and flying thousands of Otavalos abroad. In addition, telephones, FAXes, the Internet, radios, and televisions facilitate communication between Otavalo and distant locales, further connecting Otavalos to the world beyond the valley. Some Otavalos have their own web sites (for example,; and there is a general Otavalo web site, Otavalos Online (, which bills itself as "the virtual community of the Otavalos." Otavalo indígenas exemplify the paradoxes of indigenous people enmeshed in global economic systems and expanding transnational networks, and the community is engaged in debate about what this means for "our traditional indígena culture."

The title Andean Entrepreneurs attempts to tie together the many strands of my argument. An entrepreneur is a person engaged in a commercial undertaking, especially one that involves risk. Unlike many indigenous people, for Otavalos entrepreneurialism is part of their "traditional indígena culture." Nearly two decades ago Leo Chavez defined a deeply embedded Otavalo "entrepreneurial ethic" among commercial weavers (1985: 159) that included an eagerness for economic independence and an emphasis on rationality, frugality, honesty, self-reliance, and innovation in business endeavors (ibid.: 166-167). Indeed, it is difficult to find a publication on Otavalo that does not mention the Otavalos' commercial savvy.

Since Chavez wrote, the entrepreneurial ethic or spirit (among other values, some complementary, some competing) has helped Otavalos of both sexes cope with globalization as knitters, sewers, weavers, merchants, musicians, and small business owners (hotels, bus lines, restaurants, etc.) launch commercial ventures in Otavalo and around the world.

The Otavalo experience must be seen against a background of pre-Inca traveling merchants, forced labor in Spanish colonial obrajes (Sp. textile sweatshops), and later wasipungu (Q.), debt serfdom involving extensive work for an hacienda (Sp. large farm or ranch) in exchange for the right to farm a small plot. The mass production of textiles in the colonial era involved brutal exploitation, debt servitude, and land loss but provided the Otavalos with the technology and experience that underlie their current prosperity. Foreign visitors to Otavalo and people interested in textiles often ask me if the Otavalos are becoming "corrupted" by making and marketing nontraditional textiles, yet these two major traditions—the production of textiles for outsiders and travel outside the valley as merchants—are of considerable antiquity.

In Chapter 2 I summarize local developments within pre-Hispanic, colonial, national, and international histories, emphasizing the Otavalos' agency within the constraints imposed by larger forces. I develop several interrelated themes that characterize the Otavalo ethnic group, including their long involvement in textile production and marketing.

Given the historical importance of cloth in the Andes, the extent to which material culture has been immaterial to recent anthropological concerns is surprising. This neglect is a mote in our eye distorting our view of the Andes, which is one of the most textile-oriented areas of the world. Researching Andean societies and ignoring cloth is like researching North America and ignoring the automobile. The textile economy not only forms the basis for the current prosperity of the Otavalo region but is an important identifying characteristic of the Otavalos as a group; they see themselves and are seen by others as weavers and merchants (and more recently as musicians).

Throughout the Andes textiles have conveyed political and cultural messages for centuries. In pre-Hispanic societies cloth and costume represented ethnic identity, wealth, social status, age, and gender. In the Inca empire weavings of the highest quality were burned, buried, or thrown in rivers as offerings, exchanged at important junctures in the life cycle, bestowed by the Incas as an honor, and supplied to the state as a source of revenue (Murra 1989 [1962]; J. Rowe 1963 [1946]). Recent works have focused on the historical and contemporary importance of cloth and costume in Latin America, including the Andes (Femenias 1987; Meisch 1987, 1997; Penley 1988; A. Rowe 1977, 1986, 1998; Schevill 1986; Schevill, Berlo, and Dwyer 1996 [1991]). In Chapters 2 and 3 I document the evolution of the twentieth-century farming and textile economies, including the beginning of international tourism in Otavalo, travel by Otavalos outside the valley, and the rise in textile exports.

Another theme is the formation of the Otavalos as an ethnic and cultural group: how the indígenas of the Otavalo region came to see themselves and to be seen by others as Otavalos, as well as such legal strictures as the mita (Q., Sp. obligatory labor service to the state), concertaje (whereby indígenas became indebted to the owner of an hacienda and then worked on the hacienda to pay off the debt), and wasipungu, which affected Otavalo identity:

The invocation of a specific ethnic identity is usually triggered by political, economic, or cultural factors in relation to other social groups. Because ethnic identity is flexible and changes through time according to the cultural material available to a particular group of people, there is no such thing as "real" or "genuine" ethnic content. (Stephen 1993: 27-28)

Ethnicity is significant in discussions of the Otavalos in relation to other groups in Ecuador, including their indigenous neighbors in northern Pichincha and eastern Imbabura provinces (Cayambes), Asian Ecuadorians and Afro-Ecuadorians, whites-mestizos (blanco-mestizos in Spanish, the term used in Ecuador to refer to the historically dominant nonindigenous population), and foreigners.

I also use the term "cultural identity" (following Allen 1988; Hall 1990) because the Otavalos use the word "culture" (cultura) to refer to beliefs and practices which distinguish them from other people: "nuestra cultura indígena" (our indigenous culture). The Spanish term for "ethnic group" or "ethnic identity" (grupo étnico, identidad étnica) is rarely used by Otavalos. In my understanding of Otavalo identity, I agree that ethnic and cultural identities are not fixed essences but historically contingent and mutable: "Hence, there is always a politics of identity, a politics of position, which has no absolute guarantee in an unproblematic, transcendental 'law of origin' " (Hall 1990: 226).

Otavalos may choose to identify as indígena at some points in their lives and as white-mestizo at others. Furthermore, Otavalos, like most of us, have multiple roles and identities which are contextual. For example, some Otavalos identify as South Americans when traveling in Europe but as Ecuadorians vis-à-vis Peruvians or Colombians; as indigenous people or as Otavalos vis-à-vis white-mestizo Ecuadorians; as merchants, weavers, musicians, students, wives, husbands, mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons; or as being from Peguche as opposed to being from La Joya or Agato, depending on the situation.

What it means to be an Otavalo indígena, and how that identity has been defined by both Otavalos and outsiders, continues to change, whether we speak of ethnic or cultural identity. Identification as an Otavalo indígena or even as "Inca" can be an advantage when Otavalos are selling textiles or playing music abroad or a disadvantage when Otavalos are faced with racism and discrimination in Ecuador or when they are abroad selling on the street illegally and want to melt into the crowd if the police arrive.

Various anthropologists (Appadurai 1991; Gupta and Ferguson 1992; Varese 1991) have posed a central challenge to contemporary anthropology: the analysis of dominant and subordinate groups and their cultures in a global context. The recognition of international interconnectedness, especially in the economic arena, is not new. Immanuel Wallerstein (1974) and Eric Wolf (1982) insisted that social and economic analyses be grounded in a global perspective. Today even models of multiple cores and peripheries are outmoded because some nations, regions, and communities serve as cores for certain flows (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries [OPEC] nations for petroleum, Japan for investment capital, automobiles, and consumer electronics, to use two nation-states outside the West) but as peripheries for other flows (computer technology, films, music, and fashion trends). Ecuador is a core for oil production but a periphery for technology; and within Ecuador the Otavalos export textiles and music around the globe but also receive transnational flows of tourists, ideas, goods, and capital.

Identity constructions and ethnic relations in Ecuador now occur within social, political, cultural, and economic matrices that extend far beyond local communities. Twenty-first-century ethnographers must confront new facts, including "the changing social, territorial and cultural reproduction of group identity.... Groups are no longer tightly territorialized, spatially bounded, historically unselfconscious, or culturally homogenous" (Appadurai 1991: 191). This statement introduces another major theme of this book, transnational contacts (tourism and travel in and out of the Otavalo region) and transnational migration. The growth of the Otavalos' transnational linkages is explored in Chapters 3 through 7.

The word "transnational" is frequently used in a loose, undefined sense. John Stack, Jr., considers it to mean "[t]he transfer of tangible or intangible items across state boundaries when at least one actor is not an agent of government or an intergovernmental organization. The idea of transnationalism freed us from the dogmatic assertion that states are the exclusive actors in world politics" (1981: 6). FAXes, e-mail, telephone calls, capital, manufactured goods, compact disks (CDs), television and radio signals, books, magazines, movies, technology, diseases, travelers, tourists, refugees, legal and illegal immigrants cross international boundaries in all directions, a torrent that is increasingly (but not entirely) outside the purview of the nation-state.

Attempts to stem the tide of transnational contacts are the proverbial finger in the dike, as evidenced by the fruitless efforts of the United States to control illegal immigration or equally unsuccessful attempts by various nations to control the Internet or keep phone "phreaks" and computer hackers from tapping into international telephone lines and computer networks (Kantrowitz and Ramo 1993). The nation-state is not obsolete and remains a major organizing principle in the global system. National borders, although porous, still exist; and nations attempt to control flows across their frontiers with police and military might. Neither the community nor the nation-state suffices as a unit of analysis, however; the world is too interconnected. How can we define borders for Otavalos when they are now living around the world?

Certain kinds of transnational interactions are frequently seen as pernicious or damaging to cultural minorities, particularly tourism from wealthier nations or locales to poorer ones (Enloe 1989; Johnston 1990; Rossel 1988; Seiler-Baldinger 1988; Silver 1993). Theorists such as Emmanuel de Kadt have viewed the "cultural impact of mainstream development on Less Developed countries through the lens of dependency theory" (1992: 55). He cites H. M. Erisman's work on the West Indies as exemplifying this argument:

Cultural dependency results in the "incorporation of exogenous norms and values into a nation's socialization process, which can then be said to be penetrated," so that eventually the main stimuli for cultural development come from the outside and people lose their desire to maintain a cultural identity separate from that of the dominant nation. (ibid.: citing Erisman 1983: 342)

This stance considers tourism to be a vehicle of cultural imperialism. Sylvia Yanagisako and Carol Delaney (1995) have pointed out the gendered nature of such language as "penetrated," with its implication of the rape of a virgin society that is passive and helpless against the assault of outsiders. I will refrain from using "capitalist penetration" or "cultural penetration" for this reason. There is also the problem of dating such events. When did this cultural or capitalist penetration occur? For the Otavalo valley, was it the Inca conquest, the Spanish conquest, or some particular date in the colonial era? The historical record is more complex and indicates the Otavalos' impressive ability to adapt to, resist, absorb, and reconstruct outside stimuli. Tourism and travel to Otavalo and its multiple effects are the subject of Chapter 4, while tourism and travel by Otavalos abroad is the focus of Chapters 5 and 6.

Tourism raises an important issue: the tension between cultural homogenization and heterogenization resulting from today's global interactions (Appadurai 1990: 297). Among theorists concerned with the politics of global culture the major debate is between those who see increasing homogenization of the world's peoples and cultural, if not political-economic, domination by Euro-American countries (Mattelart 1993; Schiller 1976; Wallerstein 1974; Wolf 1982) and those who see globalization as enhancing difference (Appadurai 1990; Featherstone 1990, 1995; Hannerz 1990; Robertson 1990, 1995; Worsley 1990).

Some theorists note, paradoxically, that the present era also involves a revival of the "traditional, the native, the authentic" (Edward Said quoted in di Leonardo 1991: 26). My experience in Otavalo is that those fearing homogeneity may not recognize fully the tenacity of local practices and beliefs and the ability of people to infuse global images and products (Nintendo games, Mickey Mouse, Power Rangers, Coca-Cola, Rambo, the Road Runner) with their own local, particular meanings. Recent research on international marketing reveals that cost-effectiveness in global promotion depends on the positioning of products in specific cultural contexts. "National differences in taste, style and social relations (for example the traditions of gift-giving in Japan, British class attitudes, or American family values) seem to be an aspect of consumer choice which cannot be overlooked" (Kline 1995: 121-122). Local cultural values are salient in Otavalo, as elsewhere.

Richard Wilk frames the debate in a manner that is useful to my argument, asserting that the postmodern critique of the global commoditization of local cultures, which sees these cultures as inauthentic and incoherent, as "images distanced from experience," is misleading. Wilk sees "a world where very real and ëauthentic' differences in experience and culture continue to exist, but are being expressed and communicated in a limited and narrow range of images, channels and contests." He asserts that "[t]he new global cultural system promotes difference instead of suppressing it, but difference of a particular kind. Its hegemony is not of content, but of form... Another way to say this is that while different cultures continue to be quite distinct and varied, they are becoming different in very uniform ways" (Wilk 1995: 118; emphasis in original). Wilk wrote this about beauty pageants, arguing that such contests, especially internationally televised pageants, place limits on the way difference is expressed. Tourism literature and Andean music are two such channels in the Otavalo valley for the expression and communication of cultural differences in standardized ways. They are examined in detail in Chapters 5 through 7.

This book also engages the debates about the nature of postmodern societies. The postmodern era has been characterized as having new mass marketing techniques, new mass media, and new postindustrial technologies and systems of fast transport and communication, resulting in a radically internationalized culture (Milner 1991: 1o8) which often involves bricolage and pastiche. David Harvey argues that postmodernism s concern for difference-and its recognition of the difficulties of communication and the complexity and nuances of interests, cultures, and places-is positive (1989: 113).

Other aspects of postmodernity, such as Jean-Francois Lyotard's insistence on the loss of belief in metanarratives as its defining feature (1984) and the incoherence and fragmentation of identity, would strike the Otavalos (and many others) as downright silly, a Euro-American rather than local concern. Otavalos believe in progress (a metanarrative), in the possibility of an improved standard of living, especially now that their own is rising. They do not claim that religion (a major metanarrative) has no meaning; nor do most Otavalos see their identities as incoherent despite the debates about changes in "our traditional indígena culture." The manner in which Otavalos frame the discussion indicates that they believe they do possess a unique identity, whatever its composition.

The outmigration of Otavalos during the past two decades has brought concerns about what constitutes Otavalo identity to the forefront of local discourse. Many Otavalos now call several countries home. They are transmigrants, meaning "immigrants who develop and maintain multiple relationships—familial, economic, social, organizational, religious, and political—that span borders.... An essential element of transnationalism is the multiplicity of involvements that transmigrants sustain in both home and host societies" (Basch, Click Schiller, and Szanton Blanc 1994: 7).

Such transnational contacts, especially travel outside Ecuador, were not common before the twentieth century, but they certainly occurred (especially with Colombia). By the 1970s, Otavalos in Colombia and Spain were true transmigrants. Transnational contacts, particularly the tourist boom in the Otavalo region since the 1980s and the waves of travel to and from the United States and Europe, seem to have enhanced rather than suffocated or destroyed indigenous cultural identity or at least allowed many Otavalos to see their identity with new eyes, to critique it, and to play with it. This topic is treated in detail in Chapter 8.

I have included the word "traditional" in my discussions because of many Otavalos' concern with this topic. By "traditional" I do not mean static and unchanging lifeways but practices and beliefs which have considerable time depth and which Otavalos recognize and value even as they argue about, revise, and reinvent them. Although it is current anthropological practice to insist that traditions are not static, many Otavalos see them that way or wish that they would remain so. Not all indígenas are enthusiastic about change. The issues of custom and tradition are increasingly a part of Otavalo written and oral discourse precisely because the changes in the valley are bringing these matters to the fore as the given nature of these customs or doxa (Bourdieu 1977) is challenged.

Andean cosmologies cannot be seen as pristine and untouched by European ideas after nearly 500 years of contact. Nonetheless, certain structural principles have strong continuities, including "domestic or stable centricity versus wild or restless outside world, idealized complementarity, dyadic and triadic institutional patterns, symmetry and hierarchy" (Browman 1994: 247). The idealized complementarity includes gender complementarity (Harris 1978, 1986; Harrison 1989; Silverblatt 1987) and an emphasis on harmony, balance, and reciprocity among humans and between humans and the supernatural or the forces of nature. Reciprocity has long been identified as a core value of indigenous Andean societies. It is one of the "classic Andean topics" (Stain 1992: 167).

Arjun Appadurai calls such topics "gatekeeping concepts" because they frame anthropological theorizing about a region (1986: 357); yet these gatekeeping concepts appear in Otavalos' (not just anthropologists') oral and written debates. Most Otavalos (many of whom are illiterate) have not been reading the current literature, much of which is available only in English, which suggests that these concepts are important to anthropologists working in Imbabura province because they are important to the people whose societies we study. There are other issues important to Otavalos, including a spiritual relationship to the land, the use of the Quichua language, and traditional dress. My final chapter focuses on the local debates about the changes in the valley, about which Otavalos are ambivalent. This book ends with an analysis of the fiesta of San Juan (Inti Raymi) on June 24, the most important celebration of the year, which embodies the paradoxes of Otavalo life in the postmodem era.

My basic argument is that Otavalos are coping with globalization by relying on a combination of traditional values and practices and modern technology to preserve as well as market their ethnic identity, including others' (mis)perceptions of them as Incas or noble savages. The result has been paradoxical: unprecedented prosperity amid increasing disparities in wealth; political and economic power in the region that was unimaginable fifteen years ago; geographical dispersion that threatens social cohesion; and controversy about what constitutes Otavalo identity. Yet overall most Otavalos would admit that they are better off than they were thirty years ago and that they do have a group identity, whatever its features may be.

This is neither an apologia for globalization nor an obituary, but an examination of how one society has managed to resist or harness the forces that so often seem destructive to indigenous cultures. In an era when there are international organizations named Cultural Survival and Survival International dedicated to assisting native peoples, and when ethnocide has joined genocide in our lexicon, the Otavalo case is worth analysis. I have aimed for accuracy and fairness, but the Otavalo you will read about was filtered through my eyes.

The Setting

The town of San Luis de Otavalo (population approximately 26,000 in 2001) is located at an elevation of 9,203 feet in a narrow valley between two cordilleras of the Andes in Imbabura province. The town is well situated for commerce because it is on the paved Pan-American highway just 66 miles (110 km) north of Quito, a two-hour drive, and 90 miles (150 km) south of the Colombian border. This proximity to both Quito and the Colombian frontier is a major asset, and Otavalo has long been a crossroads and commercial center. The approximately 60,000 Otavalo indígenas live in seventy-five small communities throughout the valley, as well as in Otavalo, Cotacachi, Ibarra, Quito, and other Ecuadorian and South American cities and towns. The Otavalo diaspora is now worldwide, with permanent expatriate communities in Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas and temporary or permanent transmigrants on six continents.

Anthropologists too seldom explain why they choose a location in which to conduct their research. Among other reasons for doing research in this region (including compelling theoretical controversies), I find the physical beauty of Otavalo magnetic—Imbabura is one of the most beautiful places I know. The town is nestled among the mountains just 25 miles north of the equator. The altitude moderates the equatorial heat, so that the climate is invariably described as "spring-like." The greatest temperature variations are diurnal rather than seasonal, and the length of the days and nights varies by only about fifteen minutes annually, allowing people without watches to determine the time accurately year round and giving a certain dependable rhythm to the days.

The Andes are at their narrowest in Ecuador, and the Otavalo valley is only about 15 miles wide. Two volcanoes, one in each cordillera, loom above the town and figure prominently in local folklore. To the east broods Taita (Father) Imbabura, the male mountain, an enormous squared-off hulk 14,952 feet high (4,557 m) whose upper reaches are composed of crumbling black andesite. After a storm has raged around the peak, Imbabura is sometimes topped with snow. The lower skirts of Imbabura are a patchwork of eucalyptus groves, scrub forest, and cultivated fields in shades of gold and green, with a number of indigenous communities below and among the fields. Otavalo indígenas occupy the land around the southwestern, western, and northwestern sides of Imbabura, while the Cayambes occupy the land on the southeastern, eastern, and northeastern sides. The predominantly white-mestizo city of Ibarra dominates the north, while Lago San Pablo (Saint Paul Lake), originally called Chicapán then Imbacocha, and the Mojanda mountain chain anchor the south.

Mama Cotacachi, the mother mountain, is also known as Warmi Rasu (Snow Lady in Quichua). Cotacachi is Taita Imbabura's consort and rises 16,195 feet above sea level (4,936 m), almost a mile and a half above the valley floor. The slopes of Cotacachi and the rolling hills at her feet are also intensively farmed. Mama Cotacachi's peak is almost always snowcapped, and people say that this is proof that Taita Imbabura visited her during the night. The result of all this activity is a child, Urcu (Mountain) Mojanda, the highest peak in a chain of low mountains south of Otavalo, whose slopes conceal several lakes. Others say that the baby is Yanahurcu or Wawa Imbabura, a small peak north of Cotacachi, but everyone agrees there are offspring. The soil is volcanic and so fertile that fence posts sprout roots and leaves and become permanent hedges. Because northern Ecuador receives year-round rainfall, the Otavalo valley is always astonishingly lush and green.

Most tourists and travelers journey to Otavalo from Quito, and there are several breathtaking vistas along the Pan-American highway, especially the pass above Lago San Pablo with Taita Imbabura and piles of white and gray cumulus clouds reflected in the lake. Mama Cotacachi hunkers in the distance with her head in the clouds, and a low hill called Rey Loma dominates the near horizon, topped by a lechero tree and the ruins of an pre-Inca fort. Tidy adobe or concrete houses with red tile roofs are set among trees and fields; their occupants are mostly out of sight but sometimes visible from the road. The quality of light alone would have been enough to make Paul Cézanne abandon Provence.

The cracks in this idyllic picture appear only on closer examination. Lago San Pablo, for example, is polluted; its waters are unsafe for human consumption, resulting in deaths during recent cholera outbreaks. Many of the homes are missing adults, who have left the valley for distant parts to market textiles, play music, or work as wage laborers; and some homes are mourning the loss of infants to diarrhea or pneumonia.

I have thirteen living indígena godchildren and five white-mestizo godchildren in the Otavalo area and others in Quito, Salasaca, Chordeleg, and Saraguro. I have returned to Ecuador to see them almost every year since 1978. The observations and adventures of my Otavalo godchildren and compadres (Sp. ritual kin) surface frequently in this book. During my visits I listen to their concerns, observe the growth of tourism, the textile industry, and the Saturday market, and take notes. These families range across ethnic and class categories from wealthy merchants to poor agriculturists and from schoolteachers and weavers to market vendors and shoe shiners, offering me varying perspectives on life in the valley.

Compadrazgo (Sp. ritual kinship) is often described as utilitarian, extending the social network of the family, and this is true. The obligations between compadres and between godparents and godchildren are theoretically reciprocal, even if the godparent is a foreigner. When I am in Otavalo hardly a day goes by without godchildren or compadres arriving for a visit with gifts: a woven bag, an embroidered placemat, a belt or tapestry, produce such as tree tomatoes, eggs, corn, beans, fresh milk, Chilean grapes, or even a live hen or freshly slaughtered cuy (Q. guinea pig), cleaned, seasoned, and ready to pop in my oven. When I need help moving, gardening, or cutting the grass in my yard I can count on my compadres and godchildren, and each year when I leave for the United States they give me a rousing despedida (Sp. farewell party). My godchildren frequently ask if they can help me. Sometimes the answer is yes, and we wash clothes together, weed the garden, or cut the grass. My godchildren ask for help with invitations to the United States or come to look at my Spanish books on human health and reproduction, a subject which fascinates young people everywhere, and talk to me about their boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, dreams, and desires.

Compadres often activate the advice component of the relationship. They pull me aside and say, "Déme hablando, comadre, your godson (or goddaughter) [fill in the blank]: (a) talks back, (b) is lazy, (c) drinks too much, (d) doesn't want to go to school, (e) wants to run off to Europe and play music, (f) wants to get his ear pierced. Por Dios, comadre, hay que jalar la ore ja" (the Spanish translates roughly as, Speak to your godchild for me, comadre.... For God's sake, comadre, you've got to pull on her or his ear). I find a private moment with the godchild in question and pull on her or his ear, literally but gently, and then dispense advice.

Compadres and comadres visit to use my computer, cry on my shoulder after a family fight, invite me to meals and fiestas, ask for advice on new products ("Do you think gringos would buy this?"), borrow money, return the borrowed money, borrow more money, gossip, and just plain visit. In return, I know that I can ask compadres for help when I have questions about research matters because compadrazgo enormously increases my pestering quotient. Indeed, their patience is astonishing.

Calling these relationships utilitarian does not do them justice, however. Anthropologists, whose specialty is the comparative study of human cultures, seem reluctant to use the words "love," "affection," or even "hate" with respect to the people we work with, yet these are powerful human emotions and we feel them. The attitude that emotion has no place in anthropological fieldwork is a holdover from the positivist position that the scientific observer must be neutral, a stance so thoroughly critiqued that I need not repeat the criticisms. I did not undertake compadrazgo relationships because I planned to do research in Otavalo. Instead, I ended up doing research in the valley because I wanted to be near these families for whom I feel a deep affection and love (combined with occasional irritation and a strong desire to pull really hard on someone's ear). The outpouring of grief by Otavalos after the 1990 death of Lawrence Carpenter (compadre to many families) was undeniably an expression of love, and my godchildren and compadres know that my love and concern for them goes far beyond research interests.

This book has roots in my earlier work in Otavalo. In the early 198os Enrique Grosse-Lümern, late owner of Libri Mundi publications and bookstore in Quito, suggested that I do an update of John Collier, Jr., and Anibal Buitrón's classic monograph The Awakening Valley (1949). This project (Meisch 1987) forced me to look at the textile economy in a systematic manner and led me down avenues of research I had never thought to venture. Meanwhile, the members of an Otavalo weavers' association asked me if I could return to teach textile techniques. They made a formal request to the United States Embassy in Quito, which hired me in 1985 as a textile consultant through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Teaching greatly enlarged my circle of Otavalo friends and increased my understanding of the complexities of textile production and marketing, even as I questioned the implications and politics of development projects.

The field research on which this book is based began in 1973-1974, when I was a 28-year-old hippie adventurer, and involved several prolonged stays in Otavalo over the past three decades, including eight and a half months in 1978-1979, ten months in 1985-1986, and almost yearly summer visits since the 1970s. My fieldwork specifically on globalization was conducted during thirty months between October 1992 and September 1995 and the subsequent summers, with a short visit in January 1999.

Now, however, the field comes to me. In the spring of 1995, I interviewed Otavalo musicians performing in front of Stanford University's bookstore, who were selling CDs by Wayanay (1993). In June 1995 and 1996 at the Haight Street Fair in San Francisco, I interviewed sisters in the Andrango family as they sold artesanías (Sp. crafts; for Otavalos meaning anything that involves handwork, including items made from factory-made cloth). In 1995 and 2000, I encountered itinerant Otavalo merchants and musicians in Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1999, one of my Peguche godsons came to live with me in California for five months while he attended high school, and his father visited for two weeks. In November 2000, his parents visited me for eighteen days. That same fall I interviewed an Otavaleña who was selling artesanías at my local Walnut Creek farmers' market. Throughout the writing of this book I also spoke with Otavalo transmigrants in Chicago and San Francisco, who kept me up to date on news of the valley through their own Otavalo diasporic networks.

A Note on Terminology and Spelling

Foreign words or phrases except proper nouns are italicized and defined the first time they are used. They are also italicized and defined in later chapters when the reader may not remember their meaning. Sp. = Spanish, Q. = Quechua or Quichua (as the language is called in Ecuador), E. = English, C. = Caribe. Because Quichua, also called runa shimi (Q. the people's language), was not written when the Spanish arrived there is considerable controversy about its spelling. Spanish orthography has changed over the centuries but has become standardized, while attempts to standardize Quichua spelling have foundered. Because of the complex linguistic history of these languages, the reader will note inconsistencies in the spelling of both Spanish and Quichua words. When quoting or citing other authors I use their spelling. Otherwise for Quichua I use a phonemic alphabet devised by linguist Lawrence Carpenter, except for some proper names where a generally accepted conventional spelling exists (for example, Incas rather than Inkas). This solution will not please everyone; indeed no Quichua orthography will.

The term "Otavalos" refers to the ethnic group as a whole; "Otavaleños" refers to male Otavalo indígenas, and "Otavaleñas" to female Otavalo indígenas. Nonindigenous residents of Otavalo can also claim to be "Otavalos," but they are much more likely to say they are "from Otavalo" to distinguish themselves from indígenas. Although I conducted my conversations and interviews in Spanish, often with Quichua thrown in, I have translated all direct quotes into English, occasionally enclosing significant Spanish or Quichua words or phrases in brackets.

$ = U.S. dollars; S/ = sucres, Ecuador's legal currency until 2001, when it was replaced by the dollar.


Lynn A. Meisch is Associate Professor of Anthropology at St. Mary's College of California, Moraga. She has known Otavalo as "a traveler, independent scholar, tour guide, development worker and teacher of textile techniques, leader of study abroad programs, textile collector for museum exhibitions, anthropologist, and godmother to eighteen children from both indigenous and white-mestizo families of varying social and economic classes."

"Meisch is a master ethnographer of the postcolonial situation. When nobody remembers the faddish side of postcolonial studies, readers will still be poring over this book to find out how indigenous America threw the 'mestizo-white' establishment for a judo loop at the end of the twentieth century."

—Frank Salomon, Professor of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin