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Voices from the Global Margin

Voices from the Global Margin
Confronting Poverty and Inventing New Lives in the Andes

A senior anthropologist investigates how forces such as modernization, globalization, poverty, and Shining Path terrorism have radically altered the lifeways of peasants in the Peruvian Andes.

May 2006
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280 pages | 6 x 9 | 42 halftones |

Voices from the Global Margin looks behind the generalities of debates about globalization to explore the personal impact of global forces on the Peruvian poor. In this highly readable ethnography, William Mitchell draws on the narratives of people he has known for forty years, offering deep insight into how they have coped with extreme poverty and rapid population growth—and their creation of new lives and customs in the process. In their own passionate words they describe their struggles to make ends meet, many abandoning rural homes for marginal wages in Lima and the United States. They chronicle their terror during the Shining Path guerrilla war and the government's violent military response. Mitchell's long experience as an anthropologist living with the people he writes about allows him to put the stories in context, helping readers understand the impact of the larger world on individuals and their communities. His book reckons up the human costs of the global economy, urging us to work toward a more just world.


LASA Peru Flora Tristán Book Prize
Peru Section, Latin American Studies Association

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: A Personal and Intellectual Odyssey
  • 1. Pablo and Claudia: Peasant Farming
  • 2. Horacio and Benjamina: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, and Class
  • 3. Horacio and Benjamina: Confronting Village Poverty
  • 4. Martín: Confronting Migrant Poverty
  • 5. Valentina: From Bride by Capture to International Migrant
  • 6. Triga: Guerrilla War, Cocaine, and Commerce
  • 7. El Comandante Tigre: The Peasant Patrols and War
  • 8. Anastasio: Fleeing Shining Path
  • 9. At the Margin of the Shifting World
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

William P. Mitchell is Professor of Anthropology and Freed Professor in the Social Sciences at Monmouth University in New Jersey.


"¡Su pasaporte, Señor!"


It was 1965 and I had just landed in Lima, the capital of Peru, the first stop on my way to the Andes, where I was to live for two years among Quechua-speaking peasants to gather data for my doctorate in anthropology. Since then fierce economic and demographic forces have undermined the lives of the people I met and those of other peasants, transforming Peru from a rural to an urban country. Peruvian peasants have long been tied to the global system, mining the gold and silver sent to Spain in the colonial period, then laboring in wool, cotton, and guano production, their sweat generating more recent exports. Since the mid-twentieth century, however, economic decisions made in international capitals, compounded by a rapid increase in population, have impoverished them further, fomenting profound social disruption and stark inequalities that have underlain other changes, including the brutal Shining Path war of the 1980s. Peasants and their city children have borne the brunt of these forces, and their voices as they have struggled to manage their impoverished circumstances illustrate the human dimensions of a crisis pummeling not only Peru, but most of the developing world.


My flight to Peru in 1965 was my first foreign trip. Outside the Lima airport, I gawked at peddlers selling tropical fruits and barbequed beef hearts, scenes vividly different from the Irish-Catholic neighborhood of my Brooklyn childhood. Flat-roofed houses and occasional moonscapes of oil-stained car repair pits flickered past the car window as I rode to my temporary Lima home. It was early November, springtime, but the winter fog that dampened and hid Lima had not yet lifted, and I could see little beyond the nearby streets.


Peru was in the midst of enormous changes, but their scope, like the fog-enveloped city, was not yet readily apparent. Most Peruvians lived in rural villages, the majority in high Andean valleys, where monolingual Quechua-speaking peasants grew food primarily for home consumption rather than for sale in the market. Many were peons on haciendas, large feudal estates. They dressed in homespun clothing, often walked barefoot, and most lacked electricity, potable water, and roads. I was headed to San Pedro and San José, two such towns in the Andean area of Ayacucho.


The changes have been vast, beginning in the mid-twentieth century with a rapidly expanding population confronting an economy that squeezed the peasantry, processes taking place simultaneously throughout the developing world. To defend themselves, peasant farmers turned more and more to commerce, producing crafts for cash rather than bartering them for the farm produce they lacked. Most left their rural homes to work elsewhere. Some went to the nearby tropical rain forest to produce coffee, cacao, and fruit for national and international markets, then entered the coca/cocaine trade when prices for the legal commodities fell. Others became temporary laborers, sending remittances to family back home. So many migrated permanently to Lima that the city's population had exploded from 591,000 in 1940, to some 2 million when I arrived in 1965, to 7.8 million in 2002.


Some continued on to the United States, Japan, Spain, Italy, and other rich countries, looking for work and becoming part of the new global movement of labor. I have listened to Peruvian and Ecuadorian buskers, itinerant street musicians, play Andean music in New York City, Paris, Avignon, San Malo, Amsterdam, and Venice, their beating drums and reverberant panpipes drawing large crowds. I have run across distinctive Andean pottery and sweaters in a flea market in New Jersey, sold by a man from La Paz, Bolivia. A community of Peruvians has joined other Latin American migrants near me in New Jersey, transforming my home locality as well, a few gathering once a week at a Chinese buffet to convert the clams and raw fish used for sushi into ceviche, the Peruvian national dish.


To prepare for their new lives, rural farmers learned Spanish and sent their children to school. Many flocked to Protestantism, abandoning Roman Catholicism and changing the face of public religion. In 1996 my wife and I attended a rural Pentecostal church as some thirty people struggled to read Bible passages in Quechua. Most of the elaborate Roman Catholic fiestas I attended in the 1960s are no longer celebrated, but in 1996 I joined a circle around a pyre on the outskirts of Ayacucho City, the capital of the region where I have done most of my work. The scraggly bearded men were dressed in robes and the women in long gowns and veils, looking like popular representations of the apostles and the Virgin Mary. All sang and prayed while the fire consumed a ram's head: the Israelites of the New Covenant (Israelitas del Nuevo Pacto), a new Peruvian religion, were celebrating Passover.


Some rural migrants to Lima have succeeded economically, even selling crafts over the Web to the global market. Most, however, have found ill-paid work, high unemployment, and increased poverty. In 1970 one-half of all Peruvian families, most first- or second-generation migrants from the Andes, lived below the poverty line, and 25 percent of the nation's families were destitute, unable to feed themselves. When nearly half the population lives in a state of perpetual poverty, and many others teeter on its dark edge, the consequences are enormous. "We're going to die of hunger!" Martín Velarde (Chapter 4) exclaimed to me in 1983, as he and his family, confronting this terrible economic picture, faced one disaster after another.


Crime, violence, prostitution, drug and alcohol addiction are not caused by poverty alone, but they almost invariably accompany it. In 1987 a man toting a machine gun robbed a shoemaker down the street from me in a middle-class area of Lima. I was dismayed (the shoemaker was such a poor man), but I was not surprised. Affluent Limeños routinely employ private police to guard their streets, a practice that has spread to Ayacucho and other provincial cities.


"My sister had a grocery store in the front of her house," Valentina Rodriguez (Chapter 5) told me. "She was robbed four times, but once she barricaded the entrance with bars, the robberies stopped." Like many other small-store owners, her sister has erected a minifortress. Denied entrance, her customers stand in the street, ask for what they want, then conduct their transaction through a small opening in the bars.


Political violence also festered in this amalgam of rapid population increase, great poverty, visible inequality, and enormous social change. In 1980 Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla group, began its "armed struggle," a war that terrorized Peru for more than a decade, crushing the peasantry "between the sword and the wall," between the violence of Shining Path and brutal military repression. The war ended in 1992, but the sixty-nine thousand dead and six hundred thousand to one million refugees attest to its ferocity.


During forty years of work in the Andes, including six living, working, and teaching there, I have interviewed many people who have been part of these events. I want to bring them to life in this book, to show real people reshaping their lives as they have confronted the economic difficulties thrown at them, to try to give "a human face to the realities of poverty and violence." Like most Peruvians, the majority of the people I know became neither guerrillas nor thieves; instead, they have struggled to keep food on the table and to bring joy to themselves and to their families. They also have brought great joy to me. As they have struggled, however, they have transformed their own lives and, in the process, transformed Peru.


I chose the people portrayed in this book because I know most of them well—so I could flesh them out with the detail obtained from frequent interaction—and because their stories illustrate the ways Peruvians have coped. They are a representative sample, not a scientific one, but I have listened to many similar accounts in Lima, Ayacucho, and Huancayo. I also have given myself a voice by trying to demonstrate my joys and blunders as an anthropologist, by describing how anthropologists work and correct our mistakes as we live with others, and how we gradually develop a deeper understanding of the societies we are studying and of ourselves.


The chapters are arranged in a sequence that represents developments in the Andes since the mid-twentieth century. In Chapter 1, Pablo de la Cruz and Claudia Velarde, Quechua-speaking peasants, represent something of a baseline. Neither fit the mold of the archetypal, nonchanging peasant (the quintessential andino, the timeless Andean) that some anthropologists incorrectly emphasized in the past. Like other Andeans, Pablo and Claudia fashioned lives different from those of their parents as they encountered new ideas and realities. Nonetheless, they remained monolingual Quechua-speaking peasants, growing food primarily for their own consumption, even though Pablo was also a muleteer trading throughout Peru. Some people have remained monolingual Quechua speakers, but their numbers dwindle each year.


In Chapter 2, Horacio Gutiérrez and Benjamina Enríquez illustrate issues of gender, race, and class, social forces that have constrained peasant choices and that underlie many of the abuses of the Shining Path war. Because I knew Horacio and Benjamina before anyone else, I also discuss my entry into the community and my developing skills as an ethnographer. I continue with the story of Horacio and Benjamina in Chapter 3, describing the economic pressures that encouraged them and other peasants to enter commerce and to migrate.


The next two chapters depict peasants who migrated from their rural homes. Chapter 4 describes Martín Velarde, who, forced by poverty to live apart rather than with his family, left his wife and children in San Pedro to seek work on the coast of Peru. Valentina Rodríguez (Chapter 5) began life as the daughter of small hacienda owners, but now lives in the United States, a relatively successful international migrant, even as she has worked as a maid cleaning houses and caring for children.


Chapters 6, 7, and 8 portray the economic devastation and violence of the 1980s through the eyes of Triga, who as a teenager was briefly a partisan of Shining Path and a participant in the cocaine trade. After escaping a massacre in which his brother was murdered by the military, he became a successful businessman selling artisanal work to the global market (Chapter 6). Commander Tiger (El Tigre), the head of San Pedro's peasant militia, had worked in extracting guano; after returning to the sierra, he became head of the peasant militia fighting Shining Path (Chapter 7). Anastasio Huamán, who, along with his family, had to flee the death threats of Shining Path, finally settled in Lima to produce crafts for international clients (Chapter 8). Chapter 9 explores the forces underlying these changes.


To many who live north of Mexico, Latin America is like the waiter at the table: essential to the meal but ignored and unnoted. To bring one small part of this wonderful world to life, I have written the book for nonanthropologists and students, as well as for professional colleagues. To facilitate this broad readership, I have avoided jargon and placed citations in endnotes; a glossary of foreign words follows the notes. I have created pseudonyms for both the towns and the people and altered a few details to further obscure identity. Otherwise, all the people and events are real. Quotation marks represent actual speech, as I have translated it, but dialogue without quotation marks is a summary of a larger discussion.


In the 1980s I began to tape life histories. I use these histories beginning in Chapter 4. These long narratives (and their preliminary brief quotations within the same chapter) are set off in italics. It is never easy to translate another's speech, and the italicized material is not translated word-for-word. Instead, I have tried to impart the rhythm and power of the original by freely translating the narratives into colloquial English that approximates the spirit of the original, generally omitting my own comments and in some cases condensing material and altering the recorded order to create a coherent account.


Similarities to the Peruvian experience are found throughout the developing world, as poor people have struggled to manage global processes that have impoverished them. This unequal economic order does not affect all aspects of people's lives equally (the belief in the mountain god, for example), but it does affect the distribution of wealth and life opportunity, with all the consequent social disruption. I hope that this book will provide some insight into the human costs of these phenomena and foster not only compassion but also greater efforts to seek a more just world.




“Voices from the Global Margin is a sensitive, well-written piece of work that offers a vivid view of the power, beauty, and hardship of life in the Andes today. . . . The stories in it are rich, sometimes poignant ones that involve the bloody war between Shining Path guerrillas and government troops, migrant odysseys to Lima and even the United States, and the challenges of making a living in conditions of extreme poverty. Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is that it gives a human face to the realities of poverty and violence across the Third World.”
Orin Starn, Duke University, author of Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's Last Wild” Indian


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