T-3 to Peru

My plane leaves Monday evening. so this is the last weekend in Vancouver before the trip. Arrangements continue… Just this afternoon, for instance, one of the museums we’ll be visiting (the Museo Larco) wrote to tell me that their charges are going up, but that we can still visit for the old price that we were quoted when I asked for a guided tour a few weeks ago, so long as we now pay in advance.

But paying in advance is not simple. This goes also for hotels and everything else. Peruvian businesses much prefer to be paid via bank transfer, which is a long and laborious process to arrange via the university. So I try to pay by credit card (I now have a university credit card precisely for this purpose), but this has its own complications, sometimes at this end, sometimes at the other.

At times the issue is the Peruvian enthusiasm for bureaucracy. Perhaps as a legacy even of colonial administration, as elsewhere in Latin America businesses like things written down and sealed with some kind of identification: National Identification Card (or DNI) for citizens, passport number for foreigners. The lettered city lives on.

But at times the issue is the various ways in which Peruvians try to get around these same strictures of documentation… in ways that make my university’s financial administration’s metaphorical eyebrows raise a centimetre or two. The real city endures, even as the formalities of the paperwork are theoretically respected. “Obedezco pero no cumplo” (I obey but I do not comply), as the old phrase has it.

In my experience, however, everything has a way of working itself out. 

Meanwhile, I’ve been meeting up with the students on a fairly regular basis. Our final get-together is this afternoon. These have been optional exercises in getting to know each other, and there have been varying numbers each time, but I think they’ve been pleased to meet each other, and maybe relieved to discover they have some of the same interests and enthusiasms. To me, they seem like a very good group, and it’s also been good to have a better sense of them before we go.

In many ways they are typical of students I have in other Faculty of Arts classes. They have a variety of different experiences and perspectives. The majority, but not all, are Canadians (mostly but not entirely from British Columbia), and yet even among the Canadians many are first- or second-generation immigrants. A couple have some kind of Latin American heritage. There are (by quite a margin) more women than men. Some have officially graduated, others have still to declare a major. Of those who have, they are studying a variety of different subjects–Latin American Studies, but also Anthropology, English, Sociology, even the Sciences. They seem to be fairly well-travelled, but few have been to South America, and only one to Peru before. Some speak at least some Spanish, but most do not. They all seem almost as excited as I am.

I will be there a day or two in advance, and meeting most of them in at the airport in Lima early in the morning on Thursday. 

Then after settling in at the hotel, our first activity will be a tour of San Isidro, the neighbourhood where we are staying, including the Huaca Huallamarca, a (mostly) reconstructed Indigenous pyramid, and El Olivar, a park featuring olive trees that are descendants of saplings brought over from Spain in 1560.

The Lettered City

In The Lettered City, Angel Rama stresses the utopian dimensions (literally) built in to the colonial cities of Latin America. For here, the plan came first, often with scant regard for the material (or human) environment. The classic grid system, with a plaza mayor or main square on each side of which were arrayed the various centres of power whether spiritual (the cathedral) or temporal (the town hall or municipality), reflecting an ideal conception of order and hierarchy. These were cities of “signs” that, in Rama’s words, could “be made to represent things as yet only imagined–the ardently desired objects of an age that displayed a special fondness for utopian dreams” (8). In the New World, the Spanish imagined a <em>tabula rasa</em> on which to construct a vision of civilization untrammeled by the messy history they had left behind in Europe. They were of course not the only ones to think this way–colonial settlers in North America, for instance, had similarly utopian dreams–but what was distinctive about the Spanish imperial enterprise was the focus on urban design and cities as nodes of power and influence from which order would flow from the centre outwards.

Rama explains the longevity of this urban dream, and the resilience and adaptability of those who came to construct, supervise, and implement it: the letrados, that class of professions (lawyers and accountants, civil servants and bureaucrats, priests and architects) who wielded power with a pen to work with the signs that were always to dominate material reality. The letrados outlasted even the imperial project of which they were such a key component, “weather[ing] the revolutionary storm” of the struggles for independence from Spain and “reconstitut[ing] their power in the independent republics” (45) that followed. 

By this point, however, the initial utopianism of the letrado project had long since faded–there was no longer any serious intent to bridge the gap between sign and reality–and the letrados had become a conservative force, dedicated merely to their own reproduction. Indeed, though Rama observes how reformers such as Bolívar’s mentor, Simón Rodríguez, drew on the <em>letrado</em> tradition as inspiration for change, he also shows how they were defeated by this same tradition, which ensured that “The new nations of Latin America [. . .] failed to construct democratic, egalitarian societies, and their educational institutions, instead of producing an informed citizenry, turned out custodians of the traditional, hierarchical social order” (47). The belief in the dominance of the sign built into the urban social fabric had by this time traced an affective inversion, from the utopia of infinite possibility (because the sign could be changed almost at will, so could the world), to the dystopia of entrenched cynicism (all that ever changed was the sign). 

Perhaps all this helps to explain the wild swings so characteristic of Latin American political history: between resigned fatalism on the one hand, and periodic outbursts of exuberant hope, on the other.

Behind the scenes, however, another logic is at work: not the lettered city, but the much more anarchic real city, which draws on and constitutes the context that letrado utopianism disavowed, including for instance “indigenous social networks–their agricultural zones, their market centers, and above all, their labor power” (12), but also the everyday reality that the ideal grid could never capture. For the intellectual class, the resilience of the real brought only dismay, as it resisted their vision of utopian transformation. But surely it is here we should look if we seek hope for the future. 

Two weeks to Peru…

It has just struck me that it is now less than a fortnight before I will be in Peru, to take a group of twenty UBC undergraduates (accompanied, fortunately, by a very reliable Teaching Assistant) for six weeks of study and exploration in Lima, Cusco, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu.

I am asking the students to write a regular travel blog, on which they will reflect on their experiences and observations while they are there (alongside a reading blog, in which they comment on a respond to the texts we will be reading and discussing). And so I thought, pour encourager les autres, that I would do the same.

At present I am still caught up in logistics–just yesterday I heard from our hotel in Cusco, for instance, that there has apparently been a misunderstanding about how many rooms we need; I am very much hoping this gets resolved today! But the sudden realization of how close the trip is may perhaps, paradoxically, help me stand back and think again about what I hope we achieve.

The theme of the course (because it is also a regular, six-credit university course) is “Making and Unmaking Indigeneity in the Andes.” Its basic premise, I suppose, is that we cannot (and should not) take Indigeneity for granted. Indigeneity is a product of history–and of course, specifically colonial and postcolonial history–if only for the fact that, prior to colonization, there was no such category as “Indigeneity.”

There were of course Inkas (and Chankas and Ashánika, and so on; elsewhere, Maya and Mexica etc.), but there were no Indigenous people. Indigeneity is a result or construction of colonialism. Indeed, the term “Indigenous” (in English) is first attested to by the OED in 1632, and it is in 1646 that we have the first occurrence of what we would consider its modern meaning, in a reference (by Thomas Browne) to “indigenous or proper natives of America.”

So we will read and think about how Indigeneity has been made–and at various points, also un-made–in the Andes from the seventeenth century (with Guaman Poma) to a present that we will, partially at least, see around us in Peru itself.

Inevitably, we will be tourists–and I hope that the students have a good time, and do not get sick or break legs and the like–but we will also be studying tourism, thinking about a history of outsiders’ gazes or Occidentalism, reflecting on our own participation, and even complicity, in making and unmaking Indigeneity. There is a lot to learn, and not only for the students. I am very much looking forward to the trip, although I am also a little nervous. . . if mostly in a good way. As I have told the students: we need to expect the unexpected and prepare for our plans to be derailed. That will be part of the learning.

The Kingdom of This World

It is the fact that in Haiti—and the Americas more generally—two (or more) perspectives rub up against each other and clash, shattering the notion that they can harmoniously be contained within the same organic totality, that provokes the surprised awe and wonder that Carpentier reports experiencing, and attempts to recreate in this novel.