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El pishtaco: Mito, rumor y resistencia

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El pishtaco: Mito, rumor y resistencia

Ernesto Vásquez del Aguila

Es importante analizar el mito pishtaco no sólo como parte de entidades abstractas, sino como vinculado con la economía política en la que el lenguaje es parte de un complejo proceso de luchas, de negociación, y la creación de las resistencias entre las élites hegemónicas y los sectores de la población oprimidos.

Pishtacos :

Myth, Rumor, Resistance and Structural Inequalities in Colonial and Modern Peru



Ernesto Vásquez del Aguila, MA. MPhil.

PhD. Candidate Sociomedical Sciences & Anthropology

Columbia University-Mailman School of Public Health

New York



1. Introduction

From rural areas of Bolivia , Ecuador , and Peru , indigenous people share the story of the pishtaco , an ambiguous, fluid, and complex character in the Andean imaginary representing various instantiations of power and violence. The pishtaco, a murder, has been presented from colonial to current years, always changing through historic periods of crisis and instability in the Andean region, from rural to urban areas, and from the past to the present.

Despite the fact that the Andean region has a large indigenous population, these racial and ethnic "minorities" remain structurally and symbolically subordinated to a small group of "mestizos" and "whites" under the illusion of democracy and citizenship that makes indigenous people invisible citizens in their own countries. The persistence of the pishtaco myth is a cultural evidence of race, class, ethnic, and gender struggles in the Peruvian and Andean societies.

My purpose in this paper is to analyze different discourses about pishtacos from the colonial period to the present with the attempt to establish a dialogue with the medical anthropologist framework regarding the meanings of the body in people's life, especially in terms of "mythical" everyday narratives among marginalized people. I will discuss the following questions: What is the relationship between "magic" narratives and indigenous suffering? Who are the pishtacos and the victims in terms of social identities? What are the meanings and values of the indigenous body in the colonial and current times in the Andean region?

2. The Andean region: structural inequalities and violence

The Andean region is located in the West of South America within three main countries, Bolivia , Ecuador , and Peru . As Bastien (1978) states, Andean cultures are diverse in terms of linguistic, demographics, and costumes. Nevertheless, in spite of these differences, Indian Andean people share geographic, historic, and cultural roots, and participate in similar rituals and spiritual events. For instance, religious rituals around the mountain are widespread, and they operate as symbols of unity with the land and other "paisanos" - a person from the same community with whom they establish relations of reciprocity and solidarity. The Ayllu is the social organization, a communal unit that congregates families and preserves social cohesion within the ethnic group. Indian communities are mixture of Ayllus with their own history, ancestors, leaders, and rituals, which have been threatened historically by colonialism, republicanism, and modernization.

In current times, growing migration and urbanization transforms cities into the center of attraction for the poorest Andean populations, who search for a home in the suburbs of cities by occupying unused land through mass illegal "invasions". Lima , the Peruvian capital, accounts for 29% of the total Peruvian population (INEI 2002). As a result of poorly planned urbanization, most of the Indians "invaders" lack access to adequate sanitation and public services, and live in precarious housing conditions in shantytowns that are known as pueblos jóvenes (young towns), a euphemistic name that hides derogatory class and racial discrimination. Indians and their descendants are geographically isolated from the rest of the city. Poverty and misery surround the city, and white and mestizos anxieties are condensed in discriminatory and derogatory labels for Andean migrants. Serrano, a person from the mountain, is an insult to identify and exclude the "strangers".

Peru , as many other Latin American countries, is characterized by fragile democratic system and structural inequalities that are portrayed in the bodies of those ethnic "minorities" who are excluded in their own countries by economic, social and racial factors. There are more than 55% of ethnic groups in Peru , and one fifth of the Peruvian population speaks an indigenous language (TRC, 2003). However, these ethnic groups prefer to hide their identities due to the ethnic discrimination and racism since colonial times.

This structural and cultural marginalization has its extreme exemplification in the context of political violence during the eighties and early nineties in Peru , when almost 70,000 Peruvians disappeared, and the mainstream Peruvian society never "noticed" that this enormous number of human beings was missing (TRC, 2003). Within local authorities who disappeared, 82% were Quechua speaking, and the percentage of that were female is higher (21% Quechua speakers vs. 14% Spanish speakers), a situation that reflects the major vulnerability of women. In contrast with Chile or Argentina, where "disappeared people" are part of the collective memory of these countries, in Peru there is a hierarchical system of values given to the victims, in which those who are marginalized for factors such as race and class were not portrayed as victims and their suffering was not legitimized.

3. History, myth, and rumor: "evidence" written in the Indian body

As White (2000) states, rumor, gossips and even narratives about situations that never happened are important tools to understand historical processes. From this perspective, the study of the origin of things or the "truth" about people's narratives are less important than the study of the production of collective ways to resolve contradictions, tensions, and ways of coping with structural vulnerabilities. The ambiguity of the pishtaco myth expresses the fluidity of indigenous people's identities in rural and urban contexts characterized by uncertainty and oppression.

Reality and magic are social and cultural constructions difficult to distinguish in scenarios such as the Andeans because these two domains are deeply rooted in the foundation of the Andean culture. Pishtacos are not simply fears, anxieties, and superstitions of "pre-modern" people. Myths and rumors have the power of everyday descriptions, and despite their uncertainty, they offer invaluable sources to understand the world the way the story-tellers did (White 2000). In rural and urban marginalized areas of Peru , everybody has heard about pishtacos, even if only few people saw them. The "evidence" is constructed in social interactions among the group and in concrete experiences of vulnerability and unequal relationships with the elites.

An important aspect in these narratives is that people tell these myths not necessarily from their own experiences, but speak stories that circulate within their social world, and in this sense, these narratives have the most accurate validity as social entities. These stories have the power of being reproduced from memory and being circulating by word of mouth. In societies where formal education is a privilege of the elite and justice is an illusion for marginalized people, oral history became the only source to maintain social identity and indigenous history.

As Nash (1979) suggests, indigenous people integrate a world of saints, devils, deities, and enchanted beings with which they interact in their everyday life. Despite the fact that in their discourse they can deny these beliefs due to the oppression of hegemonic discourses, this integrity of magic world with material entities enables indigenous people to transcend the definition of themselves as meaningless cogs in an alienated capitalist enterprise. Superhuman narratives are written in the everyday life of Indian people; they are written in their individual and social Indian body.

4. Historicizing the pishtaco myth: From the Spanish conqueror to current medical doctor

As Ansion (1989) presents, in the earliest years of the colony, pishtacos were Spanish conquerors, missioners from the Catholic Church who search the Indian fat to improve the sounds of their bells, and any strangers of the Indian world who became suspicious of danger and death.

A constant fact about colonial pishtacos is that they are nocturnal murderers of Indians whose main objective is the extraction of fats from the body of the victims. Pishtacos live in caves, far away from the regular people, and use magic strategies to attract and attack their victims. One of the first testimonies about the Indian fear about pishtacos is written by a Spanish chronicler:

In the year (15)71 it was held and believed by the Indians that Spain had sent to this kingdom (Peru) for unto (fat) of the Indians to cure a certain sickness for which here was no cure other than the aforesaid unto; this causing the Indians to be very timid and frightened of the Spaniars to such a degree that they did not wish to carry firewood, greens, and other things to the homes of the Spaniars because it was said that they would be killed for their unto upon entering the house (Cristobal de Molina in Oliver-Smith1969).

The indigenous fat is valued and sold to pharmacies in order to make medicine to cure different types of diseases. From colonial uses in rheumatism, smallpox scars, bruises, and broken bones, to current times with trafficking human organs, the indigenous body nourishes symbolically and materially the elites. The Indian body serves as raw material in the intrusion of the western medicine in the indigenous world. There is not syncretism, but a dramatic subordination by the conquerors.

During the ninetieth century, in the early years of the Republic, pishtacos became prosperous miners or merchants who wanted the fat of the indigenous body to make soaps, and to support factories during the incipient Peruvian industrialization. The Indian body is the combustion for the new economic system, and once again, Indians only counts as raw material, the basis element in the production of commodities.

In the last century, from the fifties and especially during the political violence of the eighties, pishtacos are associated with the state. Scholars find testimonies in which the pishtacos are the state representatives; they have "credentials from the government and the State":

They have come with their documents from the government, they act as important people because they are protected by important people, they have the government's support (...) we the poor cannot complain, they are protected by the government (Morote 1998)

The violence and cruelty that the military forces exercised with indigenous people during the political violence, and the abandonment and indifference of the indigenous population by the state explain the rationality of this association. More recently, in shantytowns in Lima , Portocarrero et al (1991) gather testimonies of an urban version of the pishtacos: the sacaojos (eye-thieves). During the 1980s and 1990s, years of political violence, in a context of social commotion, insecurity and terror, especially among the most vulnerable people, the urban pishtaco is portrayed as white, middle class doctors who are looking for human organs for transplants for rich patients. The stories differ in details, but the essence is the same, and the rumor is spread among Indian migrant:

(Pishtacos) are tall, white, with blonde hair, some of them use beard, they have gringo (American) accent; they use long jacket to their knees, carry arms, knifes. Sometimes they were blue jeans (Portocarrero et al 1991)

The urban pishtacos are not alone, but they are helped by mestizas female nurses and black guards to kidnap children to steal their eyes and kidneys in order to sell these healthy organs to sickness patients in rich countries:

A white doctors came to our community with a nurse, they were looking for our children in the school, threatened teachers with knives, and they took out the eyes of children . there was a black man also, he collaborates with the doctors forcing our children so the doctor could extract their eyes easily (Kapsoli 1991)

Kapsoli (1991) explains the presence of female nurses in these stories as representation of these health practitioners' discrimination against the poor and indigenous people. On the other hand, black people in the Indian imaginary evoke colonial times where Africans slaves performed the role of liaisons to Indians in the mines and other factories of exploitation. In this sense, the black accomplice of the Spaniard conqueror emerges helping the white doctor in the same enterprise: to oppress Indians. Historians revel how in 1742 during an Indian rebellion, black people, Spanish conquerors, and Catholic missionaries were condemned to death and accused of being Indians exploiters.

In terms of the Pishtacos' victims, there is a wide spectrum of subjects among the marginalized people. In some cases the potential victims broke the rules of social cohesion (drunken man who doesn't fear the group's advice). This kind of victim differs substantially from "innocent" victims such as children or "decent" women. There are some stories about stolen and raped women; and even women who fell in love with pishtacos

In all these cases women were bewitched by the devil, hence mischievous magic justified female love for the stranger. Finally, a common element among the victims is that they were isolated, outside of the protection of the community. The moral here seems to maintain the social cohesion, to be always part of the group. Values such as solidarity and intense social interactions unified the community as the only way to be protected from the enemies' attack. Mothers, fathers, and neighbors create nocturnal vigils to protect the children from the community. Many strangers were detained and even killed by the terrified population. The constant re-emergence of the pishtaco myth evidences the continuities in the exploitation of the indigenous people. From colonial to current times, it seems that among indigenous Andean people, the identity of the oppressors has changed, but, as Taussig (1977) states, the "devil" is still creating suffering and even death among the marginalized people.

5. Language and symbolic exclusion of the indigenous body

It is important to analyze the pishtaco myth not only as part of abstract entities, but as linked with political economy in which language is part of a complex process of struggles, negotiation, and creation of resistances between hegemonic elites and oppressed people. Weismantel (2001) questions the myth of racial democracy in Latin America , a widespread assumption even among scholars that overemphasizes class as the main issue in Andean cultures and makes race almost an invisible structural factor. However, the colloquial use common epithets show the racialized nature of Andean societies: Indians are "dirty", "sheep", "mules;" while whites are "decent", "educated", "cultivated", "good" people.

As Scheper-Huges suggest (1987), a first assumption in the conceptualization of body will be that the body is simultaneously a physical and symbolic artifact, as both naturally and culturally produced, and as securely anchored in a particular cultural and historical moment. The Indian Andeans integrate the natural and the symbolic world through metaphors, language, and myths. Following Bastien (1978), Indians personified and humanized the mountain. How they see themselves is how they see their mountain. There is an anatomical paradigm between the human body and the mountain, and between the Ayllus and the mountain. There is not dualism between material and spiritual worlds. Andean people unified these two domains through metaphors of human and animal body, lands and society, in search of equilibrium and unity. The mountain represents different parts of the human body and social organization of the Ayllu (Bastien 1978). In other words, this sense of unity through the metaphor of the ecological body is a way through which the Indians survive and creates resistances to external political forces.

Social categories such as race, ethnicity, and gender shape the social order in such a way that some communities are united not just through shared interactions and knowledge, but through conflicting interactions as well (Harper 2002). The pishtaco represents the known and the unknown; they combine the familiar with the unfamiliar. Native people know him even if they have never seen him before. This apparent contradiction explains the fears, anxieties, and the terror that this myth carries in the Andes . As a perverse parallel the Weismantel (2001) suggests how in the Andes , whites and nonwhites confronted each other not as autochthon and alien, but with the lethal familiarity of estranged kin.

It is stated in medical anthropology that the body can be a metaphor of the social order, and there are many studies that present racial and gender hierarchies in the Peruvian society, which locates de indigenous body in a subordinate position in contrast of the white body. As Weismantel (2001), argues, while the Indian male body is portrayed with short stature, hairlessness, small size, and belongs to an oppressed race; the pishtaco is a white foreigner man, really tall and with a big body. However, the color of his skin is a less important sign of racial alterity than other features such as clothes, hairiness and material belongings. In other words, "whiteness" resides in objects as well as in bodies.

From a gender perspective, the pishtaco represent the insatiable men; the myth condenses meanings of the hegemonic man, and the violent, aggressive, hyperphallic macho . Connell (1995) conceptualized "hegemonic masculinity" as being in a constant struggle with subordinate masculinities. This concept is mobile, and it is shaped by particular situations, in a changing structure of relationships and in specific historical and social moments. In this sense, the pishtaco male body revitalizes mechanisms such as race, class and gender inequalities through spiral of violence and power against women and children, and includes violence against other men.

The Peruvian racial hierarchy is a continuum of discrimination and social exclusion. Categories such as Indian, mestizo, campesino , Serrano , and cholo express the complexity of race, class, and ethnicity in Peru . While Indian and mestizo are ethnic categories, campesino (land worker) refers to social class. Campesino is a classic term used by South American academics during the seventies when class was made invisible other factors such as ethnicity and gender. Thus campesino emerged associated with the agrarian reform. The intention was to eliminate racial differences through an economic category. However, indigenous people did not adopt this category as part of their identity. As Portocarrero et al (1991) say, the Indian children who go to school and learn Spanish are the cholos . Teachers at school teach them that Andean oral stories are magic, superstition and that they need to forget this world. For the cholo, it seems that there is only opposition between the house and the school, between the rural and the urban world, between modernity and tradition. However, Indian children negotiate their identities and the natural; reality and the magic coexist in different levels and instances.

These systems become more complex if we take into account the gender system. While indigenous women wear traditional clothes, speak Quechua or Aymara, and do not migrate to the cities, men wear Western clothes, speak Spanish and constantly migrate to other Spanish-speaking urban areas. Men are identified as mestizos while their sisters, mothers and wives remain as Indians. Race and ethnicity are written in the female's body more than in the male's body. De la Cadena (1996) summarizes this situation in an illuminating phrase: "women are more indigenous than men", which shows that even among excluded people, women are more subordinate in different structural and symbolic systems.

6. Modernization and commodification: fragmentation and alienation of the Indian body

As Nash and Safa (1976) argue, the mystique of modernization begins with the assumption that the past must be replaced by the new, that the rational must be supersede the irrational. In the case of the Andean region, the capitalist machinery includes changes of residence, urbanization, change from agricultural occupations, and the repression of "pre-modern" and irrational beliefs and knowledge such as medical or spirituals. With the advent of colonialism in Latin America in the fifth century, the Spanish empire introduced with violence a new machinery of technology and ideology that oppressed and sought to erase the indigenous world. The independence and the new republic since the early ninetieth century did not change the structural oppression of Indians. For more than five hundred years, Indians have been negotiating their identities between modernity and "traditionalism", between the local and the global, and struggling with the impact of technology and the power of elites that are legitimized by an unstable state.

In current times, modern and "traditional" lifestyles come into conflict and hegemonic institutions. For example, the medical knowledge considers indigenous people as "maladaptive" and less "assimilated" to modernity and global technologies and ideas. However, indigenous people are creators of dynamic culture(s) and new practices that are beyond the dualism between "modern" and "traditional". These people incorporate and recreate their culture in a dynamic process sometimes characterized by struggles and even violence. The pishtaco myth is an expression of these cultural confrontations and indigenous strategies to cope with their oppressors.

In terms of capitalism, the intrusion of this new form of economy had enormous impact in indigenous people's lives. As Nash (1979) states for Bolivian tin miners, the penetration of foreign capital in the twentieth century has fostered one of the most exploited working-class populations in contrast with the richest elite. For this reason, the strength of indigenous people's identity with pre-conquest beliefs provides them with the basis for self-determination in the new class definition of their national status. The myth dramatized the resolution of the crisis experienced by Indians as they had to confront with the unfamiliar world.

In the Marxism thinking, capitalism implies the production of commodities for exchange in the market through money. Products have an exchange-value, and money becomes a modern fetish that was not present before in the pre-capitalist Indian world where direct exchange was the mode of social interaction. The division of labor transformed Indians into campesinos , label based on the relationship with the modes of production, however, it is profoundly embedded in racial and ethnic systems. In this sense, campesino is synonym of Indian with all the derogatory meanings that it implies.

In capitalist societies, the body becomes a commodity, a new fetish alienated from the subjects, and separated from social and cultural contexts. As Sharp (2000) argues, Colonial power, labor policies, and medical practices have frequently worked together to discipline the colonized body, and through commodification, transform individuals and their bodies from a human category into objects of economic desire In the case of the body of the oppressed people, their bodies and human organs count when they are fragmented and modified into commodity for hegemonic groups. As Scheper-Huges (2004) suggests, a neo-cannibalism of human life is redefined in terms of the "audacious claims and rapacious desires" of the elites on the bodies and vitality of an(other) population. In the arena of organs transplant, even in the context of "consensual" transactions, the "donors" are powerless in terms of class, ethnicity, race, which at the end portray an unequal social relationship.

The process of medicalization evidences the relationship between knowledge and power in the oppression of marginalized people. From the hegemony of the Catholic Church in colonial times to medical knowledge in current times, hegemonic institutions impose social control over the indigenous transforming their knowledge into "beliefs", superstition and pre-modern thinking. However, the indigenous medical knowledge is neither homogenous nor static entity. Indigenous people have different experiences with health and disease, and they experienced rather than learned, medical pluralism and biomedical hegemony. As Harper (2002) argues, culture is active, changing and contested comprising multiple individual experiences that converge, diverge, coincide, and contradict the indigenous use of medicine. From this perspective, one of the direct impacts of the process of medicalization is that the self or the individual body lost its relationship with the social body and other kinds of social relationships such as friendship, kinship, and neighbors. In other words, the individual has no meaning through social relationships.


7. Killing the pishtaco: social suffering and indigenous resistances

How do indigenous and mestizo people deal with poverty, social exclusion, and structural inequalities and violence? How do they cope with the intrusion of the machinery of modernism, capitalism, and globalization?

As Kleinman et al (1997) argue, the process of medicalization produce the idea that suffering is something isolated from social relationship, and ignore the fact that suffering is a social experience. The fear of pishtacos is a collective and individual experience shaped by representations and narratives of suffering. The pishtaco myth condenses the oppression of the Andean men and women, as subjects and as culture. Andean people experiment suffering from colonial to current times in which the illusion of democracy makes invisible the fact that this population is oppressed in different systems: race, ethnicity, class, and gender.

The pishtaco myth is a form of Indian cultural representation of suffering, oppression and resistance. The historic persistence of p ishtacos is a response to the horrific treatment that Indians have received from whites since the conquest in the sixteen-century. In this sense, the pishtaco myth is a way of Indian resistance. These stories insist one by one that no matter how often they occur, each individual act of sexual abuse is appalling unnecessary. The Andean suffering is not an inevitable tragedy, but rather Indian people share these horrific stories as a way to cope with their suffering and exploitation.

The pishtaco myth also shows what counts and matters in the hierarchical Peruvian society, which body, which suffering is important or not. During the political violence the media portrayed the terror in the body of urban, white, middle class people, and the terror in indigenous communities that were ignored and almost erased. The poor and the indigenous did not have voice to express their suffering. For more than two decades Indians lived between the terrors of two forces: the terrorists and the state. A dramatic testimony said by a military leader during the political violence condenses this situation: "Indians have to choose with whom they want to die". In other words, indigenous people did not have the choice of living, only to die.

As Scheper-Huges (1987) suggests, rumor and myths become expressions of resistance to the erosion of traditional social values based on reciprocity, sharing, and family and community loyalty in the context of global and local capitalism. However, this myth does not unify the indigenous suffering, because even in this apparently homogenous group there are differences in the suffering between men and women, children and adults. The literature about the pishtaco myth does not analyze this difference, which portrays women and children as the most vulnerable subjects.

Myths such as the pishtaco are alternative ways to create narratives to protect oppressed people from this symbolic and structural exclusion. To confront "collective silence" that acts as a pact among the elites to maintain the oppression, the Indians created not only contested narratives but also resistances in a symbolic solution: kill the pishtaco. As Morote (1998) and Kapsoli (1991) gather, humble people, regular and anonymous men and women, children and elderly resist the attack of the pishtacos and even kill them.

Through social cohesion, solidarity, and collaboration, indigenous people destroy the oppressor, and many stories have a happy end. The marginalized people reorganized their universe, integrate the individual with the social body, and break the silence and violence of the oppressors. In this complex system, the Andean man and woman build and negotiate their different identities, citizenship, and rights. The myth, as well as the rumor as its way of propagation and consolidation, assures social cohesion in this context of vulnerability and dramatic changes and uncertainties.







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