Strolling at night under the colonnaded arcades that line Cuzco’s main square can be very romantic. The yellowish lights seem to rise from the plaza to become stars in the sky. As a result, the Plaza seems a perfect place for a stroll arm and arm with your companion just to celebrate in a beautiful place that you are together and alive. However, that joy is blocked at every step when someone comes up and demands your attention while offering you a restaurant, massage, or tourist information. These people are called jaladores [hall-ah-dóor-ehss] and are part of the culture of Cuzco.
For many travelers, despite its beauty, walking around the Plaza de Armas, Cuzco’s main square, can seem a bit like running a gauntlet. In this article, we want to stand back and look at the Plaza and the jaladores who work it, from their perspective, as a way of helping tourists understand why things are the way they are.
Cuzco has a general culture of sales which requires the sales person to actively call out their goods to passers-by and sometimes push them into the gaze of people going by in order to try to get their attention for a sale. David has many years of experience engaging with or avoiding jaladores and Walter was an excellent jalador. He was doing that work when he and David met and as a result this page was born. Together we will share our perspectives.
Cuzco’s jaladores are part of a very old culture in much of Latin America, descending probably from medieval markets and, if nothing else, related to the important relationship of vendor to buyer called casero in Cuzco
In this relationship, both people meet with differing needs, the one to buy and the other to sell. Out of the meeting of the needs comes a relationship with a name and the potential to become something solid. This recognition of potential for relationship, which we could call ayni or reciprocity in Cuzco’s Quechua, and its cultivation is key to understanding so many things in Cuzco, such as all the feasts and dance groups found here, as well as the basic economy.
A rawness sounds from the calls in the market, “casero buy from me”. It is desire reaching out, looking for its pair in the desire of someone else.
In Anglo culture, this rawness usually lies concealed, though still present. As a result, it is often hard for Anglos to walk around the Plaza or through the markets of Cuzco where people constantly call out to them.
Furthermore, the English word for jalador, “barker”, is hardly known to most Americans. Though the word has a long tradition in English, its lack of use stems from a reality where barkers are seldom found, other than perhaps on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. There they seem exotic and different and so no word is needed to describe them. That same exoticness and verbal/ cultural invisibility cloaks the tourist experience of jaladores in Cuzco, making their calls just a bit uncomfortable.
Most of the jaladores are young people working for commission. Tourism is the main industry of Cuzco but most of its people work for cents on the edge of the tourist dollars that flow to the large enterprises. The need for money to pay for the cost of life as well as to rise in standing motivates these young people to stand for hours outdoors, no matter the climate, and reach out to foreigners whose language and customs are not theirs.
Indeed working as a jalador is considered a good job with a chance to make good money.
You can only imagine their anxiety as the jaladores see people from many different cultures and speaking different languages, who do not look at all like their mother, father, or cousins, and know that they have to talk to them, get their attention, and get them to accept a service if they want to take home money that day.
The jaladores talk to other jaladores about techniques that work, and about how to use language to win people over. They learn not only to distinguish Germans from Americans, but Japanese from Koreans and Italians from Spanish and all the rest. They also learn to distinguish mood and interest because if they take the wrong approach they will not attain their goal.
The tourists become their university as day in and day out they watch them, study them, talk about them, and engage to get them to look at the menu and enter the restaurant.The jaladores also have to be quick, because they are competing with each other to be more charming, more inventive, and more inviting, since once a tourist stops to look or chat every jalador in the neighborhood will circle them waiting to take advantage and perhaps win the tourist over by just a little better deal or a bit more charm.
Though hard work, many of the young people find it quite enjoyable. Not only is there the challenge of the hunt and sale, but there is also the ever present chance of a conversation to allow you to learn more of a foreign language, as well as the exchange of email addresses or other tokens of interaction. In some cases, on going friendships can even result.
We are told there did not used to be so many jaladores, although David does not remember a time when Cuzco did not have them, particularly around the plaza and on Procuradores and Plateros Streets. But, from what people say, there are more restaurants now, more competition, and hence a greater demand for jaladores to make the difference on the restaurants’ bottom line.
A good jalador can make a career that can be reasonably lucrative over time. The young jaladores learn this by talking with their older peers. This way they get socialized into the culture of this profession with its hierarchies and status systems.
There are even people who try to take advantage of the system, by following tourists around and, when they enter a restaurant, going in right after them to claim to the restauranteur that they brought the tourists in to the establishment, even if they had never spoken with them. Sometimes, one jalador will even try to claim another jalador’s commission leading to conflict and struggle at times on the street.
Tourists strolling around the main square enjoying the romance of being in a new and exotic place with fascinating buildings and history often find the constant offering of massages, tourist information, and food an annoyance that interferes with their desire to enjoy the place and being with their friends or lovers. They find it intrusive on the experience they wish to have.
However, Cuzco’s main square was a market place, up until recently, and on some days –like during the Christmas market of Santurantikuy — it becomes one again. Nevertheless, even when the center is not filled with stalls and vendors hawking wares, it remains a market place where tourists and services for tourists meet, with the jaladores having the job of bringing the two together.
Some tourists ignore the jaladores, others get annoyed. Some joke, some avoid the attempts at speaking English or some other foreign language and respond in Spanish. Some just have lots of fun with the play of desire and hope in interactions with the jaladores. Whichever the case may be, these generally young people working in the streets to get the tourists’ attention form an important part of Cuzco and its culture. Furthermore, they can get you that seat on a balcony from which you can look out enjoy without interruption this charming and romantic city with its amazing present and past.