Commentary, Food Culture

On Businesses, Gods, and People

A Farmer

In the last year of the seventies, just as the eighties were ready to glide in, I lived in a rural community on Lake Titicaca. Not only were we slipping towards a new decade, the community was on the border between Bolivia and Peru and was rushing towards a new way of being.

My mind returns there, this snowy morning when I am just back in the United States after spending a month in Cuzco. At that time the majority of the people in the Department of Cuzco lived much like those of the Lake community I got to know and also were pushing, whether deliberately or inadvertently, for change.

Just being back in the Land of Gringos, while pacing carefully by my train stop to not slip on ice and watching people stand in separate bubbles of existence between which no words pass, while sipping on Seven Eleven Coffee with many eating breakfast food from the Del Taco across the street, makes me think of this other time and place.

I guess that is a point of my profession, anthropology, to bring worlds that otherwise stay separate into a common space like this blog. Though my America and their space of some one-thousand persons stretched over the slopes and valley floors of two broad, grassy valleys opening on the Lake, seem so different, at the time they were finding ways to gain admission to the world I live in. They were pounding on the door, demanding admission.

Drinking Coca Cola
Drinking Coca Cola

That is why I, a twenty-four year old graduate student in anthropology went there. After a surprise phone call one morning from Washington D.C., I found I had been given some money to go figure out why they wanted to change so badly. Now, the transformation is old hat to anthropologists and hordes of graduate students and faculty have written on it, but there may still be something in the discussion, maybe not about them but about the world I inhabit whether in the United States, or in Cuzco.

For that city, stretched like a band on the edge of breaking, from its old Inca core that people claim to have the shape of a Puma, to every direction of sun and shadow. It tensely expands over its mountains, and with striations showing, down the Watanay Valley and up valleys. Though it to used to feel so different from my Austin, though it still is different, many things are the same. Like my Austin, it has Starbucks, Mexican restaurants, Chinese restaurants, supermarkets, a mall with department stores, dvd’s for sale, and the sounds of reggaeton and salsa bouncing from plugged in ears.

Huacuyo, the community that hosted me, had none of this then. People did not eat Chifa, Chinese food, not even sip coffee much. This latter was a market food and cost scarce cash so people only used it, and the sugar that went in it, very rarely. They did not watch movies nor TV, although radio was waving at them and occasionally drew their ears. There was only a small, tentative store in the community.

People spent their days raising food, watching the mountains and skies as well as each other, and working on each others agricultural and housing projects. They would also join in feasts and ritual, as well as discussions of politics and how to escape the yoke of a society that saw them as the bottom and allowed them few doors for mobility

They had recently fought and taken on a new nationalism and new kinds of identities, beyond their traditional one of jaqi–people, and occasional participants in neighborhood, community, and other close-by groups. This came with a public school, they also fought for. The old landlord had banned education and the struggled, occasionally in secret and sometimes openly to win time and space to sit in front of notebooks and published books to learn to read the quillkas, the scratches of letters that carried meaning and opened doors of change.

Right before I go there, they decided to try on religions, though they were Catholic and practiced lots of ritual for the mountain “ancestors. These churches, denominations, and congregations–with their books, hymns, and meetings were at least transnational and often supra-national. They came with very different identities, rituals, and notions of the holy. All of them included meetings–a social form that was claiming the globe and which I, personally, would love to escape. They bore me though, like most people in my world, I spend large amounts if my weeks and months in them.

Trading at the Market
Trading at the Market

Money was tight. The people used to require so little of it, though they needed every more so their kids could afford the tools of gaining that education: notebooks, pens, pencils, books, chalk, and–of course, uniforms. They also had to change their work schedule and labor demands so their kids could be free for those days and days of sitting in a closed room while listening to an authority, a teacher, and scratching down on graph paper what they spoke.

People looked forward and saw they did not have enough land to enable all their kids to build houses amongst the crags and grass of their mountains, or where the jawiras, the streams, gurgled through. If each inherited equally, their would only be a few furrows for each, they said. So they worried about how to get them into the cities and give them the skills to survive and build a life.

They needed more money, so the men–and often the children, boys and girls–would hop on trucks and sometimes buses to go to the city, make friends–build networks as we say–and work.

Their lives were rapidly changing. Like us, they were learning new ways of living. Now they had time, hours, days, and weeks, to schedule and numbers to calculate prices, wages, and values. These numbers became big and small, as they learned about birthdays, ages, dates, history, censuses, grant proposals, economies, and the horsemen of the apocalypse.

Where once they worried about the mood of the grandmother, the tallest mountain around, and disciplined themselves and their families to keep her happy along with her husband, a two-peaked rise next to her, now they were engaging new notions of the holy and the transcendent–that which is bigger than them and beyond the ordinary world.

Coca Cola Company
Coca Cola Company

They drink Coca-Cola now, and like us, find their lives turing on axes of national and multinational businesses from which they get more and more of their food, their clothing, their identities, and the ideas and conversations that fill their days and dreams.

The businesses may be different, and the density of interaction may be less, but we both live in a world where DIY is a rebellion of tiny proportion, instead of water for fish, or air, land, and others for people. They are learning how to propitiate bureaucrats and cash registers, while keeping blessings and merchandise coming their way. They know, now how to open packages and bottles for their daily sustenance, as they learn to negotiate drive throughs, and the mysteried of an I-Pod.

Still we are not completely the same. If we were, I suppose I could just stay in one place or the other, plug in and let it be while lifting a hamburger made from commercial stuff–that great term of metaphysics–whose origin and transmission are mysteries but whose scent, taste, and appearance matter so very much. The differences now are of pacing and details, rather than of substance, of quality rather than of kind. We all spend most of our lives, now, interacting with businesses, large and small.

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