Huachafo, a Key Word in Peru

One word from Peruvian Spanish says so much that I have to write about it, even if in the process I step into difficult and dangerous areas. The word is huachafo.

Much used, this word casts salt on the wounds of the upwardly mobile and even more on the day to day struggle of the poor. Even the elite, with the slightest misstep, are not immune from it. The word is a sword that slices through pretension as well as pride and hope. It sets every one on an ostensible scape of value owned by the speaker and in which everyone else falls short except those the speaker looks to for validation.

A big part of Peruvian humor is to show how huachafo other people are, especially the social and ethnic others. It is part of the sharpness, the harshness that underlies so much street clowning and television or radio comedy.

As a result, the word is ultimately undefinable, even though many have tried. It is a general use negation, a tearing away of all worth and value, at least for that moment. At the same time it marks boundaries of taste and status that make Peruvian society work.

The Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy defines the word as cursi, which means “lacking in taste” or vulgar.

Indeed the word might be like vulgar, which has its origins in the Latin word for the common people, the vulgus, what in Spanish today is called el pueblo. This is also what self respecting people of standing and status try to avoid and use as the prototype of the scandalous, the model of a lack of propriety.

Of course, as the Urban Dictionary points out, even the elite can be cursi, lacking in taste and propriety, especially since taste can belong to an avant garde which may be patronized by the elite but refuses to recognize their standing in matters of taste.

You will hear the word huachafo slung with abandon in Peru, especially in Lima.

It accompanies word like serrano (highlander), indio (Indian), and cholo (see our article on this word), as insults which establish a spatial and racial hierarchy. These separate mountain dwellers from the more refined people of the coasts and White people from less than White.

Even though there has been a lot of change and the word cholo has been inverted to become an in-group word of solidarity among Peruvians, still this racial and spatial hierarchy informs Peruvian life and sense of quality, value and social status.

Huachafo cannot help but be lined to it, even if only in context. However, it is likely the word has more than a mere contextual relationship.

Martha Hildebrandt acknowledges that the word is often argued to come from the Quechua waqcha (often Hispanized as wacha) though she, in a magnificent act of casuistic special pleading argues it must come from a Columbian word.

Hildebrandt claims that a Colombian family lived in Lima and threw lively parties called in Colombian guachafitas. After a while neighbors became tired of the parties and passed the word, now with a negative cast, to describe the people who carried them out. However, what is missing here is the mechanism to make the word widespread. Without that, the etymology is wishful thinking.

A Guachafo in Cuzco
Mixtures of  Native and Business Clothes

Nevertheless, Peru is filled with faulty and wishful etymologies. Hildebrandt’s may well be one of them. Without strong proof, which is not furnished, it is foolish to avoid the obvious, and maybe even prejudicial.

The word huacha is widespread in Peru where it is a borrowing of the Quechua waqcha, keeping a kind of translation given in colonial times while adding increased negativity. It is hard for me not to believe this, with the addition of the adjectival suffix -fo, is not the origin of the word huachafo.

Waqcha refers to the poorest members of a campesino community, those who do not have land of their own and must as a consequence beg patronage from people better off than themselves. It is like other words to refer to peasant, perhaps indentured, servants such as pongo. These also carry a strongly contemptuous cast in Spanish throughout the Andes.

Another meaning for waqcha is orphan, or someone who loses the support of his community or family, or simply does not have it. It may be people who are cut off or split off, as with the Quechua verb waqchay.

In any case, the word has been available for centuries in Spanish as huacha, a general word for something lowly or lacking in standing. It is simply a short step from there to the adjective huachafo, as we said, although one does have to account for the suffix (and that may be the hardest task of all, though I am not going to attempt it here). Nevertheless, the similarity in meaning between huacha and huachafo make the former the most likely candidate for being the origin of huachafo.

This does raise another point, however, even if Martha Hildebrandt is right. That is the ongoing erasure and denial of Peru’s Indigenous past, at the same time it is officially celebrated. Both processes happen at the same time, placing contemporary Indians in a difficult and dangerous place in Peru of being overly celebrated (especially if they stay in the past) all the while being the very image of the bad.

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