Profs. Garcia, Lucero
To Connect to the World: A Brief Ethnography of the Street Vendors in the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, Peru
Introduction/Field Site and Research Question
The Plaza de Armas in Cusco, Peru has been described as the most “touristy” location in the city and perhaps the country. Giant cathedrals tower over a colonial style plaza, complete with cobble-stone streets, an enormous fountain, and, of course, a Kentucky Fried Chicken. While the plaza is a site for many different spaces, many of them revolve around tourism, and the most prominent feature of this is the constant approach of vendors wishing to sell items or services. A group of my fellow students and I set out to observe this behavior between 3:30 and 5:30 on a Wednesday afternoon. (In this paper I have also included descriptions of people and places I have observed at other points in Cusco.) While watching the approach of these vendors towards others, and especially while observing their approach towards us (my research team,) we were able to witness wielding of social power in a manner such as a grand performance. The question is, then, which “powers” each participant wields, in what manner, and to what extent they are participating in this exchange. This essay is an attempt to structure this exchange is terms of a “performance,” in relation to Michael Hill’s article “Inca of the Blood, Inca of the Soul: Embodiment, Emotion, and Racialization in the Peruvian Mystical Tourist Industry.”
The Description and Connection to Hill
The vendors seem to fall into four different “types“. While sitting on a bench in the plaza, one might first be approached by a well-dressed “Indian” woman, usually with a colorful wrap, brimmed hat, flared red dress with petticoat, stockings or leg warmers, and short, black heels. I was approached twice on my own by one of these woman asking if I’d like to take a picture of them for a sol, and I declined. They usually carry trinkets meant as gifts, shawls, jeweler, “authentic Andean music” cd’s, Calabasas, etc. One woman smiled as she shook a calabasa and said “para su madre.” (For your mother.) I was tempted. She seemed to glitter in that moment, warm and comforting, with genuine smile lines in her face. But I declined.
Michael Hill perhaps would describe this as appealing to the “first world guilt” of tourists. Many of the items sold by these vendors seem to have a primary purpose of “being cultural” and therefore “helping to bridge cultures.” According to Hill’s research, tourism which identifies and exoticism the “other” might be an attempt to bridge culture with cash, because of a “have/have not” guilt complex. He quotes a tourist:
“…I feel like shopping [laughing] is sort of like my service, my way of helping the community.”
The second type of vendor is the “hippie” vendor, usually in comfortable clothing and functional shoes, with long hair and a relaxed demeanor. These men and women (usually 20-something white or Mediterranean men with tans) have an easy going energy about them, as though they genuinely want to hang out later. Usually they are selling strands of beads to put in ones hair, necklaces with a vague indigenous design, or are performing juggling tricks or music in the open. They do not usually approach, but when they do, it is with hands clasped and warm smile. After declining an offer for a hair ornament, I was told I was beautiful and to have good luck.
Hill quotes Elizabeth Jenkins:
“[Cusquenos] stood on the earth with such natural grace. It was as if there were an invisible line of energy that connected their bodies to the ground.”
According to Hill, the Andes are often a place for spiritual “quest,” and the idea of “adventurer” instead of “tourist” appeals to many. With the firm eye contact and soft-spoken “real talk,” these types seem to be appealing to those who wish for this sort of “contact with the real.” Therefore, not only might some visitors feel guilt about their visit, but:
“[are] inhabiting class privilege, yet desiring to disown it.”
The third type is the “chic” vendor, who, if male, wears Armani-esque t-shirts, jeans, and fancy tennis or leather shoes. Generally these men are selling sunglasses. Always the price starts around 40 soles, and after several refusals, the price might drop to around 20. The pattern is very set, from the experiences I have had watching my friends buy these “Ray-Bans.” The women in this set are stationed along the edge of the plaza, and politely offer massages as one walks past. They are dressed professionally but still with a lower-cut shirt, and are generally between 5’2” and 5’5”. Walking one block into the Plaza along Aveineda de Media yielded 9 offers for a massage.
Hill quotes some tourists who state:
“Some people like to be able to order tall skim lattes everywhere they go, but we’re not like that.”
Yet later on in the interview, they giggle and admit a:
“…Stash of chocolate covered espresso beans in their hotel room.”
The forth type is the “poverty” vendor, who usually is less than 20 years old. If a boy, shoe-shines are offered. If a girl, dolls or puppets. These vendors do not generally tout their wares as highly as the others, but rather offer short stories of necessity. One boy came right up to me, pointed to my leather shoes (a little scuffed) and asked if I needed a shine. I politely told him no, but he asked again. I replied that I did not need a shoe shine, but he lifted his fingers to his mouth and muttered “es para comer.” (It’s to eat.) And I gave him a sol. And still I feel terrible because it wasn’t enough.
“…Many of the tourists I interviewed spoke of how children who approached them begging or vending their products pulled at their heartstrings (while sometimes also annoying them.) Part of the per formative work these children often do is to adequately dramatize abject poverty. While some tourists worried that the children might actually just be ‘acting’ or ‘telling a story in order to swindle some pocket change, others maintained that whether they were self-consciously performing or not made little difference, as the ‘act’ was part of the commodified exchange. If the performance was ‘real enough’ the children were able to gain sympathy and earn money.”
The “tourists” fell into several categories as well. The “hippies,” identifiable by their dreadlocks, functional shoes, loose-fitting pants, and eclectic color clashes, usually hung out with the vendors selling hair-ornaments, and often times rebuked any offer from someone “chic.” One gentleman (“chic”) offered another(“hippie“) a flier to a night club, and the latter looked up from playing the bongo drums and stated coldly “what makes you think I would ever want that?”
Many other tourists had the classic “tourist” look, with floppy wide-brimmed hat, shorts, white socks and tennis shoes, and to them each approach from any of these vendors was greeted with a “No Gracias” as mechanical as it ever could be. It seemed amusing, unless, of course the vendor was poor. Then, after the requisite and polite refusal (much more heartfelt and overdone than usual), they would walk in silence. Perhaps a woman with a camera around her neck would hold her heart and her husbands hand, muttering something. Time would pass. Eventually, the frown would fade, the hand drop from the chest, and the other swing side to side, as the couple enjoyed the afternoon in the sun.
The younger tourist scene seemed comprised of students in small English speaking groups, and vacationers from college. And after the approaches, all seemed to be grandly uncomfortable. I heard one group talking and the phrase “why don’t they just leave us alone?” was said. One girl, after being approached by the same boy that I was, said something along the lines of “But I’m poor too! I don’t have that much money after the ticket here!” She wore jeans, a pink tee-shirt, and sandals. Her friends wore alpaca sweaters and woven side bags.
The exchange rate is currently 2.74 PEN to 1 USD / 3.85 PEN to 1 EUR. Tourists have a financial power. They are able to afford to come, stay, eat, and play in Cusco; they also can afford these small items and services. Therefore it seems that tourists have actually collectively chosen this performance of culture as favorable, by buying into it. They have come to see Cusco, and apparently, Cusco is now a place where shopping has become an exciting adventure, one where someone can buy from an “authentic Andean” or barter with an attractive and friendly “chic” or “alternative” Peruvian. One has the possibility to see the “real” Peru, one “full of poverty” as evidenced by a child’s wide eyes, and for one brief moment, touch the heart of him or her with a single sol.
Yet while power is usually seen as coming from the “top down,” it is clear that this view ignores the more complex, performative relationship that these vendors have with their clients. This experience is, of course, made possible by the demand for it, but it is created by the people who are out in the plaza every day. Each vendor knows which emotional string to pull. This does not imply manipulation. The demand is for these emotional strings to be pulled, and the vendors are happy to oblige. They have a certain control over the heart which defies any sort of intellectual barrier, and this control is granted by the spectator-tourists. This is because traveling to Cusco is also attempting to “connect to the world”. Something exists in the Plaza that fulfills a deep need in the traveler, and the vendors have power over its creation. This power, however, is “granted” by the spectator-tourists, as it would be in any performative space.
So how does each group participate in this exchange of power? It seems thus: The need for investment has created a willingness to perform by (some) Cuscuenos, the willingness to perform has become performance based upon what (most) tourist-spectators buy, this performance deepens as financial stakes become higher, and as more and more wish to “connect with the world,” the Plaza de Armas experience becomes a more lucrative commodity.
Conclusion-Reaction and Reflection
“Force” is not an entirely appropriate word to describe what happens in the Plaza de Armas. There are no overseers, in fact some might make that argument that the vendors have every right to quit and “get another job.” However, conditions are such that a lucrative commodity which bases itself in experience is created.
I’ve seen a clear reaction against this sort of exchange in Cusco. For example, several walls are littered with graffiti such as:
“Peru Para Los Peruanos.”
During a rally for fair wages for construction workers, a sign reads
“No Se Vende Cusco. Se Defende Cusco.”
So, my immediate reaction is my usual one. I have a deeply held distrust of tourism and its so called “selling of culture.” I tend to see things are performative because I am obsessed with the study of performance. These are my biases.
I also have noticed that this is an attempt to remove myself from system. I’d very much like to be an objective observer of this plaza, and to count myself as a tourist is somehow demeaning to me. But everyone in this plaza is participating in a massive exchange. I participate by simply filling space in the plaza. I participate by writing this paper. I participate by categorizing these “performers.” I am a tourist-spectator and I feed the machine.
Clearly, the whole conversation is problematic. There exists inequity even in critiquing the “performance” of the Plaza. However, according to Hill, there lies a solution to these inequities within this system of “exchange“. He suggests that if tourists become self-aware of every part of this system, then they might be able to shift from a spectator standpoint to an active one. What fuels the willingness to perform is financial necessity, and tourists fulfill this need. What fuels tourism is a need to connect with the world, and the Plaza fulfills this need. If tourists recognize themselves and the systems within they participate by spectating, then perhaps a more active role can develop, continuing the financial investment while “connecting” with the world in more active, less consumptive ways.
“Such a development would offer yet new ways for [tourists] to think about the meaning or purpose of their trips and might help them avoid the extremes or exoticism or disillusionment…”
Rather than a group of “performer vendors” in front a group of “spectator-tourists,” I would very much like to see a mix of individuals freely and fairly exchanging face to face, active, connected to the ground.
- Hill, Michael. “Inca of the Blood, Inca of the Soul: Embodiment, Emotion, and Racialization in the Peruvian Mystical Tourist Industry.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 76.2 (2008): 251-79. Print.