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Crossing the cultural divide

By Chris Hufstader

Santos Puma Paso used to be a health promoter, a volunteer helping his community of indigenous people to prevent diseases and get better medical care. Despite his commitment to this work, he never got much help from the nearest health clinic. It used to take him an entire day to walk there from his remote village, Yarccacunca—a quiet place clinging precariously to the side of a mountain in the Andes—but no one would ever meet with him or help him.

Paso suspected the reason for this neglect, and it became clear when one health official told Paso that he was not fit to wash dishes in their office because he was an indigenous Quechua speaker, an ethnic group at the bottom of the social order in the scenic region of Cusco. Paso was so discouraged that he almost believed him.

"I was lost," says Paso, now 37, married, and the father of three young boys. "I did not know what culture I belonged to."

Racism, and the discrimination it breeds, erodes the self-respect of the highland indigenous people of Peru. They turn away from their culture and slowly drop their traditional ways of living and working that are so well suited to the Andes. As a result, indigenous people are among the poorest in the country. Paso could see it around his village: farmers like him were not following their traditions of helping each other in their fields; they were poor and ashamed of their culture.

To get some perspective, Paso visited the Centro de Bartolomé de Las Casas, known by its initials CBC, because he had heard on the radio that it was running a bilingual education program designed to help indigenous leaders like him reconcile their place in Peru, learn about their human rights, and develop skills to represent their community with government officials. He joined the program and began learning to read and write in his own Quechua language as well as in Spanish, and he is now more confident in his ability to function in his own indigenous world and the official, Spanish-speaking culture of Peru.

With grants from Oxfam America, CBC had just finished a year-long consultation with Quechua-speaking community leaders and had jointly developed a curriculum designed to help young leaders value their own culture while operating in Peru's modern, post-colonial culture. "We have created a way to help people see they are part of one culture, but they recognize the other," says Nicolette Velarde, an anthropologist at CBC. She says this helps the community leaders create a "dialogue of respect and recognition of one culture with the other."

"Both are valuable," Velarde says. "I am different from you, you are different from me, but there is dialogue and respect."

Fruit of Quechua Culture

After developing the curriculum, CBC is now in the midst of training its first group of leaders, which included Paso and 30 others from Cusco and Apurimac.

One of them is Guillermina Mamani Huamán, 53, a mother of four and grandmother of seven. She had a similar experience to Paso's the first time she visited the city of Cusco, 15 years ago. "It was the first time I ever left my village ... Every time I think of it I get emotional," she says, sitting at her loom, staked out on the ground on the banks of the Mapuche River rushing past her father and sister's house.

Huamán went to Cusco to ask a government agency for help in marketing artisan products, but, over the course of four days, she was repeatedly denied the courtesy of even a short consultation. She struggled to find her way in the city, unable to read the street signs, frustrated by her illiteracy, and discouraged by her confrontation with institutionalized racism.

Indigenous women get little help from government agencies whose mission is to assist them. And indigenous women have special problems, even within their own culture, in that men do not always respect the work they do in their homes, and artisan women find that their handicrafts do not fetch a very high price. Huamán intends to learn how to better promote indigenous artisanry and build respect for the work of women. "We need to value fairly what we produce," she says. "This traditional way of weaving is the fruit of our culture, and every weaving has its own character—each woman puts in the way she sees the world."

Paso and Huamán and all the other leaders are planning how they will use their newfound knowledge and leadership skills. Paso is planning to run for public office so he can better represent his community and ensure it gets the schools, health care, and clean water it deserves, without forsaking its cultural identity.

Huamán wants to continue her work to promote the handicrafts produced by women in her community so that they can be more financially independent. "I want to help women educate their children," she says while weaving next to the rushing river, "so they can read and write, and not face the discrimination that I have."

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