The Andes: Personal Reflections on Cultural Change, 1977-2010

By Knapp, Gregory | Journal of Cultural Geography, October 2010 | Go to article overview

The Andes: Personal Reflections on Cultural Change, 1977-2010


Knapp, Gregory, Journal of Cultural Geography


As my jet glided in for its landing in Lima, Peru, in the summer of 1977, I reviewed my papers and looked out of the window. Beneath the fog, the tan desert merged with numberless tan houses, and then we landed. The taxi took me to a "hotel" in Chinatown, which had been recommended by a fellow graduate student. I soon walked to another place, on the San Francisco Plaza grinning at the practical joke that had been played on me. Surrounded by colonial architecture and flocks of friendly pigeons, I began to immerse myself in Peruvian culture for my master's thesis research.

This was not my first trip to Latin America; I had traveled through Mexico, Guatemala and Belize for three months in 1976 in the company of a marine biologist (Howard Wright) as part of a field course on Mesoamerican human ecology. As someone who at that time was a Berkeley radical, Sinophile, and backpacker, that trip was eye opening as to the cultural landscapes and worlds that were so easily accessible from California. We visited the raised fields of Xochimilco, snorkeled on the Belizean reef, experienced the 1976 Guatemala earthquake and subsequently traveled through Chichicastenango and the tent city for refugees. We prowled the ruins of Chichen Itza, Tikal, Palenque, and Tulfim, explored Oaxaca and Michoacan, and returned to California via Chihuahua. I was convinced that Latin America would be my area of concentration.

I had just completed my years at Berkeley with a focus on economic history, but had in the process discovered the discipline of geography. I sat in on classes by James Parsons and Clarence Glacken and became hooked on Sauerian cultural geography as a way to combine interests in lifeways, the environment, and alternatives to what Sauer called our commercial culture. As a student radical I protested the war and racism, and demonstrated for People's Park, but the opportunities to make a constructive contribution to social change seemed limited. I was influenced by the poetry and prose of Gary Snyder and Kenneth Rexroth to seek meaning in other cultures, particularly those of long time depth. The trip to the indigenous areas of Mesoamerica whetted this appetite.

From Berkeley I went to Wisconsin to study with Bill Denevan. Sitting in on one of his classes, I was transfixed by his discussion of agricultural landforms and especially a lecture on the sunken fields of coastal Peru. I decided to do field work in the Peruvian coastal desert, map these features and determine their functions.

Thus I landed in Lima, with minimal Spanish. Everything captured my curiosity--the poverty and suffering, the beggars who to me resembled illustrations from a medical encyclopedia, the fog and dust, but also the architectural ingenuity and variety, the food, the lively poetry scene, and, of course, the agricultural landscape. I determined that there were some sunken fields at Chilca, but that the bulk of the site was a zone of embanked floodwater farms. In the process, I got bit by rabid dogs (as did almost every archaeologist who worked there).

During this trip I started to learn about Peruvian culture. I worked with the mayor's family (literally the only place to stay in Chilca), and began to see the importance of family networks in getting things done, and in providing a safety net in times of trouble. This family had members both rural and urban, both rich and poor, and of a variety of political perspectives. Since then, I have again and again seen family webs transcend geography, class, ethnicity, and politics. Through this family's contacts I was also able to visit a tenement in Rimac and learn a bit of creole culture.

Early on, however, I learned to steer clear of politicians and bureaucrats in favor of talking directly with farmers, teachers, clergy, and other professionals. One of the refreshing changes in the Andes in the last few decades has been the emergence of a new kind of mayor, who has the means and the will to accomplish useful projects benefiting a range of ethnic groups. …

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