Peruvian Street Lives: Culture, Power, and Economy among Market Women of Cuzco

By Ulfe, María Eugenia | Anthropological Quarterly, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Peruvian Street Lives: Culture, Power, and Economy among Market Women of Cuzco


Ulfe, María Eugenia, Anthropological Quarterly


Linda J. Seligmann, Peruvian Street Lives: Culture, Power, and Economy among Market Women of Cuzco. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004, 249 pp.

In Los Ríos Profundos (Deep Rivers) (1956), Peruvian writer and ethnographer José María Arguedas provides a vivid portrait of Peruvian history and culture drawing primarily on Andean lives and customs. In the novel, Arguedas describes markets and the strong character of Andean market women. Market women appear defiant, resolute, yet ambiguous-their lives, as that of the main character of the novel, struggle between their Andean traditions and modern Peru, blurring sociopolitical and geographical boundaries, and in the case of women, trespassing gender and racial categories. Why do markets and market women fascinate academics?

In Peruvian Street Lives, Linda Seligmann analyzes the politics of market women and the complexities of Peru's economy. Building on Florence Babb's [(1989)1998] study of women vendors, the author discusses the cultural, political, and economic dimensions of the lives of Cuzqueno market women; specifically, how meanings and practices are performed under uneven development conditions. We should situate Seligmann's research as part of a number of studies about Andean markets as places or terrains where contested identities are negotiated, issues of race, gender and social discrimination are at stake, and power relations are performed (among others see, Babb 1989; De la Cadena 2000; Larson, Harris, and Tandeter 1995; Weismantel 2001). Seligmann's main contribution is to look at the market from a socio-cultural perspective. She describes the market as a "world in flux, yet it has its comforting rhythms" (vii). This is a book about social relations or what the author describes as "spatial relations;" the chapters of the book provide the rhythm, and the voices of these women (their laughs, gossips, and bad-moods) provide the "noise" which is an important aspect of markets.

The chapters are organized as vignettes that speak of the market, exchange relations, gender ideologies; the world of wholesalers, loans, and credit arrangements, issues of race, religiosity, and political activism. Three main strategies of research link these vignettes into a narrative. First, this is an analysis of how the market is constructed as a "locale" (space, place) where different interactions take place, or as a nodal point for the convergence of uneven and complex relationships. Social relations and political activism are understood in terms of the conquest of a space (within the market and, therefore, as citizenship rights that are claimed) but also as the disruption of the existing organization (202-205). second, although the author also interviews men, market women are the primary subjects of this story. Their names and life histories show the hardship of their daily struggles for surviving in a hostile environment. Third, it is these women's voices and the author's voice that make this book a dialogue with its spaces of disjuncture, conflict, and points of convergence (13-17). This ethnography is rich in detail and shows the author's ability to collaborate with research subjects.

Linda Seligmann has done extensive fieldwork in the department of Cuzco, Peru since the 1970s. Her book Between Reform and Revolution: Political Struggles in the Peruvian Andes, 1969-1991 (1995), describes the politics of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform carried out during the military regime of Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968-1975) and is based on fieldwork in the Sucuani region. And, Peruvian Street Lives is based upon multi-sited fieldwork in Cuzquerfo markets (mainly urban markets) during the late 1990s: a decade characterized by political violence, authoritarianism, military repression, and in seeking to strengthen the state's presence in the provinces, the implementation of austerity measures and Neoliberal laws. Few anthropologists have analyzed the implementation and consequences of these Neoliberal policies in South America; in Ecuador, however, Colloredo-Mansfeld (2001) has studied how Neoliberalism affected the production and commercialization of Otavalo's handicrafts. …

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