Migration and Cultural Identities

Ulla Dalum Berg
New York University

'Matahuasi Querida'

Draft version - Work in progress.


Migrants from the highland village of Matahuasi in Lima are planning to raise a statue of a local folkloric figure, the Aukin, in the main square in their native village. Some voices among local residents would rather have a statue of a Huaylash dancer, which is the symbol of the city of Huancayo - a nearby urban, commercial center associated with progress and modernity in the central highlands. The proposed paper will tell the story of the coming into being of this 'monument for Matahuasino identity' as it is called by the urban migrants and the problems encountered in the process. It will discuss the role of urban migrants in negotiating the premises for representation of the 'local culture' of their native village. By focusing on this particular struggle over local politics of representation, the paper reflects upon the tensions emerging from the intersections of rural and urban lifeworlds.


Undoubtedly, in spite of increasing transnational migration, internal rural-urban migration has been the most important migratory flow in Latin America in the 20th century. This paper seeks to explore some of the social and cultural dynamics inherent to rural-urban migration in Peru. One such dynamic - the objectification of culture - becomes a central site for contestation over how to define the past and how to define ones culture: "nuestra cultura". The first part of the paper gives a historical perspective on internal migration flows in the central highlands of Peru. The second part examines a case study of urban migrants in Lima from the highland village of Matahuasi, who work to create a 'monument for Matahuasino identity' as they call it. I will discuss the role of urban migrants in negotiating the premises for representation of 'local culture' inside and outside their native village. By focusing on this particular struggle over local politics of representation, the paper reflects upon the tensions emerging from the intersections of rural and urban lifeworlds.

Migration in the Central Highlands of Peru: A Historical Perspective

Spatial mobility has long been a constituent of Andean livelihood practices. From pre-colonial times, many highland communities all over the Peruvian Andes were interconnected with the coast and the jungle lowlands through a well-integrated production, distribution, and trade and exchange system. In his famous theory of Andean 'vertical ecology', John Murra shows how the subsistence needs of Andean populations were met by controlling access to as many microclimates, altitudes and ecological environments as possible (Murra 1972). These ecological zones were often situated in different parts of the country and at different altitude levels. Distances between them could be enormous, but people traveled as a necessary condition of the diversified production system. Murra's study is only one among other examples on the historical importance of mobility for Andean livelihoods.

However, spatial mobility does not occur in a political vacuum and in Peru it has been structured and mediated by power relations, first set up by the colonial regime and later by the modern state - power relations that were predominantly based on geography, race, and social class. Mobile individuals were marked and thus constrained by their 'location' within the dominant social and spatial order. This spatial order is a historically and culturally constructed hierarchy of geographical places in Peru which has existed since at least the time of the conquest and which have influenced not only the organization of space but also to a large extent the production of social identities. In this 'spatial hierarchy', as I call it, the coast was the historical site of Spanish colonial (and later criollo) culture; the sierra the place of ancient indigenous civilizations like the Inca Empire, however, later seen as unsuccessful in entering 'modernity', and finally, the selva, home of native and savage tribes (los nativos), who unlike the highland Indians never were seen as having contributed anything of historical importance to the official Peruvian history and society. Marisol de la Cadena has called this phenomenon 'the racialization of geography' which basically means that people were socially ranked according to their geographical surroundings and ethnic origin: "the higher the geographical elevation, the lower the social status of its inhabitants" (De la Cadena 2000:21).

The history of spatial mobility in the Central Highlands is interesting when re-read from this perspective. Already in the early colonial regime, labor migration became institutionalized as involuntary labor recruitment to the mines. When the Spanish Crown took over the mines and increased mining exploitation as an important aim of the colonization of the Central Highlands, Mantaro valley residents were recruited to work in the mines and the local economies of the Mantaro area were linked to a regional and global economic system through the colonial mining economy (Long et al. 1978: 305). The Spaniards proclaimed the city of Jauja the first capital of Peru. Later in history, industrialization spurred further migration to the mining areas and to Lima as well. At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, the rural population of the Mantaro valley experienced increased labor migration to the mines of Yauli, Morococha and Cerro de Pasco, which were now owned by British and American companies (Contreras et al. 1999: 169). This tendency continued and expanded in the 1920s, due to the establishment of a refinery in La Oroya in 1922 by the Cerro de Pasco Mining Corporation (Laite 1984: 117).

Another important fact, which contributed to the interconnectedness of Mantaro valley communities with areas and cities beyond the region in the same period, was the expansion of the system of communications and the construction of the railway (Contreras et al. 1999: 169). The latter began operation in 1908 and connected Huancayo to the mining sector and to Lima and Callao, thus facilitating the transport of minerals and wool from the highlands to the coast. In the 1930s, the general economic depression affected the mining sector in Peru, which had to decrease its production, and consequently, labor migration to the mines decreased in this period. After WWII, however, the regional mining economy experienced a revival, and migration to the mines increased again, as did migration from the central highlands to Lima. By the 1940s, Junín was the Peruvian department that contributed most migrants to the Lima-Callao area (Long et al. 1978: 5). Matahuasi was, along with Sicaya, one of the villages in the valley with the highest rate of out-migration and the largest number of urban migrants in Lima (Long 1977: 155; Long et al. 1984: 197). Most Matahuasinos arrived in the capital in search of work, often helped by distant relatives or by the first Matahuasino organization in Lima, which was dedicated to help newcomers to adjust to city life and provide economic assistance if required. In the following decades, an increasing number of Matahuasinos migrated to Lima. Some sustained mobile livelihoods and traveled back and forth between the valley and the capital. Others settled down more permanently in Lima. Out-migration from the Mantaro valley to the country's capital continued through the 1950s and 1960s as rural-urban migration of a more permanent nature. The richer Matahuasinos migrated mainly as traders and transporters, but maintained their land in the village and continued farming activities with the help of family members and in-migrants whom they contracted as peones (poorly paid day laborers). These traders and transporters played a leading role in the introduction of new forms of agricultural technology and cropping patterns in Matahuasi (Long et al. 1978: 22; Long 1979). The poorer segment of the peasant population in Matahuasi migrated mainly to the mines as laborer but was never able to capitalize much from their earnings. Today the mining sector has practically lost its importance as a focal point for Matahuasino labor migration.

In the 1960s, Peruvians started to migrate on a larger scale to other countries, as the political and economic situation in the country did not provide many possibilities to make a living (Altamirano 1992: 62). The first destination for international migrants was the United States, but in the following decades the Peruvian diaspora expanded to countries like Japan, Spain, Italy, Canada, Chile and Argentina (ibid.: 84). These migrants worked mainly as manual workers in construction and services, with the women working as domestic workers. In addition, there has been a more specialized labor migration of herders from the Central Highlands to the United States. Transnational migration from Peru increased during the 1980s and 1990s. It has been estimated that between 1989 and 1994, when the social and economic crisis in the country was at its highest, about one million lower- and middle-class Peruvians migrated to the United States, Spain, Argentina, Italy or Japan (Contreras et al. 1999: 290). A considerable part of the Peruvian transnational migration networks originate in the Central Highlands, and the impact of transnational labor migration on local highland economies are of increasing significance. In Matahuasi, for example, transnational migration has become an increasingly important constituent feature of socio-economic life. Recently, it has not even been necessary for Mantaro valley migrants to travel to Lima in order to enter a transnational migration circuit. Many formalized yet illegal networks operate from Huancayo. These networks traffic migrants out of the country on tourist visas or false residence papers from countries with easy tourist access to the United States and Europe (See Berg 2002).

The social and cultural dynamics of migration

The relative economic, political and geographical closeness to Lima throughout history have spurred a common notion among many Mantaro valley residents of a special location in the spatial hierarchy of Peru. This includes a self-perception among urban, mestizo valley residents as socially and culturally different from the rest of the Peruvian highland populations, including the migrant communities in Lima

This generalized self-perception has materialized in the construction of a regional ethnic identity discourse as wankas. The wankas were a pre-hispanic ethnic group, which inhabited the area and long resisted conquest by the Incas and they were allied of the Spanish in the war against the Inca Empire (Smith 1989:38). Today, as noted by the Peruvian anthropologist Raul Romero, being Wanka is synonymous with 'being modern' when used by valley residents (1999:173). However, while asserting the wanka identity as a social condition, which implies being both 'modern', urban, and economically successful, they also claim an authentic regional culture (la cultura wanka). Being wanka is thus opposing and taking distance from the stereotypical urban (and specially limeño) gaze on Andean peasants as poor, rural and "anti-modern" and "without culture" (sin cultura) - an image which has grown out of a long history of political and economic centralism in Peru, with Lima and its criollo population as the dominant center and the Andean hinterland as a remote and isolated periphery, spatially and temporary distant from the national context and history of Peru (Cánepa 1998: 14).

The urban Matahuasinos I interviewed in Lima always distanced themselves from the generalized category of 'migrantes'. In urban Peru, the migrant coming from the Andean highlands [el Andino] has long been generally conceived as a poor, humble, rural Indian and stigmatized as an "anti-modern" individual who speaks Quechua and only poor Spanish (Portocarrero 1993: 13). The urban Matahuasino migrants I worked with during my fieldwork in Lima never identified themselves as 'migrants'. For many, los migrantes were always 'the others': the in-migrants who have settled in the village during and after the political violence in search of new livelihood opportunities. In contrast to these, who were displaced by political violence and economic poverty, the migrants I worked with always emphasized their own control over movement. By producing themselves as part of an educated and economically successful urban community, they could discursively distance themselves from the critical mass of rural, often illiterate migrants, who left their zones of origin because of poverty.

Many highland migrants in Lima participate in regional associations, based on a claim to their belonging to a specific place or region of origin (Altamirano 1980, 1984a, 1984b, Altamirano et al. 1997, Degregori et al. 1986, Doughty 1972, Golte et al. 1987, Isbell 1985, Long 1973; Turino 1993). The Lima-based Matahuasinos I interviewed during my fieldwork mainly participated in organizations at district level. The remaining part of this paper will analyze central practices of cultural production in the realm of one of these organizations called Asociación Cultural Matahuasi (hereafter ACM).

Objectification of 'Nuestra Cultura'

The ACM was formed in 1998. In July 1995, upon the relative normalization of political and economic life in Peru, a committee was established among Matahuasinos in Lima with the purpose of organizing activities to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of their home district of Matahuasi on October 23rd of that year. One of the promoters of the project was the journalist Jorge Arauco; a Matahuasino of Italian descent, who had been secretary of culture in the now disintegrated Club Social y Deportivo de Matahuasi (CSDM) during its most successful years. In 1995, he was the President of the provincial organization Club Concepción and was also the editor of the cultural magazine Concepción: Revista de Difusión e Integración. The new committee, Comité del Centenario, brought together Matahuasinos from several social groups in Lima, among them SAMHM and some former members of the now dissolved CSDM. A couple of meetings were held, but in the end each group undertook their own activities. After the celebrations of the 100th Anniversary in October, the committee was dissolved; however, several years later, several participants from the Comité del Centenario founded Asociación Cultural Matahuasi (ACM) and elected Jorge Arauco as president of the new association.

The objective of the ACM is stated as follows: "The Asociación Cultural Matahuasi is an institution founded by Matahuasinos residents in Lima and Callao, who due to their interest and enthusiasm participated in the commission of the 100. Anniversary, with the purpose of promoting union and fraternity between its members, foster knowledge, research and diffusion of the different cultural manifestations and important historical facts and to incline the material and moral development of the village of Matahuasi…(…)…we will work for the greatness of the land that saw us being born, fundamentally in ethical and cultural aspects". The association stresses furthermore that they have chosen to emphasize the cultural aspect in their work, because "the knowledge and the diffusion of the various cultural expressions of the people of Matahuasi sustain the identity of our nationality" (ACM Bulletín no. 1).

It is clear from this excerpt, and from the data, which will be presented in further detail below, that the major objective is to produce 'Matahuasino culture' as this is conceived by the urban Matahuasinos. This resonates with the conclusions of recent works on cultural production in anthropology and cultural studies, which claim that 'cultural objectification' is central to the social experience of modernity. In these works, objectification of culture is most commonly understood as a self-conscious positioning as culturally distinct subjects within wider fields of power relations (Bourdieu 1993; Myers 1994; Mahon 2000). Objectification of culture can be seen as social dynamics produced by and within wider social and political processes such as globalization, capitalism and neoliberal multiculturalism. Furthermore, it has been suggested that such processes, to a large extent, occur in the public realm of consumption and self-fashioning (Bourdieu 1984; Dávila 2001; Miller 1987, 1995, 1997).

"Un Monumento a la Identidad!"

In 1998, shortly after the foundation of the ACM, an assembly of the association decided that they should 'do something' for Matahuasi. Many initiatives were discussed, and finally it was decided to raise funds to build a monument of two traditional folkloric figures, the Aukin and the Chacuana, from the local folklore dance, the Danza de los Aukines. Urban migrants also call this dance Danza Ancestral and see it as the most 'authentic' and original cultural expression of Matahuasi. The ACM allied itself with the District Council of Matahuasi (El Consejo) in implementing the project, and the Consejo decided to cooperate with the association by donating a concrete pedestal for the statues. As a public symbol of Matahuasino identity, the statue quickly became the main project in the political and cultural agenda of the Asociación Cultural Matahuasi.

During an interview in Lima about the Aukines and the monument, the President of ACM elaborated on the idea of making a 'monumento a la identidad', as he calls it, in Matahuasi:

"Why a monument to the Aukines? Many people have asked us this question. We consider this dance to be the most authentic expression of the popular culture of our village...its message constitutes the essence of our being, and therefore it must be known, recognized and disseminated. The Auquinada is a war dance [danza guerrera] that has been danced to the rhythm of the pito and the tinya from time immemorial. The name comes from Aukikuna, which means ancestors...elders...the ancients...and of course experience and wisdom. The Aukines teach us to live and work as a community and to practice solidarity and cooperation. In the dance, you can appreciate the collectivist spirit of the old Peruvians, especially when the dancers meet in a circle in the middle. This is called la montonada, and they sing and agree on what they have to do in a loud voice. This part reminds us of these fabulous assemblies that our ancestors held in the squares, when they decided what they had to do for the common good and interests…It is so that the dance of the Aukines transmits the spirit and cooperation of our elders, who based their lives and existence on communal work and the search for the common good. It shows us that, thanks to the experience and wisdom transmitted down the generations, they knew how to overcome the difficulties of nature and to overcome their enemies by dominating them, taking possession and converting themselves into a symbol of struggle and hard work..."

A number of interesting statements are made in this interview excerpt. First of all, the figure of the Aukines as described by Jorge embodies many of the moral qualities that are often stated in migrant narratives to be 'true' and authentic Matahuasino values (e.g. 'the essence of our being). The Aukin is characterized as the impeccable ancestor with perfect human and social skills: he works in co-operation with his fellows for the well being of the community; he is experienced, wise and able, and he has a collectivist spirit. In this sense, the Aukin represents all the values that Matahuasinos claim for their own 'cultural past'. This past is highly valued and serves as an important self-conscious reference through which urban Matahuasinos can position themselves as culturally distinct subjects within a wider regional and national social order. Studies of other communities and towns in the Central and Southern highlands show that this is a more general phenomenon among urban mestizo population in Peru (De la Cadena 2001; Mendoza 2000; Romero 2001). Raul Romero argues that many Mantaro valley mestizos feel somewhat responsible for the loss of ancient customs and that they express their concern through re-dramatizations of ancient rural rituals (Romero 2001:64). As forms of cultural objectifications, such re-dramatizations of the past are central to current agendas of cultural production.

The municipality and the local authorities endorsed the project. The statue was to be made by a well-known artist in Huancayo and in several occasions a delegation of members of ACM visited his art studio to discuss the progress of the statue. As part of the fundraising for the statue the ACM invited the group of dancers who perform la danza de los Aukines to Lima to perform for their commemoration of the Anniversary of the District of Matahuasi in 1999. They had organized a 'cultural program' in the National Library in the Center of Lima, with music, food and different folkloric performances. The Danza de los Aukines was the main performance on the program and it was advertised as a traditional dance from Matahuasi 'never seen before in Lima'. The dance performance turned out to be a success. It was appreciated publicly by a well-known folklorist, who had received a special invitation from the ACM.

Originally the statue was supposed to be inaugurated during the fiesta of San Sebastian on January 20, 2000. Instead it was inaugurated during the fiesta for the Virgen de Asunción in August 2000. Many villagers; however, disliked the idea of a monument to the Aukines. They simply did not agree with the selection of the Aukin as the ultimate symbol of Matahuasi and of 'Matahuasino culture'. Some also argued against the decision of raising the monument on the main plaza of the village. They argued that the Aukin figure represents a backward, old-fashioned society and that it embodies fierce, violent, evil values they do not identity with. As one villager expressed:

"The Aukin does not have anything to do with us. The tradition is being lost…. Instead they should bring some modernity to this village (deberían traer algo de modernidad al pueblo)…"

Another villager preferred a statue of the huaylas dance from Huancayo because she thought that this would be more appropriate for Matahuasi. The huaylas is popularly conceived in the Mantaro valley as a "true" Wanka cultural expression and is often used when aiming to emphasize a homogenous regional, cultural history based on common roots in the 'Wanka culture' over diverse local customs.

Representation of history has been widely discussed and problematized by many post-modernist thinkers in anthropology and in the social sciences generally. Following García Canclini's observations on the monumentalization of history, the fundamental characteristic of the logic of monuments is that they are objects through which political power consecrates persons and events, which are constitutive of the state (Canclini 1990: 281). In the present case, it is not a direct state power that is imposing a vision on the locality, but the logic is similar. By constructing a monument to the Aukin, representing what the urban migrants consider to be Matahuasino values, they are imposing their vision and values on the local community by monumentalizing a certain past and culture. Migrants want 'tradition', monumentalized in the form of the Aukin, to sustain their idea of the 'rural past'. Current resident villagers want modernity to sustain their everyday lives in the village.


The paper has aimed to tell the story of the coming into being of a monument for 'Matahuasino identity', incarnated in the statue of the folkloric figure of the Aukin. As we have seen, there are different ways of being Matahuasinos (e.g. urban migrants and resident villagers) and I have tried to account for some of the ways in which urban migrants negotiate the premises for representation of their native village, their 'culture' and their past through social processes of objectification. Although I am very sympathetic to recent work on cultural objectification as central to contemporary cultural production, I also think that attention must be given to the role of everyday performances of self, linked to the social experience of migration as equally constitutive of the social experience of modernity. This; however, has not been possible to explore in this work-in-progress paper, but is a theme I aim to pursue in my PhD research on transnational migration between Peru and the US.


The material discussed in this paper is drawn from my MA thesis on mobile livelihoods, migrant networks, and the construction of self and community in the Central Highlands of Peru and among Matahuasino migrants elsewhere (Huancayo and Lima). In this research, I examine how locality is produced, both through everyday life activities, such as mobile livelihood and multiple residence practices, and through public performances (civic and religious) in a context where the local is not just given but historically constructed and mediated by complex social and economic processes such as political violence, economic crisis, and extensive spatial mobility. I was especially interested in the role of urban migrants in formulating the premises for and staging various kinds of ritual and civic events in their rural home villages (See Berg 2001).
Fieldwork for this paper was carried out in the district of Matahuasi and among Matahuasino migrants in Huancayo and Lima between 1998-2000. Matahuasi is located in the Province of Concepción on the left bank of the Mantaro River, about half an hours drive from the provincial capital of Huancayo.
In studies of rural-urban migration in Peru from the 1980s, it was documented that lower economic and social strata of peasant migrants tended to be temporary migrants, who went back to the village for the sowing and harvest (Altamirano 1980, Isbell 1985). Better-off migrants, who had small-scale enterprises, traveled frequently to the highlands for business purposes, but maintained the urban center as their new home. Today this picture is more diversified.
The Peruvian mining sector had been badly affected by the political and economic crisis of the 1980s, and in 1991 President Fujimori declared the heavily undercapitalized sector to be in a state of crisis (Marvick 2000: 593). Until the early 1990s foreign investment in the mining sector had been limited, but this started to change between 1991-98 with the implementation of large-scale privatization programs. Altogether the privatizations of the mining sector produced a yield of 1.233 million dollars (Contreras et al. 1999: 303), but the privatization and modernization of the mining sector meant a loss of work places, especially for unskilled workers.
See Altamirano (1992) for an account of the seasonal migration of Andean sheepherders to the states of California, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado and Nevada. The first Peruvian herders from Cerro de Pasco went to the US in 1971, having been recruited by the California-based Western Ranch Association. In 1990, the Association estimated that around 3,000 Peruvian herders had been brought to work on American ranches (1992: 140).
During fieldwork in Matahuasi, I identified migrant networks which provided the names of at least fifty Matahuasinos currently live in the following countries: United States, Canada, Japan, Korea, Spain, Italy, Germany, Luxembourg and Denmark.
Since the 1970s, a lot has been written on the emergence of migrant organizations as an outcome of the massive rural-urban migration. Initially, these studies analyzed the role of regional associations in migrants' adaptations to the urban environment. This gave rise to a heated debate among scholars of the Andean region. The main point of contention concerned whether or not the regional associations should be seen as an urban phenomena, and the extent to which these associations were crucial in migrants' attempts to establish social and economic networks in the city and to forge a cultural and social identity (See Doughty 1970, Jongkind 1974).
Migrant organizations in Peru often correspond to the different categories of the political and administrative structure in the country. These are departments, provinces, districts and annexes or barrios (neighborhoods). Only a few participated in the provincial clubs of Jauja and Huancayo. Among Matahausino migrants, the provincial clubs are generally associated with upper-class urban elite from the highland cities of Jauja and Huancayo. However, while wanting to preserve unity among Mantaro valley migrants and their organizations, Matahuasino migrants speak of the entire Mantaro valley as a distinct cultural area with a common cultural heritage from the Huancas.
All names used in this paper is pseudonyms
The term hacer algo por el pueblo is often heard in the context of migrant organizations in Peru and refers to an expected social commitment: The person who 'has made it' now has to help his paisanos (fellow countrymen).
During fieldwork, I often participated in meetings and activities to do with the issue of the monument. The monument was supposed to be inaugurated during the celebrations of the fiesta of San Sebastian in Matahuasi (January 20th, 2000), but unfortunately the sculpture had not been finished in time. The pedestal donated by the municipality remained empty during the celebrations.
Excerpt from interview in Lima, December 5th, 1999.
The same artist has made the very controversial project "El Parque de la Identidad Wanka" in Huancayo, which I have discussed briefly elsewhere (Berg 2001).
Interview conducted in Matahuasi on January 15th, 2000.
The question of the cultural origins of the Huaylash dance has been extensively debated in the Central Highlands by scholars and by the general public. See Romero (2001:59-63) for a review of this discussion. Furthermore, the wanka discourse is often used in political discourses of local politicians who wish to emphasize a unified regional agenda.
The term 'monumental past' is originally Michael Herzfeld's (1991). In his study of the Cretan town of Rethemnos, Herzfeld distinguish between social and monumental time, which represents respectively popular and official understandings of history. According to Herzfeld: "Social time is the grist of everyday experience. It is above all the kind of time in which events cannot be predicted but in which every effort can be made to influence them. It is the time that gives events their reality, because it encounters each as one of a kind. Monumental time, by contrast, is reductive and generic…(…)…it focus on the past - a past constituted by categories and stereotypes" (Herzfeld 1991:10).