Posted by Tony Wood, graduate student in Latin American History at NYU
View of the Cordillera Blanca from the Casa de Pocha, Carhuaz, Peru.
From 9th to 13th July I took part in an ethnographic field methods workshop in Carhuaz, a small town high in the Peruvian Andes, around 280 miles north of Lima. The town itself nestles between two mountain ranges – to the west the rugged Cordillera Negra, to the east the Cordillera Blanca, a chain of majestic, glacier-capped mountains that include some of the tallest in the Western Hemisphere.
The workshop was held under the auspices of the Center for Social Well-Being, which also runs Quechua language courses and retreats on its 5-hectare eco-farm a little outside the town (known as La Casa de Pocha). The Center was set up 15 years ago by the Peruvian ecologist Flor de María Barreto Tosi (the eponymous Pocha), and Patricia Hammer, an American anthropologist, aiming to put into practice the principles of sustainable living on the one hand, and of “participatory action research” on the other.
One of the challenges of conducting ethnographic fieldwork with street food vendors in Mexico City is that they are, necessarily, a dispersed and mobile population. In the center of Mexico City alone, it is estimated that there are over ten thousand vendedores ambulantes, and there are many tens of thousands more strewn throughout the sprawling landscape of the metropolis. Some of these vendors reside in the city, while others commute for hours from surrounding towns and villages everyday to come and ply their wares. Some belong to street vendor unions, with their own organizational structure, leadership, and rules, while others are autonomous free agents, negotiating their own way through the necessary formal and informal channels in order to make a living. In some districts of the city, local government is explicitly hostile to ambulantaje and determined to “clear the streets” of them, while in other areas they are tolerated and accommodated by various levels of local officials. On some streets vendors keep their products on large sheets on the sidewalk so that when police officers come walking by, they can grab everything and throw it into the trunk of a nearby car to avoid confiscation or fines, yet in most parts of the city it is common to see uniformed officials eating tacos and chatting with workers. I have met vendors who have spent over half a century working from the same street corner, and others who daily engage in cat-and-mouse games with local police or lideres as they attempt to stake a claim to a few square feet on the side of the road. Certain stands are famous and earn large sums of money for their owners, while in others families work seven days a week for fourteen hours a day and still barely eke out enough to live off of. Continue reading