The fox in Andean fables–not so tricksy after all!

A couple weeks ago, when I was in Pomacocha, I was exchanging fables with one of the women there. The local fables were surprisingly harsh on the fox in particular. The fox is always outwitted by other animals, even by the humble (in my opinion, anyway) frog. And the result of being outwitted is usually a harsh beating and/or death. The surprising thing was that the fox never did anything wrong to justify such retribution. For example, in one story, a rabbit kept stealing vegetables from a farmer. The farmer became very angry so she set up a trap for whomever was stealing his vegetables. The rabbit got wise and told the fox, “Fox, the farmer has a beautiful daughter whom she wants to marry off. She picked you as the betrothed. You just need to accept the offer by ‘wearing’ the bracelet you see over there.” So the fox goes and entraps himself, waiting anxiously to be married off. The next morning, the farmer checks the trap to find the fox there, looking happy and expectant. Then the farmer starts to beat the fox, and the fox starts crying out, “But I’m to marry your daughter! Where’s your daughter?” The farmer replied, “What nonsense! You thief! I’m going to kill you!” And thus the fox died. The other stories were variations of this, of how other animals always outwit the fox and not to any original sin of the fox.

This is very different from what we are used to in the West and also in China. Growing up in China, I loved listening to fables. The fox always outwitted other animals. For example, a crow in a tree had a piece of tasty meat in his beak. A fox passed by and took notice of this piece of meat. He concocted a plan. He started flattering the crow and telling the crow what a beautiful voice he has, and if he could only sing a few verses, the fox would be extremely honored. The crow bought into the flattery and started to sing, dropping the piece of meat for the fox to snatch.

At first I didn’t think too much of this fundamental difference in the way we characterize the human attributes of the fox, but tonight, while going through Max Uhle’s field notes, I noticed this:
“There are told among the Indians many stories and fables some of which I collected in the original language. Those which treat of adventures of animals like foxes, mice, condors, etc. are the most interesting as they must date back to the pre-Spanish time. Curious enough the fox which counts as the cleverest of the animals among us, in these tales is generally outwitted by the others.” I guess this story tradition had a lot more time depth and spatial distribution than I thought! I’m not quite sure what the anthropological significance is, other than it seems a lot of the fables I hear in the Andes do not have happy endings. Justice is rarely served. The fables have a very different character than Aesop’s fables, which always have some kind of moralizing message. I’ve been thinking a lot about fables recently, especially about the widespread stories about mermaids in fast moving parts of rivers, ravines, and waterfalls, all dangerous places. I’ve been mulling over an 18th century document drawing the connection between obrajes and mermaids (actually, the word they used was mermen of the lake) and some other documents describing the ghastly conditions inside an obraje. I begin to wonder about the relationship between debt slavery and the enchantment of the Andean mermaids….

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A blast from the past

Five years ago, I wrote a mini-essay for an Anthropology student journal that didn’t get off the ground until I had graduated (InSitu) and so was never published.  It was based on fieldwork I did for my IRB-approved senior thesis.  Today, I got a bit nostalgic and looked back at it.  I have omitted her last name for privacy reasons.

Portrait of an Andean Lady

Roberta begins by apologizing for her old age.  “I feel my mind is confused.”  She is reassured that her knowledge is very valuable.  She goes into the house, and comes back out with roasted corn kernels for us to eat.  We graciously accept and begin the interview.

We take our seats in the shade with our back to the house, and she sits in the sun facing us.  Her face is obscured by the shadow cast by her hat.  Two curious children come to gawk at us, as they have never seen foreigners in their humble little village high in the Andes.  A white cat sits preening itself.  We begin by asking her about her experiences during the Shining Path violence during the 1980s.  The Shining Path was a Maoist movement in Peru during the 1980s that began in Ayacucho, a highland department in Peru.  The Shining Path guerillas won popular support in the countryside on a platform of redistributing hacienda land to the peasants.  They later fell out of favor with the rural populace as they stressed more radical visions of eradicating religion, traditional customs, traditional peasant authorities, and dissenters.  As the Peruvian army stepped up their operations to suppress the Shining Path, atrocities against the peasants were committed by both sides.  The usual story goes: army approaches a village, Shining Path guerillas leave, army kills alleged Shining Path conspirators and leaves, the Shining Path guerillas come back to the village and kill alleged army conspirators.  Members of the same family would be killed by both the Shining Path and the army.  Not surprisingly, the peasants developed an intense distrust of both the Maoist Shining Path and the Peruvian government.

Roberta remembers the village’s first encounters with the Shining Path.  They were relatively peaceful and just slept in people’s houses.  However, she did not help them out of fear, and the Shining Path hated people like her for that.  Later, the army came and accused her of being part of the Shining Path.  The soldiers took cheese and clothes from accused conspirators and beat them.  These actions were very shocking to the villagers, as they would usually enthusiastically give visitors food and shelter.  “El militar era ratero.” The military were thieves. They took our best belongings. We asked her who was worse, the Shining Path or the army.  She said both were equally bad.  We inquired further, and she said that the army was slightly worse because they dispossessed people, whereas the Shining Path only slept in their houses.  The comparison was made assuming that both sides killed villagers.  A significant portion of the village left during the violence, and only a small portion of them came back…

She has a son, a daughter, and nine grandchildren.  Her children left for Lima, the capital of Peru, during the violence and did not return to live in the village.  They started families there, and so are rooted there.  They do not have permanent work, but get by well enough.  She wants her children to come back and live with her.  She built houses for them in case they want to come back.  When I asked, “Do you think it is better to live in the city, where there is more work but more uncertainty, or here, where there is less work and money but more peace and certainty?”  She said, “Iguales.”  Both are equal.  However, her children prefer to go to Lima because there is more work.  Her children still have a strong connection to Pomatambo, coming occasionally and contributing money to the rebuilding of the church.  They want to return to improve the community, but it’s not possible with the precarious work situation in Lima.

Roberta is more optimistic about the current direction of her village.  There is more peace.  She said that in the future, the young people would work in the church and the health post.  She imagines a future where the young people will work together in community projects and improve the community.  She does not think the government will have a role in the improvement of the community because she thinks they do not take into account peasant views nowadays.  This sense of self-sufficiency pervades the whole village.  There are communal building projects and villagers help one another out.  I hope that Roberta’s optimism proves true.

At the end of the interview, I asked if I could take a picture of her in front of her house.  As she moved into the shadow of the house, her previously obscured facial features were made clear.  Her face showed the harshness of the land.  Her wrinkles echoed the texture of her adobe house.  Her eyes were full of the spark that characterizes her strong-willed people.  Her hair was the color of the wild grass in winter. Her blue snowflake sweater and hat echoed the intensity of the blue in the highland skies.  Her deep red shirt and skirt was the color of the hills around the village.  Roberta has worked the land all her life, shaping the earth, and cultivating crops.  Both the history of her village and the tenacity of her people are evident in her.

Note: I took this photo on a simple 10-dollar 1960s SLR camera, and the original resolution was astounding.