A Peruvian Experience

Shengxiao Yu, '12, studied in Peru with a Foreign Language Acquisition Grant.

Peru is a South American country so precious to me that I have chosen to give up the warmth of the past two summers in its winter land, even after enduring the brutal winters of Chicago.  Peru taught me so much tangible knowledge about poverty and international development.

My first encounter with Peru was in 2010 with a Foreign Language Acquisition Grant (FLAG) from the University of Chicago to fund my study of Quechua, the indigenous language of the region.  The classes took place in Cuzco, and I traveled to sites of Inca ruins on the weekends and eventually made my way to Machu Picchu.  I marveled at its wonder; I attempted to speak in my limited Quechua; I bargained with street venders for my favorite anticuchos (cow heart); and I got a glimpse into the reality of indigenous poverty.

While Cuzco attracts millions of tourists with its legendary Machu Picchu, most of the touristic income goes to Lima, and poverty deep within the Andes still persists at incredibly high levels.

One of the main reasons is geography.  Lima is located on the Pacific Coast, and like many coastal cities throughout history, where there was water, there was trade and development.  The Andean region, however, is trapped within the mountains and have very little basic infrastructure.  Many still rely on subsistence farming.  Though average poverty figures have lowered in Peru, residents in the Andes cannot reap the benefits of the larger global economy.

Another issue connected to poverty has to do with race.  A large number of indigenous, Quechua-speaking people live in the Andean region and are cut off from access to education and to jobs that oftentimes require Spanish or even English abilities.  Bilingual (Spanish and Quechua) education is incredibly beneficial for perpetuating culture and for increasing access to job opportunities, but it is, however, costly.

Once home to the great Inca Empire, the Andes is now home to precious cultural heritage, incredible natural beauty, bustling markets, and unfortunately, persistent poverty.  Juxtaposed with expensive hotels and touristic traps are indigenous women carrying children on their backs, living sol to sol (one dollar ~ 2.75 soles) day in and day out in the ancient, beautiful, jarring, and hopeful Andes.

Memories of poverty and hope, along with a strong career interest in international development, deeply moved me to board another 9-hour flight in June of 2011 to breathe the Peruvian air again.  This time, I traveled with lists of questions to conduct field work for my BA thesis.  With a grant from the Department of Comparative Human Development, I wanted to explore how micro-loans serve as a poverty alleviation tool from an ethnographic perspective.  I interviewed over 25 micro-entrepreneurs in Lima and Cuzco, focusing on how their business and their microloans affect their personal and familial relationships.

A district I frequented during my interviews was Villa el Salvador in Lima.  In the 80’s and 90’s, a large number of families were forced to leave their homes in the Andean and rain forest regions due to political instability caused by the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path).  Many of them became poor urban squatters settling in Villa el Salvador, without much municipality support.

It was in an environment like this that many micro-entrepreneurs, with severely limited capital, saw the opportunity to sow seeds of businesses in Villa.  Many of the micro-entrepreneurs whom I interviewed told me stories of their migration and their business growth, and I felt a tremendous amount of positive energy and hope for the future.  Yet amid progress, it would be wrong to assume that these people own businesses because they want to.  It would be wrong to assume that they have ample opportunities and they have chosen to be entrepreneurs.  Many of them, in fact, said that they would rather be working in an office or for a company with more security and stable income.  They said that in addition to low income, the micro-enterprise sector also brings in unpredictable income as there are good days and bad days in sales.

Many of the micro-entrepreneurs in Villa el Salvador receive help with their businesses from their children and as a result, many children stop studying after high school.  “I would really like my oldest daughter to continue onto college,” said Carmen (name has been changed to protect individual identity), a fruit vender in Villa, “but right now I have a 6-year-old boy at home and my oldest takes care of him when I am here at the fruit stand.  But I am saving all I can now so when the boy gets a bit older, my daughter can go to college.”  Carmen wakes up at 4AM every morning to receive her fruit shipment for the day.  She then returns home to prepare breakfast and lunch for the kids and sets up her stand in the market by 9AM.  She works until about 10PM at night.  Her daughter sometimes brings the little brother to the fruit stand while helping her mother.  “One of the good things with owning your own business is that sometimes I can take the afternoon off when I am very tired,” laughed Carmen whiling peeling oranges to share with me.

It was in Villa el Salvador that I got to see people working hard to fight for more opportunities for their children.  I got to taste the sweet juices from fresh oranges.  I got to feel the spirit of the community, despite the little resources they have.

During my second journey to Peru, my eyes were opened wider and ears listened closer.  I saw micro-entrepreneurs everywhere and asked for their story.  I sometimes got invited into their homes to meet their children, to eat their food, to touch their walls, and to get to a place of better understanding.

Submitted by Shengxiao Yu, '12