Jose Maria Arguedas: Godfather of Liberationism

by Stephen B. Wall-Smith

Dr. Wall-Smith is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Brewster, New York. He teaches at Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh, New York, and at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 18, 1987, p. 1034. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The novelist, Arguedas, worked toward a Peruvian transculturation, whereby the values of the highland people will not succumb to the blind, scientific or Western mentality of coastal culture. His vision has been carried along by Gutiérrez and other liberationists, who have placed the struggle between the poor and the powerful centrally in their works.

An underlying liberation philosophy to validate Latin American theologies of liberation has yet to be extracted from the popular culture. In time, some scholar will no doubt reconstruct it academically Until then, the fiction of José María Arguedas provides some of the most vivid portraits of that culture available, as well as penetrating reflections upon its meaning. Little-known in North America, the Peruvian novelist apparently played an important, though indirect, role in the first flowering of liberation theology. Some observers claim that Arguedas considerably influenced fellow Peruvian Gustavo Gutiérrez, as both an author and a friend.

The closeness of the relationship between the two men is difficult to establish from the works of either, but the friendship they apparently share does not seem improbable. The Spanish-language edition of A Theology of Liberation is prefaced with an extensive quote from one of Arguedas’s novels and (in every language) the book is dedicated to him. In a commentary on one of Arguedas’s books, Gutiérrez reproduces some personal correspondence from the novelist. For his part, Arguedas writes in passing but appreciatively of Gutiérez in one of the rambling authorial interludes within his last novel. Finally, it was Gutiérez who celebrated Arguedas’s funeral mass in Chimbote after the novelist took his own life in 1969.

Arguedas was born in 1911 in Andahuaylas, southwest of Cuzco in Peru’s southern highlands. As a child, he traveled frequently within the borders of his native country. He graduated from the University of San Marcos in Lima, becoming an ethnologist, with particular expertise in the folklore of highland Indians, the Quechua. He taught at several universities and was a curator of Peru’s National Museum. He also participated actively in Peruvian politics.

Though Arguedas’s literary career was avocational, he still, over a span of 35 years, published a great many scholarly works, numerous short stories, some original poetry and the seven novels that earned him modest acclaim: Agua (1935) , Yawar fiesta (1941) , Diamantes y pedernales (1954) Los rios profundos (1958) , El Sexto (1961) , Todas las sangres (1964) and El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (posthumously, 1971) To date, Los rios profundos (Deep Rivers, University of Texas Press, 1978) and Yawar Fiesta (University of Texas Press, 1985) have been published in English. However, many North American university libraries and even some U.S. public libraries maintain collections of Arguedas’s work in Spanish.

In references sprinkled throughout his books, Gutiérrez cites Arguedas as a source of pivotal insights propelling his theological reflection. Foremost among these insights is the recognition that the Gods of the poor and those of the powerful are very different (The Power of the Poor in History,[Orbis 1983], p. 19). Indeed, the latter is actually an idol (A Theology of Liberation [Orbis, 1973], p. 195). The god of the powerful broods over a "fellowship of the wretched" which he is supposed to have ordained but -- thankfully -- being an idol, cannot really control. So it is that the de facto fellowship of the wretched becomes the means whereby the oppressed forge de jure solidarity. Together, oppressed people succeed in realizing their aims, for their God is not an idol. Rather, he is a Deliverer (We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People [Orbis, 1984], p. 21). The struggle between the poor and the powerful in Peru is the central theme in all Arguedas’s novels. He stands apart from other writers on this theme because he treats it as a spiritual conflict, not merely a sociopolitical reality.

Some commentators suggest that Arguedas’s interpretation of events points to a dialectical clash of cultures. "Culture" is used here in a very broad sense. The word denotes a distinctive world view, expressed in an integrated and fairly stable corpus of ideals and practices. Peru’s antithetical cultures -- the powerful and the poor -- are found on the coast and in the highlands respectively.

As seen in Arguedas’s work, coastal culture is rooted in a calculating, scientific, Western mentality. Materialistic, it exalts empirical rationality and denies the worth of intuition, sentiment or other psychic processes as vehicles to understanding or as guides to behavior. Mechanistic, coastal culture does not value the lives of imprecise human beings. It is highly individualistic, but only insofar as individualism justifies competition. In truth, coastal culture values the group or the mass.

Coastal culture extols religion, but since its basic world view has no real place for God, religion has mainly instrumental worth. It serves as a vehicle for rationalizing and enforcing the status quo. Clerics do not generally fare well in Arguedas’s novels, though Christian laypeople do not escape scrutiny either. The priest/headmaster of the boarding school where much of Los rios profundos is set takes time from his other duties to quell a small uprising in Abancay. His approach is to shame the rebellious campesinos and to put them under threat of damnation.

Owing in no small part to its roots in an Andean cosmology taken over from the Indians, highland culture presents a sharp contrast to that of the coast. The informing image of this world view is water, especially as found in the deep, swift streams that flow through Peru’s mountain gorges. Water binds all animate objects to the earth and is the source of affinity among living things, the ground of a profound, animistic empathy between humans and both animals and plants. More than a totem, however, water is for the Andeans what it was for the Greek philosopher Thales: a symbol for the nature of things. As such it is fluid and only partly comprehensible.

As water is witness, nature is no respecter of persons. Wellborn though he was, Don Braulio Felix is worse than cruel when he diverts his comuneros scarce water during a drought. His act is an outrage against "mama-allpa (Mother Earth) [who] bestows water freely, the same for everyone" (Agua, p. 27) Representing nature in general, water is benign but stern: the same stream that irrigates may also flood; bathing may end in drowning.

Highland culture takes at face value the pervasive sense of smallness that humans feel in the world. Since humans occupy no privileged place within the cosmos, highland culture sanctions a social order appropriate for humanity’s humble estate. At its best, it is cooperative, communitarian and non-acquisitive. Without being individualistic, highland culture assigns great worth to people as the essential elements of community life; in such a situation toleration is almost an absolute. Hence, highland culture is much better able to accommodate deviance and outright madness than is coastal culture.

Arguedas reinforces the foregoing point by offering up a stream of Runyonesque characters, among whom one of the most engaging is Moncada, the mad prophet of Chimbote:

"We are under siege," remarked an onlooker.

"Moncada is wise. Watch what you say, replied another. ‘He speaks the truth of the insane.

Elegantly dressed, Moncada spoke.

‘Here in Peru, from the days of San Martin, we have always been ruled by foreigners. We have never been anything but the servants of aliens.

"The foreigners are like rapists. They promise everything until they have had their ways, then they beat and scorn their victims. And now, today, the foreigners’ bastard children roll over and beg to be violated, themselves! I tell you, their ‘sophistication’ is just a sickness’ [El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, pp. 58-60].

Highlanders hold that insights into the nature of reality come through an impressionistic interweaving of experiences by the combined agencies of reason and intuition. In some sense osmotic, his weaving is most effectively undertaken in a setting such as the Andean countryside, where nature’s superabundance is readily available to human faculties.

In the short story "Orovilca," because the unnamed adolescent protagonist has drunk deep of creation in the highlands, he is wise among his classmates at a coastal boarding school. He tells his fellow students about birds and trees, he recounts myths, and divines signs of the times that they, products of the deserts, neither recognize nor are able to interpret.

The result of intuition is wisdom, which is not something that can be taught; rather, it is gathered. One might even say that, like the personified wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures, it actually gathers the wise. Wisdom is much more than knowledge, with which it is favorably contrasted in many of Arguedas’s works. Knowledge is a value of coastal culture, something that is embodied apart from knowers and that hires itself out to competing individuals. Wisdom, by comparison, is embodied only in the community which holds it in common. It evolves along with the people who incarnate it. The moral consequences of each are different and provide a clear basis for commitment. Untoward moral implications of coastal culture, with its various presuppositions, suggest that it should be rejected. Knowledge is the product of reason, which structures experience according to the standards of logical coherence, involving denial and exclusion. Thus the picture of the world that passes for knowledge is bound to be distorted. Morality rooted in knowledge alone will thus almost certainly be mistaken in many of its prescriptions. A partisan of coastal culture will no doubt describe it as "streamlined" or "efficient." Arguedas, however, portrays it as self-limited at best. At its worst, it is self-deceptive.

Highland culture is a hybrid, a product of what Arguedas scholar Pedro Trigo calls "transculturation." It represents a mixture of native and European elements. It is mestizo in what, to Arguedas, was the best sense of that word: a mixture dominated by Indian influences but preserving the best of both the Old World and the New.

When whites and Indians first met in the highlands, the clash between their cultures was painful and profound. The resolution of the clash, however, was a happy one. Arguedas clearly hoped that a transculturation similar to that which occurred earlier in Peru’s history would happen again during his lifetime. Whether he sustained the confidence that coastal and highland cultures could be synthesized with so favorable an outcome is open to question.

The answer is judged on how one understands Arguedas’s last novel, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. In previous works – all, with the exception of El Sexto, set in the highlands -- the bearers of highland culture were often vanquished by costales or their minions, but their culture with its values and spirit prevailed. Thus the victory of the oppressors was hollow and short-lived.

Los zorros (as Arguedas called his last book) is disturbingly different from those previous, not nearly so sanguine. The work is a bleak portrayal of highland culture transplanted to the coastal city of Chimbote, a fishing port surrounded by deserts and shantytowns. There the highland society staggers into total disarray, amid a hellish landscape dominated by a factory which processes anchovies into fishmeal, spewing forth a pillar of acrid smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night.

In the midst of masses hypnotized by drunkenness, whoring and ambition wander a few men of integrity: Maxwell, a former religious, now a bricklayer and community leader; Bazalar, the pigman; Antolin Crispin, the blind musician; the mad prophet Moncada and his consumptive sidekick, Don Esteban de la Cruz. In general, however, the transplanted highlanders have traded their culture uncritically and pell-mell for that of the coast.

Gutiérrez, in an afterword to a commentary on Arguedas, argues that Los

zorros is as hopeful, in its own way, as other of Arguedas’s books, and that the novelist did not renounce his faith in liberation through transculturation, Other writers make similar assertions about Arguedas, but dismiss Los zorros as aberrant. Shortly after completing it, Arguedas committed suicide, the outcome of a long struggle with mental illness. As the product of a difficult period in the author’s Jife, so the argument goes, Los zorros cannot represent his best and clearest thinking.

On the other hand, the counterargument can be made that Los zorros was just the last stop on a long decline in Arguedas’s optimism about prospects for transculturation in Peru. The late novel Todas las sangres raises the question of whether costales might not hold out against highland culture indefinitely, sustained by the reserves of international capitalism. Too, in Los zorros Arguedas seems to express a new appreciation for the power of environment to shape those dwelling therein. Environment is an important consideration in an era that saw highlanders, in search of opportunity, migrate in vast numbers from the mountains to the barriadas around Lima and other coastal cities. However, as early as El Sexto, Arguedas apparently began to wonder whether highland culture could survive on the coast.

Taking its name from the prison in Lima’s sixth police district, El Sexto traces the consequences of environment on the attitudes and actions of a young political prisoner named Gabriel. For much of the book, Gabriel holds his own against the communists and Apristas (followers of non-Marxist political reformer Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre) who are his cellblock companions. Critic Edgardo Pantigoso writes that Gabriel is secure in his knowledge that "the force of Andean people resides. . . in the depth of their sensitivities. Against the doctrinaire and cerebral approach which others maintain, into the face of reality, Gabriel offers the values of a highland villager" (La rebelión contra el indigenismo y la afirmación del pueblo in el mundo de José María Arguedas, p. 232)

Against Pedro, a communist, Gabriel argues:

"Pedro, you don’t understand the sierra. It’s another world. Among the towering mountains, beside the rivers which tumble through the abysses, a man grows up with the most profound sensibilities. That’s the source of his power. In the mountains, Peru is very ancient. They haven’t rooted out its marrow. . . .

"I’m not a Communist," I told him. "I don’t have to be. I just listen to the old country. A man’s worth is told by his memory of the ancients, and not just by his modern mechanisms" [pp. 120, 122].

However, in a climate of systematic, institutionalized violence, over which it is neither the communists nor the Apristas but the self-serving guards and the criminal element who preside, Gabriel becomes the kingpin in a plot to assassinate the sadistic criminal called "Puñalada." Pantigoso argues that this a natural extension of Gabriel’s Andean sensibilities, but it seems more likely that Gabriel has in fact lost touch with the broad perspective of his native culture and has become acculturated to the narrow and perverse microculture of the prison. There, on the coast, he loses his soul, becoming just another thug struggling to survive and to have his way.

Arguedas worked toward a Peruvian transculturation, whereby the values of the highland people will not succumb to the blind, scientific or Western mentality of coastal culture. His vision has been carried along by Gutiérrez and other liberationists, who have placed the struggle between the poor and the powerful centrally in their works. Arguedas’s writings, a repository of images and concepts with both emotional and historical power, have reached far beyond the highlands and coasts of Peru.