Nicholas Emlen on his book, Language, Coffee, and Migration on an Andean-Amazonian Frontier

Language, Coffee, and Migration on an Andean-Amazonian Frontier image

Interview by Gaya Morris

This book is an ethnography of multilingualism in the Alto Urubamba Valley, on the Andean-Amazonian agricultural frontier of Southern Peru. Here, Indigenous Amazonian Matsigenka people and Quechua-speaking migrants (colonos) from the nearby Andean highlands live densely interconnected lives. The book explores how people from different backgrounds move between Matsigenka, Quechua, and Spanish in the many contexts of their everyday lives, as they transform the rain forest into farmland and become coffee producers for the first time.

Gaya Morris: You claim that the ethnic categories of Colono and Matsigenka “are crucial principles of difference in the local social world” but are not “empirical and analytical categories that reliably correspond to actual patterns of interaction, behavior, and language, or even to individuals” (9-10). So what role do these imaginary categories perform in processes of social differentiation and exclusion? What differences do they not mark that they are often assumed to?

Nicholas Emlen: Gaya, thank you for your interest in the book, and for your thoughtful questions.

The language ideology of the “ethnolinguistic group” has a strong hold on the way scholars talk about the social panorama of South America, and also on the way it is conceptualized on the ground. This ideology encourages us to think about Matsigenkas and Andean migrants (colonos) as clearly delineable aggregates of people. But when you look more closely at the Andean-Amazonian agricultural frontier, it becomes clear that things are a lot more complicated, and that these categories are quite negotiable and contextual.

To understand why, it helps to start by thinking about interethnic marriage, which is by now the rule rather than the exception among Matsigenka speakers in the Alto Urubamba. Most Quechua-speaking migrants to the valley are men, and many end up in unions with Matsigenka women. They either bring those women with them upriver toward the highlands, or those couples stay together in the lowlands. This makes it more difficult, in turn, for Matsigenka men to find spouses, so they travel further downriver and into the remote tributaries to start families, or to bring women back upriver. The result is an opposed system of migratory flows: men move downriver, bringing Quechua with them, while women move upriver, bringing Matsigenka with them.

As a result of this regional interplay between migration, gender, kinship, and language, many children across the Alto Urubamba frontier are growing up in trilingual households, and with a foot in both social worlds. However, this interconnectedness is quite in contrast to the region’s rigid discourse of ethnicity, which takes Matsigenkas and colonos to be distinct groups of people. It’s interesting to see how this disjuncture plays out. For instance, among one group of siblings I know, some live with their mother in a titled Matsigenka community, attend a Matsigenka-Spanish bilingual school, and get counted in the census as ethnically Matsigenka. A few of their siblings live with their father in a nearby colono settlement, attend a Quechua-Spanish bilingual school, and don’t get counted as Matsigenka in the census. With respect to exclusion, the kids living in the colono settlement find themselves treated as ethnic outsiders among their Andean peers. Meanwhile, their siblings in the Matsigenka community are treated as colono interlopers. It’s not an easy situation for anyone. The point is, these categories play out differently depending on the context of interaction, and on the perspective of the interactants.

Gaya Morris: You suggest that “recognizing the interconnectedness of Andeans and Amazonians in the Alto Urubamba is not just an academic matter; it also holds important political significance” (16). What might be the political consequences of overlooking the interconnectedness of these two regions and groups?

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