José María Arguedas: a Literary Voice for the Indigenous Movement

Photo of Stephanie Abrahams
26 December 2016

Recognized as one of the most influential figures of 20th-century Peruvian literature, José María Arguedas was a bridge between indigenous communities and post-Colonial settlers. As a member of both cultures himself, he gave a unique, authentic voice to the Indigenous community, which he presented to international audiences. We take a closer look at Arguedas, whose work has been lauded as some of the most powerful prose the world has known.

Yahua Blowgun Amazon Iquitos Peru | © JialiangGao/WikiCommons

José María Arguedas was born in 1911 in Andahuaylas, northern Peru. A mestizo (a mix of Spanish and Quechua descent), he was raised in a world steeped in indigenous culture and tradition, which gave him an understanding of the discrimination faced by such marginalized communities. When he was 3 years old, his mother passed away, leaving Arguedas in the care of his father — a lawyer whose job took him traveling for weeks or months at a time– and a stepmother who made no effort to disguise her dislike for both indigenous people and Arguedas himself. Forced to sleep in the servants’ quarters, Arguedas developed meaningful relationships with the indigenous kitchen staff, to the point where he had greater fluency in Quechua than Spanish, his mother tongue. He described the importance of those relationships in his 1941 novel, Yawar Fiesta (‘The Feast of Blood’), describing the staff members as his ‘protectors.’

Arguedas has been considered something of a translator: a bridge between the indigenous communities and the post-Colonial settlers. His unique ability to translate the nuances and subtleties of his Quechua to Spanish was critical to his writing about the disenfranchisement of the indigenous communities, which previously was seldom written about in Spanish. Indeed, he wrote his early collection of short stories, Agua to address his frustration about the way in which indigenous people and culture were depicted in popular Spanish literature.

‘Yawar Fiesta’ | © Editorial Universitaria

Explaining his motivation, Arguedas said, ‘I have to write about things the way they really are, because I have both enjoyed them and I have suffered through them.’ Agua was well-received, and earned him second place in an international competition run by an Argentine magazine.

The influence of politics on Arguedas’s life heightened when he was forced to terminate his literature studies course at the University of San Marcos due to political unrest. Following the death of his father, he returned to university a year later and completed a degree in anthropology. Around the same time, Arguedas – now extremely politically active – took part in a protest against the presence of an envoy from Italian Prime Minister Mussolini’s government in Peru. The action not only cost him his job with the postal service, but also resulted in 11 months spent in jail. Four years later, following his release and marriage to Celia Bustamente Vernal, Arguedas released his first novel, Yawar Fiesta.

Yawar Fiesta takes place in a small village in the Andean highlands and centers around the planning of a bullfight that follows the indigenous traditions of the community. Plans are halted when the state intervenes, deeming the event barbaric, and insisting that it be carried out in the Spanish way with a professional toreador. The novel highlights the struggle to maintain tradition in the Colonial Era, an issue of particular interest to Arguedas whose mixed race meant that he always straddled both worlds. It is said that the inspiration for the novel came after the author had seen a bullfight during which one of the participants was killed. The hypocrisy demonstrated by the government officials or ‘Europeans’ in the novel – the selling of the Spanish-style bullfight as a more civilized form of barbarity – is a recurring theme in Arguedas’ novels, and a theme that has deemed Yawar Fiesta part of the indigenista movement in Latin America.

‘Todas las Sangres’ | © Losada S.A.

By the late 1950s, Arguedas had put his earlier misdemeanors behind him and had started working for the Ministry of Education, taking various teaching positions. He engaged his interest in indigenous culture as Director of the Casa de la Cultura (Culture Centre) and the National Museum of History in the 1960s. At this time, the Latin American literary boom was flourishing and the international community was beginning to notice the richness of literature coming from Latin America. Mario Vargas Llosa – one of the most celebrated figures of the boom – was a personal friend of Arguedas and one of his greatest critics. Llosa noted that as Arguedas invested more and more of his political beliefs into his work, he seemed to lose the unique spirit of his earlier works. Todas las Sangres (‘All Bloods’) was the focus of particular criticism from Vargas Llosa. However, it remains a fascinating social commentary on the impact of multinational companies and capitalism on the villages and towns that the indigenous communities call home.

Behind the novels, Arguedas was experiencing something of a personal crisis. Despite professional success, his marriage was failing and he was growing more and more depressed. Following the eventual breakdown of his marriage, he attempted suicide in 1966 and, thereafter, began writing El Zorro de Arriba y el Zorro de Abajo (‘The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below’), a heartbreaking account of his worsening mental state and eventual demise. The novel features disturbing diary excerpts from Arguedas’ final days, including plans for his suicide, spliced with a thoughtful depiction of the way in which a quaint, fishing village is shaped and changed by the advent of the fishing boom and the introduction of industry. He never finished the novel.

‘El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo’ | © Editorial Horizonte

In October 1969, Arguedas produced his final piece of writing: a suicide note that would later be included in El Zorro de Arriba y el Zorro de Abajo: ‘But since I have not been able to write on the topics chosen and elaborated, whether small or ambitious, I am going to write on the only one that attracts me—this one of how I did not succeed in killing myself and how I am now wracking my brains looking for a way to liquidate myself decently.’

José María Arguedas died on December 2nd, 1969 from a self-inflicted shotgun wound. The unfinished version of El Zorro de Arriba y El Zorro de Abajo was published posthumously to critical acclaim. The title references the Quechua symbols for life, death, modernity, and tradition: those conflicting themes that so often played on his mind and led to the creation of some of the most thoughtful depictions of indigenous life that Latin American literature has ever seen.

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