Legacy of Peonage

Legacy of Peonage

Although a thing of the past, the numbing effects of four centuries of peonage on Peruvian society should not be underestimated. One archetypical Andean estate operated at Vicos, Ancash Department, from 1594 to 1952, before it became part of Peru's first land-reform experiment. The 17,000-hectare estate and the landlord's interests were managed by a local administrator, who employed a group of straw bosses, each commanding a sector of the property and directing the work and lives of the 1,700 peons (colonos) attached to the estate by debt. Dressed in unique homespun woolen clothing that identified them as vicosinos (residents of Vicos), each colono family lived in a house it built but did not own. Rather, it owed the estate three days of labor per week, and more if demanded, in exchange for a small subsistence plot and limited rights to graze animals on the puna. Grazing privileges were paid for by dividing the newborn animals each year equally between colono and landlord. For the work, a symbolic wage (temple) of twenty centavos (about two cents in United States currency of the time) and a portion of coca and alcohol were given to each peon. In addition, peons were obliged to provide other services on demand to the administrator and landlord, such as pasturing their animals, serving as maids and servants in their homes, running errands of all types, and providing all manner of labor from house construction to the repair of roads. The landlord might also rent his peons to others and pay no wage.

To enforce order on the estate, the administrator utilized "the fist and the whip." Vicos had its own jail to which colonos were sent without recourse to any legal process; fines, whippings, and other punishments could be meted out arbitrarily. As individuals, the colonos were subject to severe restrictions, not being allowed to venture outside of the district without permission, or to organize any independent activities except religious festivals, weddings, and funerals that took place in the hacienda's chapel and cemetery, only occasionally with clerical presence. The only community-initiated activities allowed were those under the supervision of the parish church.

Outside the protection of the estate, peons correctly felt themselves to be vulnerable to exploitation and feared direct contact with those mistikuna whom they regarded as dangerous, even to the extent of characterizing whites and powerful mestizos as pishtakos, mythical bogeymen who kill or rape natives. In protecting themselves from the threats of this environment, vicosinos, like tens of thousands of other colonos across the Andes, chose to employ the "weapons of the weak," by striking a low profile, playing dumb, obeying, taking few initiatives, and in general staying out of the way of mestizos and strangers they did not know, reserving their own pleasures and personalities for the company of family and friends.

Peonage under the hacienda functioned in a relatively standard fashion throughout Peru, with variations between the coastal plantations, on the one hand, and the highland estates and ranches, on the other. On some highland estates, conditions were worse than those described; in others they were not as restrictive or arbitrary. Although called haciendas, the coastal plantations were far more commercialized, being given to the production of goods for export or the large urban markets. Under these more fluid socioeconomic circumstances, the plantation workers, called yanaconas (after the Incan class of serfs called yanas), who permanently resided on the estates, also had access to subsistence plots. Moreover, they usually had "company" housing, schools, and access to other facilities specified under a signed labor contract often negotiated through worker unions.

Nevertheless, there were lingering connections to the highland manorial system. Because plantation crops, such as sugarcane and cotton, require a large labor force for harvests and planting, workers are seasonally recruited from the highland peasantry for these tasks. In some instances, owners of coastal plantations also possessed highland estates from which they might "borrow" the needed seasonal workers from among the colonos they already controlled in peonage and pay them virtually nothing. In most cases, however, the coastal plantations simply hired gangs of peasant farmers for the short term, using professional labor contractors to do the job. For thousands of young men, this became an important first experience away from their family and village, serving as a rite of passage into adulthood. It also constituted an important step for many in developing the labor and life skills needed to migrate permanently to the coast. Employment on the coastal plantations offered many opportunities to the highland farmer to use mechanized equipment and different tools, observe agricultural procedures guided by scientific principles and experts, and work for wages that greatly surpassed what they might earn in the villages. For most farm workers, it was the only chance to actually accumulate money.

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