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Author: Jessaca B. Leinaweaver
Title: Accompanying and Overcoming: Subsistence and Sustenance in an Andean City
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Accompanying and Overcoming: Subsistence and Sustenance in an Andean City
Jessaca B. Leinaweaver

vol. 15, no. 1, 2005
Issue title: Subsistence and Sustenance
PDF: Link to full PDF [255kb ]

Accompanying and Overcoming: Subsistence and Sustenance in an Andean City [1]

Jessaca B. Leinaweaver

Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan

When I first met teenaged Reyna, in my second month of fieldwork in Peru, I thought she was Cristina’s maid. My notes wonder who she is, and describe her as “acting like a muchacha, answering the phone and the door and running to buy stuff, but also a loved one, who sits around with the group when she’s not doing errands—is she related? what is her position? where does she live?” Slowly as I continued to visit the extended family, I observed more of Reyna’s positioning. She does the household’s laundry, and stays home when others leave so the house is not unattended and the pets are cared for. She knows where the key that unlocks the cover of the telephone is (thus preventing its costly unauthorized use for dialing out). And when I asked Cristina’s niece if Reyna was her cousin, she answered, “ Not by blood, but by treatment. Not by last name, either.”

Reyna is a pretty young woman who speaks Spanish with a noticeable Quechua accent. Her parents and five siblings live in a small town two hours from the highland city of Ayacucho, Peru. One day several years back, she was called upon to come to the city and accompany Cristina, her father’s godmother—a woman who, to her, was like a grandmother, a city-dwelling Quechua-speaking widow with several grown children. Because of the rules of Andean godparenting, Reyna was a reasonable target of this request; her father, beholden to Cristina for a myriad of events that had layered upon each other for years to form a strong relationship, [2] would be reluctant to say no. Such a feeling of indebtedness may be traceable to well-documented notions of reciprocity or ayni in the Andean region, where labor, gifts, and other items are exchanged with such regularity that “it is impossible to untangle the exact pathway of any single exchange dyad” (Brush 1977:135).

Cristina is a widow in her mid-sixties whose good health comes and goes, always wearing braids, a felt hat, and a heavy pollera skirt. It was widely felt that she needed to be accompanied, since most of her adult children had left Peru for Europe, and others were married and lived in their own houses. She had few grandchildren of the appropriate age and position to accompany her, although one grandson had accompanied her until recently (when he turned seven he began telling his parents that Cristina was his real mother, and to nip this in the bud, they came and collected him, leaving Cristina unaccompanied). “Shame comes from leaving elderly parents without young people to help around the house and to bring joy to it” (Weismantel 1988:170); and as befits responsible Andean grown children, Cristina’s sons took steps to see that she would not be alone for long, asking Reyna to accompany their mother. As remembered by Cristina’s teenaged niece, Reyna came to Ayacucho three years ago “well, because my aunt was alone.”

So Reyna moved into the house of the woman she now addresses as “Ma,” in a dusty hillside neighborhood of Ayacucho. This action was not a completely selfless one in any sense—a second and equally important reason for Reyna’s move was so that she could take up studies in a high school in the city, which would be an education far superior to any attainable in her small town. At the time, she remembers, her father told her, “Yes, it’s good that you study, that you accompany [Cristina].” Years later, her father told me that the two reasons Reyna came to Ayacucho were: “Educarse y acompañar,” and asked me to encourage her to study hard and take advantage of her situation. That is, Reyna is stated to be where she is in order to “accompany” a kinswoman who is in a position to help her “improve herself,” that is, become educated both in school and in city life.

In this paper, I explore these two approaches to thinking about why children move so frequently between families and households in Andean Peru. My argument here is that these ubiquitous child circulations are used in at least two specific ways—the content of the actions is the same (a child going to live in another person’s household, which, for brevity, I refer to as “child circulation”) but the interpretation and aim are different. Child circulation can be used explicitly for an adult’s benefit (such as when a parent leaves a child with a grandparent so that the parent can get a job in the city), but more commonly, a child is sent to live with a city-based relative so that she can study and ultimately become a professional, the quixotic dream of so many urban migrants in Peru. Thus, if the primary purpose for a child’s presence in another’s house is for that child’s educational opportunity, the movement is glossed with the Spanish word superar, which means to overcome or self-improve, and which often refers specifically to education (as in Reyna’s case, above). But if the child is going at the specific request of an adult who expects to benefit, the movement is more frequently labeled acompañar, to accompany, suggesting a fear of loneliness and desire for company. The two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, as Reyna’s father’s explanation shows, but they refer to different conceptual fields. Child circulation is thus a practice that throws into relief Ayacuchanos’ understandings and experiences, more broadly, of subsistence and sustenance.

Anthropologists often use subsistence and sustenance as tools for thinking about material nourishment and the ways in which it promotes and creates social environments. [3] Here, I suggest that the conceptual breadth of subsistence and sustenance be expanded even further. My discussion of child circulation practices expands on the regional specificities of subsistence and sustenance, two concepts that I argue are directly related to how Ayacuchanos understand family and kinship. [4] But rather than focusing attention on the specific material subsistence and sustenance of life, I found that the Andeans I worked with also conceptualized a significant part of sustenance as emotional, and subsistence as the essential grounding of a moral imperative to improve oneself. Ayacuchanos thus focus on particular values and aspects of life conditions when employing the concepts I explore here: acompañar and superar.

Acompañar indicates the physical and emotional sustenance that a transferred child can give the receiving family. In the Andean use of this Spanish word, what is emphasized is not the fact of sustaining existence itself, but rather the way in which life (and the social relationships that make it both meaningful and possible) is sustained. That is, older people stress that being accompanied (acompañar) is the default condition—though life can be sustained even in solitude, it is an unwelcome sustenance. By contrast, superar highlights the improving of a life, and the condition of subsistence is implicit as that which must be overcome. I take subsistence to represent the notion of making do or getting by; subsistence epitomizes the Andean peasant lifestyle, and is a negative concept, standing for that which a child is escaping or overcoming when attempting to superar. My argument is that these Spanish words map out a conceptual space similar to the one that anthropologists have defined as “subsistence” and “sustenance,” but with specific contextual and cultural differences that I chart in this paper.

This paper is part of a larger project in which I use child circulation practices to shed light on how kinship works and what it is made to mean by its participants. It is based on almost two years of field research with bilingual (Spanish and Quechua) urban Peruvians, families who have migrated to the city of Ayacucho or the capital of Lima from small towns in the interior. Migration is an effort to carve out a better life for oneself; child circulation is a similar and sometimes related tactic, employed by this diverse group of barely-upwardly-mobile urban migrants for spoken and unspoken reasons that tie into the concepts of subsistence and sustenance.

Acompañar: sustaining through accompaniment

In this section, I discuss acompañar, or “to accompany.” This is how Ayacuchanos generally referred to the relationship entered into when a young person goes to live with an older one in a role somewhere between child of the family and household employee. As I have proposed above, the name for this relationship derives from the aspect that focuses on the older person—that is, the young person’s explicit reason for being present in another’s household is to accompany that person, warding off his or her solitude through co-residence. Through an analysis of Ayacuchano exegeses of accompanying, I shape a definition and explanation of the act of accompaniment and its meaning in Ayacucho.

In almost every conversation I had about acompañar, it referenced a situation where a young person kept company with an older relative (say, a grandmother, or godparents). The one outlier in this assertion is worth mentioning, because it explains some basic truths about accompaniment. After hearing my fiercely independent comadre’s life story—how her husband had struggled to convince her to marry him—I asked her if getting married had been the right thing to do. She replied that it absolutely was, because it is imperative to have a child to accompany you, and “people with no children suffer so much more.” She told me she had once advised a male friend, “Get married or not—that’s up to you—but definitely have a child, whether or not you are married, because you can live with that child, married or not” (emphasis mine). In another context, she told me that years after having sent her daughters to live with relatives in Ayacucho, she eventually left her natal village and moved there to accompany and support them, adding, “It isn’t the same to live in someone else’s house, without your mother.” In these two quotations, parents accompany their children to support them (a notion which is linked to the concept of superar which I develop in the second half of the paper), and children accompany their parents to alleviate their suffering. Accompaniment is thus a characteristic of kinship, although it is not often explicitly stated.

“People with no children suffer so much more,” said my comadre. Clearly, if someone has no children, he or she is likely to attempt to locate a child who is willing to accompany. Accompaniment by a child thus helps to sustain older people who would otherwise be alone. Being alone, or unaccompanied, can be unbearably sad. It is a fate worse than death for many Andeans; someone without a kin group and social network is referred to in Quechua as wakcha, which means both “orphan” and “poverty-stricken.” Eating and drinking, two basic human needs, are wholeheartedly and deliberately social acts in the Andean region, to such an extent that one of my goddaughters declined to eat when her parents traveled and left her alone in the house. People of all ages frequently draw a discursive alignment between “orphan” and “alone,” using the Quechua word sapallay (“all alone”) to describe an older person whose parents have recently died, even though this person has still husband and children in the house. The uses of acompañar thus play off an understanding of solitude and loneliness, where to be alone is to be unsupported (unsustained, by either parent or child) and suffering. [5]

If children are barriers against loneliness, then the situation of acompañar is one which springs from a lack of children. The absence of children is not neutral, but instead has moral dimensions. [6] Whether one’s children have become professionals (caring about their elderly parents, but unable and unwilling to leave their jobs elsewhere, as in Cristina’s case) or have simply and irresponsibly forgotten or chosen not to comply with their duties to the parents who raised them, their absence (whether physical or ethical) makes proactive accompanying necessary, and may reflect badly upon the grown children. “Accompany” is thus shorthand for a complicated act that combines components of serving as a maid with literally keeping company with a lonely person, a person who effectively has no children because they are not “a mi lado” or “at his or her side,” as Cristina put it to me.

For example, nine-year-old Diana accompanies a neighbor. Her father is long absent, and her mother works long days and nights collecting the fare on an interprovincial bus. Her elder siblings are dispersed around the region: one living alone in their mother’s house to make sure no one robs it, one living permanently with (“accompanying”) their aunt and uncle, and one working with their uncle in the jungle region. The practical reasons for Diana to live with a neighbor are many, but her mother still must justify Diana’s presence in another woman’s house, and she does so as follows:

Once, I was so sick I lost consciousness; the señora helped me then, cured me. So my Diana must have thought, ‘You know, Mom, she saved your life, the señora isn’t well, I’ll help her. I’ll be there just as a way of accompanying her, I’ll be there,’ she told me. ‘But Diana, when I am at home, you have to be at home.’ ‘Yes, Mom.’ So she’s just there. The señora also: ‘Let her just accompany me, I’m lonely here by myself, I’m missing people, there’s no one in my house,’ she told me.

The woman’s loneliness must have moved Diana’s mother, who told me that older people need company—they need to be conversed with, but

[I]t’s as if the señora doesn’t exist for her’s said they don’t even talk to her. Sometimes they close themselves in their rooms while they watch TV or sleep...She drinks because of this, so when she’s talking with Diana she’s distracting herself and isn’t thinking of drinking. Sometimes her daughters cook, each one going into her room and eating, not even capable of giving a plateful to their parents, and they just leave their plates outside of their rooms for their mother to collect and wash. So their mother: ‘My children aren’t for me, if Diana accompanies me I won’t mind so much.’

To be accompanied is a barrier against the dreaded solitude of older years; to accompany is a recognition of this fear.

Accompanying, as in this example, reflects the context of new kinship arrangements, but it also takes place in many other aspects of life—it more generally describes being with someone both physically and emotionally: accompanying someone to the next town, on his or her birthday, to the hospital, to a loved one’s funeral, or at a fiesta that he or she is responsible for, for instance. [7] The kin-related uses of the term all derive from this basic principle: that physically accompanying someone is a meaningful social activity.

And as might be imagined from the emphasis on physicality, co-residence is an extremely important variable in the acompañar relationship, where the child actually cohabits with an adult who is not his or her original sociocultural parent. Extended families are rooted in Andean understandings of embodied relatedness, but would be incomplete without the layers of accompaniment and shared experience that define Andean families (Van Vleet 1999:139 for Bolivia; Weismantel 1995 for Ecuador). Physical closeness both creates and strengthens relatedness. A task such as cooking, hair-combing, or sweeping, done only sporadically, is not particularly meaningful as a building block of kinship—these tasks must be repeatedly shared over a long period of time (something which is only possible if people are in close proximity) before they are associated with a feeling of relatedness, or with a transformation from kinswoman who accompanies into a child of the family. The device that makes this transformation possible is acompañar, explicitly characterized by physical accompaniment in the daily activities of life.

There is a second aspect of accompanying that needs to be emphasized here, one that is intimately connected to but not coterminous with co-residence. The labor component of accompanying ties it both to kinship (see Orlove 2002), where “helping” means accompanying household members in their daily tasks, and to paid work, like that which a maid performs. Because the kinds of labor performed in each instance seem identical on the surface, I turn to their monetary expression for insight into what kind of relationship acompañar is. The financial aspect of accompaniment is sketched out differently by different participants, but it is clearly differentiated from a job or household help position. When Cristina’s children visited from Europe they gave Reyna a tip (propina; this Spanish word corresponds roughly to “allowance” in English, and is used to represent money that is given rather than earned, [8] another marker distinguishing the relationship from one of labor and pointing it towards kinship). Cristina’s niece said that Reyna “sort of” gets paid—Cristina’s children told her, “We’ll help you with clothes and everything, but accompany our mother.” Like “tip,” the word “help” is clearly distinguished from “pay.”

Reyna herself also said no payment was involved: “No, they don’t pay me, I only accompany, that’s all.” This importantly distinguishes accompaniment from employment, discursively and with reference to remuneration. However, she also told me that her father buys the bulk of her clothes and school supplies, even though she no longer lives with him. This would indicate that she is not a full member of Cristina’s household; this expense of subsistence is typically borne by the adult responsible for the child (see Goody 1982 on breaking up kinship into a bundle of responsibilities). But the two of them eat together, shared substance being a key marker of relatedness and family status (Weismantel 1988:169, 1995). Cristina gives Reyna food, access to education, lodging, and the kind of affection older Andean women give (combing Reyna’s hair and so on). Reyna feels free to treat Cristina’s house as her own in many ways. And Reyna is liked and appreciated by the rest of the family; when Cristina’s kids visit from Europe, they bring her presents and “tip” her to wash their clothes, as part of their promise to “help” her if she accompanies their mother. Cristina’s nieces, who live a few blocks away, converse warmly with Reyna and treat her as an equal. She is incorporated into the whole extended family—much more so than she would be as simply Cristina’s godson’s child. [9]

The “companion,” in other words, is not just a child who is taken in by a parental figure; she or he performs certain tasks, behaves in certain ways, and is treated in particular fashions by means of which her or his status approaches, but does not quite reach that of unmitigated kinship. Cristina’s niece told me that Cristina had not adopted Reyna; “Reyna only makes any moment she can leave. She has her parents, her siblings; she knows who they are.” Accompaniment is thus qualitatively different from adoption—its temporality is highlighted, as is the importance of choice (compare Weston 1991).

When the coordinator of Ayacucho’s adoption office was interviewed on a local radio station to raise awareness and correct inaccurate public perceptions about Peru’s adoption program, she made a similar point, explicitly stating that acompañar is definitively not adoption, nor should it be considered a family relationship:

Q: Do people take [adopt] kids for service in the home? Do they want to take a child for service?

A: No, no, no, no, no...A couple is disqualified if it’s for that. Because many times fifty- or sixty-year-old people, who already have children, come [to the adoption office]. They want a companion (una compañia); it’s not for company. We tell them, ‘You don’t want a son or daughter, what you want is a companion (acompañante). Now, for this, there are persons that can serve you, rented [paid], but no. So the focus is whether it’s a child they want, a son or daughter. Not a person that can serve them, you understand?

Her reference to “renting” a companion discursively pushes the relationship farther toward employment, distancing it from kinship. Those who are involved in the relationship would never use “rented” to describe it; the coordinator is explicitly doing so in order to set up adoption as legitimate kin-making practice, the same as family and therefore necessarily distinguished from acompañar. When phrased this way, one might conclude that acompañar is almost a polite way to say “maid,” obscuring the labor and coercion that are often involved. At the same time, it is more than just a maid, as Lupe’s story will show.

Lupe described her accompanying of a teacher in terms that were explicitly differentiating it from both kinship and labor:

[She] was going to give me like a tip, I wouldn’t go just for free...It wasn’t a job; it’s a small house, I just washed her clothes, cooked like in my own house, it was very calm and normal. I never lacked for food, we all ate together like equals and went out together too.

The tip, the eating together, and the chores were all markers of a family-like arrangement. There is labor involved in this arrangement, but it is the kind of chore-like labor that people at this socioeconomic level would do in their own homes. [10] Lupe contrasted this arrangement with one that took place later, in Lima:

I worked there, I was like a maid. I lived and slept in the house, and went out on Sundays to visit my aunt. I worked there, I did everything. But people there treat you like a maid—there, they can’t treat you like family, like when you work in another house. I liked it. I never lacked for food or sweets, the Señora was very nice, it was a small house, I liked to clean well and quickly.

She was telling her story, and I did not interrupt, but of course I regret never asking her directly what she meant when she said that Limeños treat you like a maid, and cannot treat you like family. The important point, though, is that accompanying can fall at many points in between those two poles. Typically, one does not work for one’s family (Orlove 2002; Weismantel 1988:170), and one is not family with the people one works for, but accompanying is a much blurrier notion.

In the context of child transfers and other kin strategies, discussions with Ayacuchanos clearly showed that acompañar is somewhere in between unconditional, acknowledged sociocultural kinship (a concept which is itself fallible, as Diana’s neighbor’s daughters demonstrate) and contracted employment by a stranger. In this, it carves out a new category of kinship, one which straddles and draws from the distinctly conceptualized spheres of family and labor, representing a kind of relatedness not described in other anthropological treatises on kinship. [11] But it is important to be cautious, and not to romanticize this relationship as an idyllic stretching of the boundaries imagined as bloodlines. Acompañar is shorthand for a position that is uncomfortably undefined and uncharted. Overall, the situation is an ambivalent one; the original sociocultural parents believe the children are better off, but might have preferred to keep them close had they the material and social resources to do so (see also Scheper-Hughes 1990:62, 1992:405).

This companionship is a conditional relationship that is sustained by various measures in varying degrees. Has the child sufficient incentive to remain in a house to which she does not feel she belongs (improved schooling, better living conditions, warm treatment), and has the adult sufficient reason (fear of loneliness, need for household help, trust in the child’s good character and permanence) to make the economic provisions necessary for another’s child’s subsistence? Here, “incentive” and “reason” are perhaps misleading, since the choices are constrained not only by economics but by senses of duty, emotion, and family. The “reasons” in each instance vary wildly, but often involve a felt connection springing from an understanding of kinship, social responsibility (or duty, [12] depending on the hierarchical position of each party to the unequal arrangement), and sometimes even a genuine affection.

In everyday conversation, accompaniment means the social act of being with someone, both physically and emotionally, in whatever capacity they should require. In this specific context, it means for a child to accompany an older person (not a parent, but usually a relative), for a myriad of reasons. [13] Older persons, in the absence of any children, require contact and conversation to not be alone. Adults in general see the transfer as a way to strengthen the link between the giver and receiver. Accompanying is based on an understanding of extended kinship, a sense of social responsibility or duty, a feeling of affection, and a promise of improved conditions for one or both of the parties. No payment is involved (only “tips,” which are monetary payments characteristic of kinship). Sufficient reasons must be present for both child and adult to sustain the relationship. If the relationship is ideally carried out and is successful, then both parties deserve praise and respect; the fact of extending affection to a person you accompany is definitely not a given, as it is imagined to be in basic kinship.

Accompanying is a conditional relationship that carves out a new sphere that takes its cues from both kinship and employment. Andean ideas of subsistence and sustenance are prominently on display in this relationship. Young people are brought into new households for the primary purpose of accompanying; older people are sustained, socially and also in more basic terms of having household chores and cooking provided for them, by the young person, and in particular the young person sustains the older one with her company in a world where to be alone is the hardest fate.

Superar: overcoming the hardships of subsistence

In the acompañar relationship, to sustain and be sustained by a person who is not one’s parent is, for the child and her home cluster of family, a tactic employed toward the ultimate end of overcoming her humble background. Clearly, the child is sustained in material terms (fed, clothed, sheltered, and possibly “tipped”), although the child does her share of emotional and labor-based sustaining as well. But from her point of view, the relationship also highlights Andean beliefs and responses to the concept of subsistence.

In the remainder of the paper, I discuss a word and idea that is related to accompaniment: superar, orovercoming. I argue that the notion of subsistence, epitomized in the subsistence farming carried out by the parents of many of the young women I described, is one which is respected, but at the same time, to overcome it is highly desirable. That is, subsistence takes on a moral tone: one who is beyond merely subsisting—that is, one who has overcome or improved his or her life (getting educated, becoming a professional, and no longer having to worry about mere subsistence) is one who should be admired.

Superar is thusthe other side of accompaniment, and is the social context of subsistence in the Andean region. As seen in Reyna’s story above, “accompanying” was not the only reason she was sent to live with her father’s godmother; she was also there to be educated. Accompanying primarily benefits Cristina; becoming educated, on the other hand, is one of the preeminent reasons that Reyna chose to accompany her.

Becoming educated is part and parcel of superar. In fact, it is metonymic thereof, and the two words are frequently interchanged: for example, Sarita told me that she moved to Ayacucho from her small community “because of my studies, so I could superarme, in search of la superación.” The kind of education I speak of here is mainly a superior public-school education, which is hoped to then lead to acceptance into university (a cutthroat competitive process); small towns have significantly inferior schools, or none at all.

Superar is more properly the child’s side of the equation, and it is accordingly less often voiced because it is the justification of the less powerful, less equal party within the relationship. Accompanying creates and builds upon a relationship; this relationship is, however, in many ways merely a device that young people strategically use in their own quests to overcome poverty, a socially devalued background, and a life path that leads back to their parents’ fields. Accompanying is the act of sustaining an older relative; overcoming is the morally self-defensive justification against subsistence (that is, in favor of something which is greater than mere subsistence). I argue here that the two concepts are equally important in explaining the practice of child circulation in Peru and the Andean understanding of what anthropologists traditionally label as “subsistence” and “sustenance.”

Fleshing out the multiple meanings of superar shows how it directly implicates and critiques the notion of subsistence (read as “mere subsistence”). Superar means to overcome, and it is the act and philosophy of subsistence that must be overcome. If this were not such a driving force in the lives of young Andeans, child circulation might be less common. Subsistence is respectable, in the view of these young migrants—after all, most of their parents subsist, while struggling to scrape together something more so that their children can have an advantage in life—but they are instructed by their parents to want something more. When Wilmer told me that his children would probably hire peones to work the land he would leave them, I thought it was sad, nostalgically imagining a simpler way of life disappearing. He, of course, was content, as it would be a sign that they had gone beyond the limitations of their parents, attained professional status, and no longer had to work the land, to subsist. (Another sign of this transformation is changes in attire. Reyna, in the countryside, dresses like what I came to see as the serrana adolescent girl: a slim knee-length skirt in a bright color, a white blouse, and a pastel cardigan, with no hat. But in the city, she wears stretch pants and midriff-baring tops, or her school uniform.) For one empleada turned activist, superar is explicitly linked to nuances of the parent-child relationship: “Our parents approve our leaving because they hope that we will have better opportunities of study and work than they did” (Loza et al. 1990:36).

To subsist is to remain or be left behind in your small town despite difficulties, to work long and physically hard hours in the fields only to bring home enough food for your own family, to have an illusory sense of control over your own labor when constant laboring is the only option, to drop out of school because of an unplanned pregnancy, to leave your child at the orphanage because you cannot afford to feed her, to have no financial liquidity, to cry at night because you cannot pay for the photocopies or uniform your child’s university classes require, to speak only Quechua. Superar is to be educated, to leave a community which might have fallen into violent ways, to control reproduction so that educational goals can be achieved first, to work in often uncomfortable or exploitative conditions in order to maintain a city lifestyle, to be able to buy the things you need at the moment that you need them, to be in a social and economic position to be able to support and help your children or others around you, to learn to function in Spanish. In short, superar is overcoming the condition of subsistence.

The region’s foreground is critical to understanding what it means to subsist. Simple subsistence is a significant victory under the conditions of desperate and excruciating poverty I witnessed on a daily basis in Ayacucho, consistently ranked as one of the poorest regions in Peru (itself a very poor nation). Under these conditions, eking out a living is both necessary and sufficient for survival. Subsistence is a delicate balance—in a land of no welfare, the only safety net is that which one has been resourceful enough to piece together from a patchwork of family members, community members, and social network. This balance is all too frequently punctuated by unexpected moments of disaster, bad luck, or desperation. In a nation which is eagerly striving to enter into a capitalist world market, many people get by with barely any money; the scarcity and imperishability of money leads to an inflation of its value (Brush 1977:110-111). Subsistence, for these families, is growing enough food to eat and to grease the social networks necessary for survival. In subsistence, food becomes the most important material marker of relationships in the Andes (Weismantel 1988), and it is offered and received at every opportunity (making the practice of visiting several houses in the middle of the day, as I sometimes did, an uncomfortably filling one), serving to reinforce relatedness and community. This is something that even those who scrape by can do; food costs almost nothing but one’s own labor. [14] Money comes from the good moments, the times when the balance of subsistence is punctuated by a windfall (such as temporary employment, or a loan from a relative). The luxury of dreaming of something beyond merely subsisting is often one that adults reserve for their children. These conditions are necessary to understand how people can “give up” their children.

This is the social context of subsistence in Andean Peru, and this is the underlying reality that makes overcoming a moral imperative, and child circulation a means to that end. (Migration is another such means, practiced both by families relocating from the countryside to Ayacucho, and by those who make the extra step to Lima to seek something like a fortune: work, education, and the sorts of opportunities that do not exist in the chacra.) Education is key in permitting the transformation required by the philosophy of overcoming; the tentative migrants with whom I worked desperately want their children to have opportunities. Families sacrifice a lot so that their children may receive a better education and, one day, perhaps even the respectful title accorded to a Peruvian professional.

These decisions—or indecisions—are not made lightly. For everyone involved, there is a deep sense of ambivalence about moving children around. Conflicting ideals and behavioral patterns mean that a decision that seems right on one day may seem wrong when framed another way. The life conditions and feelings that combine to direct a child’s movements are themselves fluid, and the challenge is to determine which prevails, which is perceived to prevail, and why. The indistinct contours of sentiment and need are often reduced, for the sake of definability, to small, concrete issues. [15] The framing is key: interested parties’ leverage can be enhanced with skillful descriptions of the child’s new life, or implications about how the relationship between the adults will improve to the poorer one’s benefit in the future. The belief in the power of an individual to overcome when placed in the right environment—leading to the transfer of a child—may be counteracted by a parent’s emotional attachment to a child which cries out for the accompaniment to end. Such ambivalence allows for situational decision-making. Temporary desperation and momentary affluence play key roles. Often the change is a temporary one, and again, almost always the change is seen as improving the situation of the child.

Getting at the heart of why these changes are seen as “for the best” can be quite difficult. As an observer, I heard tales of humiliation and mistreatment in these situations, and when I asked accompanists if they would have their future children live in such situations, they said they would not, finding it difficult to imagine circumstances that would force them to do so even as they saw families in those circumstances all around them every day of their lives. Even so, not only was a firm belief in the power of a new situation to make a child’s life better present, but this belief was also necessary to allow the move to take place. Although humiliation and mistreatment might be part and parcel of the new life, these problems were tacitly accepted in light of the benefits thought to be afforded. Sarita’s reflections on the topic were as follows:

I had to help my aunt and uncle, and it was sadder there, because there were some things I didn’t do right. Sometimes people in Peru, when they’re going to give you something, no matter if they’re your relatives, if they’re going to give you their money it’s because they want you to do things right, the way they like them. So to receive a little money, since we don’t have any, we practically have to humiliate ourselves and accept what they say to us. This is what’s sad about society.

In the first section of the paper, I talked about why older relatives call on younger ones to accompany them; in some of the stories I recounted, it also became clear why the young people chose to respond to that call. As those stories demonstrated, families let their children go for various reasons, each of which responds in some way to the notion of overcoming. They want for their child a complicated mix of effects: improvement of the child’s situation (learning Spanish, a better school, a job); an increase in socioeconomic position that will reflect positively on the giving family (materially, where the child helps a relative or is able to send money to the family, and socially, where the family’s status improves in negotiations); and the strengthening of a valuable and beneficial relationship through the acceptance of a circulated child. A child rarely begins living with an adult other than his or her parent unless circumstances—or priorities—make that necessary. Living with those to whom you were born is the status quo; anything else takes a decision, an effort, or in some cases, an indecision—but in any case, it involves a change which must actively take place.

I call these reasons for change, lumped together under the overarching concept of overcoming, “spoken reasons for unspeakable behaviors.” This is a non-native analytical term, which I use to approach an explanation for a behavior that my friends and family in North America could not understand: how could a parent who loved a child possibly allow her to leave? The underlying belief behind their incredulity is accurate—when young people are not living with the people to whom they have been born, it is usually not their first choice. It is clear that children’s movements are not always desirable affectively. That is, the majority of young people told me how much they missed their parents and siblings, and that they would prefer to be with their parents if it were possible, but they also recognized that it was unrealistic or non-ideal for many reasons. [16] While no one articulated in so many words that a child must be “released” to a social superior who requests her, it is quite common for the notion of overcoming to be brought up in a discussion of why people enter into this situation. Parents, while they no doubt miss and love their transferred children, must articulate a justification (both to the child and to the questioning anthropologist—for most people in the social network would understand why it must happen, and not question it) for why the child should leave.

But it is often not even necessary to offer such justification to the child. In fact, sometimes children are the ones who make the decision, or who negotiate the transfer, making these child circulations a productive site to explore questions of children’s agency and choice. Even if a small child absolutely does not want to leave her parents, she respects and obeys them. Later, in retrospect (because of the years of indoctrination in these same sorts of ideas about what is valued and respected in her culture), she realizes that it was for her own good. For instance, Lupe told me that she would have liked to grow up with her grandmother, “but it would have been impossible, because my grandmother lives in the countryside and I don’t think I would want to be a person who doesn’t even know how to read, because it would have always been that way.” The strong emotional connection between Lupe and the grandmother who raised her is mentioned, but in retrospect it cannot compete with the increasingly important need and desire to become something. And Sarita described in painstaking detail the suffering she experienced when, as a monolingual Quechua-speaking six-year-old, she went to live with her aunt and uncle in Ayacucho.

The punishment they gave me, I thank them for it, but it’s that if I didn’t stop or didn’t want to stop speaking my Quechua, because I was simply ashamed of speaking Spanish, I don’t know what happened but I didn’t want to. And what my aunt and uncle and cousins did is that simply if I kept speaking in Quechua, and I spoke to them in Quechua, they didn’t answer me...They almost forced me to learn, obligating me, but I thank them. Of course, for me this time was—for many reasons I felt hatred for them and the only thing I did as cry, cry, but now I realize it was for my own good, because my classmates didn’t speak Quechua.

Sarita remembers how she suffered, but she realizes that it was for her own good (see Alexander 1978 on realization in narratives). In Peru, language is a key marker of class and professional status; part of “educating one’s children” is ensuring that they learn Spanish.

One result of child circulation is that a child comes to know another lifestyle or value system that corresponds to and overlaps with the one she knows from her birth family; this often makes her want to strive after this new life. Sarita, for instance, who lived with her aunt, uncle, and six cousins (the majority of whom are professionals), told me that

I perhaps also grew up with this desire, with this goal practically, and once I came to live with my parents this was growing more and more, because I saw my mother sometimes suffering, crying over money, arguing just over money, I always had the mentality that I was going to study and I was going to salir adelante [become something; come out ahead], which I told them sometimes when they argued about money. I told them, ‘I’m going to work and then no one will humiliate you, no one will tell you that because of money.’

Sarita’s use of the term “salir adelante” is equivalent to “superar” for all intents and purposes. Her story shows how children of urban migrants come to internalize the same goals for themselves that their parents hold for them, and also how money plays a major role in the dreams people have for themselves, simply because of its scarcity.

That is to say, these movements are primarily designed (by parents, children, and other parties) to open up new fields of possibility and opportunity. The movement of a child away from its original family is usually seen or interpreted as socially and economically—if not affectively—beneficial, not only to the child but to the other parties involved, to varying degrees. In this relationship, the receiving adult’s emotions are privileged (in the sense of seeking alleviation of solitude), and the child’s loneliness or missing of family is treated as an unpleasant but necessary side effect of the choice to self-improve. Like compadrazgo, this relationship highlights inequalities between family members, friends, or strangers: whether the movement is proposed by the poorer or richer family member, it tends to be a movement up or down the vertical plane of poverty and wealth. [17]

Both Tania—who emigrated to Europe during the period of my fieldwork—and Lupe discussed migration in terms of superar. Tania told me that her family’s goal is to superar, but that this is an impossible goal to achieve in Peru. For her tightly knit sibling group, migration was a necessary condition for being able to overcome the poverty and impossible challenges of everyday life in Peru. For Tania, the notion of superar spans generations; she will work hard in order to try to superar, and even if she is not successful, things will still be better for her children, and they will also keep trying to superar. Lupe, who one day may be able to emigrate to Europe through family connections, told me that she would only do it after her son is old enough to “see that I am going to leave in order to podernos superar.” That is, for Lupe, self-improvement is only possible once her son understands why she is leaving him. It is also significant that Lupe used the expression podernos superar, or “be able to improve ourselves” (rather than “myself”): for this wife and mother, overcoming is something that she would specifically engage in and carry out on behalf of her whole family.

Overcoming is often envisioned in this way—which is precisely why a parent might allow a child to leave, imagining that it might be the step needed for the whole family to “overcome.” For both Lupe and Tania, overcoming is not just an enclosed, individual process: it is the province of an entire family and their future descendants. It is an improvement that can best be described as something beyond just subsisting: one who subsists cannot have more than a neutral socioeconomic impact (in this conceptual realm, the affective takes second place to the socioeconomic, though in reality it is a much-needed constant) on one’s children, family, and larger community. In the Andes, subsistence is both a physical condition and a metaphor to be surmounted. Subsisting one’s self, family, and community is a respectable position, but overcoming the self-contained limitations of subsistence—superando, in the best Andean sense—is what is truly admired and deeply desired by most urban migrants.

In sum, I have suggested here that the anthropological categories of sustenance and subsistence are extremely important in the Andean region. However, in order to fully understand what they represent in any meaningful sense, the native Andean terms and concepts should be explored. Through a consideration of the ubiquitous practice of child circulation, in which a young person goes to live with an older relative or acquaintance, I outlined the notions of acompañar—sustaining an older person through the social act of accompaniment—and superar—overcoming the condition of subsistence through dedicated efforts at self-improvement. I suggest that these two concepts, taken together, create a complete picture of the social context of sustenance and subsistence in the Andean city of Ayacucho. They also help to understand the telescoped moment of decision in child circulation cases by demonstrating the cultural principles at stake in parenting, relatedness, and sociability.


1. The research on which this paper is based was funded by a Fulbright IIE grant, a Wenner-Gren Foundation Grant, a National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant, and a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship. I thank my friends and kin in Peru for their support of my research. I would also like to thank Krista Van Vleet, Gillian Feeley-Harnik, Nicole Berry, and Sallie Han for comments on another version of this paper.

2. These included becoming his godmother twice, taking him in when he moved to town to study many years ago, taking in his sons when they wanted to work in the city, and providing a city “home” for his family whenever they needed it, in return for their help in various labors.

3. I recognize that material nourishment continues to be at the root of the metaphors I explore, just as in English subsistence and sustenance are inextricably linked through food, often the explicit referent of both. Foodstuffs at various times come to represent both relatedness and social position—meals both edible and spiritual that sustain and subsist barely-upwardly-mobile urban migrants in the Andean region.

4. In using Spanish words that are not direct equivalents, linguistically or conceptually, to “subsistence” and “sustenance,” I attempt to carve out a uniquely Andean space for this relationship rather than relying on the framework of North American kinship ideology to understand social connectivity (Collier, Rosaldo, and Yanagisako 1997:73). In part, this is an analytical tactic that I purposefully employ as a student of kinship. Many anthropologists want to label Schneider’s burial of kinship (1984) as premature, and do so by studying not what Westerners view as biologically given relations, but instead, the ways that people conceive of their relatedness to one another, what that relatedness is made to do, and how it plays out in relation to other domains of analysis such as gender, class, ethnicity, or labor. Cross-culturally, relatedness takes elements from both law and routine (Simpson 2001:8); specifically in the Andes, Van Vleet has argued that time and physicality are as essential to kinship practices as are birth and blood (1999:134). By drawing attention to the specificities of Andean kinship, I am striving to hold “kinship” in play as both a locally meaningful notion and an analytical category. When I use “kinship” throughout the paper, I am referring to Ayacuchanos’ sense of relatedness as simultaneously given and created, as both unconditional and fallible, and as thoroughly moral. Elsewhere (Leinaweaver 2005) I expand more fully on my use of the term.

5. However, solitude can still be a condition that is preferable to a known evil; Paula’s elderly mother prefers to be solita in the countryside rather than to live with her progeny in the city of Ayacucho, a lifestyle she cannot bear. I asked why no one accompanied her in the countryside, and learned that her children are working, her grandchildren are studying, and her godchildren are married—three conditions which preclude accompanying someone in the campo, and three conditions which are themselves linked to superar, as I show below.

6. I primarily refer to absent children, although acompañar also comes into play for infertile couples. However, the fact that it is not the primary strategy used for resolving infertility also points to acompañar not being “the same” as a basic child-parent relationship.

7. “Accompany” is also used to describe taking animals out to pasture and spending the day tending them.

8. But see Mauss 1990, Modell 2002, and others on the way a gift is not as freely given as we may pretend.

9. I discuss the emotional valences of this relationship elsewhere (Leinaweaver 2005). In general, the ambivalent and complicated relationship that is acompañar produces emotional responses that are at times confused, and can include loneliness: “It just isn’t the same as being with your own family,” I was told.

10. The family/companion/maid distinction is further complicated (though perhaps not so much if you consider who is saying what) by all the middle-class Ayacuchanas who say their maids are like family. I never heard this from a maid, but only from their employers: is it a tactic to pay them less, a genuine affection, both, or something else? In an instructive manual for empleadas, produced by the Institute of Promotion and Formation of Household Workers (IPROFOTH), we are told that during the colonial period, the domestic was thought of as “an object that served in the home of a family, and the relationship between the servant and patron was of a ‘familiar’ character, as it continues to be considered today...The fact that the trabajadora was, or that they said she was, considered part of the family because she was with them many years, was a way to objectively cover up a slavery-like, submissive relationship” (Loza et al. 1990:26-27).

11. A similar kind of relationship can be found in the anthropological literature on fostering, although the relationships described therein usually, though not always, focus on kinship over labor (Bledsoe 1998; Brady 1976; Cadet 1998; Carroll 1970; Carsten 1991; Donner 1999; Fischer 1970; Fonseca 1995; Goodenough 1970; Goody 1982; Goody 1969; Keesing 1970; Klomegah 2000; Kottak 1986; Schildkrout 1973; Weismantel 1995).

12. “Duty” can sometimes be read as code for implicit coercion. Both in Reyna’s case and in Lupe’s, a complex set of reasons for arriving at the decision to relocate was articulated. Both young women stated clearly that the move was their choice, but both also referred to how their fathers had supported and agreed to the move, and it was left unclear how this process ultimately played out.

13. For various reasons, the companions I describe here are more likely to be female (Leinaweaver 2005).

14. This is in contrast to the food served and eaten by wealthier families, which might be the families in which a child ends up: “To a woman who lives in the subsistence economy and perceives the cash economy as a separate sphere of prestige and special occasions, the enormous magic of ‘white’ people, who live only on food they have bought, becomes apparent. Such people seem scarcely human, eating only white rice day in and day out, a food that is glamorous but insubstantial. Runa flesh is made of barley and potatoes, the fruits of their labor, but wealthy white bodies seem to be literally made of money” (Weismantel 1988:152). This is the focus of Weismantel’s in-depth ethnography of food in Ecuadorian families.

15. I thank Sabine MacCormack for helping me to articulate this point.

16. Parents, too, generally seem to wish that their child could be with them, although one often-cited instance stands out in contrast to this: when women remarry, they perceive that their new husbands do not want anything to do with the children of the first marriage, so they take them to the orphanage or distribute them among family or neighbors. Women who do this are described as prioritizing their womanly nature over their motherhood.

17. The vertical movements described here often open up the possibility for mistreatment and exploitation, such that NGOs and government agencies sometimes label this long-used strategy as “child trafficking.” Elsewhere (Leinaweaver 2005) I discuss in more depth the hierarchical aspects of both child circulation (Weismantel 1988:171) and godparenting, and the ways in which both bring people into closer social relations through layers of obligation and duty. Scholars have demonstrated that the godparent is relationally important not so much to the child, but rather to the child’s parent (Davila 1971, Delgado Sumar 1994; Foster 1953; Mauss 1990; Mintz and Wolf 1950; Ossio 1984). See Schildkrout 1978 on how children may move more freely because of their unique social position; also see Urban 1996:137 on how talk is circulated in a potentially similar fashion.

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