FOR more than thirty years, the Amuesha Indian community of Miraflores (Oxapampa, Peru) has provided young girls as servants to neighboring haciendas and the homes of the region's lumber barons. During the past ten years, as the demand for servants in the urban areas has grown, more and more Amuesha girls have been taken to Lima to work in middle class homes. Local "recruiters" - middle class white women - take the girls into their homes for several weeks until they are "civilized." Then they are sent to Lima, to the homes of relatives, friends and other clients where they are put to work cleaning, cooking and caring for children.
One might ask why an Amuesha girl's parents are so willing to let their daughters become servants, but it is not a question of willingness. The Amuesha of Oxapampa are being squeezed economically. Jungle colonizers have left them with very little land which is of such poor quality that it produces practically nothing. Amuesha families have, on average, between eight and twelve children. With little understanding of commerce and money-based economies, it is very difficult to support them. Moreover, after a century of exposure to outsiders' cultural and racial prejudices, many Amuesha are now convinced that they are, indeed, inferior. They are now actively looking for a way to change their identity. Sending their daughters to the city to work as servants should be seen in this context.
In Peru, 80 to 90% of servants - a middle class prestige symbol - are native peoples. Many girls are taken to Lima when they are eleven or twelve, with little understanding of, or previous exposure to, any city. Many of them have never used money, so whatever salary the patron offers is acceptable.
I arrived and the woman said to me she will pay me 200 soles a month (about 55.00), well, I was happy. I said. "Look how much money they arc going to Pay me." My father never gave us that much money.
Girls with more experience receive between $10.00 and $30.00 a month.
In addition to low salaries, the promises of a better life that recruiters and patrons use to lure girls are most often never fulfilled. Servant girls are seldom allowed to continue their primary education. Nor are they taught other useful vocations. They learn to wash clothes, clean house and care for children, work they can learn adequately in their own homes. Servant girls usually live in, for all practical purposes, captivity. In one case, the patron allowed the girl to leave the house only on one weekly trip to the market. She was punished if she returned late. When the girl wanted to return to her father's house, she had no way of informing him because the patron controlled all correspondence.
When Amuesha girls leave home to work as servants in the city, they lose contact with their own culture and its values. In Lima their world is limited; the family of the patron serves as their only model for social values. From this new family, Amuesha servant girls learn that their own culture is backward and savage. They learn to despise it, just as their patrons despise it, and they grow ashamed of their indigenous origins. At the same time, the patrons impress upon their servants the idea that only the city (Lima) can offer them a fulfilling life with "important" things like movies, cars, and stores. Thus the girls learn and incorporate the racial and cultural prejudices as well as the materialist middle class values of their patrons.
When they return to their community after a year or so in the capital, Amuesha girls show scorn for everything they sec: the food, the inconveniences, the ignorance of their families, and even the green panorama of forests. The idea of reintegrating themselves into their communities seems impossible. They don't marry back into their nation. An Amuesha mother says,
It's probably because of their money that the girls want to marry Peruvians. When they go to live with Peruvians from the time they're little girls, with all the luxuries and good food...well, they want to marry Peruvians.
Miraflores is a small Amuesha community of about forty families with a total population of some 220 persons. Of this number there are thirty-three women between the ages of twelve and twenty-eight; thirty-one are now working or have worked as servants. Of these thirty-one, fourteen are single, working in Lima; five married other Amuesha men, and twelve married non-Amuesha. During the past ten years, 70% of the women married white men and didn't return to their community. Today there is not one unmarried woman older than twelve living in the community, and there are twenty-nine young men between the ages of eighteen and thirty years who are looking for wives. If this situation continues (there is no indication that it will not) there will be no new generation of Amuesha in Miraflores. They will not be able to reproduce themselves either biologically or culturally.
In conclusion, two points need to be stressed. First, servants have the right to share the privileges of all working people: a minimum wage, limited and specified working hours and the enjoyment of social security benefits. Second, the Amuesha community of Miraflores is now threatened by ethnocide. Its daughters who serve white patrons in urban areas do not return to marry and procreate in their community. If this process spreads to other communities, the Amuesha, as a human group with its own unique cultural characteristics, will disappear forever.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.