The story has since been reported locally and nationally in Peru as well as in the United States. The Wolfroms have certainly got their story out and raised nearly $20,000 for their cause (It seems there has been a money withdrawal since I posted) of stolen property, medical bills, and lodging in seemingly record time. (I wonder what this amount of money would mean to the people of Pallca).
In what follows, I do not mean, by any means, to belittle this horrifying experience or question its impact on the American travelers; however, I would like to consider that another violence is at play here as well, a subtler violence that favors Western perspectives and ways of knowing the world with the consequence of dismissing all other points of view. This unequal knowledge power will most likely keep us from ever hearing what really happened in Ocongate, that is, the other sides of the story.
I am reminded, first, of this map of user-generated content in Google by country out of Oxford University. The countries that make up Latin America are so miniscule on the map compared to the foreboding red square that is the United States, you can probably barely see them on this screen shot. The imbalance of knowledge production indicated on the map parallels the knowledge we have of the Pallca-Wolfrom case. I imagine that there is scarce if any internet access in Pallca. Rural and isolated Andean villages often do not even have telephone land lines much less access to computers or internet service providers. The Wolfroms, however, know about these tools, feel confident using them, and immediately put their story out on the internet. The Wolfroms' story is the first story we have heard. It will probably be the only story, or at least the only credible one to Western readers. As we can see below, the U.S. is producing the majority of content out there in cyberspace.
In Peru and in the United States, the story has provoked some embarrassingly racist reactions that, uncannily, recall responses to the 1983 murder of eight journalists on their way to Uchuraccay to investigate the village's purported murder of Shining Path terrorists only a couple of days earlier. At the time of the incident, Nobel Prize-winning author, Mario Vargas Llosa, and a team of investigators concluded that the savage backlanders were predetermined by their "ferocious and belligerent" nature to commit the atrocious crime (For more see Tracy Devine-Guzmán, "Rimanakuy '86 and Other Fictions of National Dialogue in Peru"). Instead of considering a more nuanced understanding of the events, the investigators pointed their fingers at the comuneros and silenced their points of view. Comments on the article about the Wolfroms' story in the conservative newspaper, El Comercio, have echoed these prejudices:
"Ignorant savages, what a shame the lack of education. This is why we have the leaders that we have because those people with their mentality are obligated to vote."
"Exactly because of their mentality, they were indoctrinated by the Shining Path."
"From so much coca chewing, they become brutes, the poor things."
"There is nothing weird here! What we need are sanctions! Jail for those wretched people, literate and illiterate both." (all translations mine)
To be fair, there are numerous comments in both Spanish and English expressing shock that such an incident could occur, insisting that there must have been a grave misunderstanding, criticizing the Americans' feelings of entitlement to simply drive up and camp on someone else's land, and defending the people of Pallca's right to defend their lands. The problematic comments, of course, are the demonizing ones. I find it completely reasonable to feel horrified by the violence that these Americans were subjected to. However, concluding that Andean Peruvians are irrational savages does not follow as a logical conclusion. (Please see non sequitur.)
Let's consider a few things to acknowledge the complexity of this situation.
1. Tourists, especially American tourists, often behave abroad in ways that they would not in their home countries. It is certainly not customary in the U.S. to try to camp on a stranger's land without providing some form of identification. What would you do if a truck rolled up into your backyard with three foreigners in it who did not speak your language fluently asking if they could camp there? Would you want to know who these people were? Would you want proof of who they were before you let them stay overnight on your property where you have all of your family, possessions, and livelihood? Would you be suspicious and perhaps even scared if they refused to tell you or show you who they were? Would you then perhaps do everything you could to get those people off of your property?
2. Language proficiency. It is unclear from Jennifer's report how much Spanish proficiency the group had. Regardless, in small Andean villages, Quechua is generally the dominant language. Although Jennifer's report seems to emphasize that the group clearly communicated their intentions, we cannot really know what messages were being transmitted across language boundaries.
|Pallca residents, presumably the morning after the attack. Source.|
3. Cattle rustling. The article written in Cusco on this incident suggests that the people in Pallca may have thought the gringos were cattle rustlers, who, in the Andes, often violently usurp cattle, which--especially in these times of climate change--are vital to a family or community's livelihood. While it seems unlikely that Andeans would mistake gringos for cattle rustlers, the presence of an outsider could have been associated with such a threat.
4. The history of white men rolling up in the Andes. This element of the incident is perhaps the most complex and the most difficult to summarize in a brief article, but let's just say there are 500 years of history of white dudes coming to town, taking over, and submitting people with violence and oppression to a slew of undesirable foreign conditions. Conquest, forced conversion, forced labor, expropriation of communal lands, education reform, the confusion of the internal war in which mostly Quechua-speaking Peruvians were caught between the Peruvian military and the Shining Path, forced sterilizations, multinational mining companies, and yes, even encroaching tourism... Suspicion, distrust, and even fear of outsiders are just some of the consequences of this long history.
The Wolfroms don't seem to have been aware of any of these cultural dynamics; they were carefree American tourists living their dream of seeing the world--the couple had been travelling throughout Latin America for nine months--but that does not mean they deserved what ensued. What happend to them was horrific, violent, and inexcusable. But instead of letting this incident exacerbate cultural misunderstandings by dismissing the Andean villagers as ignorant murderers, let this be a lesson that cultural misunderstandings can have dire consequences. Let this remind us--and I mean us, fellow Americans--that the world does not belong to us and as we frolic about the globe crossing things off our bucket lists, we affect the spaces we enter.
What really happened in Ocongate? We will probably never hear the other side of the story unless someone seeks it out, and I would urge the Peruvian media to do so. We can only speculate but will probably never know what drove an entire village to brutally attack three foreigners, but we can consider the violence that we are committing if we choose a side, if we favor the published story over the unpublished ones, if we conclude that there were two dichotomous sides: rational, law-abiding citizens (the good guys) and irrational savages (the bad guys). ***Update in response to many of the comments below: Conversely, vilifying the American tourists and suggesting that they somehow got what was coming to them is an equally unhelpful and erroneous perspective.***
My heart goes out to both parties: to the unassuming tourists who got themselves into one hell of a cultural misunderstanding and to the Andeans on the other side of that misunderstanding who felt the need to resort to violence to defend themselves.