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date: 22 April 2024

José María Arguedas: Indigenismo and Andean Culture in Perulocked

José María Arguedas: Indigenismo and Andean Culture in Perulocked

  • Peter ElmorePeter ElmoreSpanish and Portuguese, University of Colorado


Born in the small Andean city of Andahuaylas on January 18, 1911, the Peruvian writer and anthropologist Jose María Arguedas put a dramatic end to his life on December 2, 1969, by committing suicide after a long and ultimately unsuccessful battle with depression. At the time of his death in Lima, Arguedas was writing his most ambitious novel, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, in which the writer’s tortured chronicle of what ultimately came to be his last days stands in powerful counterpoint with a narrative set in the coastal port and boom town of Chimbote. Bilingual in Spanish and Quechua, Arguedas penned narrative fiction, poetry, and anthropological works bridging the predominantly criollo coast and the Andean hinterland. He was respected and admired as a writer in Peru since the publication of his first book, the short story collection Agua (1934), a watershed in Peruvian indigenismo. Broader recognition in Latin America came with Los ríos profundos (1958), a novel of formation whose narrator-protagonist is a memorable alter ego of the author himself. His ethnographic studies of peasant communities in the Central and Southern Central highlands, as well as his numerous translations of Quechua poetry and folktales, established Arguedas as a leading figure in the nascent field of Andean anthropology. Arguedas’s stature as both a writer and cultural icon has grown enormously in his home country and abroad since his demise. Along with the avant-garde poet César Vallejo and the socialist thinker José Carlos Mariátegui, Arguedas stands as an exemplar of the radical mestizo intellectuals who have played a decisive role in shaping modern Peruvian culture.

Given the subject matter of his short stories, novels, and poems, Arguedas is commonly described as an indigenista writer. Arguedas spent his formative years in the Peruvian highlands, and endeavored to do justice in his fiction, poetry, and ethnological writings to the complexity of a rural hinterland in which a vast majority of the population was made up of Quechua-speaking peasants, whose worldview and cultural traditions permeated the views, tastes, and everyday lives of those who, like Arguedas’s own father, harbored racial prejudices. In the first decades of the 20th century, a growing concern about the so-called Indian question prompted an array of critical, political, and artistic responses, which came to be grouped under the umbrella term indigenismo. Visual representations of Indian peasants and Andean landscapes were prominent in paintings and frescoes by José Sabogal (1888–1956), who frequently collaborated with Amauta, the left-wing and avant-garde magazine founded by José Carlos Mariátegui in 1926. Arguedas’s favorite indigenista painter was Julia Codesido, whom he lavishly praised in Canto Kechwa (1938), a bilingual anthology of Quechua songs. Other journals and magazines, like Boletín Titikaka and La sierra, were also part of the indigenista ferment. In the longest of his Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (1928), Mariátegui, whom Arguedas credits with his embrace of socialist ideas while still a high-school student, advocated indigenismo as the driving force of a genuinely national literature, even though the actual number of novels and short-story collections set in the Peruvian highlands was still quite meager at the end of the 1920s.


  • History of Northern and Andean Spanish America
  • 1910–1945
  • 1945–1991

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