Thursday, 21 May 2015

Poor but not quite destitute

the old Peruvian National Library building
as portrayed on the back of a hundred soles banknote

Traffic in Lima is unquestionably brutal. Driving is a cut throat business that, if you’re not too worried about your blood pressure, can be quite exhilarating, requiring aggression and creativity in equal parts.

The last time I was living there, I was passenger in a taxi which got involved in a bit of a fracas in the street. Needless to say heated gestures ensued, and as the taxi driver drove off he spat out one word at the other motorist ….  serrano.

He nodded and smiled knowingly at me in the mirror. But I chose to remain silent in the back. Serrano, of course, means someone from the mountains.

There’s no doubt that things are far different now from the times when tio Hernan was writing his Anecdotes. But for me words tell stories, and the traffic incident was testament to a society still grappling with the lingering subtleties of racism and inclusion.

Tello was a mountain Indian who overcame financial difficulties and social obstacles to reach the position he did. He was a fierce advocate for indigenous communities, and I think his single minded refusal to be intimidated by the coastal elites of the time is a large factor in the legendary status he holds today for some Peruvians.

The rags to riches angle is inspiring. But in this story Hernan, who was himself from the central Andean highlands, takes issue with what he sees as a somewhat patronising portrayal of his hero. And reminds his readers that the concepts of money and position then, as now, can often be relative.

Poor but not quite destitute 
Wherein we learn of the reason for Tello's brief accomodation crisis and his subsequent rescue by an eminent Peruvian historian

Two days after Tello’s death there appeared an article in La Tribuna under the title Julio C Tello, Illustrious Amauta. I believe it’s possible that this article has been the source of some resulting biographies grossly overstating Tello’s supposed penury.

 It is true that his father and uncles were poor, but they were the type of traditional country land and livestock owners who may not have had a lot of money but were still respected leaders of the community in Huarochirí.
Don Julián, Tello’s father, was many times mayor and governor, as was his uncle Luis.

Tello’s father was of the opinion that the best inheritance he could leave to his son was the advantage of a good education and to this end he put him in one of the best schools in Lima. This is not the act of an impoverished farm hand and the legendary tale of poverty is not strictly true.

Neither are the accounts of how the famous author and scholar Ricardo Palma came to give permission to Tello, penniless and homeless in Lima, to sleep in a corner of the caretaker’s gatehouse at the National Library.

 It was as a youngster at school in Lima that Tello’s long lasting friendship with Ricardo Palma’s son (also named Ricardo) began. Later on they studied medicine together and Ricardo Palma senior employed the young medical student for some time at the library.

Ricardo Palma

The Tribuna article suggests that during this time, the young scientist was so financially embarrassed that he would take the correspondence round to the historian’s house precisely at the lunch hour so as to be invited to eat there. 

This may well have occurred a couple of times, but one swallow doesn’t make a summer. As a matter of fact Tello always recounted to us fondly his memories of taking round the correspondence at night, as this was the only time he himself had time off from his classes and his duties at the library. More often than not Palma read it in his bed.

No … Here now is the real story of Peru’s most famous anthropologist’s short sojourn at the National Library.

Tello’s father had part ownership of a house in Lima at four hundred and sixty four Ilave Street, which until this day remains in the family. This is where the young Tello lived during his first years in the capital, until he could afford to rent a room in the city.

Then Tello lodged for a while with a wealthy family in Lima. They were friends of his father and gave him board and lodging at a vastly reduced rate, knowing that this was the only way in which he could continue to pursue his university studies.

But one day the owner of the house discovered that the most beautiful of his daughters had fallen in love with the budding scientist. The outraged father decided to put an end to these amorous exploits right there and then, and when Tello arrived home a disagreeable surprise awaited him. His bed and all his books had been thrown out onto the terrace. He had nowhere to live.

The situation did not bode well. He knew that his father wouldn’t be able to increase his already meagre allowance, but it was obvious that he was not welcome one minute more at his present lodgings.  He went to see his best friend Ricardo Palma, who seeing that there was a very real risk of his friend’s having to give up his medical studies, spoke to his father.

photo - Biblioteca Nacional del Perú
The father immediately took in the gravity of the situation and, knowing Tello to be a sensible and serious young man, offered him a position at the National Library. 

Tello’s assistant Mejía Xesspe, in his biography of the archaeologist, recounts for us Palma’s words on securing him the post: “Here you have access to the whole archive of human knowledge. If you can come to know and recognise all these literary and scientific works by their covers, then I guarantee you will become a great man of letters.”

And those are the circumstances due to which Tello found himself staying temporarily at the caretaker’s hut. But as he now finally had a small salary which allowed him to rent a room and to cover the costs of his studies without the help of his father, it was only a matter of a few days before he moved to lodgings in Comesebo Street.
 fig. 1

But this is not the end of the story. What of the wealthy gent who had thrown the young student out of his house?  Tello, judging that he would not be eager to hear any more from him, asked Palma to send him a letter on his behalf stating that he now held a position at the National Library and would the gentleman be so kind as to forward his belongings to that address.

When the former ‘landlord’ received a letter signed by none other than the celebrated historian and scholar Ricardo Palma he was, to say the least, surprised. He tried his best to retract from his former inhospitable position, but too late, his lodger had moved on.

Such is life. The very man who had so disapproved of the love between his daughter and a young medical student, actually gave a grand dinner in his honour when some time later he graduated to such acclaim from San Marcos University.  Maybe he glimpsed at last a hint of the shining future that Tello was to have. Do you think he regretted the loss of such a potentially distinguished son in law? Who knows! 

fig 1  Avenida Tacna in Lima today. Previously block three of this avenue was known as Comesebo Street. 

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