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.