Excerpt: The Corner of the Living, by Miguel La Serna

The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency, by Miguel La Serna
[This article is crossposted from First Peoples, New Directions in Indigenous Studies.]

University of North Carolina Press author Miguel La Serna has blogged previously about his research in Peru in the years following the Shining Path Insurgency and the implications of the recent detention of a leader of that guerilla group. Today, we share an excerpt from his book that highlights the value of bridging archival and ethnographic research, especially in the aftermath of recent conflict. His reflections provide insight into the challenges and rewards of this kind of critically engaged fieldwork.

Miguel La Serna on Critically Engaged Research in Post-Conflict Peru
(an excerpt from The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency)

I arrive at [my] analysis through a fusion of historical and anthropological methods.[1] As anthropologist Nicholas Dirks illustrates from his own experience, the archive itself can be an intimidating terrain for the nonhistorian.[2] Truth be told, I had a similar experience the first time I entered and archive. Yet as a trained historian, I knew that this was to be expected, that I would have to suppress these anxieties and plug forward – I had to; my research depended on it. The reason for this was that I shared the conventional wisdom within my discipline that, as Dirks so aptly summarizes, “historians can only really become historians or write history once they have been to the archive.”[3] Conversely, I found my introduction to ethnographic fieldwork every bit as chaotic, unfamiliar, and intimidating as Dirk’s first visit to the archive.

I came to this realization during my first visit to Chuschi with my research assistants Julián and Alberto. Julián and I got to the shuttle station at 3:55 A.M. to catch the 4:00 A.M. shuttle from Ayacucho City to Chuschi. It was dark, the shuttle was overcrowded, and we were tired, but it did not take long for us to realize that Alberto, our main Chuschi contact, was not there. Julián jumped into a taxi to swing by Alberto’s place, suspecting that the Chuschino researcher had slept in. As I sat there on the shuttle guarding my friends’ seats with gusto, I thought, Great. Now this shuttle is going to take off and I’ll be arriving in Chuschi for the first time alone. A few moments later, Alberto arrived. I told him Julián had just left to get him. He frowned, “Why? Didn’t we agree to meet at four o’clock?” Luckily, Julián arrived within ten minutes, although he could have arrived in thirty and still had time to spare because our driver did not leave until almost 5:00 A.M.

Once on the road, I went over our oral history questions with Alberto, reviewing key names, dates, and events about Chuschino history that I had pulled from the archive. I told him about Humberto Azcarza, a mestizo power holder who had abused the local indigenous population non-stop between 1935 and 1975.[4] Later on, Alberto showed me an obscure text that he had come across that was a brief history of Quispillaccta, written by Quispillacctinos. I leafed through the pages and began reading aloud a passage about a 1960 conflict between Chuschi and Quispillaccta. The Chuschinos, the authors claimed, were led by the likes of Azcarza and other “foreigners” who had settled in Chuschi. “That’s not true,” interrupted the woman sitting directly across from me and with whom I had been grinding knees for the past two hours. “What makes you say that?” I asked, to which she replied, “Humberto Azcarza was my grandfather.”

My heart sank and I could feel my face turning flush red. Less than an hour earlier I had been talking about Humberto Azcarza as though he was a literary villain and his granddaughter had been sitting next to me all along! Rather than apologize, I decided to let her know about my research. She was very friendly and actually seemed curious to know more: “What other names have you come across in your research? I bet I know them.” We spent the next hour exchanging what we knew of certain people and episodes in Chuschino history. Humberto, her mother’s father, had told my fellow passenger about some of them when she was a young girl living in Chuschi. Others, her father had told her about. “What’s your dad’s name? Maybe I’ve come across him in the record,” I asked. “My dad is Blanco.” This just can’t be, I thought, asking, “Vicente?” She smiled. “That’s him. You’ve heard of him?” I had not just “heard of” Vicente Blanco.[5] I knew that the mestizo power holder had gotten his fair share of complaints from comuneros (indigenous commoners) during his rise to local political power in the 1970s. I knew that he had been charged with a number of serious crimes against the indigenous peasantry. I knew that during the Shining Path insurgency, the rebels submitted Blanco to fifty lashes before chasing him out of town. “Yeah, I’ve heard of him,” was all I could muster. She said that he was in town for the Independence Day festivities, and I told her that it would be fabulous to interview him sometime. She assured us that her father would be happy to participate. When we got off the bus around 8:00 A.M., I gave her my card and she invited us to come to her father’s house later that morning. “Can I borrow that book?” she asked Alberto, referring to the one about Quispillaccta. He agreed, and Alberto, the son of comuneros, never saw the book again.[6]

In many ways, my initial trip to Chuschi reflects the challenges of doing historical anthropology about the late twentieth century. The historical component of most historical anthropology focuses on periods whose human subjects have long since passed away.[7] If living subjects are consulted at all, they are separated from the written record by one or more generations. In my case, however, the very people about whom I had been reading—and forming opinions—in the archives were still living. Even in cases where the historical actors had passed away, their children and neighbors still lived. As such, I had to deal with something I never anticipated: the feelings of my archival subjects. Given the intimate familiarity that villagers had with the people and events that I had read about, these feelings were quite strong. How I interpreted my data suddenly mattered in that it could affect my standing with my informants. Moreover, mine and my research assistants’ relative power vis-à-vis my research subjects’ relative power within the community.

While this interdisciplinary methodology created tensions, it also enabled me to conduct my research with greater sensitivity and precision. For one, the perspective I gained in the field enabled me to return to the archive with a better understanding about the authority and judgment that I imposed on the documentary record. At the same time, the written texts that I collected in local, regional, and national archives and libraries enabled me to conduct much more informed ethnography and oral history in my field sites. I found this useful first in simply helping my informants to remember. For instance, whenever informants told me they could not recall having seen or heard of a given situation, I could readily counter with a historically specific case to jog their memory.

This approach also enabled me to draw important conclusions about the ways that my subjects construct and employ historical memory. In applying this approach, anthropologist Thomas Abercrombie discovered what he has called “structured forgetting,” a phenomenon in which informants choose to erase a particular memory from their collective consciousness in order to better shape the community’s historical narrative.[8] More often than not, though, I was impressed with the degree of historical accuracy that my informants exhibited, or at least the extent to which their recollections matched my findings from the written historical record. To this effect, my findings support Joanne Rappaport’s observation about the primacy of historical memory in Andean community identity.[9] Thus, while engagement with written material can be a useful strategy, it is not the be-all and end-all of historical research. As Florencia Mallon argues, such privileging of written sources overlooks “a whole series of dimensions within human history.”[10] Interdisciplinary analysis thus allows us to appreciate the degree to which local histories of domination and conflict shape macropolitical developments.


From The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency by Miguel La Serna. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Miguel La Serna is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book, The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency, is now available from the University of North Carolina Press. On Friday, May 25 at 10:15 AM join First Peoples in celebrating the publication of Dr. LaSerna’s book during a meet-and-greet in our booth (104) at the Latin American Studies Association annual meeting.


Abercrombie, Thomas.  Pathways of Memory and Power: Ethnography and History among an Andean People. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.

Axel, Brian Keith, ed. From the Margins: Historical Anthropologies and Its Futures. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003.

Dirks, Nicholas B. “Annals of the Archive: Ethnographic Notes on the Sources of History.” In From the Margins: Historical Anthropologies and Its Futures, edited by Brian Keith Axel. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003.

La Serna, “Murió comiendo rata: Power Relations in Pre-Sendero Ayacucho, Peru, 1940-1983.” A Contracorriente 9:2 (Winter 2012).

Mallon, Florencia. Courage Tastes of Blood: The Mapuche Community of Nicolás Ailío and the Chilean State, 1906-2001. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005.

Rappaport, The Politics of Memory: Native Historical Interpretation in the Columbian Andes. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.

  1. [1]Historical anthropology, of course, is nothing new. See, for example, Axel, From the Margins.
  2. [2]Dirks, “Annals of the Archive,” 47.
  3. [3]Ibid., 48.
  4. [4]For more on Humberto Azcarza and his conflicts with the Chuschino peasantry, see La Serna, “Murió comiendo rata.”
  5. [5]This is a pseudonym.
  6. [6]Field notes, Chuschi (26 July 2007).
  7. [7]For examples, see essays in Axel, From the Margins. A notable exception is Mallon, Courage Tastes of Blood.
  8. [8]Abercrombie, Pathways of Memory, 117.
  9. [9]Rappaport, The Politics of Memory, 12, 16.
  10. [10]Mallon, Courage Tastes of Blood, 232.