The Potato Caper
by Evelyn LaTorre (Peru 1964-66))
The morning of March 25, 1965, dawned dry and warm in the town of Abancay, altitude, 7,000 feet, where I lived as a Peace Corps volunteer. The moisture that fell during the night had been unexpected because the rainy season in the Andean mountain area of Peru had usually ended by February. The cloudless day meant my clothes would dry if I washed them. So I snatched the galvanized steel bucket from the porch and headed to fill it from the nearby faucet in the big water basin.
“After laundry duty,” my roommate Marie shouted from inside our 12×15-foot cinderblock home, “let’s hike up the side of one of the mountains.”
“Good idea,” I said, turning on the faucet. “We can pack some cheese sandwiches, apples and cookies and have a picnic.”
I filled the bucket with water, still frigid from its origins—the melting snows of the 16,000-foot Mt. Ampay that towered above Abancay. Cold liquid sloshed on my skirt as I carried the pail to our open-air side room cooking area. I lit one of the kerosene primus burners and set the container of water on top of the flame.
When the water was warm, I dumped it into the plastic tub that sat on the knee-high adobe wall surrounding our small front yard. ACE soap granules rained down from the packet in my hand to form bubbles in the water. I grabbed the scrub board and began washing gray mud out of my reversible brown skirt.
I was plunging the skirt in and out of the sudsy wash water when Regional Education Director, Señor Chavez, and Ken, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, came through the Education Department offices below and up the stairs to our yard. The roly-poly director with thinning black hair looked official in the gray suit he always wore. Chavez’s girth dwarfed my blond colleague. Ken’s jeans hung loose on his thin frame. He’d tightened his belt another notch after his latest bout of dysentery.
Señor Chavez looked quizzically at me, the gringa washerwoman. I figured he must hire a little indigenous mamacita to wash his family’s clothes in the river. He probably wondered why I hadn’t done the same.
“Hey,” Ken said, “Are you still planning to go to the campesino meeting with the local farm workers?”
“No one told me anything about an Indian-gathering,” I said, thinking someone may have invited me in Spanish and I’d not understood.
“We’re leaving in half an hour,” Señor Chavez said, turning to go. Ken followed.
“Oh, we’ll be ready,” Marie shouted to their backs.
I hurried to rinse and hang up my wet clothes. Then we went downstairs outside our front door expecting to see Señor Chavez’s green Chevy drive up along our sidewalk. An hour passed. I hated the way locals treated time—like we had plenty of it to waste.
Around noon, a pickup came bouncing down the street and stopped in front of us. Inside sat a man whom we’d seen but didn’t know. He had a big grin on his face and mischievous brown eyes.
“Hop in,” the man said in Spanish through the open window, “I’m Señor Aguilar, a lawyer friend of Señor Chavez.” He leaned over to open the passenger door. “He asked me to come by and get you. A bunch of us officials are going to see what trouble the campesinos, farmers, are stirring up.”
I was surprised the director would send a stranger to transport us. I hoped he knew the way to the site and would tell us more about the meeting’s agenda. Marie got into the pickup first.
“Thanks for giving us a ride,” she said. I got in beside her and closed the door. Our new acquaintance bent his lean body across both our laps as he locked our door.
“The official meeting is thirty-six kilometers down the road,” he said. He slid his non-driving arm along the seat behind Marie. “But we could find somewhere more secluded for just the three of us to go.”
Maybe I’d misunderstood his flirtatious statement in Spanish. Marie looked over at me and rolled her eyes. I hadn’t misinterpreted his intentions. Here was another Peruvian man who saw us as a couple of females to be conquered. I felt happy not to be the one sitting close to this aggressive guy.
We settled in for the uncomfortable twenty-two mile ride—and not just because of the potholes. We’d have to endure whatever Señor Aguilar chose to dish out during the hour-long drive. Neither of us liked the lawyer’s innuendos, though we were used to suggestive remarks from Peruvian men. Their off-color comments made us feel like sex objects. They often acted the same way when local young women accompanied us, but then seemed less vocal and insistent, and were easier to ignore. Maybe they thought we had less family protection so were easier game.
“We usually take a bus or walk where we need to go,” I said, ignoring Señor Aguilar’s invitation. I had no attraction to this guy in the way he seemed to want.
“How about we park in those trees and enjoy the scenery?” the driver said, trying another approach.
Marie scooted closer to me. She disliked forward-acting men as much as I did. I hugged the door. Time to change the topic.
“What’s the campesino meeting about?” I said.
“There was some incident at a hacienda,” Señor Aguilar said. His leer changed to concern. I relaxed. “A group of indigenous people, who work for the woman landowner, had some trouble with her and asked the town officials to intercede.”
After another forty-five minutes of chitchat, the truck slowed down. We saw several men stopped by the side of the road. Apparently, we’d arrived at the meeting place. The lawyer parked his pickup on the road next to a cornfield that ran up the side of a hill. People had gathered in two groups—the city officials in a huddle on the road and the indigenous residents sitting and standing on the hillside in front of the corn.
The heads of many of the local organizations had come. Those we knew were the Chief of the Food for Peace Program, two Directors of the Regional Education Office, Agrarian Reform officials, Ken, a couple lawyers and the Guardia Civil regional police. I counted more than twenty-five armed, uniformed police officers. So much armament made me nervous.
Most of the city men wore their khaki Sunday best. The education department officials, as always, sported suits and ties. The seventy or so indigenous residents all wore hats. The men’s fedoras ranged from faded gray to faded black. Round, black or beige felt hats topped the long black braids of the indigenous women. The ever-present headgear shaded their skin from the sun’s damaging rays at the 10,000 to 16,000-foot altitudes where they lived and farmed. I relished this time out in nature in glorious weather—but not the sunburn we’d probably get because Marie and I had neglected to bring hats.
The women’s hat colors contrasted with their bright ankle-length, hand-woven, red wool skirts, with bands of white trim along the hems. On their feet, a few of the men sported dusty leather oxfords while others wore the familiar sandals made from old tires. But most of the men and women walked on the thick field grass and gravel in bare feet. I could see why we treated so many foot wounds at the hospital where Marie and I worked.
Señor Aguilar left the pickup and approached the group of officials, the police heads, and Ken. After conferring with the others, the lawyer gathered together a small group of indigenous men. He seemed in charge of getting the details. To do that the men had to climb through a cornfield up to a potato field at the top of the hill. Marie and I weren’t invited. None of the red-skirted women went either. Apparently, females couldn’t be included when examining potato fields.
The Indian women glanced at us as they scurried back and forth between the houses across the road. They set a table with white enamel plates, cups and food. We’d learned the Quechua language greeting of the indigenous people, “Allillanchu,” and used it. The women smiled back. A pack of scruffy-looking dogs sniffed around the food. I ducked inside the pickup whenever a dog growled near me. I’d been afraid of all canines—except my dog Teddy—since childhood. In my youth in Ismay, Montana, dogs had snarled at me, and a German Shepard almost ate me alive when I was in high school. Dogs seemed to sense my fear of them.
The men returned after half an hour and Señor Aguilar told us what he’d learned. The indigenous farmers who lived near the hacienda had gotten permission from the owner to plant some potatoes for themselves in the field up the hill. When the potatoes matured, the woman owner of the hacienda, the dueña, changed her mind and decided she wanted not just the agreed-upon portion, but all the potatoes for herself.
The dueña, had armed herself the previous day and gone to the potato patch where the Indians were working. Then she forced the workers to dig up “her” potatoes—at gunpoint. When she stuck a shotgun in the stomach of one worker, the man’s wife grabbed the firearm away and other Indians wrested a second gun away from her. The dueña turned to run back to her house, and fell. No one pursued her as she picked herself up and ran across the field to her house.
The Indians had strapped the guns they’d confiscated to a fence post at the edge of the nearby field. I hadn’t noticed the arms before, but now I could see a long rifle and a smaller firearm on a nearby post. This excursion had become exciting, not quite the sightseeing outing I expected.
The officials, prepared for trouble, must have arranged for the high number of guards. When the sentries weren’t lounging in the Indians’ cornfields, they swaggered around threatening the people with their pistols by raising their firearms if someone didn’t clear a path for them. The show of force, meant to intimidate the Indians, made me angry. The number of armed guards present seemed uncalled for.
Around three in the afternoon, the Indian women served us what they had cooked in their nearby mud-and-stick huts on kerosene gas burners and in nearby adobe ovens. We had a choice of pork, chicken or the local delicacy, herbed guinea pig called cuy. Side dishes included potatoes and corn, and the drink was lots of aguardiente— the homemade fermented and distilled sugar cane liquor. I downed a polite thimbleful of the alcohol. It burned my throat.
The tiny eyes of the herbed, roasted cuy, looked up at me from my plate. It smelled of oregano and cumin. I sank my teeth into the middle rib area of the small animal careful to not make eye contact with my food. The spicy flavors surprised me. When we finished our meal, the women took the dishes and leftover food back to their homes. This Peruvian food tasted delicious. People were always feeding us no matter how little they had for themselves.
The meeting finally got underway at four, with less than one-third of the original hundred campesinos. Most of the natives, who had waited to participate since nine a.m., had given up and returned home.
Everyone spoke in the indigenous language of Quechua. I didn’t understand much of the conversation, so couldn’t tell if the hour-long gathering ended with an agreement. Our lawyer friend gave us his analysis on the drive back to Abancay. His more serious demeanor made him more tolerable.
“Although three hundred indigenous families live in the area,” he said, “they have no schools. They’re supposed to get paid six soles, or twenty-five cents a day, but often get nothing.”
“So that’s one reason they can barely survive,” I said. “And without education, they can’t influence the government, if they even know they have a government.”
“Yes,” Señor Aguilar said. “Too bad they are all spread out and not organized.”
I liked our lawyer friend better when he explained current events and stopped coming on to us. Seeing some of the problems that these people faced motivated me to work in rural community development after finishing my training in the hospital. I had a new understanding of the plight of indigenous Peruvians. But so far today I had eaten a cuy, gotten sunburned, and managed to avoid any dog bites. Not great accomplishments. And I’d begun to lose hope that the potato issue would be solved anytime soon—like so many things in Peru.
To work with these Incan descendants I needed to learn their language. Not likely. Fluency in Spanish continued to be my goal. I had made progress speaking that language in the six months since I’d arrived. But what could I accomplish in the year I had left?
When I arrived at the hospital the next morning, I noticed a portly woman waiting for Doctor Delgado. I greeted the woman and her husband when I walked past them and went into the cloakroom to put on my white medical coat. Inside, Marie and a nurse friend, Elsa, discussed yesterday’s adventure.
“The lady, the dueña owner of the hacienda,” Elsa said in a hushed tone, “is the woman sitting out in the waiting room.”
“What’s she here for?” I asked, astonished at the coincidence.
“She said she’d gone up to a field on her hacienda to see how the potato digging was going,” Elsa said. “The Indians had called her by a name of endearment, mamacita—and then attacked her. She said they must have been planning it all along.”
“That’s not what the campesinos said yesterday,” Marie said. I, too, doubted the woman’s story from what I knew of the incident.
“It turns out the woman is expecting a baby,” Elsa said sympathetically, “and as the result of her fall, she may lose it.”
I found it difficult to feel sorry for the dueña after what I knew. The Indians seemed more sincere and honest, with less to gain. The unfairness of situations like this potato caper demonstrated how the gap between rich and poor created injustices that no one seemed able to bridge, least of all me. But, I’d keep looking for ways to have a meaningful impact in this mysterious and wonderful country.
Evelyn Kohl LaTorre (Peru 1964-66) after working with Cesar Chavez in the Parlier, California area and spending a summer in Apaseo el Grande, Mexico setting up a school and a library, went into Peace Corps Training at Cornell University in June 1964 and served in Abancay, Perú. There, she taught PE in impoverished schools and organized Girls’ Clubs.
At the close of her two years in Perú, she married a Peruvian university student in a Spanish chapel that sits upon Incan walls. The LaTorres raised two sons in California where Evelyn worked for thirty-two years as a school psychologist and administrator and her husband, Walter, was a computer program analyst. She Writes Press will publish her Peace Corps memoir On A Winding Mountain Road on August 11, 2020.