Page 18FCEBD2B-4FEB-41E0-A69A-B0D02E5410AERectangle 52 Przejdź do treści

Welcome to “Przekrój”!

In case you’re wondering where you are, and especially since you probably can’t pronounce the name of this website, here’s a little help—“Przekrój” (pronounced “p-SHEH-crooy”) is the oldest society and culture magazine in Poland, now available in English.

“Przekrój” Magazine brings English-speaking readers some of the best journalism from across Central and Eastern Europe, in the fields of wellbeing, art, literature, science, ecology, philosophy, psychology, and more. Take a break from the speed and intensity of the daily news and join us!

Elżbieta Jodłowska – an ethnologist and researcher of the culture of the Indigenous Andean Quechua ...
2021-10-12 09:00:00

Better Not to Talk About It
An Interview About the ‘Pishtaco’

Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska
Better Not to Talk About It
Better Not to Talk About It

It takes the form of a white-skinned, grey-haired man. It appears after dark or around mines. Researcher Elżbieta Jodłowska tells Tomasz Pindel about the pishtaco, which is feared by the inhabitants of the Andes to this day.

Read in 5 minutes

Since 2008, Elżbieta Jodłowska and Mirosław Mąka have been conducting ethnographic research in Peru, as well as exploring the country and climbing in the northern Peruvian Andes. One of the fruits of this research is their book Pishtaco. Fenomen symbolizacji traumy kulturowej w społecznościach andyjskich [Pishtaco: The Phenomenon of the Symbolization of Cultural Trauma in Andean Communities] (2016).

Tomasz Pindel: How did the pishtaco come into your life?

Elżbieta Jodłowska: It was actually the idea of my master’s thesis supervisor, Prof. Andrzej Krzanowski from the Jagiellonian University. He’s a highly regarded and well-known archaeologist who initiated the Polish-Peruvian archaeological research trend. One day in class, he suggested: “How about writing something about the pishtaco, if you’re going there for research?” and added that he himself had been taken for a pishtaco on occasion. He sowed a seed of curiosity in us, so on our subsequent trips to Peru, we started asking questions about this figure.

Which can’t necessarily have been easy…

As it turned out, it really wasn’t that easy. Unless you weave the topic in with other ethnographic issues – less obliging, less troublesome for the interlocutors – obtaining information about the pishtaco doesn’t always succeed. Since it’s a sensitive subject, we didn’t press people. We noticed that the less we pushed them, the more willing our interlocutors were to talk. We had to find a time when they were having fun and position the conversation in the context of the amazing stories told over a drink, never seriously – then it went much better.

In 2016, we became part of a native family, padrinos – godparents – and then we could also start talking to the youngsters and secondary-school-age children: young people were keen to talk about the pishtaco. We were also able to arrange these conversations through the family. For example, on one occasion we met a woman from a neighbouring village. We were officially announced and she was forewarned that some ethnographers would be coming to ask about various things. She happily told us what she knew about a pishtaco that roamed the vicinity. In the 1970s, it had appeared in her village. We spoke to her through the members of our family because she only spoke Quechua. When asked what the pishtaco looked like, she pointed to Mirosław: white-skinned, usually with a beard; if it’s got grey hair, even better, because the native people don’t go grey, so grey hair is an obvious sign of foreignness. So Mirosław fit the bill perfectly.

While we were conducting the interviews, we could discern the dual thinking of inhabitants of the Andes: on the one hand, the interlocutor knows perfectly well that we’re family, that we’re people of flesh and blood, but on the other, that doesn’t prevent them from believing that someone like us could participate in mysterious practices.

I can imagine there must have been at least two main difficulties with conducting these conversations: you are people who could be pishtacos, and in addition, you’re asking about sensitive, maybe even embarrassing topics.

Talking about issues such as the pishtaco is difficult for the people of the Andes not only because of the local-foreigner relationship, but also because they really aspire to a better life. This is part of a painful past that they want to leave behind. They would prefer not to remember the pishtaco, although belief in it is still very much alive.

Your interlocutors, although they say they don’t believe in the pishtaco, are almost always very well versed in the subject.

Even educated people presented a typical attitude of “we know it’s a superstition, that such a thing didn’t necessarily exist – or if it did, it was a long time ago – but just in case, we don’t walk through the forest after dark”. But not everyone’s so coy. One of our informants, who worked as a nurse in Huaráz, a big city, told us directly that it’s obvious that pishtacos exist, only nowadays they’re afraid. The locals are better educated, they’re not intimidated, so they can report the pishtacos or get together with their neighbours and deal with them themselves. She directed us to a specific abandoned house in the Olivos neighbourhood on the other side of the river, where pishtacos lived. This location was later confirmed by others. By the way, the places inhabited by pishtacos are typically not ‘where we live’, but in another district, across the river, somewhere further away. The nurse even gave us some details: this creature can most often be observed at dawn, riding alone on a horse with a reddish-brown coat, from west to east.

When we tried to verify this story, it turned out there was an element of likelihood to it. On the eastern outskirts of the city lived a horse breeder who had pastures on the western side of town, so he would often drive his herd down the suburban streets in the morning or evening and then return alone. This worked for people: he was riding a horse alone, he was white-skinned, and no-one knew why he did what he did. Mirosław and I even agreed that one day we’d go to that street between five and six in the morning and wait to see if the pishtaco would appear. But then we decided against it, because if it hadn’t come, we’d have been disappointed, and if we’d seen it and it turned out to be the breeder, it would have been even sadder.

That kind of research requires a lot of tact. Did you use any particular approaches?

We developed a method that you could call a-scientific. We explained that we were writing an article, that we were climbers – we tried to use concepts from their world. Using words such as ‘tradition’, ‘heritage’, ‘legacy’, or even ‘customs’ with the locals doesn’t make any sense. Instead you have to ask: “What are you doing?”, bring it close to the interlocutors’ realities.

So we explained that we were writing an article, we even talked about it as a kind of homework, that was very relatable for our young respondents. We tried to make it clear what we meant, without deviating too sharply towards uncomfortable topics. One of our very good informants was a man I met through Facebook and made an appointment with well in advance. The conversation flowed really well because we’d already met online, so I wasn’t a stranger. He knew my job was to collect information. To him, I wasn’t a tourist, a gringo. He spoke honestly about what he remembered from the 1970s, before there was a road in the village. This is a very important topic, because when a road appears, civilization comes with it. At that time, bad things happened periodically, there was a collective panic, and then the pishtacos appeared. Later, their appearance was associated with political events, primarily with the activities of the terrorists from the Shining Path, although in the Ancash region where we were, they weren’t as active as in the south of the country. However, there were armed clashes and attacks by bandits. The slogan ‘pishtaco’ was used and a social psychosis was born. Mothers locked their children in their homes just in case, and doors were bolted after dark. People organized themselves into voluntary units at the grassroots level, and that mainly helped. Things calmed down, and after a while it turned out that there was no pishtaco. But still – for them, this character exists. The pishtaco appears when bad things are happening.

You mentioned the Shining Path – after all, that was the 1980s and 90s, very recent history. The pishtaco originated in colonial times, but keeps coming back. It’s like a ready-made form to embody the social fears of the Indigenous peoples of the Andes.

The pishtaco lurks in the shadows, just waiting to come to life. Another important contemporary context for the occurrence of the pishtaco is the mining industry. The more mines there are, the more people are needed to work. So there are workers – usually poor – arriving from all over Peru, but also from Ecuador and Bolivia. These are different people – some of them have had a tough past, some of them are fleeing the justice system. The mine accepts everyone because the work is hard and usually badly paid. Crime tends to increase in such places. Rates of violence, vandalism, thefts and disappearances rise. This is the perfect breeding ground for the pishtaco. In these areas, it takes on mining features. In fact, the pishtaco very often resembles the muki, or mine spirit, who demands sacrifices. If people die near the mines, an Andean wouldn’t be surprised: everyone knows the muki requires victims.

Our informants presented the following narrative: people die where mines develop, because pishtacos appear nearby. Perhaps they flock to these places from other regions where they don’t have so many opportunities to hunt. The fact that young women are often killed – although the pishtacos have traditionally attacked men – doesn’t undermine this theory: after all, they might change their habits. Today, the pishtaco is constantly evolving, accretions of Amazonian beliefs are appearing. It’s no longer the canonical, pure, colonial image of a monster sucking fat from people to sell abroad. Now the pishtaco dabbles in other macabre activities, and it’s superimposed on the figure of the pela-cara (face skinner) – a vampire and demon. Everything is connected, amalgamated, and new versions of devilish characters are born. More recently, people have been migrating and they carry some elements of their beliefs with them, which gives rise to new ‘variations’ of the pishtaco.

Have you ever been mistaken for pishtacos?

It happened once, and it could have been dangerous, but we’d done everything the wrong way too. When carrying out field research, you should allocate the right amount of time to it, introduce yourself to the community, go to the village leader and explain what you’re going to do as simply as possible. On this occasion, we hadn’t taken all the necessary steps, we thought it was a waste of time and maybe we’d be fine without it. We went to a remote village in the Raura cordillera, in the vicinity of Churín – a place rich in thermal springs that are still used by the Incas. Prof. Krzanowski had once worked there, but he’d left unsatisfied because he hadn’t explored one place – a mountain considered to be apu (sacred), where his archaeologist’s nose told him there might be Inca graves. We decided that exploring that place would be a great adventure. We’d be going into the unknown, like Indiana Jones – and if we found nothing, it would still be an interesting climb on a remote 5000-metre-high mountain. We took three guides and a porter with us – not locals, but people from our friendly village in the Ancash region. In other words, foreigners.

There’s a large mine in that area that blocks GPS signal, so we couldn’t accurately locate the place the professor had told us about. We weren’t sure what we were doing. When we rented the minibus, a man latched on to us claiming to be the co-driver. In fact, he was probably a spy sent by the mine management. We reached what seemed to us to be the end of the world. We arranged for the driver to come back three days later, and we set off with our heavy luggage across the puna. We set up camp at the foot of the mountain. At some point, our people alerted us, saying that we had to pack up immediately and escape. We didn’t know what was going on, but they’d seen a group of men armed with sticks and pitchforks heading our way. We packed our things into our tents, bundled them up, and escaped up the mountain. A couple of hours of strenuous walking at over 4000 metres above sea level was pretty tough, but in the end, we hid behind a barrier of rock and our people did a reconnaissance. When the locals didn’t find us where they’d expected to, they dispersed and returned to their homes. It made us aware of how careless we’d been. Most likely, it would only have ended in a robbery, but we could also have lost our lives.

From reading your book, we learn that what promised to be an amazing tale of a fantastic and exotic creature turned out to be a terribly sad story of the trauma and suffering of many generations of Indigenous peoples of the Andes.

The ongoing presence of the pishtaco confirms that these people live with a constant sense of danger. Despite the passage of time and the achievements of civilization and education, they are mentally stuck between two worlds. On the one hand, they are well aware of what white people are doing on their territory – tourists from all over the world come to visit Andean towns. But on the other hand, they live in their own mythical world where beliefs often prevail. Recently, in Huaráz, I talked with Doris Walter, an anthropologist and ethnographer who studies the situation of white people and locals coming into contact in an apparently clear relationship: tourist meets service. It turns out that those same natives who work with the white people, carrying their luggage or serving as guides – in other words, seeing everything with their own eyes – also believe that those same white people are going up the mountain in search of gold. After all, such a huge effort and the fact that the tourists are paying for it must make some logical sense. Walter also presented another interesting interpretation of the behaviour of white people: if they’re not looking for gold, then they’re climbing the high peaks, such as Huascarán, to extract the root of the mountain and plant it in their own world, so that they can grow the same beautiful mountain. Prof. Krzanowski made similar observations: although the natives working on their excavations saw that the archaeologists were packing their crates with shells, it didn’t stop them believing that once unpacked in the white people’s world, they would become gold.

So it seems that if a white person comes to the Andes, it’s essentially to take something away from the locals…

Yes, it’s always about exploitation. I asked Doris Walter why even members of our native family were reluctant to share their knowledge, despite being so caring and kind to us, and she replied that they probably had an inner conviction that this knowledge would enrich us in our white world, and impoverish them. If an Indigenous Bolivian woman covers her face when a photo is taken, it’s not necessarily because she’s afraid of her soul being stolen, but because she feels that it will impoverish her, and the tourist will gain at her expense – which, in any case, is an accurate observation.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Elżbieta Jodłowska:

A graphic designer, an ethnologist, a researcher of the culture of the Andean Quechua people, and a traveller.


Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster

Open your windows to the world and support PRZEKRÓJ Foundation.

25 zł ≈ €5.50 / $6.50

* Required fields