My experience in Peru was characterized by two distinct phases, each with positive impacts on my personal life, vision and research and each with its attendant difficulties and struggles. I began my journey in Lima intending to research urban development but without a concrete goal or guidance. I found Lima’s research climate, which is mostly contact-driven, to be somewhat hostile because of my lack of connections in the field. I had expected to be better acquainted with Lima’s norms since my family is from Mexico City and I am familiar with Mexico’s social milieu, but the similarities were superficial and it was a difficult adjustment because I did not have the support structure that facilitates life and work in Mexico. At that point I realized that I should change my strategy, and I left Lima shortly thereafter for Cusco, hoping it would provide the fertile intellectual environment that I was missing.
Cusco was a different world, a city resonating with the natural beauty of the mountains and full of dynamic activity in the economic development industry. The city is surrounded by indigenous communities and has a complex relationship with them; migration from the rural areas to the urban center is a reality accompanied by discrimination, economic marginalization and an intense cultural disconnect between the indigenous and mestizo communities. The rural indigenous population is no less beleaguered, and exists in a tenuous relationship of semi-exclusion and exploitation by local, regional and national economic structures. The language barrier (Andean indigenous groups are Quechua speakers) also adds to the rich landscape for academic study and many opportunities to engage with social problems as they play out.
In Cusco I was enveloped by an open social world that made me feel comfortable and supported me. This allowed for my research question to develop fully in direct response to the actual conditions of the area. I met people that proffered insight on economic development in the region and found NGOs that provided examples of the pitfalls and successes of development programming. I gleaned the critical questions for my research: how development work functions within the communities it proposes to help, how effective that help is, and how we can create sustainable development that fits the specific community. I developed strong criticisms of NGOs and now know I want to work with a community instead of working on a problem. I seek to help generate solutions with the community itself instead of solutions based on western models and imposed upon people who may not relate to those models productively. I found a group of Cusqueños who have a similar vision to mine and we have begun working on a collaborative project to create and implement new development strategies based on an intimate knowledge of the geography, history, culture and needs of Andean communities. We think such strategies will help create sustainable change in the quality of life possible in rural and urban communities alike and see great potential for expansion to other areas.