Finding the Voice

women's abuse stats training workshop
A mesa ritual spread in the center of a women’s rights and communication training workshop in Peru. Haunting statistics, such as “Seven out of ten Peruvian women suffer from psychological violence,” encircle the offerings of coca, maize, gifts, flowers, and perfumed woods. The women have come to find their voices, to stand up against violations to their physical and political rights as Andean citizens. 


Aymara women gather for a women’s rights workshop at the base of a statue of Mama Ocllo and and Manco Capac, the creator gods of Andean mythology. 


Aymara women in Puno district


Many Aymara communities dwell along the shore of Lake Titicaca, above 3600m in a highly vulnerable watershed embattled in constant territory and usage disputes. Huacullani community is the site of the 2011 El Aymarazo protest against the Santa Ana mining project, and among the rare examples of activist communities that have successfully halted a major industrial extraction project in Peru. Aymara communicators, or community journalists and spokeswomen, frequently attend the weekly market to conduct interviews on topics ranging from land defense to the fetching price of quinoa.



The sharing and sorting of coca leaves is an important social tradition among Andean people, and often occurs at women’s rights trainings, media workshops, and even during informal exchanges. 


Participants in the women’s communication workshops are encouraged to “levantarse la voz”, or lift up their voices. To build confidence and leadership skills, women are encouraged to sing their communications as they beat a drum. The drum is seen to provide an encouraging, supportive energy or spirit, to call their voices out from within. 


Women at UMA presentation hall
Aymara women from communities of the Chucuito Peninsula, at the shores of Lake Titicaca, attend a women’s rights empowerment training with the Union of Aymara Women of Abya Yala, or UMA, in July 2017. 


Radio Fields of the Aymara Nation

In the arid, high altitude landscapes of the rural Aymara villages of Southeastern Peru, radio is the primary source of news, entertainment, grassroots organizing and political communication. Mining development is accelerating in the region, and moving to a more destructive, open-pit model that devastates local ecology and pollutes waterways.

In   2011,   indigenous   men and   women   at   the   Peru- Bolivia   border near  Lake Titicaca  successfully  halted one  of  the  world’s  largest projected   silver   extraction projects using radio for local organizing and social media—particularly, Facebook  and  WhatsApp— to garner regional and international  support.

In May of that year, on the eve of a national presidential election, 25,000 Aymara and Quechua from around the region gathered in the principal city of Puno to protest the Santa  Ana mining project managed by Canada’s Bear Creek Mining Company.

After weeks of road blockades and multiple incidents of police brutality, during which protesters were joined by thousands of supporters and featured in international broadcasts on CNN, FoxNews and other major networks, the Peruvian state revoked the site prospecting license.

Since the 2011 protests, Aymara community radio activists, or comunicadores, have begun to train at international indigenous communications conferences where presenters claim that using “media power” will help advance gender equality in communities and support the tactical defense of Pachamama. Indigenous activists at Santa Ana argued that the proposed mine would contaminate local water sources, including the sacred lake, Titicaca, and demanded that the Peruvian government recognize the legitimacy of Aymara communities and  the  sanctity  of Pachamama, the animate Earth Mother who pervades every level of social meaning in the Aymara sense of place (Stone 2009).

The marshy shoreline of Lake Titicaca as seen from the hills above the town of Chucuito.

Given the extreme glacial melting of the Andean Cordillera (Rasmussen 2015) highland Peru is one of the most notable exemplars of the consequences of rapid climate change. Peru exercises control over vast ecological territories. In the Andean Highlands, mining and gas extraction operations threaten to further pollute Lake Titicaca, a watershed considered vital, sacred and alive by the Aymara.

Here in the Peruvian altiplano, or high plains desert, indigenous radio fields comprise both the social and geospatial networks of people and places where community radio content is created, produced, listened to and discussed. When imbricated in social movements, these Andean radio fields become site of identity formation and political strategy. Bessire and Fisher have examined recent renewal  in anthropological concern with radio fields, noting that “radio’s rugged and inexpensive materialities have become invested with new import in the many places where topography, poverty, or political oppression limits access to web connectivity, computers, or electricity” (Bessire and Fisher 2013:364).

Below, Aymaras sift crops in the early afternoon while listening to the radio.

Culturally, the Aymara see their landscape as animate, having a willful presence, known as Pachamama, who is both embedded in the landscape and transcendent. Within communities, many other Earth Beings reside (De La Cadena 2015).

amantani hat

Most frequently, the two highest peaks within community landscape are considered the Achachilas, or ancestor peaks, of the place. The highest peak is considered male, and the second highest, his female compliment.

In Huacullani, the community’s feminine Achachila sits atop a silver reserve projected to be one of the largest in South America.

rosa at arco punku

“We come from within Pachamama, Live on Her, and Return to Her” (Stone 2009).

The ethnohistorical record shows a historical continuity to the Aymara’s self- identification as autochthonous inhabitants who emerged from Lake Titicaca after being created by Pachamama in the realm of Manqa pacha, the underworld, place of transformation, death and reemergence (Silverblatt 1987).The Aymara live and dwell and have their being in the realm of taypi, meaning center place, or navel. The land of human dwelling is also known as Aka pacha, the Center world. The word Pacha means ‘everything that exists’ ‘totality’ or ‘holism’. It means both “time” and “place”, embedded, as one. Adding to Pacha the modifier, mama, makes her gendered. She is the landscape of Aymara Radio.


Bessire, Lucas and Daniel Fisher     2013   The Anthropology of Radio Fields. Annual Review of Anthropology, 43:363-78.

Rasmussen, Mattias Borg    2015   Andean Waterways: Resource Politics in Highland Peru. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Silverblatt, Irene    1987    Moon, Sun and Witches: Gender Ideologies and Class in Inca and Colonial Peru. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Stone, Mary Louise     2009    The Andean Mother: Weaving a Culture of Reciprocity. MA Thesis. San Francisco: California Institute of Integral Studies.

The Deering Speakeasy

Reflections on the concepts of space, place and landscape in anthropology… 

Pictured above is an alpine ridge running through the Merrimack River watershed in the humid continental foothills of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The peak shown here is circumscribed by a winding, hand-cut path known to a small number of local hikers as the Ledge Loop. At the base of the slope, barely marked by a dark green plaque nailed to an adolescent maple tree, is the eastern entrance to the Pinnacle Trail, a narrow two-kilometer traverse that follows a deer run up the southeastern slope of the ridge, bisecting the Ledge Loop and continuing to the Pinnacle, where broad slabs of granite and shale create a natural clearing within the flat grove at the summit. The Pinnacle Trail then winds back down the southwestern slope of the ridge to a second access point at the road. This is the landscape.

Within this landscape, those who dwell engage with sites and sounds of multiple species as part of everyday reality. “Nature” and “Culture” are not a dichotomy here. The knowledge of this place is reserved to locals—as evidence of this, resident hikers note that even while “geocaching” can be found reliably at nearby Audubon reserves, it never came to occupy the Pinnacle Trail, a non- Audubon trail that is part of a land easement legacy left to the township several decades ago.

The township of Deering was incorporated with a human population of just under 900 in 1774, before the American colonies united, and at present has under 1900 people, with less than 60 per square mile. Deer, moose, coyote, bats, finches, orange spotted newts and a variety of charmingly fuzzy Rodentia run amok in these hills. Several years back, while ascending the Pinnacle Trail, one resident even came face to face with an American Black Bear. Fortunately, each had better things to do than interrupt the other, and the local neighborly tradition of keeping to oneself was observed. This story is still laughed about at “The Deering Speakeasy”, which is the way my cohort of local residents refers to this space-within-the-grove atop the Pinnacle Trail.

speakeasy 1

The Deering Speakeasy, as a “place”  is imbued in this landscape—invisible yet palpable; non-discursive, yet seemingly capable of curating for visitors the cathartic experience that inspires its name. This is the place.

At the Deering Speakeasy, the olfactory experience is one of fresh pine and peat moss in a town where home well water tests evidence the vitality of local watersheds. There are almost always strong winds rustling the vegetation of the Pinnacle’s northern face. Wild blueberries grow along the southwestern descent in warmer months, and following the rain, the air is light and mossy, lacking the musky, almost palpable herbaceous fumes of so many warmer climate forests. The typical autumn haptic experience at the Deering Speakeasy usually involves brisk air chilling your hands and face, a cursory awareness of the rough texture of pine needles or the bark of a fallen tree trunk through the seat of your jeans, and the otherworldly, portal-like and temporal experience of ascending through the multicolored forest to the grove clearing itself. This is the space.

Space is most helpful here as a theoretical concept encompassing the multisensorial realms that shape the process of ‘dwelling’. In Wisdom Sits in Places, Keith Basso discusses Heidegger’s concept of “dwelling” as a descriptor for the forms of consciousness which shape individual perception of, and engagement with, geographical space. Heidegger’s concept of space describes a human-environment interactive relationship in which particular localities, or spaces, become imbued with ‘essential being’ as a result of being ‘objects of awareness’ to human minds.

This “essential being” is place. Sensing places, people dwell on them mentally, and thus create feedback loops of meaning when dwelling in them, physically. Basso calls this process interanimation, an apt way to describe the Deering Speakeasy’s origin story.

glen rd sign

As a frequenter of the Deering Speakeasy, I have come to recognize an implicit ritual within the practice of “hiking the Pinnacle”. Usually, it goes something like this: So-and-so gets home from work, with an hour left before the sun sets. She is weary from an hour commute, the average for residents in this remote town. She calls Such-and-such, her closest neighbor down the hill, to see if Such-and-such is “up for a Speakeasy”; both being game, dogs are whistled for and grown-daughters are summoned from their cabins down the road, and the cohort convenes at the bottom of So-and-so’s driveway. Usually six-to-eight beings gather, and about half are human. The particular characters interchange with the days. A kilometer’s walk down Glen Road commences, while members of the cohort fill each other in on their recent  experiences. Dogs bound along unleashed after squirrels and zigzag across the stone walls lining the fields and forest between home and the Pinnacle Trail’s access point. At some point before the beginning of the trail, on the basis of their mutual conversations and “updates”, the cohort will seemingly have identified the member with the most pressing current concern or strife, and will have oriented the conversation to focus on the key individual’s feelings or need to “vent”.

pinnacle overcast view

As the cohort ascends the Pinnacle Trail, discourse ceases; almost without fail, each to her own thoughts retreats. Perhaps it is the physical exertion of the uphill stride, perhaps the sensory shift that happens when one leaves the road for the forest, nonetheless, a seeming transition-to-dwelling takes place. At the top of the peak, a lone picnic table with fallen trunks for benches serves as the first of two ritual stopping points. Here, libations are shared among the cohort—usually, Such-and-such carries bottles of local beer in a backpack—and we sit facing east as the sun fades, talking through the issue. Before dark, we move to the north. The practice of climbing the Pinnacle seems to symbolically involve the intent to see “both sides of the issue” for the person affected with strife, in a place where these women feel able to “speak easily” about what currently befalls their marriage, their work life, their spiritual path, etc. Because of the particular route of the Pinnacle Trail itself, the descent involves passing by a panoramic view of the northern face, and thus the practice of stopping here for a second session of chatting has become rooted in the practice of “hiking the Pinnacle”. The ritual need we all seem to have, to see the view from both cliff faces before descending despite the bugs, chill, or heat of the season, suggests an almost spiritual commitment to this practice. This is a collective creating of a sense of place. 


Try as I might, I cannot think of any explicit moment at which my cohort decided it would dwell in this space in this way. As Bourdieu might say, if there is agency, or will, it is housed in the “structure”, the landscape in which our social practice of the “Deering Speakeasy” was learned.