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June 28, 2013

BEKANWE! Welcome to Cantagallo


ELIZA SQUIBB : Shipibo Textiles: Creating economic viability and cultural visibility through craft.

The drive to the university through Lima’s morning traffic was an especially terrifying one. Being in the driver’s seat looked like a full body sport that required every neuron of concentration and frequent augmentation of the music’s volume. For me, in the passenger seat; drinking tea, spilling it everywhere, wearing my seatbelt, and seeing my life flash before my eyes; it was like witnessing a real life video game as we dodged through lanes of cars, combi mini vans, and busses. At times, we would blast down a side street, honking the horn as we blew through intersections to alert any sleepy pedestrians or other drivers, in an attempt to find another main road that was not clogged into a stagnant lake of cars. We made it on time however, and in one piece!

At a university cafe, I met with José Carlos Ortega Rupay, the coordinator of el Grupo Interdisciplinario Amazonia, (The Interdisciplinary Amazonian Group, GIA, my partners, and host NGO), which is comprised of anthropologists, architects, educators, sociologists, and writers who all focus their combined academic energy and free time to studying the Amazon and working with the indigenous Amazonian community in Cantagallo.

Cantagallo has existed as a place and a community since 2000, established by migratory Shipibo-Konibo artisans, who came to Lima to sell their traditional textiles, beadwork, and pottery from their native territory along the Yucayali river in the Peruvian Amazon. Persuaded in part by their artisan colleagues from the Andes, the Shipibo decided to set up a permanent residence in Lima to have better access to a market for their crafts,  healthcare and educational institutions, as well as other opportunities for employment.

The location of this transitory community’s settlement is symbolically located between two vias, as José Carlos explained to me, two “ways”: it is bordered by the Panamericana Sur, the railway, on one side, and the Rimac river on the other. Between the two parallel vias, the settlement is comprised of three distinct levels. The first level is the hardware market, a large space containing stalls selling all manner of tools and supplies. The next level can be distinguished by the materials from which it is constructed: bricks, wood, and prefabricated plywood structures, and both Shipibo and Andean artisans live there. The second level also contains the school, which is the very first school to incorporate elements of indigenous education, taught bilingually in both Spanish and Shipibo to over two hundred students, and it is approved by the Ministry of Education. The third level of the settlement, highest on the hill, is comprised of Shipibo residents only.

Google maps doesn't reveal much about the community...until you look at the satellite images

Google maps doesn’t reveal much about the community…until you look at the satellite images

Here the community appears, bordered by the railway on one side and river on the other

Here the community appears, bordered by the railway on one side and river on the other

Bureaucratically speaking, the community is represented by three different Shipibo associations. Primero: ASHIPEL-V (Asociación de Shipibos Residentes en Lima Pro Vivienda). Segundo: ACUSHIKOLM (Asociación de Communidades Urbanas Shipibo-Konibo de Lima Metropolitan). Tercero: AUSHIL (Asociación de Vivienda Shipiba en Lima). This final one is led by Ricardo Franco, the brother of Señora Luz Franco, the head of the textile artisan collective Madres Shipibas de Ashë (Ashë, meaning “craft”). Although there are other artisan groups, such as Menin Ainbo, connected to the second association, my contact has been with Ashë .

If all of that sounds unnecessarily complex, on the contrary, the community is in great need of legal representation. They do not own the land beneath the settlement, and the hill upon which it is constructed is actually a dump, a mountain of trash and mud which constantly poses health problems for the community’s children. Although the community is tightly knit; a safe, and mostly inaccessible fortress inside of which kids run around freely, looked after by all community members; Cantagallo is located inside of a larger, more dangerous inner city neighborhood.  The municipality wants relocate the Cantagallo community to a better terrain on the other side of the river, where they could have more permanent buildings and better access to amenities such as electricity and plumbing.  The move, however, would place them squarely in the suburbs, they would have to pay more for transportation, and they would no longer have such easy access to Lima’s center, where they sell their crafts. They have no fixed location for this enterprise, they work as mobile salesmen, except for occasional festivals or when people who are familiar with Cantagallo visit them to buy crafts.

One of GIA’s current activities is to design the relocation buildings, not in order to persuade the community to move, but to ensure that they have viable options when it comes time for them to vote and reach a consensus about their future.

And so, for the moment, Cantagallo exists as it does: a symbolic and very real addition to the ethnic diversity of this huge city, lending its cultural wealth, and functioning as a hub for indigenous Amazonian activity. Not only does the Shipibo community use Cantagallo as a base from which to move back and forth between the city and their native territories, but other urbanite Shipibos come on weekends to visit family, eat traditional food and be amongst their own. Importantly, the community also facilitates the government’s development plans for more remote Amazonian regions. When the government wanted to set up a medical post in Shipibo territory in the Amazon, they came first to Cantagallo to present plans and get feedback.

All of this, within a kilometer of Peru’s government palace.

This shows the community's position in relationship to Lima's historical center. The third point is the governmental palace

This shows the community’s position in relationship to Lima’s historical center. The third point is the governmental palace

After my meeting with José Carlos, it was time for us to go and visit the community. For the past few days, I have been working on a letter, and a portfolio of my own work, that will introduce me and my research plans officially to the Ashë artisans. The community requires these almost ceremonial introductions, which seem to be an excellent way of warding off any meandering researchers who might waste their time.

José Carlos and three other members of GIA, Lucia, Roxana, and Josefina had plans to screen a anthropological film about the Shipibo from 1953 in the school and facilitate a discussion in the community about changing customs. This youtube video shows some clips of the anthropological film, and also gives an excellent sense of exactly the sort of activity and discussion the GIA members were hoping to achieve (minus the American narrator). However, things never go quite as planned…

We arrived at the lower level of Cantagallo after passing through Lima’s historical center. With the hardware market on our right, we climbed the hill towards the second level.


Arriving in the community, we were bombarded by kids. They greeted us with hugs, hung off our arms, held our hands and escorted us through the narrow streets lined with small, two story homes, workshops and little stores, talking to us in Spanish, and to each other in Shipiba. We found the school abuzz with activity, most of it happening around knee or waist level as preschoolers and elementary students ran around in all directions in the courtyard hung with streamers to celebrate the school’s fifth anniversary.

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After we set up the projector in one classroom, lots of kids and parents gathered to watch the film that showed what traditional Shipibo culture was like sixty years ago. About seventeen minutes into the film however, the constantly shifting audience of children became more rambunctious than ever, and José Carlos announced a pause so that people could go see the “Chino” outside. Not being able to understand what this meant (a Chinese? a clown perhaps?), I went out too, to find the courtyard had filled with families and kids holding colorful candle-lit lanterns. One of the teachers was dressed as “Asian” and performing a dance with fans, much to everyone’s delight. I had no qualms about taking pictures like a tourist, because everyone else was taking snapshots as well. Music started up, and everyone trooped off on a candle-lit parade as night fell on the settlement.

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Undaunted by their audience’s desertion, our cheerful GIA group concluded that the evening had been a been a learning experience for all, and we joined the parade as they returned to the school for mass servings of hot chocolate and sandwiches.

Roxana, Lucia, José Carlos, Josefina

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In the chatty, celebratory atmosphere that accompanied the hot coco, I was able to meet with Señora Luz Franco and hear more about her collective’s activities. Although we had handed my official letter of introduction to her brother, Ricardo Franco, head of AUSHIL, Señora Luz assured me that we could meet up soon to discuss my research plans and get introduced to the rest of the group.

After saying our buenas noches to the community, we made our way back down through the emptying market. In the misty night, the lights of the neighborhood opposite the train tracks from Cantagallo rose steeply to an illuminated cross on the hillside, and disappeared into the fog.


The only thing left to do was to find my way home to San Borja. Luckily, Josefina also lives in that neighborhood, so together we packed on a crowded bus that took us along to an overpass, where we had to cross the highway on a pedestrian bridge and hop in a combi to a farther intersection from which I could walk to the house. Now I understand why each combi and bus has stenciled names along both sides: these are not exactly locations, but street names, so you simply hop on the one that will take you along the road in the right direction, then change transports when you need to go on a different road in a different direction. The accumulated effect of long-distance travel through the city, pollution and bouncy rides seems to put everyone into the same stupor, and most combi and bus passengers were nodding off, either rocked to sleep or intoxicated by fumes, it was hard to tell.

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