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Deep Rivers

by José María Arguedas


A novel set in Peru around the mid-1920s; published in Spanish (as Los rios profundos) in 1958, in English in 1978,


The main character and narrator of the novel recounts some of the events of his adolescent years, focusing on his experiences in a Catholic boarding school in the Andean city of Abancay, Peru.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

José Maria Arguedas was born in 1911 in Peru’s south-central highlands, an area in which the culture of the Quechua Indians has remained vital despite the Spanish Conquest and subsequent exploitation of the native peoples. Though Arguedas’s family belonged to the white Hispanic upper class, they were poor. His mother died when Arguedas was two years old, and his father, an itinerant lawyer whose clients were mostly Indians and mestizos, remarried shortly thereafter. According to Arguedas, his stepmother and her family despised him and relegated him to the Indian kitchen of the household, where he was welcomed and loved by the Indian servants and where he learned the Quechua language. For the rest of his life, Arguedas felt a filial attachment to the Quechua that helped shape his work. Arguedas was a professor of anthropology and, aside from novels, short stories, and poetry, wrote important ethnographic monographs on the Quechua of Peru’s highlands. Frustrated by the discrimination they endured, and suffering clinical depression, Arguedas committed suicide in 1969.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Inca ruins

Ernesto, the narrator of Deep Rivers, is steeped in the traditions of the Quechua Indians and surrounded by the ruins of their once mighty Inca Empire. Since the 1300s, highly organized agricultural societies had existed in the highlands and coastal regions of Peru. In the 1400s a relatively new culture emerged in the southern highlands, centered at Cuzco. Its members came to be known as the Incas (a term now used variously for the culture itself, for its upper-class noble families, or for its supreme ruler). The Incas, like neighboring societies, wove beautiful cloth, constructed monuments and residences of stone and adobe, and planted dozens of crops. Unlike these neighbors, however, the Incas rose to a position of dominance in the area. They forged into a single empire the many agricultural societies of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and parts of Chile and Argentina, forming a civilization that rivaled in size that of the Romans.

Inca civilization left behind some of the world’s most impressive archaeological sites. Among these are the Inca walls of Cuzco, which so impress Ernesto, and the fortress Sacsay-huaman, described in the Royal Commentaries of the Incas, an invaluable account of the origin, growth, and fall of the Inca empire written by Inca Garcilaso de La Vega (1539-1616). His account places the fortress at Cuzco’s northern outskirts on a high hill, called “Sacsahuana.” The commentaries also mention Machu Picchu, a fortress city 54 miles northwest of Cuzco that was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911, not long before Deep Rivers is set (and that would soon after be celebrated in Pablo Neruda’s 1946 poem, The Heights of Macchu Picchu [also covered in Latin Amencan Literature and Its Times]).


The Royal Commentaries of the Incas reports that the Incas modeled their architecture on structures from the period before them, building the fortress of Cuzco in imitation of these structures. The Royal Commentaries includes a description of the walls of such fortresses:

There are Stories of immense size, and one cannot conceive how they were cut, carried, and set in their places… • They did not use mortar and had no iron or steel for cutting and working the stone, nor engines or instruments for shifting it, yet the surface of the wall is often so smooth that in many places the joint is scarcely visible. And many of the Stories used are so large. . . In Tiahuanaco I measured a stone thirty-eight feet Jong and eighteen broad, and it must have been six feet thick. The wall of the fortress at Cuzco… contains many Stories that are even laquer. The most remarkable thing is that though the Stories in the wall… are extremely irregular in size and shape, they nevertheless fit together with incredible exactitude.

(Acosta in de La Vega, pp. 138, 464-65)

Despite such remarkable achievements, the Inca empire was short-lived. Already weakened because of a civil war, by 1533 the Incas fell to Francisco Pizarro, a handful of Spaniards under his command, and some of his Indian allies—rivals of the Incas. This Inca defeat laid the groundwork for a system of Indian exploitation that has begun to change only within recent times.

From encomiendas to haciendas

The social and political conditions that affect the characters in Arguedas’s novel are rooted in Peru’s colonial past. Before the Conquest the native population of Peru lived in cities or, for the most part, in small farming communities. These communities were subdivided into ayllus, a word from the Quechua language that primarily refers to an extended family and the land that they cultivate communally. Ayllu land was separated into three parts. All produce from the first part was reserved for use by the community, the ayllu itself. A second part was stored in community warehouses to be used in case of crop failure or famine within the community itself or in other communities. A third part was owed to the Inca, and used by the army, the empire’s administrators, and the numerous male and female priests.

The Spanish monarchy immediately took advantage of the native social structure, modifying it to their needs as a colonizing nation that lacked mineral resources, agricultural products, and, of course, gold to finance the wars occurring in Europe during this period. The most productive and geographically accessible ayllus were turned into encomiendas, royal land grants administrated by an encomendero, a Spaniard in charge of a certain area. The land was not allocated to the Spaniard; rather the natives in a given area were entrusted to him. They owed him tribute in the form of labor or goods, and in return he owned them protection and religious instruction. Meanwhile, the land, formerly the property of the Indian community as a whole, now belonged to the Spanish Crown. The natives were expected to work the soil as before. Stripped of their fundamental source of income (their farm produce), they became de facto slaves, forced by the encomendero to work for others on land that was formerly theirs.

In exchange for Indian labor, the encomendero was obligated to insure the physical and spiritual well-being of the Indians; insuring their spiritual health meant he had to provide them with instruction in the Catholic faith. The Indians had little choice in the matter of becoming Catholic, Spain’s conviction being that native beliefs emanated from the devil and must be condemned. There was nevertheless some tolerance. While certain native practices—such as human sacrifice—were outlawed, others were adapted into the natives’ observance of the Catholic faith.

The new situation was particularly onerous for native women. Before the European invasion, women of the Andean regions enjoyed privileges. In contrast to European women of the time, some Andean women owned and inherited property, served on governing councils, and became ordained priests. In Deep Rivers, the chicheras, female venders of the corn beer, chicha, lead a small revolt to secure salt for themselves and the hacienda


In The Virgin of the Andes, Carol Damian describes how Andean Indian artists, unwilling to abandon their veneration for the earth deity Pachamama, secretly incorporated symbols and characteristics attributed to her into the paintings of the Blessed Virgin that the Catholic priests of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries commissioned them to execute. These paintings generally depict the Virgin in elaborately decorated and flowing gowns that resemble a mountain in the way they flare out from the waist to the feet. Many of the designs on the gowns themselves, such as flowers and other vegetation, correlate to symbols associated with the Pachamama. The blurring between the Blessed Virgin and the Pachamama makes it difficult to decide which of the two was actually being venerated. Considering the Indians’ tolerance for other religions, the Blessed Virgin and Pachamama were likely held in equal esteem. In any case, the works of these artists became world-famous. Painters in this style are known as the Cuzco School; their practice of combining elements of two or more religions is called “synchronism”. The novel’s non-Indian schoolboys exhibit this same religious combination when they show faith in both Catholicism and the mountain spirits.

workers, bringing to mind the prominent role of women in Andean society.

Some ayllus—a minority—survived relatively unscathed, through the period of the encomienda system and even into contemporary times. These, however, were located in the least desirable of Andean regions, where agricultural production was severely limited because of poor soil or because of the altitude. Though close to the equator, the higher regions of the Andes can become very cold, which limits crops to potatoes and other roots.

Although, from time to time, the Spanish monarchy passed laws to respect the dignity of and improve conditions for the indigenous peoples, life for them was appalling. Desperate to make a fortune and return to Spain as rich men, encomenderos exploited Indian labor to the ultimate degree. Men, women, and children were forced to work in any capacity the landowner deemed fit. Labor, often performed without compensation, sometimes exceeded physical endurance. Protest or insubordination was punished in the cruelest ways imaginable, including mutilation, drawing and quartering, and burning at the stake. According to one report, natives who managed to gain access and complain to high authorities “got their heads cut off (Fisher, p. 14). Such practices, along with exposure to European diseases like smallpox, decimated the native population by 90 percent in this and other sectors of the Americas. The Indians would hardly fare better under the subsequent system of private estates after the encomiendas began to decline in the mid-to-late sixteenth century.

The hacienda was a system of large privately owned estates on which peasants labored for wages. They might be paid with advances of food and clothing, for which they became indebted, or with land leased to them for their own cultivation, as often happened in Peru. In any case, under the hacienda system the Spanish Crown lost authority over the peasants and the mandate to protect them fell by the wayside.

Arguedas made a considerable effort to rectify the view that the native Andean people passively accepted the abuses of the hacienda system, an assumption that Ernesto makes about the colonos living near him in the novel. This view is not true. Revolts were frequent during all phases of the colonial and republican periods while the hacienda system was in existence. The most famous was the revolt of Tupac Amaru II, whose Christian name was Jose Gabriel Condor-canqui. Bom during the colonial period, Tupac Amaru belonged to a noble Inca family. Reacting to the abuse of his people, he led a revolt that nearly succeeded in driving the Spanish colonists from Cuzco and Peru. However, because his army lacked weapons and he himself was reluctant to attack the capital of the former Inca Empire, he was defeated and captured by the Spanish. Tupac Amaru was tried by a Spanish tribunal, found guilty, and drawn and quartered in the plaza of Cuzco in 1781. The rest of his family was also executed, putting an end to the last vestiges of native leadership in the Andes.


With the exceptions of Cuba and Puerto Rico, by the early 1800s all the Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas had gained their independence. Peru won its independence on July 28, 1821, beginning a turbulent Republican period. It soon became clear that “independence” would apply only to the upper class, known as the cnollos, and, to some extent, to the mestizos, or mixed-race Peruvians. During the colonial period, the term criollos referred to persons of Spanish parentage who were born in Peru. Suspected of disloyalty to Spain by virtue of their birthplace, the criollos could own land but could not hold the highest government positions, which were occupied exclusively by Spaniards born in Spain. After independence the criollos became the ruling class of the country. From their ranks were drawn the nation’s government officials, professionals, and landed gentry. It is important to understand that land distribution was not substantially affected after independence. The transition from encomiendas to haciendas became finalized, with control shifting from the encomendero to the hacendado, or hacienda owner. These hacendados, now unrestricted even by the weak laws that Spain had passed to protect Indian rights, confiscated more


In Deep Rivers Ernesto mentions both the free Indians of the ayllus among whom he was raised—the comuneros—am/the Indians attached to the haciendas—the colonos. These groups are the modern descendants of the ancient ayllus and of the colonial encomiendas respectively. The spirit of the free Indians working and living on communal (and becomes the source of Ernesto’s most positive memories. On the other hand, the living conditions of the colonos factors in the depression that besets him at the boarding school. Lowest among workers, a colono lived on the hacienda. He received the use of a small portion of its land in exchange for his labor, which involved working four to six days a week for the hacendado. On the small parcel he worked for himself, the colono had to give 50 percent of everything that he raised to the hacendado.

and more of the land held by comuneros (Quechua people living on communal lands). Meanwhile, working conditions on the haciendas became even grimmer. The hacendado became known as the gamonal, a word referring either to a parasitic insect or plant. The “Old Man” depicted in the first chapter of Deep Rivers exemplifies the Andean gamonales, whose dominance over the Indian population on their haciendas is vividly described. They could have an Indian whipped for the slightest offense, for perhaps just looking them directly in the eye.

In defense of the Indian

Other Peruvians attempted to better the lot of the Quechua as they saw fit. In 1924 Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre founded APRA: the Alianza Popular Revolu-cionaria Americana (Popular American Revolutionary Alliance). A nationalist party, APRA strove to integrate the three classes of Peruvian society—whites, mestizos, and Indians. It also attempted to make Peru more independent of the economic dominance of Great Britain and the United States. Although APRA demonstrated an appreciation of native Andean society, “its goals implied the modernization of the country, the advancement of capitalism, and the disappearance of the routine world of country folk” (Flo-res Galindo, p. 285; trans. V. Spina). APRA appealed mainly to the small landowners and the middle class of the coast; its policies clashed with the communal and other traditions of the Andean Quechua and so it failed to attract much of their support. Communist movements of the decade also tried to make inroads among the native populations of the Andes, but like APRA, they attracted few Indian followers. The Quechua instead resisted injustice in their own way.

At the time of the novel, the region in which it takes place consisted mostly of haciendas, Indian villages, and scattered Spanish towns. Even in the towns, with their separate criollo and Indian neighborhoods, the Indians comprised the majority and resisted authority. Their unrest continued a tradition that harks back earlier than the Inca rebellion of Tupac Amaru, to the Conquest itself. However, these incidents of unrest went largely undocumented, since the hacendados and the upper classes of Peruvian Andean society were in firm control of the news media. In recent years, this situation has been changing as more and more “unofficial” oral histories come to light (for example, Andean Lives by Ricardo Valderrama Fernandez and Carmen Escalante Gutierrez). These oral histories, recollections of the Quechua people themselves, stand in contrast to “official” histories,

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the version that those in power—military dictators or oligarchs—wish the world to know.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Deep Rivers is a novel about an adolescent, Ernesto, in Peruvian Andean society in the 1920s. Apart from the pressures of growing up, Ernesto must come to terms with the antagonism between the dominant white society to which he belongs racially, and the Quechua society in which he was raised.

The novel opens at night as Ernesto and his father, an impoverished, itinerant lawyer, enter Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire. They are bound for Abancay, another Andean city, where Ernesto will enter a boarding school run by Catholic priests. Stopping at Cuzco, they plan to settle an old debt with a hated relative of Ernesto’s father, a local hacendado, identified only as the “Old Man.” Ernesto is immediately enthralled with the historic city of which he has heard so much. On their way to the Old Man’s house, whose architecture dates to the colonial period, they pass one of Cuzco’s famous Inca walls.

To the young boy the Inca walls are magical. The Incas quarried many-sided Stories of varying sizes, then fit them together to construct the walls. The junctures between the Stories were so precisely carved that, even now, a knife blade cannot fit between them. To the impressionable and sensitive Ernesto, the zigzag patterns created by the junctures between the uneven Stories make the walls seem to move and flow. Their apparent


In Deep Rivers Ernesto is deeply troubled by the behavior of the pongo (domestic servant) in the Old Man’s house, who does not dare even look white people in the eye, and who whimpers like a child when he must address them. Pongos were normally selected from among the colono population living and working on a hacienda. They were expected to work as household servants for a certain amount of time each year. The obligation rotated within the colono population so that the same men and women were not chosen year after year. Their service went unpaid and did not relieve them from their work obligations as colonos.

motion reminds him of the rivers of the many Indian towns and villages in which he has lived. Ernesto does not fully understand at this moment exactly what the walls and other Andean symbols will come to mean for him, but the experience reveals a paradox that is key to Quechua thinking: two apparently unrelated phenomena can be identified as a single process—in this case, the stillness associated with rocks and the movement associated with water. There is an allusion here to the essential oneness of Indian cosmology: all things are related or share the same essence. Stillness gives rise to movement and, without movement, the concept of stillness evaporates.

Ernesto’s father’s plan to confront the Old Man results in his own humiliation, when the hacendado sends him and the boy to sleep in the servants’ quarters. Ernesto and his father are infuriated by the insult. Despite this humiliation, however, it is harder for Ernesto to accept or comprehend the appalling conditions of the Indian people of Cuzco. As we learn, he has been raised by comuneros, Quechua people living on their own communal lands. They were dignified, brave, and gentle people willing to give him love after the death of his mother and his father’s remarriage to a woman who, Ernesto explains, hated him. How the Indians can accept their humiliation at the hands of the whites within the very confines of their ancient capital is beyond him.

Life in the boarding school proves difficult for Ernesto. He had thought that his father would settle down in Abancay and they could at last be together. These plans become impossible, though, because there is no work in Abancay. The father’s former clients were mestizos and free Indians, not hacienda dwellers. But Abancay is surrounded by haciendas. The hacendados have no need of a lawyer. As for the colonos—they have no legal rights anyway.

Ernesto is profoundly moved by the suffering and humiliation of the colonos on the haciendas, but he is even more disturbed by their apparent acceptance of the conditions under which they live. Men, women, and children are dressed in rags. Music and dancing, the most popular forms of entertainment for the Quechua people, are prohibited to them. Since Abancay is situated in a tropical valley of the Andes, where the climate is warm enough, the haciendas grow sugarcane. This aggravates conditions in that the colonos live close to the juice extracting plants, and breathe air that reeks of rotting cane and swarms with flies and other vermin. The people seem entirely

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passive about these conditions and are even afraid to accept the adolescent Ernesto into their homes when he attempts to visit, which is indeed disturbing, since hospitality toward strangers is all but obligatory within Quechua culture.

At school in the evening, the older boys retreat to an inner courtyard where a demented mestizo woman, brought to the school by one of the priests, awaits them. She offers them sex, and if she is unwilling to do so, they rape her. Ernesto himself, who has reached puberty, experiences for the first time the power of the sexual urge. At the same time, he is thoroughly repulsed by the scenes of sexual violence taking place in the courtyard, a few feet from latrines and open sewers. He becomes alienated from his peers and also from the land, which, as a child raised among Indians, he revered and felt was his. Only the nearby Pachachaca River and the bridge that crosses it can cleanse him of what he is forced to witness each night in the very place in which he is supposed to learn and to become a moral human being. “Both of them [the river and the bridge] cleansed my soul. … All of the… evil memories were erased from my mind” (Ar-guedas, Deep Rivers, pp. 62-63). Little by little, however, the incongruity between the idealized life of his childhood and the present reality cannot be suppressed by images of the river. All his romantic notions regarding women, all his fantasies and the “crushes” he has experienced in his journeys with his father, crumble before the sexual fury of his older schoolmates and the demented women. Simultaneously, all his notions concerning the Indian community—their bravery and kindness—seem no more than chimeras in view of the brutalized existence of the colonos and their inability to react against it.

Then another boy at school, Antero, introduces Ernesto to the Andean top, called zum-bayllu in Quechua because of the humming sound it makes when it is thrown. The top in motion and its noise reminds Ernesto of the Indian concepts of ilia (which refers to the visual world) and yllu (which refers to the aural); in both these realms forces that seem to oppose each other, like good and evil or life and death, are united (a river, for example, may ravage a land, yet it also brings mud and debris to fertilize the flooded area). At a deep psychological level, Ernesto begins to intuit the oneness and connectedness of the universe. He throws the top down onto the inner courtyard, feeling that the violence done to the demented woman there is somehow related to the spinning top.

As they mature, the friendship between Antero and Ernesto deepens. Both boys take the first tentative steps toward having girlfriends. The friendship between the boys deteriorates, though, as the plight of the poor hacienda workers becomes more critical and the first violent reaction against their conditions takes place. The reaction comes from the chicheras, the mestizo bar owners and waitresses, chicha being a popular fermented corn mash drink. When the government fails to deliver salt to the town and local haciendas, the chicheras take it upon themselves to break into the government warehouse and distribute it among the colonos of the surrounding haciendas. Dona Felipa, the female leader of the revolt, takes rifles from the local police and runs off into the mountains to escape the army sent in to crush this “rebellion.”

Ernesto and Antero react differently to the rebellion. Ernesto is exhilarated by the assertive women and follows them to the haciendas. For him, theirs is a welcome first reaction of the people against the oppression they endure, although he wishes that such a demonstration had come from the colonos. Antero looks upon the rebellion with trepidation. A member of the propertied class himself, he cannot condone a revolt against the system.

The day after the insurrection, the school’s rector, Father Linares, goes to the hacienda Pati-bamba with Ernesto to preach to the colonos that they are not to follow the lead of the chicheras; it is God’s will that they be poor and they must accept their lot. The rhetoric of his sermon, combined with the colonos’ naive belief that the priest’s words are God’s, soon reduces his listeners to a weeping mass, kneeling in the muck of the hacienda. Considering the rector’s words wrong and hypocritical, Ernesto begins to understand the Church’s role in oppressing the Indians.

The rift between Ernesto and Antero widens when Gerardo, the son of the commander sent to put down the chichera revolt, appears on the scene. Gerardo represents another type of Peruvian, a white Hispanic from the coastal area of the country. In contrast to the Andes where, despite all the racial discrimination, white Hispanics are intimately associated with Indian culture, coastal Peruvians have little or no contact with it. They speak only Spanish and consider themselves culturally superior to all serranos (any person, white or Indian, from the mountains). By coastal standards Gerardo is a decent enough individual, athletic and loyal to his male friends. Antero decides to follow Gerardo’s lead and “conquer” as many young women as possible. Ernesto, appalled by the changes in his friend, stops calling him by his Quechua nickname, Markask’a, using instead his Spanish given name. Overall, the incident increases Ernesto’s alienation from white society and confirms more deeply his adhesion to the Indian.

The excitement surrounding the arrival of army troops from the coast is overshadowed by the threat of a typhus epidemic and the growing fear that the colonos, among whom it seems to have begun, will march as a group into the city demanding that the rector of the boarding school say a mass to deliver them from the threat. One of the first to succumb to the disease is the demented woman, but not before she undergoes a kind of spiritual transformation. Shortly after the chichera rebellion, she retrieves a shawl left by the rebel dona Felipa on a cross placed on the Pachachaca Bridge as a warning to the soldiers not to follow the rebels. As though aware of the significance of the shawl, the demented woman stops visiting the inner courtyard. Now she lies dying in the kitchen of the boarding school, where Ernesto witnesses a transformation as her face loses its deformity and becomes beautiful. In the name of all humanity and of all those who have tormented her, he asks for her forgiveness.

Abancay and the boarding school reach a state of near chaos as the plague enters the city and as rumors spread that the colonos are approaching. Ernesto, who has lost all faith in the courage of the colonos, does not believe that they will dare challenge the police and soldiers who are guarding the entrances to the city. Fearing that he may have contracted the disease from the demented woman, he is in a panic and is almost at the point of hallucinating. He decides that he will go to meet the plague and challenge it. His wanderings bring him to Patibamba.

The Indian quarters of the hacienda have been abandoned except by the children. The adults have begun their march on the city. Ernesto sees a child lying on her stomach on the floor, while her older sister picks out with a needle a nest of parasitic insects embedded in the flesh of her buttock. “I lay my head on the ground; I smelled the stench coming from the hut and waited there for my heart to stop, for the sun’s light to be extinguished, for torrents of rain to fall and wash away the earth” (Deep Rivers, pp. 227-28).

The colonos arrive at midnight and the rector says the mass for them. Their arrival is like that of a river; nothing has been able to stop them, not even armed guards. They are the deep rivers of the novel, triumphantly chasing the plague out of the city with valor and song. Despite their seeming passivity, Ernesto realizes that, when motivated, the colonos are capable of great deeds.

The next morning Ernesto gets ready to leave the school and return to Cuzco and the Old Man until the epidemic subsides. He starts in the direction of the Old Man’s house but, remembering the treatment of the Indians there, and their toleration of it, he changes direction. The novel does not reveal Ernesto’s final destination. He is merely bound for the surrounding countryside, the home of the Quechua people, where the plague cannot find him.

The warring faces of Peruvian society

Deep Rivers is not only about a boy growing up and the exploitation of the Indian people around him. Its characters represent different classes and facets of Peruvian society. First, the novel introduces characters of Ernesto’s youth, the Indians of the free ayllus, Don Maywa and Don Victor Pusa. Though unable to equal the glory of the ancient Inca Empire, they represent Indian resistance to the occupation of their lands and inhabit one end of a scale in Peruvian society.

In the school, the only Indian student, Palacios, is scorned for his innocence and Indian beliefs. On the other hand, the boys who feel a kinship for Quechua culture respect him, despite his youth, for what he knows about Indian customs. In this way, the novel begins to inform us of many Peruvians’ ambivalence about the Inca past. On the one hand, they admire the lofty former empire, but on the other, they believe that Indians are inherently inferior to whites, an attitude shared by people in real life.

The concept of valuing Andean Quechua culture and attempting to integrate it, along with the Quechua people themselves, into a broader national culture long ran as a powerful counter-current to the hacienda system and to the assumption of Indian inferiority upon which this system was based. Manuel Gonzalez Prada (1848-1918), a progressive social philosopher whose ideas would prove influential among later Peruvian intellectuals, called out “to Peru’s enlightened minority to struggle against the tyranny of the unenlightened whites and educate the Indians in order to integrate them into Peruvian society” (Kristal, p. 114). Gonzalez Prada urged these “enlightened” whites to join with the nation’s Indians in overthrowing the status quo. Describing the judge, the governor, and the priest as the principle sources of Indian exploitation, he condemned all three, conferring on them the title “the trinity of brutalization” (Kristal, p. 114).

Clorinda Matto de Turner (1854-1905), a native of Cuzco who was influenced by Gonzalez Prada, became one of Peru’s first writers to deal with relations between the white Hispanic ruling class of her birthplace and the native population. Her Aves sin Nido (Birds without a Nest) is a vivid account of the exploitation and brutalization of the Indians forced to work on highland haciendas. Matto de Turner admired Indian culture, spoke the Quechua language fluently, translated the gospel of Saint Luke into that language, and vigorously defended the language’s richness of expression at a time before modern linguistics, when European languages were considered superior to non-European ones. Nevertheless, she was convinced, as were most progressive thinkers at the turn of the twentieth century, that advancement for native peoples depended on Westernization. To become fully integrated into Peruvian society, the native people would have to abandon their own culture. Such thinking was congruent with the positivist philosophy dominant in most of Hispanic America around this time, which taught, among other things, that education was the key to material progress. Posi-tivists wanted to educate the Indians in order to integrate them into Peru’s population; education, they believed, would solve what became known as the “Indian problem,” that is, the problem of fitting the Indian populations into modern Peruvian society.

On the other hand, Jose Carlos Mariategui (1894-1930), a socialist and one of Peru’s foremost social philosophers, advocated preserving the native economy. He firmly believed that a socialist system founded on the ancient ideas of communal lands would provide answers to the country’s serious economic problems:

He believed that despite centuries of attack, it [the concept of the ayllu] had survived with a vitality which protected the Indians… that only by destroying the huge estates and returning that land to the Indians could Peru throw off the shackles of feudalism and truly progress. Thus, the uplifting of the Indian race depended solely on land reform. . . .

(Davies, p. 95)

Arguedas’s writings reveal the extent to which he believed that the answer to his country’s problems—including the “Indian problem”—lay in the thought of Mariategui. Though never a member of Peru’s communist party, Arguedas firmly espoused the kind of communal landownership that had been the cornerstone of Inca society. Like Mariategui, he believed that contemporary communism was compatible with the Indians’ propensity to communal land ownership.

Literary context

Deep Rivers was the third of Arguedas’s narrations to deal with relations between Indians and whites in the Andes. His book of short stories, Agua, and the novel Yawar Fiesta preceded it. It was immediately realized that these were not the usual indigenista stories, which combined realism and naturalism to manifest to the world the exploitation of the Indian people of the Andes. It is true that certain familiar elements of indigenista stories, such as the exploitative hacienda owner and hypocritical Church official, appear in Deep Rivers, and Arguedas includes episodes that make clear the suffering of the Quechua people; however, in a way never seen before, he delved into the Indian mind and spirit. His descriptions of the concept of illa/yllu introduced to readers a system of cognition and interpretation of the universe as complex as that offered by any of the world’s religions. In this sense he put to rest the notion that Indian cosmology was a world of magic, superstition, and folklore. Indians were no longer “quaint” or “picturesque”: Arguedas humanized them and made their problems real. As others have noted, this aspect of the novel was particularly remarkable for its time. Deep Rivers replaces the “abstract and subjective Indians” created in earlier fiction with “the Indian as he is in reality, a complex being” (Vargas Llosa in Gun-ton, p. 9)

Arguedas also diverged from other indigenista writers by championing the right of Indian culture to exist side-by-side with Hispanic culture. He advocated an Indian culture that, while retaining its own integrity, would take advantage of some developments of non-Indian Western society. In retrospect, Arguedas’s literary works surpass others of his day by focusing not only on Indians learning white cultures but on whites learning Indian culture as well.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Mid-century upheaval

In the 1950s Peru was experiencing a social upheaval that still has not come to an end. The Indian populations had begun to demand their basic human rights in ways not experienced before. At last there were a sufficient number of persons of Indian origin who had received basic education, knew about laws, and demanded protection under them. Arguedas was well aware of these movements. Indeed, he was a friend of Hugo Blanco who was, at the time, leading a guerrilla movement in the sierra.

With the success of the Cuban revolution of 1959, one year after the publication of Deep Rivers, agitation for social change in Peru became even more demanding. The strikes and rebellions of the Indian miners of Cerro de Pasco, chronicled in the fiction of the Peruvian writer Manuel Scorza, would go on to benefit Indian societies in general. In time, programs of agrarian reform were introduced that, at least, eliminated the hacienda system.

As for Arguedas himself, though he pushed for many of the reforms initiated by Peru’s socialist and communist parties, he refrained from joining them because he felt that they were based too much on European models of history and were not adapted enough to the Andean reality. He has consequently been criticized for advocating a return to an “Inca utopia.” But a careful reading of his works shows that this was not really the case. His conviction was rather that before the peoples of Peru could come together they had to learn to respect one another’s culture and beliefs.

The Indian in literature

José Carlos Mariategui, a social philosopher and political activist, made an essential contribution to the understanding of literature dealing with Native American themes:

Mariátegui distinguishes three types of stories about the Indian. The first, a narrative in which the Indian appears as an exotic motif or a source of nostalgia, can be called indianista for convenience. Mariategui designates the second type with the term indigenista, meaning a literature written by non-Indian writers committed to the vindication of the Indian. The third type, indigena, does not yet exist [in Mariategui’s time], but if it did, it would be written by the Indians themselves and would present their reality and spirit.

(Kristal, p. 3)

Today there are stories of the “indigena” type, that is, stories written by the Indians themselves that are based on their native reality and way of envisioning the world. In any case, however, Arguedas’s novel fits into none of Mariategui’s types.

Though not an Indian himself, Arguedas’s understanding of the world was founded in native beliefs; at the same time, he was a university professor, fully integrated into the intellectual community of Latin America. His work thus confounds Mariategui’s clearcut divisions. It reflects Arguedas’s own vision—his defense of a pure Indian culture that would take advantage of contact with the non-Indian West but not be damaged by it. For example, Arguedas, a lover of music, believed that European instruments in Indian hands were no longer European; the Indians used them differently and made them emit different sounds. Arguedas, then, believed that the Indians should adapt whatever the world had to offer as long as the integrity of the Indian world was respected.

Deeply respectful of this world himself, Arguedas debated whether to write Deep Rivers in Quechua or Spanish, deciding to employ the latter in the interest of reaching the widest possible audience. However, he constructed the grammar of his Spanish sentences in a way that echoed Quechua grammar—positioning the verb, for example, toward the end rather than the middle of a thought. When describing the rebellion of the chicheras, Arguedas wrote,“Frente a las chicherias baûban” (In front of the chicha shops, they were dancing). By repeatedly invoking such sentence structure—unusual for Spanish (or English)—the novel creates a cumulative effect reminiscent of the Quechua language (Los nos profundos, p. 108; trans. V. Spina).


From its first publication Deep Rivers received favorable reviews. It is today considered one of the classics of Peruvian literature. This is not to say that the book’s episodic nature and lack of one central plot have gone unnoticed by critics, but they have also recognized the “intensity” of the novel and “the rare force of its authenticity” (Ortega in Gunton, p. 7). “[Arguedas] is the first Latin American writer to render a legitimate vision of indigenous culture… vindicating the distorted and defamed world of the Peruvian Indian, who appears in his beautiful books with an unending spiritual force and with dazzling magic” (Levano, p. 103; trans. V. Spina).

—Vincent Spina

For More Information

Arguedas, José Maria. Deep Rivers. Trans. FrancesHorning Barraclough. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.

_____. Los Rios Profundos. Buenos Aires: EditorialLosada, 1968.

Damian, Carol. The Virgin of the Andes. MiamiBeach: Grassfield Press, 1995.

Davies, Thomas M., Jr. Indian Integration in Peru. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974 .

De la Vega, Inca Garcilaso. Royal Commentaries of the Incas. Vol. 1. Trans. Harold V. Livermore. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966.

Fisher, Lillian Estelle. The Last Inca Revolt, 1780-1783. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

Flores Galindo, Alberto. Buscando un Inca: Identidady Utopia en los Andes. Lima: Instituto de Apoyo Agrario, 1987.

Gunton, Sharon R., ed. Contemporary LiteraryCnticism. Vol. 18. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981.

Kristal, Efrain. The Andes Viewed from the City. New York: Peter Lang, 1987.

Lévano, Cesar. Arguedas: Un Sentimiento Tragico de la Vida. Lima: Cesar Levano, 1969.

Matto de Turner, Clorinda. Birds without a Nest. Trans. J. G. Hudson (1904), emended by Naomi Lindstrom (1996). Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Spina, Vincent. El Modo Epico en Jose Maria Arguedas. Madrid: Editorial Pliegos, 1986.

Valderrama Fernandez, Ricardo, and Carmen Escalante Gutierrez, eds. Andean Lives. Trans. Paul H. Gelles and Gabriela Martinez Escobar. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

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Deep Rivers

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