The Puna’s no place for turkey buzzards

By Mario Vargas Llosa


There is this stupid, racist saying that goes, “The puna’s no place for turkey buzzards.” They invented that to mean that us Blacks can’t live in high places—that’s what the puna is, you know—because we can’t take it, can’t take the harsh climate, can’t take how hard life is here. They’re saying that the sierra is just for Indians and whites and mestizos. That us Blacks are forever condemned to live in the stifling heat of the coast, there by the sea.


That doesn’t make sense. So what do we have to be? Redheads? Palefaces? Incas? We’re Blacks, we belong in the mountains as much as any man among them. We been here for years, maybe centuries. People don’t know that Blacks came to South America with the first conquistadors. We were part of that conquest, too, though the history books have always left out that part of the story. But we were there all right, herding the horses, carrying provisions and weapons, training the savage dogs we set on the Indians during battle. Then later we served as a shield for the masters and mistresses against the arrows and stones and axe blades the Indians turned on us. Many of those wars were won and lost by us; it’s always been true that we’re the ones with the greatest losses in American wars. But no one remembers to count us.


In this valley of cane fields, we are the best cutters, and during the harvest season the owners fight to sign us up. Cutting cane is really hard work; it’s for men with arms of steel, who can last out anything. It’s a job that grinds you down and leaves your back bowed forever. It’s good pay, but after that crop, what?   How are you supposed to eat the rest of the year? We have to be quick on our feet, take any job—porter, packer, drive carts, clean out irrigation ditches—or, as a last resort, go to the city and work in a factory.


There’s plenty of work on the coast. Lots more than here. But we like living here. We were born here and we have the sierra in our heart. We like the pure air and blue sky, the rugged mountains and the green of the small plots climbing up the mountainside. We also like the nip of the evening cold when the sun goes down. No matter how often they say that stupid “The puna’s no place for turkey buzzards,” it is! Yessir, in Chota we have Blacks who are men of the Andes—Andes to the bone.


We’ve worked our shift now and we’re waiting for the truck that will take us back to camp. Once there I’ll take a brush and soap and water to my face and chest and armpits, and then after I get a bite at the cantina I’ll go to the movies. This one has shooting, and I heard the women show their tits. Tomorrow I’ll be at work at the dawn, but I don’t need much sleep. Four or five hours and I’m good as new.