The passivity of the oppressed
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Sun Oct 22 15:49:17 MDT 2000
THE PONGO'S DREAM
by José Maria Arguedas
(Arguedas learned Quechua as a boy from servants in the household of his
stepmother and his father, an itinerant lawyer. Until his suicide in 1967,
the novelist and anthropologist was perhaps more responsible than any other
Peruvian for the impassioned defense of the Incan tongue and cultural
autonomy for millions of Quechua speakers, challenging the powerful
ideologies of "modernization" and "national integration" predicated on the
erasure of Peru's indigenous past. Although there was a strong utopian
strain in Arguedas, he was not just interested in indigenous traditions. He
also wrote about the challenges of migration and modernity, and proclaimed
himself an "hombre Quechua moderno," a modern Quechuan man, reflecting his
desire for a cultural pluralism for Peru that would go beyond a retreat
into a narrow traditionalism. An adaptation of a story Arguedas heard from
a Cusco peasant, "The Pongo's Dream" captures the rigidity of the feudal
order that still prevailed in many parts of the Andes in the mid-twentieth
century. But the denouement, where the world turns upside down as in the
Inkarri myth, suggests the existence of a spirit of independence and
opposition, which was to fuel the peasant movements of the 1950s and the
break-up of the landlords' rule.)
A little man headed to his master's mansion. As one of the serfs on the
lord's estate, he had to perform the duty of a pongo, a lowly house
servant. He had a small and feeble body, a meek spirit. His clothes were
old and tattered. Everything about him was pitiful.
The great lord, owner of the mansion and lands surrounding it, could not
help laughing when the little man greeted him in the mansion's corridors.
"What are you? A person or something else?" the lord asked the little man
in front of all the other serfs. The pongo bowed his head and did not
answer. He stood frightened, eyes frozen. "Let's see!" the lord said. "With
those worthless little hands, you must at least know how to scrub pots or
use a broom. Take this garbage away!" he ordered.
The pongo knelt to kiss his master's hand and followed him to the kitchen
hanging his head.
The little man had a small body but an average man's strength. Whatever he
was told to do he did well, but he always wore a slight look of horror on
his face. Some of the serfs laughed at him, while others pitied him. "The
most orphaned of all orphans," a cook of mixed blood once said upon seeing
him. "His frozen eyes must be children of the moon wind, his heart must be
The little man rarely talked to anyone. He worked and ate quietly. Whatever
they ordered him to do was done obediently. "Yes, papacito, mamacita," were
the only words he uttered.
Perhaps because of the little man's frightened look and his threadbare,
filthy clothes, or perhaps because of his unwillingness to talk, the lord
regarded the pongo with special contempt. He enjoyed humiliating him most
at dusk, when all the serfs gathered to say the Hail Mary in the mansion's
great hall. He would shake him vehemently in of the serfs like a piece of
animal skin. He would push his head force him to kneel, and then, when the
little man was on his knees, slap him lightly on the face.
"I believe you are a dog. Bark!" he would tell the pongo.
The little man could not bark.
"Stand on all fours," the lord would order him next.
The pongo would obey and start crawling on all fours. "Walk sideways like
a dog," the lord would demand.
The little man had learned to run like the small dogs inhabiting the high
The lord would laugh heartily. His whole body shook with exhilaration.
"Come back here!" he would yell, when the servant reached the end of the
The pongo would return, running sideways, arriving out of breath.
Meanwhile, some of the other serfs would quietly say their Hail Marys, as
if their voices were a wind hidden in their hearts.
"Perk up your ears, hare! You are just an ugly hare!" the lord would
command the exhausted little man. "Sit on your two paws. Put your hands
The pongo could sit in the exact same prayerful pose that these animals
take when they stand still on the rocks, looking as if he had learned this
habit while in his mother's womb. But the one thing he could not do was
perk up his ears. Some of the serfs laughed at him.
With his boot, the lord would then knock him to the brick floor.
"Let us say the Our Father," he would then say to his Indians as they
waited in line.
The pongo would get up slowly, but he could not pray because he was not in
his place, nor did any place belong to him.
In the darkness, the serfs would leave the great hall for the courtyard and
head to their living quarters. "Get out of here, offal!" the master would
often order the pongo.
And so, every day, in front of the other serfs, the master would make his
new pongo jump to his demands. He would force him to laugh, to fake tears.
He would hand him over to the other workers so that they would ridicule him
But . . . one afternoon, during the Hail Mary, when the hall was filled
with everyone who worked and lived on the lord's estate and the master
himself began to stare at the pongo with loathing and contempt, that same
little man spoke very clearly. His face remained a bit frightened.
"Great lord, please grant me permission. Dear lord, I wish to speak to you."
The lord could not believe his ears. "What? Was that you who spoke or
"Your permission, dear master, to speak to you. It is you I want to talk
to," the pongo replied. "Talk... if you can."
"My father, my lord, my heart," the little man began. "Last night, I dreamt
that the two of us had died. Together, we had died." "You with me? You?
Tell all, Indian," the master said to him. "Since we were dead men, my
lord, the two of us were standing naked before our dear father Saint
Francis, both of us, next to each other."
"And then? Talk!" ordered the master, partly out of anger and partly
anxious with curiosity.
"When he saw us dead, naked, both standing together, our dear father Saint
Francis looked at us closely with those eyes that reach and measure who
knows what lengths. He examined you and me, judging, I believe, each of our
hearts, the kind of person we were, the kind of person we are. You
confronted that gaze as the rich and powerful man that you are, my father."
"I cannot know how I was, great lord. I cannot know my worth."
"Well, keep talking."
"Then, our father spoke: 'May the most beautiful of all the angels come
forth. May a lesser angel of equal beauty accompany the supreme one. May
the lesser angel bring a golden cup filled with the most delicate and
"And then?" the master asked.
The Indian serfs listened, listened to the pongo with a limitless
attention, yet also afraid.
"My owner, as soon as our great father Saint Francis gave his order, an
angel appeared, shimmering, as tall as the sun. He walked very slowly until
he stood before our father. A smaller angel, beautiful, glowing like a
gentle flower, marched behind the supreme angel. He was holding in his
hands a golden cup."
"And then?" the master asked once again.
"'Supreme angel, cover this gentleman with the honey that is in the golden
cup. Let your hands be feathers upon touching this man's body,' ordered our
great father. And so, the lofty angel lifted the honey with his hands and
glossed your whole body with it, from your head down to your toenails. And
you swelled with pride. In the splendor of the heavens, your body shone as
if made of transparent gold."
"That is the way it must be," said the lord. "And what happened to you?"
"When you were shining in the sky, our great father Saint Francis gave
another order. 'From all the angels in heaven, may the very least, the most
ordinary come forth. May that angel bring along a gasoline can filled with
"A worthless, old angel with scaly feet, too weak to keep his wings in
place, appeared before our father. He came very tired, his wings drooping
at his sides, carrying a large can. 'Listen,' our great father ordered the
angel. 'Smear the body of this little man with the excrement from that can
you brought. Smear his whole body any way you want and cover it all the
best you can. Hurry up!' So the old angel took the excrement with his
coarse hands and smeared my body unevenly, sloppily, just like you would
smear mud on the walls of an ordinary adobe house. And in the midst of the
heavenly light, I stank and was with shame."
"Just as it should be!" crowed the master. "Keep going! Or is that the end?"
"No, my little father, my lord. When we were once again together, changed,
before our father Saint Francis, he took another look at first at you, then
at me, a long time. With those eyes that reach the heavens, I don't know to
what depths, joining night and memory and oblivion. Then he said: 'Whatever
the angels had to with you is done. Now, lick each other's bodies slowly,
for all eternity.' At that moment, the old angel became young again. His
wings regained their blackness and great strength. Our father entrusted him
making sure that his will was carried out."
(From "The Peru Reader", edited by Orin Starn, Carlos Degregori, Robin Kirk)
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