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At first glance, one might think that the market is organized geographically. The vendors are arranged with their products under large panels indicating the seven district capitals of the Urubamba Province. But what is the space reserved for the small producers of the peasant communities? I go to a panel indicating Maras, the municipality on which our neighboring communities depend, but I do not see any familiar face. In certain areas of the market, the panels also indicate a family of products: fruits, flowers, dairy products. And, walking around, I realize that even when they indicate places, the organization ends up being by families. The high altitude districts are separated from the valley districts, with the product predominating more than the place. The Urubamba market is a regional crossroads on the trade routes. Here, agricultural products from the various ecological levels of the Cusco region find a point of convergence and redistribution to other areas. Small producers come to sell their crops and also to buy inputs that they do not produce, such as, in the case of Mil’s neighboring communities, vegetables and greens.

Photo: Céline Morançay (28.08.2019)

In the middle, a space catches my attention. An empty triangle of land that, over the hours, fills up with large sacks as if the porters carrying them were attracted by a kind of magnet. There, the ladies and their diversity of products have given way to the pile of large sacks of potatoes, beans, barley, contrasting with the rest of the market. A few people are in charge of keeping the accounts.

I then understand that this is the area of the wholesalers, also called intermediaries or resellers. These words imply the type of activity they carry out in the market: buying large quantities of products, reselling them here or taking them to other regions and thus participating in the circulation of products to more distant areas. By buying in large quantities and giving the security of buying everything, they get a lower price from producers, which does not give them a good reputation.

Certainly on the one hand they would be taking advantage of the urgency to sell of producers who come to this market once a week to offer their products with a lot of effort, while on the other hand they would be opening the possibility to producers who want to be sure to sell everything they brought, even facing a lower price than their products deserve.

Photo: Céline Morançay (28.08.2019)

I leave the market determined to return home, disappointed not to have met Ceferina or any acquaintance from any of our neighboring communities. I am just at the entrance of the market when a truck arrives and I recognize faces: it is the truck coming from Kacllaraccay. I approach at the same time that some ladies begin to negotiate prices while they are unloading the merchandise; and I understand that they are just wholesalers.

Finally, Ceferina had not come but I meet her cousin. She has three big bags of potatoes that she sells to a wholesaler. The process is long: from the first one they fill a bag with the products and weigh it with an object I had never seen before in my life. Very naively, I ask how much a kilo of potatoes sells for. I don’t understand his answer and I think it shows on my face because he shows me the unknown object. He explains to me that it is a romana, a tool used to measure the arroba, a unit of mass brought by the Spaniards with the colonization and still used here in the Andes. It corresponds to 25 pounds, or approximately 11.5 kilos. They were measuring how many arrobas of potatoes the three sacks contained in order to fix the total price, calculated on a cell phone.

Photo: Céline Morançay (28.08.2019)

All those things I observed for the first time became more familiar as I repeated these visits every Wednesday. I learned to identify where these people from the community are located in the market. Not having a defined space exclusively for them, they stand informally behind the wholesalers or leaning against the walls in the passage corridors. And, as if an invisible panel indicated “Kacllaraccay”, they are placed together, side by side, prolonging the socializing of the community in the Urubamba market.

But the market is a mostly feminine space and when I ask why, Blanca answers me: “Because we know what we need to buy for the house”, I am struck by this predominant role of women in the family economy, in charge of the commercialization of products but as a consequence of their domestic tasks. They know what they need to buy for the household and several times I also observed that they take advantage of their presence in Urubamba to go to the laundry. The market is also an intergenerational space for family gatherings. Products are sold with siblings, with parents or meeting children and grandchildren who left the countryside in search of more opportunities in the city.

Photo: Céline Morançay (28.08.2019)

The ladies got used to seeing me every Wednesday and always offer me to sit on a sack next to them. Often, they entrust me with their sacks while they go to buy something or meet their family. They tell me the price of each product for sale and I am left alone, giving the price to the people who approach. Some go on their way, others try to speak to me in Quechua without my being able to respond. One day, while I was alone with Mrs. Eva Sayri’s products, a person comes to ask me the price – “12 soles mama” – and hands me a bag. I understand that the sale is done and that I have to assume the series of gestures that I have observed so many times.

Photo: Céline Morançay (07.17.2019)

Not speaking Quechua, I have always been very attentive to body language trying to understand as much as possible what is going on, sequencing the series of gestures that I saw that constitutes the whole sales process. Then, pretending to be used to it, I grab their bag and place a couple of potatoes inside without having any idea of the amount I am serving. They perform the action of moving the produce from one bag to the other very quickly, but I have to go slowly so the potatoes don’t fall all over the place.

I don’t have a Roman, so I ask the lady next to me to lend me hers. I pass the hook of the instrument through the handles of the sack and lift it to read on the graduation if the arroba is checked.

Since my first visit to the market I had been surprised that the price per arroba is hardly negotiated: the buyers go through each section checking the available products, touching them or sometimes commenting on their appearance asking for the price and leaving without commenting if it suits them or not. I concluded this from the amount of the same product available in the market: shoppers compare prices without negotiating. I also noticed that as the hours go by, the saleswomen usually lower the price per arroba so as not to be left with very little product when it is time to leave. The competition generated by the quantity of products available means that the price is already very low.

I don’t find that there are tense situations, except at the moment of weighing the arroba. And now that it is my turn to do it, I understand the reason. While one has to lift the arroba, i.e. 11.5K, one has to read the graduation numbers on the Roman, which normally, because of the heavy use of the device, are half-blurred. Adjusting the quantities by adding or removing potatoes from the bag always gives rise to debates that can end in the cancellation of the sale, in the requirement to change the Roman, or in the intervention of a third party to have an outside opinion. At that moment I take care of the sale, I adjust the quantity, more or less, taking out or adding potatoes, and I charge the 12soles per arroba. When Eva returns, she sees me happy. I explain to her that I sold my first arroba and she is very amused.

Photo: Céline Morançay (07.17.2019)

Despite representing 45 minutes of transportation with all the logistics involved, the Urubamba Producers’ Market constitutes a primordial space for the household economy. It is the space in which the work done throughout the year in the plots, the main source of income for the families of the peasant communities, ends. It shows the role of the city as a center of convergence of regional productions and a hub on the trade routes. Indeed, the city of Urubamba constitutes a platform of redistribution of inputs that makes the mess as one can imagine between the countryside and the city, but also between the countryside and the countryside when small producers of peasant communities buy from other producers of other communities varieties that they do not produce for their consumption or to have seeds for the next agricultural year.

Little by little, the organization of space became clearer to me. I observed their tacit hierarchy reflected in the distribution of space that disadvantages small producers as well as their solidarity, especially family solidarity. Finally, I can say that my various experiences in the Urubamba Producers’ Market on Wednesdays allowed me to relate to the women of the neighboring communities of Mil who, I believe, took a special affection for me, treating me as if I were a daughter who, in addition to asking naive questions, came to help them in the sales and to share with them.

Céline Morançay
Mater team author

Sociologist Céline is a French-Peruvian anthropologist; she has devoted herself to social science research at the IHEAL- Institut des Hautes Études de l'Amérique Latine de La Sorbonne in Paris. Specialized in history and anthropology, she is also passionate about photography. She is currently developing a research project in Peru for Mater Iniciativa using anthropological methods with the practice of photography to photo-document food production chains, aiming to understand the challenges of agricultural production for small farmers in the Cusco region, as well as the social relations that arise around crops.

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