Migrants, Theater, and Reshaping the Nation in Peru


A review of Development Dreams: How the Migrant Captivated Peru’s Theatre and Reshaped a Nation, by Mary Barnard.

In Development Dreams: How the Migrant Captivated Peru’s Theatre and Reshaped a Nation, Mary Barnard analyzes how Peruvian theatre practitioners problematized national development efforts from the 1950s to the present using the migrant character. The study analyzes theatrical treatments of migration in an introduction, four chapters organized chronologically, and a conclusion. Throughout, Barnard juxtaposes historical shifts in Peru’s political economy and theatre performance to reach new understandings of both fields. Barnard argues that Peruvian theatre provides “alternative interpretations of what it means to progress economically and socially within the metropolis and beyond amongst the country’s traditionally disenfranchised indigenous ethnic groups” (p. ii). With these intellectual priorities and claims, Barnard’s dissertation provides valuable insight into the ideologies and real life experiences generated by Peru’s “development dreams.”

The introduction situates the study in relation to existing literature on Peruvian performance and capitalist modernity in Latin America. Academic interest in Peruvian theatre spiked after performers helped process the political violence of the 1980s and 1990s as part of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the early 2000s. Authors subsequently focused on the relationship between performance, testimony, and human rights. Barnard engages with this literature but suggests that these studies overlook an important issue: economics. Economics, Barnard contends, not only underpinned political violence, but also took center stage in theatre productions over the decades. To address this omission, Barnard focuses on the migrant, a key figure in the drama of development. Rural to urban migrants sought opportunities for progress, but instead encountered discrimination and an atomized existence far from family and friends. In dialogue with scholars such as Walter Mignolo, Arturo Escobar, and Jean Franco on colonialist exploitation, Cold War brutalities, and neoliberal abuses, Barnard sees the Peruvian stage reflecting on centuries of economic traumas linked to development ventures.

Chapter 1 examines three plays from the 1950s and 1960s that illuminate the darker side of development by portraying migrant hardships. In No hay isla feliz (1954) by Sebastián Salazar Bondy, for instance, migrants leave Lima for a town on the desert coast, aspiring to achieve a middle class existence. However, they only encounter false hope and tragedy. Fin de semana (1961) by Julio Ramón Ribeyro dramatizes elite inhumanity. In the play, upwardly mobile Peruvians cover up the accidental death of an “insignificant” Andean house servant at their country club. La Ciudad de los Reyes (1963, 1967) by Hernando Cortés has a morbid, detached realism that portrays the cruelty of city life. An illustrative scene shows a poor couple selling their child and reveling in the food and goods they purchase with the money. Barnard indicates how these works criticized the prohibitive power of class, ethnic, racial, and geographic prejudices in Peruvian cities.

The second chapter examines theatrical representations of migration from 1968 to 1990, a period of reform, revolution, and counterrevolution. Like the plays discussed in the previous chapter, in El ascensor (1973) by César Vega Herrera, Barnard finds another example of urban dystopia. Barnard sees the play dramatizing “widespread societal failure” (p. 75), as both existing social structures and revolutionary propaganda fail to improve the lives of migrants. Barnard then discusses two works performed by Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani. Founded in 1972, the troupe strives to cultivate socio-cultural conciliation and address historical injustices. Barnard shows how the plays Los músicos ambulantes (1982) and Adiós, Ayacucho (1990) reflect on the environment of fear in Peru. Clashes between leftist guerrilla groups and government counterrevolutionary forces during the 1980s and 1990s displaced countless Peruvians and made migration extremely dangerous. These works, in keeping with Yuyachkani’s objectives, encourage regional and ethnic unity and collective remembrance. In this chapter Barnard indicates how theatre privileged popular interests at a time when failed economic reforms and violent conflict terrorized the Peruvian masses.

Chapter 3 turns to theatre in the period of globalization and “Fujishock,” the wide-ranging neoliberal economic policies of President Alberto Fujimori (1990 – 2000). Barnard describes theatrical critiques of Fujimori’s capitalist expansion, which jeopardized the fate of rural villages. Hatun Yachaywasi (1993) by Gervasio Juan Vilca and Con nervios de toro (1996) by Javier Maraví Aranda depict migrants that leave their villages and return changed by their exposure to Western lifestyles and materialistic preoccupations. The detriments of capitalism take physical form in Con nervios de toro and Pishtaco (1993) by Julio Ortega, as characters in both plays plunder, devour, and destroy traditions and lives. Along with representing capitalist harm, playwrights deploy symbols of local dignity. For instance, Hatun Yachaywasi and Pishtaco feature figures from Andean folklore. The local festival becomes an event of critical concern in Con nervios de toro. The destructive force of capitalism, Barnard notes, does not defeat, but galvanizes victims. Barnard argues that theatre in this period portrayed the power of what Arjun Appadurai calls “locality.” According to Barnard, locality, with Andean identity as a touchstone, encouraged communal solidarity in the face of internal and external threats.

In Chapter 4, Barnard mixes fieldwork narrative, historical context, and performance analysis to examine two festivals in Cusco, the Inti Raymi Festival and the Festival de Teatro Cusqueño, which she attended in 2008. Barnard asserts that these events exemplify what Eric Hobsbawm called, “invented tradition.” Inti Raymi began in the 1940s by scholars and elites, who restaged “lost” Incan traditions to protect local heritage and revive tourism. The event has grown into a multi-million dollar extravaganza for mainly tourists. Teatro Cusqueño began in the 2000s to invigorate the local theatre scene by presenting works by Peruvian dramatists and local artists. With free entry, mostly local theatregoers attend. Barnard contends that these festivals allow communities to defend their distinct culture in a globalizing world. An appendix of photos taken by the author illustrates the colorful Incan universe created by Inti Raymi and the tradition of community theatre preserved by Teatro Cusqueño.

The conclusion suggests avenues for future research. In particular, Barnard compares Peruvian theatre and television. Television, like theatre, features the migrant as a common stock character. However, whereas theatre reflects on economic anxieties and defeats, television portrays triumphant migrants. Barnard notes that, ultimately, both pessimistic and optimistic depictions indicate the ubiquity of development aspirations. Though elusive, individuals and societies continue to dream of development.

Development Dreams skillfully explores development not just as an economic and political project, but also as an experience. The dissertation would be of interest to Latin American and performance studies scholars, as well as those interested in evaluating the impact of capitalist expansion in Peru. Barnard’s work also contributes to studies on the Latin American Cold War. In keeping with the recent efforts to demonstrate how ideological conflict and geopolitics played out on the ground, Barnard illustrates how individuals and communities used performance to live through difficult economic, political, and social change.

Elizabeth Schwall
Department of History
Columbia University

Primary Sources
Cortés, Hernando. La Ciudad de los Reyes. Lima: Banco Central de Reserva del Perú, 1990.
Escudero, Ruth and Luis A. Ramos-García, eds. Voces del interior: Nueva dramaturgia peruana. Lima: Instituto Nacional de Cultura, 2001.
Festival de Teatro Cusqueño, Cusco, Peru
Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru
Ortega, Julio. Adiós, Ayacucho. Lima: ISHI Publications y Mosca Azul Editores, 1986.

Dissertation Information
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. 2013. 228 pp. Primary Advisor: Camilla Stevens


Image: Carmita Pinedo Yuyarima in Conjuros al viento, Photo by Author, 2008.

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