Language, Coffee, and Migration on an Andean-Amazonian Frontier

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Extraordinary change is under way in the Alto Urubamba Valley, a vital and turbulent corner of the Andean-Amazonian borderland of southern Peru. Here, tens of thousands of Quechua-speaking farmers from the rural Andes have migrated to the territory of the Indigenous Amazonian Matsigenka people in search of land for coffee cultivation. This migration has created a new multilingual, multiethnic agrarian society.

The rich-tasting Peruvian coffee in your cup is the distillate of an intensely dynamic Amazonian frontier, where native Matsigenkas, state agents, and migrants from the rural highlands are carving the forest into farms. Language, Coffee, and Migration on an Andean-Amazonian Frontier shows how people of different backgrounds married together and blended the Quechua, Matsigenka, and Spanish languages in their day-to-day lives. This frontier relationship took place against a backdrop of deforestation, cocaine trafficking, and destructive natural gas extraction.

Nicholas Q. Emlen’s rich account—which takes us to remote Amazonian villages, dusty frontier towns, roadside bargaining sessions, and coffee traders’ homes—offers a new view of settlement frontiers as they are negotiated in linguistic interactions and social relationships. This interethnic encounter was not a clash between distinct groups but rather an integrated network of people who adopted various stances toward each other as they spoke.

The book brings together a fine-grained analysis of multilingualism with urgent issues in Latin America today, including land rights, poverty, drug trafficking, and the devastation of the world’s largest forest. It offers a timely on-the-ground perspective on the agricultural colonization of the Amazon, which has triggered an environmental emergency threatening the future of the planet.

Read a Q & A with author Nicholas Emlen on the CaMP Anthropology Blog

“The rich-smelling Peruvian coffee in your mug is the distillate of a frantically expanding Amazonian frontier, where native Matsigenka, state agents, and transplanted Andean highlanders are carving forests into farms. At the edge of the coffee frontier, in the trilingual Matsigenka village of Yokiri, Nick Emlen witnesses the building of an agrarian lifeway among ‘a society of novices.’ From the agronomy workshop to the mythology of sentient cascades, life is made by talking—talking in and across three languages. Emlen offers a subtle, flexible, linguistically sparkling rendering of the improvisations that are making the forest world into something unforeseen.”—Frank Salomon, author of At the Mountains’ Altar: Anthropology of Religion in an Andean Community
“Too often the Andes and the Amazon are understood as worlds apart. On the eastern slopes of the Amazon, Nicholas Emlen shows how these regions have been interconnected through the centuries and continue to be today, through the work and words of Yokiriños. Emlen brings together ethnography, history, and linguistics in a rich portrait of inter-Indigenous relations between highland Quechua colonos and lowland Matsigenkas. Emlen’s use of archival materials is sophisticated, rigorous, and illuminating. Setting ethnographic accounts and archival material alongside the linguistic analysis of toponyms in the region contributes to a rich picture of the complex, shifting nature of the linguistic ecology of the region.”—Karl Swinehart, University of Louisville

"Overall, Emlen effectively makes the case that centering the interconnections within the Andes-Amazon frontier adds richness and depth to the scholarship that is slowly growing into exploring more the "in betweenness" without opposing one against the other. At its core, the book encourages the reader—who may or may not have a general sense of the differences between the Andean high‐lands and the lowland Amazonia—to look at the Andean-Amazonian frontier as a continuum."—Ximena Sevilla, H-Net Environment Reviews

"Emlen argues that etymological discourses about the land are not linked to specific ethnic identities but rather are used for interactional purposes to highlight ancestral, historical, and contemporary concerns. Ultimately, this book provides a rich ethnographic account of multilingual dynamics and socioeconomic change in an Andean-Amazonian frontier community, showing how language and social identity are deeply embedded in both the tensions and intimacies that are constructed through societal transformation."—Molly Hamm-Rodríguez, Language in Society

Accessibly written and rich in ethnographic, historical, and linguistic detail, the book will fit well in undergraduate and graduate courses. It will be of interest to a wide range of audiences within and outside linguistic anthropology—particularly scholars of the Andes and Amazon, environmental anthropologists, socially minded historical linguists, and linguistic anthropologists interested in semiotic approaches to multilingualism, identity, and interaction."—Georgia Ennis, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology

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