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Volume 41. No. 2.
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"King Ralph"
Returning to the village that he helped to found, Professor Ralph Bolton '61 finds both memories and new challenges.

By Jill Walker Robinson

When Anthropology Professor Ralph Bolton ’61 returned to the Peruvian highlands decades
after ending his tour of duty as a Peace Corps volunteer, his village friends asked him to
pose on the rock marking the center of the town’s foundation. The people of this remote
community known as Chijnaya—the mayor a mere five-year-old boy when Bolton lived among
them—held their initial meetings on this very spot.

To these villagers, Bolton is the founder of their town. “King Ralph,” teases his son, Eugene, and his partner, Robert Frost, who made the trip back with him. He may not rule it, but he certainly inspired these farming families to take a chance on agrarian reform in an effort to better their lives in the 1960s, and he still feels a deep involvement in their fate.

Forty years ago, these people were scared of gringos and “anything which would change the pattern of life” that they and their ancestors had known. “More food, better shelter and education would be fine, but experience tells ... that they are unobtainable. ... Fate is fixed at birth and nothing can be done,” Bolton wrote in an article for Pomona Today in July 1964.

The year before, the Ramis River had overflowed its banks, flooding surrounding villages. Many farmers lost their homes and, more importantly, their lands in the flood. It would take five years for the water to recede and the crops to grow again.

Bolton, 22 at the time, had grown up on a farm in eastern Pennsylvania and had written his honor’s thesis on agrarian reform in Bolivia. He believed in it. He had been working for the Peace Corps as an anthropologist when he was asked to organize and direct field operations for the first agrarian reform project for the department of Puno, Peru, in May 1963. The plan was to relocate the affected campesinos.

“We proposed to relocate those families who willingly accepted and to help them organize a
cooperative to manage their new lands,” Bolton wrote. “The land would be purchased with a
loan to be granted to them by the government, and they would work the land together
cooperatively. ... Working as a corporate enterprise or a cooperative, the Indians would
be able to use machinery and modern techniques which would result in increased production.
It would be easier to pay back the loans.”

They would ultimately have more land, but they were skeptical about the cooperative
ownership. Eventually, however, Bolton’s persistence won over a number of converts. “We
traveled by balsa boat to their homes; we slept many nights on the floors of their vermin
infested huts; we ate their meals with them,” he wrote. “And when the day came to move, we
had 74 families determined to defy fate.”

Fifteen months after its founding, Chijnaya had become a progressive community. Sixty
houses—with two bedrooms, dining room, kitchen and bath in each—had been built by the community for member-families, with plans for running water and electricity in this village of a
couple thousand acres. A school was constructed, and because children were free from
working the land, school attendance hit 100 percent—a record high for any community in
this region. The village plaza was laid out, and a cooperative store and social center
opened. The women, also freed from agricultural work, began spinning alpaca fleece which
was exported monthly to the United States. The children embroidered scenes of village life
with homespun cloth and colored yarn, their crafts exhibited in the United States by the
Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service. The crops that were planted that first year
didn’t prosper, but the village survived off the money made from selling their artisan
works.

Bolton left Peru and the Peace Corps in July 1965. Although he retained warm memories of
the town he had helped to found and the people with whom he worked so hard—“You can’t live with people in an intense situation without becoming empathetic and concerned about their welfare”—he went on with his life and lost touch with the Chijnayans. Sometimes he
wondered what had become of the village. Perhaps the people had moved on. Perhaps not. He didn’t know what to expect or what might have become of his 25-plus Chijnayan godchildren.

In 2003, however, Bolton received an e-mail from economist Cirilo Quispe from the
Universidad Nacional del Altiplano in Puno. Quispe, a five-year-old boy in Chijnaya when
Bolton was in Peru, happened upon the village’s favorite gringo via a Google search.
Invited back, Bolton was hesitant.

“I was afraid I’d go back and find things worse,” he says. “It was the Kennedy years when
I was in Peru. We were all optimistic about the world. We wanted to see economic progress
and the elimination of poverty. It was just a very different view. Maybe we’re a little
more jaded or maybe just more realistic.”

He decided to make the trip in December 2004, and to his delight, he found Chijnaya
thriving, and the villagers still working to improve their own lives.

They welcomed Bolton with a big fiesta at the Centro Poblado, with dance troupes,
speeches, a communal meal and gift giving. They raised the community flag in his honor.
They threw confetti and garnished him with a lei and other treasures. As he stood on the
makeshift stage set up on the back of a truck, he was presented with a beautiful
embroidered tapestry made by the people of Chijnaya. He joined in the dancing.
The village of 750 residents had made progress since Bolton’s departure. They had
electricity, street lighting and even one phone in the village. They had purchased
additional acreage and opened a cheese factory.

“That was impressive,” says Bolton, struck by the sanitary conditions with workers in
white coats. Many sons and daughters had emigrated and obtained opportunities that were
not previously dreamed of. “They’re certainly part of the modern world, much more aware.
They want Internet connection. They are connected and want to be more connected. It’s a
progressive-looking community.”

At a presentation in his honor at the elementary school, where the students held homemade
Peruvian and U.S. paper flags, the school’s director applauded Bolton, noting that the
American might be able to help the school get a computer lab.

“They gained a lot in terms of self-confidence,” says Bolton. “At the same time, they’re
still dependent. They want me to help them with these projects.”

Bolton has already spoken to officials in the Peruvian Ministry of Education, which has a
plan to get computers into schools. If Bolton can supply four to six computers, the
ministry will provide Internet access via satellite, as well as training. The school also
needs a television with a VCR to show educational films.

Bolton is working with the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico (where he lives when not in
Claremont), to adopt Chijnaya as a sister city. Chijnaya’s artisan crafts are no longer
unique, as other villages also make and sell such goods. It’s a competitive industry, and
the villagers need a new product. “They’ve got the skills,” said Bolton, who hopes the
artists of Santa Fe can advise and guide them toward new artistic products.

The village’s needs also include a tractor for the community fields, better health
services—including surgery for a 13-year-old boy who is blind—and decent television
receivers. (Though everyone has a television and the village has access to four channels,
they only have one signal and must all watch the same program.)

One of the more lucrative endeavors would be to expand the cheese factory, marketing their
soft cheese to hotels where they could secure contracts.

Bolton is working to create The Chijnaya Fund as a nonprofit organization that can collect
funds to help the community with pressing projects. “They put me back in the Peace Corps
role. One thing about being a Peace Corps volunteer is access, and a gringo has more
access,” said Bolton. “They essentially were putting me back in the role they knew me in.
In many ways, things hadn’t changed at all.”
 
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