The Shipibo-Konibo of Cantagallo: Preserving indigenous culture in a slum

Raimundo Fasabi Arévalo works for Cantagallo's local government.
Arthur Holland Michel

LIMA — Wedged between a highway and the Rímac River at the foot of the Cerro San Cristobal sits a slum that was built on a landfill. Its name is Cantagallo, which translates roughly to “Cock Crow.” The smell from the Rímac, a polluted waterway, can be overwhelming; the din from the highway is constant. The surrounding area is, at best, an unwelcoming environment. Many taxi drivers from other parts of the city refuse to drive there, afraid of the violent crime that is common in the Barrios Altos slum, which is right next door. Nevertheless, in 2000, a group of Shipibo-Konibo — indigenous people from the Ucayali region in the Peruvian Amazon — made Cantagallo their home.

As more and more members of Peru’s 65 minority groups move to urban centers, dispersing into different neighborhoods and slums, they struggle to maintain the community structures necessary for the survival of tradition, art and language. According to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, “Indigenous peoples in urban areas may ... have difficulties in sustaining their language, identity and culture and educating future generations.”

But in Cantagallo, one of the largest Shipibo-Konibo communities in Peru, the indigenous group’s culture is alive and well — so much so that it has become an object lesson for how to keep disappearing cultures alive in an increasingly urban developing world. The Shipibo language is de rigueur; it is even taught in the small elementary school, the only bilingual public school in Lima. Every year, the community celebrates a popular annual intercultural festival, “Shipibo Soy” (“I am Shipibo”), which has become the capital’s most significant stage for indigenous culture. In spite of the unpleasant surroundings, the festival has become a popular event for people from all over Lima.  

“Cantagallo has become an oasis in the middle of the city,” says Fernando Castro Chávez, a fashion designer and community organizer who produces Shipibo Soy. The neighborhood is very peaceful. Lima’s violence rarely breaches the gate to the community. When it does, Cantagallo pushes back. In 2006, backpack-makers who work and live nearby attempted to occupy Cantagallo. They hired thugs to expel the Shipibo, but to their astonishment, the Shipibo resisted with arrows and spears until the police arrived.

Within the community, those found committing crimes are dealt with just as severely. “They face a traditional Shipibo punishment,” says Raimundo Fasabi Arévalo, the treasurer of the Asociación Urbano Shipibo-Konibo de Lima Metropolitana, Cantagallo’s local government. He described how thieves are stripped naked and made to sweep the slum’s winding streets. The association even maintains a drunk tank, to hold young men who have consumed too much alcohol until they are sober enough to be scolded, or worse. “We make an effort to ensure that Cantagallo is safe,” Arévalo says.

En route to Cantagallo for a visit, Chávez explains why the neighborhood is unique. “There are a lot of Shipibo in Lima,” he says as his cab speeds along the Zanjón, one of Lima’s main arteries, “but Cantagallo is the only place where they are living all together in community in a manner that is very similar to how they live back in Ucayali.” In an email, Lima’s Lieutenant Mayor Hernán Núñez writes that the Shipibo “are preserving and developing their ancestral culture, taking charge of their language and their indigenous identity, all while living in the middle of a large city that is more often than not strange, hostile and exclusionary.”

Sitting in his living room, with jungle music playing from a stereo in the kitchen, Samkenviema/Demer Ramírez (Shipibos often have both indigenous and Spanish names), president of the Asociación, says, “As Shipibo people, we like to live in unity.” Samkenviema and his brother Senennita/Gustavo were among the first Shipibo people to settle on the landfill that became Cantagallo. They invited Shipibos who were scattered around Lima to join them. Gustavo explained that since the Shipibo people have such a strong instinct to live with their kin, it was relatively easy to turn the old dump heap into a functional community. He said they chose the landfill at Cantagallo because it was by the river. “We like to live by the side of rivers,” says Samkenviema, a quiet man who is also the guitarist in a well-known fusion rock band called La Sarita. “The Rímac reminds us of home.”

In recognition of Cantagallo’s against-all-odds success, the result of sustained and energetic community organizing, the municipality took the unprecedented step of declaring it, in 2013, an Indigenous Urban Community, which entitles the community to resources for cultural preservation. 

But now, Cantagallo is facing a new challenge. A $700 million highway project connecting the city center to several outer districts, the Vía Parque Rímac, will displace the entire community, which has no legal claim to the land. The municipality has promised an ambitious total resettlement, but it hasn’t yet happened, and construction has already begun. The families closest to the river — and the construction site — have already been moved. Some have taken up residence in government-built temporary plywood shelters at the opposite end of the slum; 28 decided to take remuneration and return to Ucayali.

Street art in Cantagallo.
Guache / Flickr

Cantagallo is full of art. Every street is lined with murals and stencils with works by well-known Peruvian and international street artists such as Elliot Tupac and JR. According to Jade, a Peruvian mural painter, the neighborhood became a popular spot for street artists after he and a number of other muralists were invited to paint the slum as part of the first festival. Their murals share wall space with traditional Shipibo paintings. But Cantagallo isn’t a museum. It feels, rather, like a living gallery; not the product of an artistic process, but the process itself.

Art has been central to Shipibo life for centuries. In traditional indigenous communities, women dedicate themselves to crafts while the men hunt and fish. According to Samkenviema, 100 percent of the women in Cantagallo work on crafts, which provide the primary source of income for the community.

For artist Senenjisbe (Olga Mori Díaz), art is not only a job; it is a way of life.
Arthur Holland Michel

The women, who spend their days hawking their goods around the city center, refer to themselves as artists, not artisans. One of them, Senenjisbe/Olga Mori Díaz, describes how she sits on her little balcony, embroidering and looking up at San Cristóbal. For her and her neighbors, art is not only a job; it is a way of life.

Unlike most Amazon art, which is figurative, Shipibo art — largely inspired from ayahuasca hallucinations — is abstract. Roger Rumrrill, a noted Peruvian journalist who has written extensively about the indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon, says that Shipibo artworks should therefore be considered a modern art form, like cubism. Indeed, as a result of this sophistication, Rumrrill says, “Shipibo-Konibo-Shetebo art is at the forefront of representations of Amazon culture. And there is a market for that culture.”

The centerpiece of Cantagallo’s efforts to maintain its culture is the Institución Educativa Comunidad Shipiba, the community’s public elementary school. According to Benjamin Maynes, a Shipibo language teacher, Comunidad Shipiba, which was built by community members in 2008, is modeled on the bilingual schools in the Ucayali. For the 178 students, who range in age from 3 to 14, Shipibo classes are obligatory. But the original school building has already been already destroyed to make way for the Vía Parque Rímac project, and classes are now held in a temporary compound abutting the highway.

Because of what Juan Pacheco, director of communications of the Vía Parque Rímac project, describes as Cantagallo’s “unique characteristics and vulnerability,” Lima’s mayor, Susana Villarán, has made well-publicized efforts to protect the community and ensure the resettlement proceeds as promised. But Villarán is up for reelection in October, and she is polling poorly. Indigenous rights are not a political priority in Lima. Many in Cantagallo worry that the move won’t happen before the end of Villarán’s tenure, and that her replacement might be less sympathetic to the Shipibos’ cause.

Pacheco is confident, however, that even if the resettlement doesn’t happen by the October elections, the community will still get a new home. “Everything indicates that the first thing to happen will be the resettlement of the Shipibo community,” says Pacheco.

Lieutenant Mayor Hernán Núñez is less hopeful. “There is always the possibility that a new administration decides to cancel the project,” he writes in an email. “The concerns of the community are therefore legitimate.” And even if the resettlement goes forward as planned, it seems unlikely that the new Cantagallo will be located beside the river, the anchor of Shipibo life. “It won’t be easy to fulfill that need,” says Pacheco.

A little girl watches workers beyond the fence that separates Cantagallo from the Vía Parque Rímac construction site.
Maxim Holland

As the fence dividing Cantagallo from the worksite advances, and the search for a new home for the community continues to be delayed, the prospect of an orderly, all-at-once resettlement seems increasingly improbable. Nevertheless, most community members continue to support the resettlement plan. They are, after all, living on an old landfill, which by some accounts was once used for waste disposal from Lima’s hospitals. Many of Cantagallo’s residents report health problems, especially among children.

For residents who are tired of waiting, and tired of living on a landfill, the remuneration offered by the municipality for immediate individual relocation looks more and more appealing. “Who doesn’t want $30,000?” says Raimundo, the local government treasurer. But if the community disperses around the city, Peru will lose this unique node of Shipibo culture; Cantagallo’s story will come to a close. “When community members take the remuneration and leave,” says Raimundo, “we consider them traitors.” 

A person without culture is nothing.


Shipibo artist in Cantagallo

On June 24, Saint John’s Day, the community celebrates with a lunch of rice and chicken wrapped in banana leaf, a party and a craft fair. Women set tables with textiles, jewelry and door curtains made out of the dried scales of the paiche fish. In previous years, the fair took up a space now occupied by the temporary Comunidad Shipiba campus. This year, the fair was reduced to a few tables near the top of the hill. Things were quiet. Two backpackers came by, looked at a few of the goods and left. By noon, the men had headed out to buy beer.

For the Shipibo in Cantagallo, despite all the past success, survival feels less certain than ever. The slum is being consumed by the construction site, which grows on a weekly basis. But the community is trying to continue with life as usual.

“We’re just waiting,” says Reshinjabe/Olinda Silvano, whose work has been exhibited throughout Lima. She is sitting on her terrace embroidering, looking out over the construction site and the growing concrete wall of the highway, which appears to be rising out of the river. Women on the street are washing clothes, others tend to pots over small open fires. A young girl in a flower-print dress stands at the fence of the site, staring at the trucks and the cranes. “We need to preserve our culture,” says Reshinjabe over the din of the construction. “A person without culture is nothing.”

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