José María Arguedas Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

José María Arguedas 1911-1969

Peruvian novelist, short story writer, poet, ethnologist, and translator.

The following entry provides criticism of Arguedas's works from 1982 through 2002.

Arguedas is less well-known than contemporaries like Gabriel García Márquez or his friend Mario Vargas Llosa, but his deep understanding of Peru's indigenous people has established his place among Latin America's most respected writers. Arguedas chronicled the social, economic, cultural and linguistic transformations wrought by urbanization and the massive migrations of highland Indians to Peru's coastal cities. Arguedas's fiction drew heavily from his accomplishments in ethnography and his intimate knowledge of Peru's history and geography. His childhood as a sort of mestizo—a white child more fluent in Quechua than Spanish—also informed his work; he wrote his fiction first in Quechua and then translated it himself to Spanish. Arguedas was a major figure in Peruvian life, receiving important appointments to governmental and cultural organizations and holding several university positions. His writings were also influential with the Liberation Theologians of the 1960s and 1970s.

Biographical Information

Arguedas was born on January 18, 1911, in Andahuaylas, Peru. His father was an itinerate lawyer who traveled the countryside, and Arguedas's mother died when he was three. His father remarried, and Arguedas spent most of his childhood on his stepmother's hacienda in the Peruvian highlands. Because his stepmother “despised and hated me as much as [her] Indians,” Arguedas wrote in Páginas escogidas (1972), “she decided that I was to live with them in the kitchen, eat and sleep there.” His stepmother intended it as punishment, but Arguedas considered his experiences among the Indians one of the most spiritually nourishing developments of his life. The Indians treated him as one of their own, and as he wrote in the introduction to Yawar fiesta (1941), “my protectors showered me with a deep and brave tenderness, … the purest love, which makes the individual who has acquired it absolutely immune to skepticism.” Soon he was more fluent in the Indians' Quechua language than he was in Spanish. As a teenager, he alternated study at boarding schools with travels accompanying his father across the Peruvian highlands and to the cities on the coast. In 1931 he enrolled at the University of San Marcos, but his literature studies were interrupted a year later; authorities closed the University during political unrest, and his father's death and the subsequent need to support himself led him to take a job working for the postal ministry. He started publishing articles in 1934, and when the University re-opened in 1935 he began his anthropological studies. That year he also published Agua. Los escoleros. Warma kukay, a collection of stories that won him second prize in an Argentine-sponsored competition. In 1937 Arguedas's political activity resulted in his spending eleven months in prison for protesting an event honoring an official of Mussolini's government and his firing from the postal ministry. In 1939 he married Celia Bustamante Vernal, wrote his dissertation on language differences between the Peruvian highlands and coast, and took a teaching position at a boys' school. He published his first novel, Yawar fiesta, in 1941, and he continued the steady output of works of ethnography, folklore, musicology, and studies of the Quechua language that would continue until his death. Despite being falsely denounced as a communist in 1947, Arguedas traveled often on behalf of Peruvian governmental agencies and cultural organizations, and he developed friendships with novelists Mario Vargas Llosa and Julio Cortazar. In the fifties Arguedas did extensive ethnographic work, earning him a professorship at the University of San Marcos in 1958, the same year he published his novel Los ríos profundos (Deep Rivers). Arguedas became prominent in Peruvian culture and politics, and he was appointed to many governmental and cultural positions, including director of the National History Museum. Despite his success, Arguedas was increasingly unhappy; he separated from his wife in 1965, and a year later he attempted suicide. He started a diary, which provided some material for his posthumously-published novel El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (1971; The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below). He remarried in 1966, traveled frequently, and published prolifically, but in 1969 he shot himself and died on December 2, 1969.

Major Works

Arguedas believed much of his work was the product of a “bedeviled struggle with language.” His work reflects an attempt to bring forms of consciousness and reality he experienced and most easily expressed in Quechua to readers of Spanish, the language of the Quechua people's oppressors. Arguedas wrote Agua, his first collection of stories, in anger at the treatment of the Indians and out of disdain for the depictions of Indians in Peruvian literature. These stories lay out many of the themes and narrative patterns for all of Arguedas's stories and novels—the narrators are children struggling with their identity, the Indians are shown living in organic solidarity and in harmony with nature, but the lives and culture of the highland Indians are being threatened by the individual and rationalistic culture of the Spanish-speaking peoples on the Peruvian coast. Agua earned Arguedas second prize in an international contest sponsored by Revista Americana in Buenos Aires. Arguedas's first novel, Yawar fiesta, depicts an Indian community attempting to perform a ritual feast that is prohibited by the civil authorities of holding a bullfight. It is a sympathetic portrait of the Indians and their culture besieged by the cold brutality of the authorities acting in the name of civilization.

Yawar fiesta was followed by several years of writer's block, but in 1958 Arguedas published Deep Rivers, considered by many his masterpiece. It follows the young child Ernesto, like Arguedas, the white son of an itinerate lawyer who is raised by Indian servants. It begins by describing a wondrous world of magic and nature, viewed through the mythical perspective of the Indians. Eventually, however, Ernesto is sent away to school, where he encounters loneliness and sees how the rational and individualistic society of the Spanish-speaking dominant classes impinges on the freedom and dignity of the Indians, forcing them into futile rebellion against their military-backed oppressors. Arguedas's later works, including El sexto (1961) and Todas las sangres (1964) were more overtly socially and politically pointed. While critics generally do not hold these works in as high a regard as Deep Rivers, Liberation Theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez were inspired by these works to call for the Catholic Church to seek harmony with the indigenous peoples through respect for their forms of communal solidarity and pre-rational consciousness. Arguedas's last novel, The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below), takes place in a coastal town where the culture of the Indian migrants from the highlands clashes with rootless culture and urban poverty of Peru's teeming cities and contains diary entries from a despairing narrator. It was published posthumously.

Critical Reception

Arguedas's engagement with the language, consciousness, and power are fundamental to almost all appraisals of his life and work. From his earliest stories, according to Christian Fernández's profile of Arguedas for the critical edition of The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below, “We see the beginning of the apprenticeship and representation of a reality that apparently was carefully planned from the beginning by Arguedas … Arguedas is already previewing the problems he will represent in subsequent works. In all of them, the narrator is a child with a problem of cultural identity …” Arguedas had an obvious affinity with the culture of the Quechua Indians. Alita Kelley sees Arguedas as a “translator” of Quechua culture, and Lucía Lockert has written in the Michigan Academician that “Arguedas captures the acculturated language that one hears in every Andean corner of Peru from the mouths of mestizos who speak Spanish.” In Modern Language Quarterly Walter D. Mignolo found in Arguedas's work the “legacies of the linguistic conflict created by migrations from the metropolitan centers to the colonial domains, and the fractures of local languages introduced by colonial ones” that date back to the sixteenth century. In GeoJournal, geographer César N. Caviedes praised The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below as “a synthesis of contemporary Peru” crafted by Arguedas “with perhaps more propriety and sensitivity than a historian, sociologist or geographer.” In his introduction to The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below, Ciro A. Sandoval went even further, declaring that “as an author, Arguedas's concern was the totality of human culture.” One of Arguedas's most engaged and perceptive critics is his friend, fellow Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. In Review of Contemporary Fiction Vargas Llosa wrote that Arguedas's first novel, Yawar fiesta, succeeds as fiction because the narrator presents the world of the novel “as an indivisible though heartbreaking totality” from an anti-rational perspective that Vargas Llosa nevertheless concludes is deeply conservative. But as his career progressed, Vargas Llosa believed Arguedas succumbed to the pressure to produce literature that supported his social and political commitments. In Harper's Vargas Llosa concluded that Todas las sangres was a “very ambition book, in which [Arguedas] tried, escaping from himself, to describe the social and political problems of his country. The novel is a total failure: the vision is simplistic and even a caricature … The book is the classic failure of an artistic talent as a result of the self-imposition of social commitment.”

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Agua. Los escoleros. Warma kukay (short stories) 1935

Yawar fiesta (novel) 1941

Canciones y cuentos del pueblo quechua [The Singing Mountaineers: Songs and Tales of the Quechua People] [translator] (songs and short stories) 1949

Diamantes y pedernales. Agua (short stories) 1954

Los ríos profundos [Deep Rivers] (novel) 1958

El sexto (novel) 1961

La agonía de “Rasu-Niti” (novel) 1962

Túpac Amaru Kamaq taytanchisman; Haylli-taki. A nuestro padre creador Túpac Amaru; Himnocanción (poetry) 1962


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Braulio Muñoz (essay date May-June 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Muñoz, Braulio. “Indian of the Heart.” Americas 34, no. 3 (May-June 1982): 25-9.

[In the following essay, Muñoz examines Arguedas's struggle to describe a future for the Andean Indians that relies on neither liberalism nor western socialism and retains their sense of the magical.]

But if I die of
life, and not of time, …

—César Vallejo

I first met José María Arguedas when he came to Chimbote, my native port in northern Peru. He came to write a novel about despair and hope—a novel about Peru. He was the first “Indian” I really knew. He was born in the Andean highlands, had learned the Indian worldview through...

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Lucía Lockert (essay date spring 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lockert, Lucía. “Peruvian Social Realities in José María Arguedas.” Michigan Academician 19, no. 2 (spring 1987): 243-51.

[In the following essay, Lockert presents Arguedas's work as examples of the tensions in his thought between solidarity and individualism and acculturation and assimilation.]

The noted twentieth-century Peruvian author, José María Arguedas, once wrote of his homeland:

There isn't a country more diverse, more varied in its terrain and its people; every degree of heat and color, of love and hate, of manipulations and inspiring symbols. Not without reason, as the common people would say, were...

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Stephen B. Wall-Smith (essay date 18 November 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wall-Smith, Stephen B. “José María Arguedas: Godfather of Liberationism.” Christian Century 104, no. 34 (18 November 1987): 1034-39.

[In the following essay, Wall-Smith examines Arguedas's conceptualization of highland culture as a spiritual force under pressure from the materialist pressures of Peru's coastal areas, and he shows how this influenced the development of liberation theology.]

An underlying liberation philosophy to validate Latin American theologies of liberation has yet to be extracted from the popular culture. In time, some scholar will no doubt reconstruct it academically. Until then, the fiction of José María Arguedas provides some of...

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Claudette Kemper Columbus (essay date July-December 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Columbus, Claudette Kemper. “Arguedas's De-Auto-Rized Biography: A Failed? Trickster's Tale.” Latin American Literary Review 21, no. 42 (July-December 1993): 21-33.

[In the following essay, Columbus likens Arguedas and his narrator in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo to a trickster who inhabits “compound characters who, like him, straddle several language worlds.”]

Individuality can no longer be contained within the terms of manifest personality traits. In a world of transition and revolution individuality has become a problem of historical and social relations, such as cannot be revealed by the mere characterizations of...

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Mario Vargas Llosa (essay date September 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Vargas Llosa, Mario. “The Real Life of the Latin American Novelist.” Harper's 287, no. 1720 (September 1993): 22-4.

[In the following essay, Vargas Llosa categorizes Arguedas's works as “literature meant for him” and the later works, such as Todas las Sangres, in which he succumbed to the pressures to produce works of social and political conscience, which Vargas Llosa found “a total failure.”]

The Peruvian novelist José María Arguedas killed himself the second day of December 1969 in a classroom at La Molina Agricultural University in Lima. He was a very discreet man, and so as not to disturb his colleagues and the students with his...

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John C. Hawley, S. J. (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hawley, John C., S. J. “We Wretched of the Earth: The Search for a Language of Justice.” In Postcolonial Literature and the Biblical Call for Justice, edited by Susan VanZanten Gallagher, pp. 125-35. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

[In the following essay, Hawley draws on Bakhtin's claim that language shapes our self-definition to frame Arguedas's personal and literary development as a three-stage development of mythological consciousness: his childhood immersion in the language and culture of the Quechua Indians; his “agonistic and abstract phase” when he learned Spanish and received his formal education; and his years writing fiction when he tried to break...

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Walter D. Mignolo (essay date June 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mignolo, Walter D. “Linguistic Maps, Literary Geographies, and Cultural Landscapes: Languages, Languaging, and (Trans)nationalism.” Modern Language Quarterly 57, no. 2 (June 1996): 181-96.

[In the following essay, Mignolo compares Arguedas's efforts to write in a transcultural language with the efforts of two other writers—a Mexican-American and Caribbean; where the other writers are seen facing the challenge of communicating the linguistic and cultural conflicts of a “Third World” immigrant living in the “First World,” Arguedas is seen as exploring the conflicts of hundreds of years ago, when the native peoples of America were confronted with the colonizing migrations...

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César N. Caviedes (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Caviedes, César N. “Tangible and Mythical Places in José M. Arguedas, Gabriel García Márquez, and Pablo Neruda.” GeoJournal 38, no. 1 (1996): 99-107.

[In the following essay, Caviedes explores Arguedas's allegorical depictions of the physical geography of Peru in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, a work he declares “a synthesis of contemporary Peru” crafted by Arguedas “with perhaps more propriety and sensitivity than a historian, sociologist or geographer.”]


The flight that Latin American literature has taken during the last three decades is to be considered as an intellectual revolution. From...

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Claudette Kemper Columbus (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Columbus, Claudette Kemper. “Oracular Foxes, Archaic Times, Twentieth-Century Peru: J. M. Arguedas's The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below.Dispositio/n: American Journal of Cultural Histories and Theories 21, no. 48 (1996): 137-54.

[In the following essay, Columbus notes that the foxes symbolize art in The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below and are presented as symbols struggling against the bureaucratization of folk art and culture.]

In The Foxes (El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, 1969)1 the Peruvian novelist José María Arguedas conflates the myth of a failed Andean mountain-weather...

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Alberto Moreiras (essay date winter 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moreiras, Alberto. “The End of Magical Realism: José María Arguedas's Passionate Signifier (El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo).” Journal of Narrative Technique 27, no. 1 (winter 1997): 84-112.

[In the following essay, Moreiras declares that the death of the author in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo symbolizes the death of Magical Realism, and with it “Latin American foundational utopianism comes to its end.”]

What would happiness be that is not measured by an immeasurable grief at what is?

(Adorno 200)


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Mario Vargas Llosa (essay date spring 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Vargas Llosa, Mario. “A Bullfight in the Andes.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 1 (spring 1997): 35-51.

[In the following essay, Vargas Llosa argues that Arguedas's first novel, Yawar Fiesta, succeeds as fiction because the narrator presents the world of the novel “as an indivisible though heartbreaking totality” from an anti-rational perspective Vargas Llosa concludes is deeply conservative.]

Critics who praise José María Arguedas's first novel share the assumption that there is an essential correspondence between a work of fiction and the reality it “describes,” that a novel is successful to the extent that it faithfully...

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Ciro A. Sandoval (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sandoval, Ciro A. Introduction to José María Arguedas: Reconsiderations for Latin American Cultural Studies, edited by Ciro A. Sandoval and Sandra M. Boschetto-Sandoval, pp. xxi-xlii. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1998.

[In the following essay, Sandoval first describes the social and political setting of Arguedas's life, then depicts Arguedas's work as representing “a drama of the unspeakable, of the undecidable, of the culturally and linguistically untranslatable.”]

A writer, a man writing, is the scribe of all nature;
he is the corn and the grass, and the atmosphere writing.

—H. D. Thoreau, A Writer's...

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Alita Kelley (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kelley, Alita. “The Persistence of Center: José María Arguedas and the Challenge to the Postmodern Outlook.” In José María Arguedas: Reconsiderations for Latin American Cultural Studies, edited by Ciro A. Sandoval and Sandra M. Boschetto-Sandoval, pp. 70-84. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1998.

[In the following essay, Kelley asserts that Arguedas, despite using post-modernist techniques to depict the world of modern man, could not be a post-modernist; post-modernism, she contends, accepts no redemptive or transcendent force, whereas for Arguedas writing was itself a transcendent act of communion with the still-vibrant culture of the Quechua.]...

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William Rowe (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rowe, William. “Reading Arguedas's Foxes.” In The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below, edited by Julio Ortega and Christian Fernandez, translated by Fred Fornoff, pp. 283-89. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Rowe describes “diaries” in The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below as “an erratic form of writing … that function as a threshold or multiple bridge between the fictional world, the sociocultural circumstance, the weave or Peruvian culture through many centuries, and the life of the author.”]

The initial reception of El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo was...

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Christian Fernández (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fernández, Christian. “The Death of the Author in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo.” In The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below, edited by Julio Ortega and Christian Fernández, translated by Fred Fornoff, pp. 290-306. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Fernández provides great detail about Arguedas's life, but ends by arguing that the diary entries included in The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below should be read as fiction and not as Arguedas's actual diaries.]

José María Arguedas was a man who lived between two worlds and two cultures: the indigenous world and the white...

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Sara Castro-Klarén (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Castro-Klarén, Sara. ‘“Like a Pig, When He's Thinkin’: Arguedas on Affect and on Becoming an Animal.” In The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below, edited by Julio Ortega and Christian Fernandez, pp. 307-323. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Castro-Klarén argues that Arguedas's engagement with Quechua myths and his conclusion that there cannot be harmony between the consciousness of the Indian myths and the consciousness of the modern world.]

With the air he fights, Brother, with the darkness he boxes;
he don't light the lamp. … Then in a little while he squeezes me
like snake or punches me, givin' me...

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Priscilla Archibald (essay date 2002)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Archibald, Priscilla. “Gender and Mestizaje in the Andes.” In Mixing Race, Mixing Culture: Inter-American Literary Dialogues, edited by Monika Kemp and Debra J. Rosenthal, pp. 103-21. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Archibald explores Arguedas's tendency to use mestizo characters as symbols of merging influences, and sexual lust and impropriety as symbolic of the Andean migration to the coast with a “redemptive anarchy” that was transforming Peru.]


Increasingly, scholars look toward novelist and anthropologist José María Arguedas for help...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Aponte, Barbara. “The Initiation Archetype in Arguedas, Roa Bastos and Ocampo.” Latin American Literary Review 11, no. 21 (fall-winter 1982): 45-55.

Arguedas's works and Peru itself are seen in tension between utopia and despair.

Beyersdorff, Margot. “Voice of the Runa: Quechua Substratum in the Narrative of José María Arguedas.” Latin American Indian Literatures Journal 2, no. 1 (spring 1986): 28-48.

Special attention is given to the role of the Quechua language in shaping Arguedas's narratives.

Castro-Klaren, Sara. “Dancing and the Sacred in the Andes: From the...

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