Exploring Childhood Studies: A Graduate Student Conference, Rutgers-Camden, April 9, 2010

Panel: Children and Poverty: Historical Faces and Social Spaces

Paper: Connection and Disillusion: Encounters between Local Children and Volunteer Tourists in Cusco, Peru

Tourists are drawn to Cusco not only by the impressive archaeological heritage of the late Inca empire, but also for the multitude of opportunities to volunteer with Peru’s “poor children.” Schools, afterschool centers, and orphanages recruit foreigner volunteers to teach English, help children with their homework, and supply economic support through donations and volunteering fees. Children and volunteers are both often deeply affected by their encounters. While volunteers discuss their emotional and physical attachment to the children through idioms of children’s innocence, vulnerability, and “cuteness,” children talk about gaining cultural capital and transcending not only differences of class and culture, but also of age.

Based on 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Cusco, this paper will explore how project volunteers and child attendees narrate their relationships, mutual benefits, and possibilities for future connection. Through a discussion of the mechanics of the volunteer tourism industry, I emphasize that divergent expectations, mistranslations, and the specter of economic transactions limit the promise of child-volunteer intimacy. However, I also focus on child and volunteer discourses of reciprocity, equality, and morality to identify the strategies these actors use for overcoming the apparent distance between them. Finally, I emphasize that it is important to explore how participants weigh motivations and measure the value of experiences in order to move beyond surface questions of gain as well as to better understand how diversely positioned subjects negotiate politics of affectivity and economy to define meaning for themselves.

Aviva Sinervo