Dissertation Abstract

Appeals of Childhood: Child Vendors, Volunteer Tourists, and Visions of Aid in Cusco, Peru

Research Interests: Poverty, Children and Childhoods, Tourism, International Aid/Charity/Assistance, Child Labor, NGOs, Volunteering, Political Economy, Affectivity, Development, Urban Anthropology, Peru, Andes, Latin America

Dissertation Summary: My dissertation, Appeals of Childhood: Child Vendors, Volunteer Tourists, and Visions of Aid in Cusco, Peru, examines the affective and economic realms of child labor, children’s assistance, and volunteer tourism, focusing on how encounters between local children and foreign tourists complicate and rework commonly held assumptions about children, poverty, work, and assistance. My research contributes to the emerging anthropology of childhood and interdisciplinary studies of poverty, tourism, NGOs, and development through an analysis of children’s agency; categories of work, labor and value; and the role of intimacy, emotion, and morality (a combination I term “affectivity”) in market and aid contexts. My work highlights mediations between divergent definitions of childhood and poverty through attention to shifting alignments and deviations between policy and practice. I argue that the uneasy meeting of affectivity and economy allows creative negotiations both in the streets—where child vendors sell souvenirs to tourists—and in after-school centers—where volunteer tourists offer assistance to children participants. I analyze these encounters in terms of child vendors’ selling strategies; parents’ framings of children’s work; NGO directors’ appropriations of tourist sentiments and dollars; volunteer tourists’ moral struggles with the nature of children’s assistance and volunteer tourism; and advocates’ challenges to public perception and state policy relating to children. Instead of isolating children from the contexts and people that affect their lives, I study how all these diversely positioned actors negotiate politics, ethics, and expectations to define meaning and value in their interactions and the contexts that shape them.

“Appeals of childhood” does not just index the needs, desires, and requests of Cusco’s children, but also the emotive and political power of childhood as a concept. The first part of the dissertation addresses the ways in which child vendors facilitate opportunities for intimacy with potential clients, while also challenging stereotypes about children’s work and poverty, and avoiding police officers who seek to restrict informal vending and child labor. In the second part, I explore children’s assistance programs, paying attention to how the entangled circulation of money, people, labor, and emotions creates a “moral economy” wherein participants must juggle differing visions of aid and subjecthood, and attempt to reconcile disparate assumptions about childhood and poverty.

My dissertation demands us to take seriously the voices and roles of children in changing the ways that tourism, policing, aid, and ultimately childhood itself, are practiced in Cusco. Yet my work also persuasively emphasizes that child labor and children’s assistance are two key spaces from which to view the entanglement of emotions and economies.

Chapter Overviews: Following a short theoretical introduction that situates the conversations on child labor, children’s assistance, and volunteer tourism with respect to my argument about moral economies, the first part of the dissertation focuses on child vendors, approaching childhood and poverty in relation to work, child labor, value, and children’s agency. The last two chapters and the conclusion investigate the world of children’s assistance programs by probing ideals about aid, volunteer tourism, and “making a difference.”

Chapter 1 sets our first scene in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, a public space where child vendors meet potential tourist clients, but also must negotiate laws designed to limit their economic activities and presence in the streets. In this chapter, I examine the categories of “childhood” and “street vendor,” discussing ideas about informal economy, risk and security, children’s rights, the specter of corruption, tourism, and state governmentality. I offer a history of the Plaza de Armas, as first a market then a touristic space, and I introduce the current legal context for the regulation of public space, vending, and children’s protection. This chapter argues that the way Plaza space is used and interpreted is in conflict, highlighting the moral economies of child labor, policing, and public space itself.

In Chapter 2, I discuss children’s selling strategies, demonstrating that children creatively represent themselves in a range of ways that maximize the potential for intimacy with tourist clients. I rework traditional definitions of intimacy using practice theory, the anthropology and sociology of emotion, and literature on strategic interaction and performance. I illustrate that children not only endeavor to establish intimacy between themselves and tourists, but also to display the intimacies that exist amongst vendors, and in terms of vendors’ knowledge of—and relationship to—the products they are selling.

Chapter 3 builds on the theme of child vending, using scholarship on child labor and children’s agency to argue that children’s motivations for working are varied and complex. Children work not only for economic gain, but also for education, socialization, and to fulfill kin-related responsibilities. I question the separation of playing, learning and working, and discuss how children and parents narrate children’s work as forms of “helping” and career training.

In Chapter 4, I turn to children’s narratives about poverty, situating their discourses in relation to local and international stereotypes about working children. I also examine parents’ goals and aspirations for their children, as I juxtapose the ways in which parents versus children describe the roles children play within their household economies. I emphasize that children and parents describe the importance of children’s work using frameworks of both economic value and moral values. I further argue that while children are key wage-earners in a collaborative family economy, all household members wrestle with the implications of child labor and the relative responsibilities of each individual in developing and implementing strategies for coping with economic instability. While aid workers, state officials, and local Cusqueños position child vendors as pobrecitos (poor little ones) who simultaneously experience need and manipulate that need, children and parents draw on discourses of morality, kinship, and social responsibility to explain the importance of children’s work and their own perspectives on poverty.

Chapter 5 delves further into the practices of child vendors, exploring how they encounter and negotiate police officers who patrol the central Plaza. While still highlighting children’s and mothers’ perspectives, I also include the views of police officers, government officials, policy makers, and advocates that engage with the legal, social, and economic terrain of child labor and ambulante vending. I emphasize that police officers’ tactics for circumventing laws both benefit and hinder child vendors. In turn, children’s practices react to restrictions and the policing of the Plaza, but also introduce new ways of selling which force police to reprioritize their approaches. Police and vendors both employ their interpersonal and bureaucratic knowledges of each other to productive ends. In analyzing instances of policy in practice, as well as disconnects between policy and practice, I outline how children’s reactions to the police, and police responses, are reshaping the ways in which vending and policing occur in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas.

Chapter 6 uses the commonly repeated idiom of “making a difference” to examine the volunteer tourism industry, and the connections and disillusions that volunteers, volunteer coordinators, project directors and staff, and children experience in their relationships with each other. I situate Cusco’s recent growth in volunteer tourism vis-à-vis the industry’s global emergence. As I map how affectivity rubs up against discourses of morality and the economic framework of the tourism industry, I expose the expectations about childhood and poverty that foreigners use to justify their aid interventions. Yet I argue that this focus also reveals how individuals find meaning and value in their relationships with each other despite differences in age, culture, class, and expectations. While volunteers repeat and reinforce stereotypes about childhood, poverty, and international aid and development, project directors and children challenge tourists’ assumptions in creative ways, as they appropriate volunteer emotional and economic resources to fit their own desires and ideologies.

Delving further into the themes of children’s assistance and volunteer tourism, Chapter 7 presents an after-school center that provides supplemental educational, emotional, and economic assistance to neighborhood children. I investigate how the center’s director explains his visions of childhood, poverty, and aid, exploring how center policies and practices complement and clash with each other. While the director aspires to empower poor children using ideals of self-improvement, love, and global consciousness, he also carefully monitors the ways in which volunteers and children interact, in many cases restricting the very creativity and compassion he seeks to encourage. Moreover, I analyze how volunteer tourists and children participants interpret and rework the director’s charismatic yet often contradictory messages, which downplay the importance of class and age even while acknowledging volunteers’ desires to participate based on such factors. In discussing the project’s history, mission, and operations, I argue that this after-school program positions children’s assistance at the forefront of wider social change, and therefore becomes a site of contestation over the local and international stakes of divergent visions of charity and subjecthood.

Aviva Sinervo