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Remembering captive bodies: indigenous child labour and runaway ads in a post-slavery Peru

What can runaway ads tell us about histories of exploitation and exclusion in post-slavery Peru? How did 'masters' govern before surveillance technology?

All photos by Author.

Until a few decades ago, it was common to find handwritten signs outside the houses of middle and upper class neighborhoods in Lima seeking domestic servants (1). “Se necesita muchacha cama adentro” (“Indoor Maid Needed”) was written on large pieces of paper and displayed in windows and doors to tempt potential applicants to inquire about the job. Those who applied were almost invariably young women in their teens or twenties, born in the highlands and recently arrived in Lima seeking escape from the difficulties of rural life and a better future. For them, such signs were life lines in a city known for its hostility toward Indigenous migrants. Yet the signs were also visual reminders of the enduring demand for workers for a job that had changed little since the nineteenth-century, and which embodies inequality and segregation.

Long before these contemporary signs (see image above), there were others, published in newspapers, asking not for new domestic servants but demanding the capture of escapees and their immediate return to the master’s household. These runaway ads seem now like relics of a cruel and arcane past, available only in archives and libraries, but for decades, they worked to reproduce slavery and bondage in the Americas. While often associated with African slavery, in what follows I introduce a different type of runaway ad. In them, we learn of fugitive domestic servants, primarily Indigenous children (male and female) fleeing their masters’ households in Lima during the 1860s.

I first encountered these runaway ads while conducting archival research for my dissertation. I was intrigued by the mechanisms and grassroots tactics of identification and surveillance employed during a pre-scientific period, before a biometric system, mug shots or fingerprints were available. The advertisements’ physical descriptions of runaways offer an opportunity for social historians to look more closely at masters’ strategies for monitoring and controlling their workers.

Runaway ads, as U.S. historians have explained, can also restore the presence of the socially dominated whose voices are usually absent in the historical archive. For although masters produced the ads and intended them for the literate population, these documents nonetheless offer a glimpse into the world of domestic servants and the households that served as their spaces of confinement. Situating these runaway ads alongside the analysis of previous essays by Sandra E. Greene and Sophie White, my work looks for new ways to unearth the history of slavery and bondage, specifically the genealogy of indentured servitude in the Andes and elsewhere.

These runaway ads seem now like relics of a cruel and arcane past.

In the 1860s, like many other major cities around the world, Lima experienced an extraordinary population spike. Chinese ‘coolies’ and European immigrants came from abroad while Indigenous migrants from the highlands arrived in massive numbers, lured by an economic boom due to the export of guano. The revenues obtained from this activity enabled the Peruvian government to implement an aggressive plan to modernise social and political structures in a short period. President Ramon Castilla’s 1854 abolition of African slavery was one of these measures. Politicians and economic elites expected the newly arrived Chinese ‘coolies’ to provide an alternative and nominally free source of labour in the wake of abolition. In reality, the post-abolition economy actually extended slavery through debt peonage, and reproduced and extended racial hierarchies, placing the local middle and upper classes above Chinese immigrants, Indigenous, Andean migrants, former black slaves, and Native workers brought from Polynesia.

Domestic servitude provided many newcomers an easy entrance into the local economy, especially to Andean children. Their presence was so ubiquitous in the urban landscape that they earned the collective nickname cholitos (the diminutive of cholo, used to denote people from the highlands residing in urban areas.) How this trend began remains unclear, but some reports exist of soldiers – who were in the Andes combatting a series of rebellions that shook the region – kidnapping children and selling them as servants on their return to Lima. The growing demand for their labour sparked the rise of a trade in cholitos, as travelers would act on requests to capture Indigenous children during trips to the interior.

Given their doubly marginalised position as domestic servants and children, the cholitos remained invisible to scholars for a very long time. Only in the 1980s did the late Peruvian historian Alberto Flores Galindo rescue cholitos from their historical silence in an essay depicting them as a tragic example of post-colonial governments’ failure to provide equality and social justice to subalterns (2). He used the previously overlooked runaway ads as sources at a time when social historians were reworking their methodologies to unearth the lives of vulnerable populations.

Runaway ads provide a window into the urban household, helping us reconstruct the daily lives of cholitos and their relationship with their masters (3). These ads let us know, for instance, that although most of the fugitives were known by their first names (few mentioned surnames), physical descriptions were the most prominent forms of identification. The ads’ detailed descriptions of age, facial features, body type, clothing, and race offer a rich repertoire of how people perceived themselves, each other, and hint at the rationale behind their worldviews. Masters also include descriptions of special marks on cholitos’ bodies to facilitate their capture. Thus, the pockmarks common on the faces of Indigenous youth served as both indelible body markers as well as visual testimonies of the cholitos resilience against the epidemics that swept the Andes in the 19th century.

A century and a half later, these small pieces of paper still convey a sense of the dramatic conditions in which they were posted: masters appealing for help, cholitos seeking refuge from potential captors. What happened to the cholitos after they fled the household? What events prompted them to leave? We cannot yet answer those questions and can only speculate about the fate of these children. Most likely, some found work in other households, hoping for better treatment. Others joined the ever-growing gangs of street children, wandering the city center and robbing bystanders. In either case, theirs was a desperate effort to survive in the hostile environment of nineteenth and twentieth-century Lima.

A century and a half later, these small pieces of paper still convey a sense of the dramatic conditions in which they were posted.

That we do not see these runaway ads in the local press of today does not mean that Indigenous domestic servant conditions have drastically changed. Only in the 1970s – one century after cholitos ads appeared in the press – did domestic servants begin to unionise and openly demand better conditions such as a minimum wage, a free day per week, an eight-hour workday, and social benefits. Despite the opposition of the government and their employers, household workers held their first National Congress in 1979 (4). Since then, and particularly in recent years, Peruvian society has become increasingly aware of the exploitative conditions of domestic labour. This concern has been accompanied by a joint effort from public institutions and NGOs to draw attention to the endurance of human trafficking in the country. These are small but decisive steps towards overturning a long legacy of abuse and exploitation.


(1) I want to thank to Julia O’Connell Davidson and Matthey Casey for their editorial comments and suggestions to this essay.

(2) Alberto Flores Galindo, “A Republic Without Citizens,” In Search of an Inca. Identity and Utopia in the Andes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Translated and edited by Carlos Aguirre, Charles Walker and Willie Hiatt.

(3) Jose Ragas. “Documenting Hierarchies: State Building, Identification, and Citizenship in Modern Peru,” Ph.D. Diss. History. University of California, Davis, 2015.

(4) Thea Schellekens & Anda van der Schoot. “Household Workers in Peru: the Difficult Road to Organization,” in Elsa M. Chaney & Mary Garcia Castro, eds. Muchachas No More. Household Workers in Latin America and the Caribbean (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989); and Adelinda Díaz Uriarte. “The Autobiography of a Fighter (Peru),” in Muchachas No More, 404.

About the author

Jose Ragas is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University. He investigates the emergence of the global biometric system in post-colonial societies and the current implementation of ID cards as a mechanism designed to grant citizenship and curb the legacy of gender, age, and racial discrimination imposed by similar technologies in the past. Follow him on Twitter: @joseragas.



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