Ricardo Valderrama, Noted Anthropologist and Mayor in Peru, Dies at 75

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Before becoming the mayor of Cusco and its surroundings, an area of more than 1.2 million people in Peru and the historic capital of the Incan empire, Ricardo Valderrama had spent four decades studying Indigenous life in the Peruvian Andes.

He recorded love songs in ancient villages and profiled bandits in the highlands. He wrote dozens of books and articles, on everything from peasant uprisings to the collective trauma of colonization.

But it was his first book — published in 1977 and written, like nearly all his work, with his wife, the anthropologist Carmen Escalante — that became an instant classic of Andean literature.

“Gregorio Condori Mamani: An Autobiography,” published in seven editions and translated into at least nine languages, tells the story of a Quechua-speaking laborer whom Mr. Valderrama had befriended in Cusco, from his experiences as an orphan forced to wander the Andes through his stints as a soldier, prisoner, shepherd and factory worker. A shorter section recounts the life of his wife, a fellow migrant from the highlands who lived with him in a shack on the outskirts of Cusco.

The book marked a departure in Peruvian anthropology, said César Aguilar, an anthropologist at Peru’s National University of San Marcos in Lima, because it broke with the field’s focus — especially in Cusco — on studying Indigenous people as a means of understanding the rise of Incan civilization.

Instead, Mr. Valderrama and Mrs. Escalante provided rare, firsthand accounts rich in cultural and historical detail of people who occupied the bottom rung of Andean society.

“We wanted to draw attention to Indigenous cultures that had been devalued and made vulnerable in the cities,” Mrs. Escalante said in a phone interview. “But the extent of suffering and the richness of their experiences were surprising.”

Mr. Valderrama’s knack for finding and telling important stories from the Andes followed him throughout his career as a scholar, during which he experimented in sinema and photography, and into his turn to politics late in 2006, when he ran for the City Council to promote culture and the arts, Mrs. Escalante said.

Mr. Valderrama died on Aug. 30 at a hospital in Cusco. He was 75. Ms. Escalante said the cause was Covid-19, which had been surging in Peru’s southern Andes.

Along with Mrs. Escalante, Mr. Valderrama is survived by three children, Gonzalo, Julian and Carmen Valderrama, and five grandchildren.

Mr. Valderrama had been in office as mayor only since December; his predecessor was suspended over a fraud conviction, and he was next in line. He spent most of his time in office leading the province’s response to the new coronavirus, visiting markets to implement social distancing measures and overseeing the distribution of aid packages for poor residents.

A 25-year-old former councilwoman, Romi Infantas, replaced him.

Mr. Valderrama was born on April 3, 1945, in the Cusco region to Bonifacia Fernandez and Roberto Valderrama. His father worked as a hydroelectric technician and later a bank teller. Both his parents were Indigenous Quechua speakers.

Raised in a middle-class family, Mr. Valderrama received a bachelor’s degree from the National University of St. Anthony the Abbot in Cusco in 1976 and became a professor there in 1990. He learned Quechua from his grandmother, Mrs. Escalante said, and went on to speak it better than his eight siblings.

Mr. Valderrama started dating Mrs. Escalante, a childhood acquaintance from San Jeronimo, while he was a university student; he wooed her with books by feminist writers. They helped lead a generation of young anthropology students in shifting the field’s focus to the pressing issues facing millions of Indigenous people in the present, Mr. Aguilar said.

“They realized Indigenous people weren’t just subjects of study, they were people struggling,” he said. “They treated them as equals, and that yielded some very rich and valuable testimony for social sciences.”

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