Missing Knives and Forks

Friday my students and I sat at a set of pushed together tables with Valentin Quispe and his two sons in the pilgrimage town of Copacabana, Bolivia (across the lake from the Apu Inti Elder Rasband discusses.) Some three decades ago, Valentin was a leader in people from his Aymara speaking community’s joining the LDS Church. As a twenty-four year old graduate student of anthropology I found my way to Valentin’s community where he and his family befriended me while I studied ethnographically that watershed event.

Almost a quarter of the community became LDS in a small series of mass baptisms. In their new town of adobe houses, the Church built a building of white cinderblock with a brown metal fence and gate. But there has been little growth and many people have become inactive. Nevertheless, the branch continues, as does Valentin. He is proud to tell of how he and his wife made the trek from their rural community to the temple to be sealed for time and all eternity.

Valentin, his family and community are unusual in Latin America. Almost all the members of the Church live in cities and speak Spanish. There are few cases where indigenous peoples, in their communities, have joined the Church. Yet, at the same time, rural, indigenous Latin America has developed strong Protestant congregations.

Among the Urus, the people of Apu Inti, where we were prior to going to Copacabana on the other side of the lake, the Adventists are strong; they claim perhaps a third of all Urus. Only a few individuals and families have become Latter-day Saints. While the Adventists have built schools and churches on the floating islands, the few Latter-day Saints take their boats to the mainland city of Puno to attend Church.

Very early, the Church attempted to proselyte Indian communities. President Reinholt Stoof , the first President of the South American mission, moved beyond the German immigrant communities that were the basis of the Church in Argentina and Brazil in the twenties to share Mormonism with the Lamanites. He sent missionaries to the northern Argentine province of Jujuy by Bolivia and personally visited Indian communities in the Chaco near Paraguay. Nevertheless the effort failed and President Stoof found himself frustrated by the cultural and social difference between the Indians and what he felt the Church required. As Frederick Williams noted in his important history of the South American Church, From Acorn to Oak Tree (p. 47) President Stoof “decided to have the missionaries devote all their efforts for the time being to the millions of cosmopolitan people of Argentina.”

Many later mission presidents have been similarly frustrated and made similar choices. At the same time, however, Protestants were laying early foundations of what became a massive growth of their religion among indigenous communities in the twentieth century. In relative terms, there is a higher percentage of Protestants in the countryside than in the cities. Mormons and Catholics are strong in Latin America’s cities.

Nevertheless, there are rural, Indigenous Latter-day Saints. Valentin and his family are examples as are the people of Apu Inti island.

When Valentin heard my students and I were in Copacabana he and one son walked for an hour and a half over the mountain to see us. The other son left La Paz before dawn to come to the Lakeside town to join us. And, as I always do, I invited them into my world. They let me, a stranger from halfway around the world, come and live in their community and they spent many days tutoring me in their ways and their thoughts. Valentin may well have been the most important of my graduate school professors, even though he has never been to college. So it is only fair I welcome them into my world.

We went to a restaurant that mostly caters to foreigners about half a block from the shore of Lake Titicaca. Valentin and his sons had ordered hamburgers, while the students were trying various cosmopolitan Bolivian dishes. I was teasing them about eating gringo mankha, gringo food, since they used to always ask me what gringos ate and I would try to make some in their community. After a bit I noticed Valentin and his sons were eating their fries and burgers with a toothpick. At the same time a student said in English “they did not get any silverware.”

I called the restauranteur and told him there was missing silverware. He brought it and Valentin and his sons switched from toothpicks to forks to eat. I apologized to them, but they had never said anything. They never complained.

Later I struggled with the missing knives and forks. The lack seemed deliberate and I remembered how many townsmen over how many years had told me that the people from Valentin’s community were savages. Could the restaurant owner just have assumed that since they were from the countryside they did not eat with silverware but only with their hands? Valentin and his sons were scattered among us. How was it possible otherwise that only they had been given no silverware?

I do not know the full answer. But unequal treatment and racism are very real forces in people’s lives here. It is not surprising they should also arise as themes driving politics. It is also not surprising that they should be part of the context for Church growth in Latin America.


  1. Norbert says:

    Really interesting. As I read this I thought about some issues with Africans in Europe being proselytized and the complexity of race issues related to that.

    Preident Stoof found himself frustrated by the cultural and social difference between the Indians and what he felt the Church required.

    Can you expand on that?

  2. Dave, I enjoyed reading this. You might consider posting it (in English or Spanish) to the Association of Spanish and Portuguese Mormon Studies web site or mailing list.

  3. “After a bit I noticed Valentin and his sons were eating their fries and burgers with a toothpick.”

    I’m confused. In Peru is it typical to eat a hamburger with a knife and fork?

  4. david knowlton says:

    Sorry Frank, It is typical in the Andes traditionally, although urbanites who have McDonald’s and Burger King nearby have learned the American style of eating without a knife and fork.

    SA I will be glad to translate it and post it, either to the list or the site. Do you have a preference. Have you thought through the politics?

    Norbert, I will expand for you. Right now I have to run an urgent errand. When I return I will develop the response. The issue is very interesting and fairly complex.

  5. Another time and place: I had as a favorite missionary companion in southern France a young woman whose mother was English and whose father was full-blood Apache. That may sometimes have led to longer door conversations or even invitations to return because of the French fascination with Indians and all things Wild West.

    Sister X told me that on an appointment with an earlier companion, when their French hosts seated them, they invited her to sit on the floor if she would be more comfortable there.

  6. David,
    My reaction is like Frank’s: even if it’s generally typical to eat burgers and fries, as a matter of context, did anyone else order a burger and fries? and was that person given a fork and knife? My first instinct would be that the restauranteur didn’t give silverware with a burger and fries, but, because I wasn’t there, I don’t have any context for this assumption. If the person sitting next to Valentin who also had a burger and fries was given a fork and knife, then it looks more like some sort of prejudice.

  7. David, thanks for this window into your ethnographic research. I believe this research is incredibly important.

  8. Steve Evans says:

    Many later mission presidents have been similarly frustrated and made similar choices. At the same time, however, Protestants were laying early foundations of what became a massive growth of their religion among indigenous communities in the twentieth century. In relative terms, there is a higher percentage of Protestants in the countryside than in the cities. Mormons and Catholics are strong in Latin America’s cities.

    David, did we make the wrong choices here?

  9. david knowlton says:

    Sam and Frank. To be honest I do not know if anyone else ordered a burger, but I do not think so. We Anglo Americans were consuming Bolivian “typical” food, while the Quispe’s chose hamburgers. In my experience in this town it is customary to give people knives and forks in a sit down restaurant when they order hamburgers. Just as in the US, as a hamburger joint you are not given silverware, but at a sit down restaurant it is simply part of the place setting. Before I could think to ask the restaurant owner, delicately of course, about the incident, we were across the border (it was a day short on time).

    But after many years of experience in this town I see the action as fitting into a context of treating Indians as lesser. I could tell many stories of that from many years.

    But part of the difficulty with inequality, as perceived, is that it is not a strictly empirical question. Rather it depends on the frames people bring to the encounter and how they understand and experience the encounter. I know that for the people of the Quispes’ community, named Huacuyo, unequal treatment from townsmen is part of their ordinary experience. Occasionally, in very rare moments, the equation gets turned around and the rural peoples “get even” so to speak. I will never forget the thrill in the voice of people from Huaucyo–not the Quispes per se–when in 1979 they marched into the town to demand change and thoroughly frightened the townsmen.

    Michael Taussig speaks of epistemic murk as being an important characteristic of the experience of violence as well as inequality. The murkiness, rather than the empirical precision, is what can make the experience overwhelmingly powerful for people.

    I do not know how the Quispes interpreted the experience. It is so minor and fits with many other experiences, overlain with long term relationships with the townsmen. Nevertheless, inequality is inherent.

    I try to treat them with the welcome they gave me, but in that I break other established codes rather thoughtlessly, and sometimes idealistically. But in this for me is a gospel dictum.

  10. Taryn Nelson-Seawright says:

    I can back David up – in the Andes, burgers are indeed eaten with a knife and fork. Try eating them without silverware – assuming, perhaps, that you’re in a restaurant where everyone is given utensils – and you get looks. You know, “You utter pig! Did your mother teach you no manners?” kind of looks. But, you know, those indigenas – everyone already knows their mothers didn’t teach them manners.

    Seriously, this stuff even happens in our own congregations. the single worst experience I’ve ever had at a Mormon church took place at the Inti Raymi (sp?) stake center in Cuzco. Half of the congregation were Quechua speakers, but the bishopric were mestizo. Sunday School was an hour long rant from the bishop about what nasty, lazy savages the Quechy all were, because they didn’t read the BOM every day. (They were illiterate, and most of them didn’t speak Spanish anyway; and there was no Quechua transliteration available, only Spanish translation). And most of the non-indigenous ward members felt the situation was reasonable.

  11. I’ll never forget the day that Taryn and I went to a ward in Cuzco with my parents. During Sunday School, the bishop took over the class to turn it into an hour-long lecture against those students who were not reading their scriptures during the week. A brother in the class pointed out that most of those who had not read were Quechua speakers, not Spanish speakers. Furthermore, like many or perhaps most first-language Quechua speakers, these brothers and sisters were illiterate. Indeed, they most likely could not even understand the bishop’s lecture.

    This seemed to infuriate the bishop, whose face turned red and who began to speak with markedly increased intensity. He instructed his ward members that the Lord wanted them all to learn Spanish immediately. By not learning Spanish, he said, they were thwarting God and depriving themselves of the gospel.

    Of course, this was just so much hogwash. The gospel is, as the Doctrine and Covenants tells us, to be preached in people’s own tongues. They aren’t supposed to have to conform to colonialist demands in order to have the scriptures. In fact, the scriptures are available in Quechua in audio format. All that was needed was a number of tape players and some taped copies of the Quechua scriptures. Yet when a sizable donation to provide such was offered to the relevant stake in Cuzco, it was declined. Leadership there felt that the problem was with a lack of individual motivation, not with a lack of materials.

    The attitudes David discusses are, in my experience, widespread in Mormonism.

  12. Taryn Nelson-Seawright says:

    Oops, sorry about my typo (Quechy). Artemis has recently decided she’s a vampire (she sleeps during the day and stays up all night), and I’m a bit tired at the moment.

  13. david knowlton says:


    I am cutting and pasting a couple of paragraphs from a manuscript I wrote which included this issue.

    “The vision and techniques of missionary work adapted to working among European immigrants and the growing Argentine urban class of Buenos Aires were ill wrought for working in Jujuy or the Chaco. In the neighboring Bolivia, of the time, Protestants were spreading their vision of the world, but they were doing so through the creation of social institutions, such as schools and hospitals. There was little separation of Church and society in the Andean area, outside of certain urban areas. Mormons did not take this approach.

    Mormons were seeking people who could join as individuals and build a congregation where lay people performed ongoing work to keep it functioning. They were not building institutions to provide services. Furthermore they were encountering in the north areas very different from the working class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. These were worlds where religion was critical for the identity of the social group and relationships of social integration. Mormons had yet to find a mechanism for fitting into these societies.

    This frustration has been an ongoing theme in Latin America as well as jubilation when indigenes do join the church. As a result President Stoof “decided to have the missionaries devote all their efforts for the time being to the millions of cosmopolitan people of Argentina.” Despite these cultural politics, the ideological focus of Mormon proselyting remained on the Lamanites, or indigenous peoples, even though most proselyting was among European immigrants and their descendents. Williams writes “although it began among the Germans the South American mission would grow away from the Germans and more towards the Spanish-speaking Argentines. Yet, the real fulfillment of the prophecy…would come when the Lamanites of the land accepted the gospel.” . . . ”there would be other attempts to teach Indians, but the real proselyting thrust among them would come only after the work was begun in Peru, over thirty years later. Curiously, two of the early missionaries to South America would start the work. When my family and I moved to Peru in 1956 we precipitated work in that land. I was the first branch president of the Church on the west coast of South America; the Church was officially opened in our home. Three years later, J. Vernon Sharp, [another early missionary in Argentina] became the president of the Andes mission with its headquarters in Lima, Peru.”

    Yet, as we shall see, even in the Andes, the LDS Church has been frustrated in its efforts to work with indigenous communities. Lamanite has been defined in a different way than Latin American Indian so that it can encompass the urban Spanish-speaking population, while the latter is still preferentially rural speakers of Indian languages who live in Indian communities.”

    (since I wrote this manuscript I must note that the ethnic politics of contemporary Bolivia and somewhat Peru have created Urban Indians, something unthinkable before.)

    So…I think there is an embedded cultural politics in Church processes which favor some people and disfavor others. I do not know the situation of the Africans in London. But the cultural politics of the ways in which Mormonism is presented and lived in wards and stakes, can present an insurmountable barrier for conversion and then activity. The people within the Church may not see the politics, caught up as they are with living the Gospel, but they are often very evident to people from the outside, particularly potential investigators.

    Sometimes those politics even become part of the motivation for conversion. A testimony is built within their frame.

  14. david knowlton says:

    Taryn and J. Thanks for backing me up. The attitudes are all too common in the Church down here. It frustrates me. (You can see the result in the distribution of membership in Cusco where, by the way, I love to attend Church. I taught in a graduate program here once. )

    The membership is strongly contained in the city of Cusco and in a very few regional centers away from Cusco. It is almost not present among rural peoples.

    Did we make the wrong choice Steve? The idealist in me that was a missionary in Bolivia would say yes. I was often frustrated when people outside the cities were interested and we were discouraged from teaching them.

    But if the goal is building wards and stakes as they are currently structured, then perhaps not. The current structure requires a certain kind of social background to function well. That is generally found in the cities. Again a cultural politics…

    Building the Church is not the same thing as sharing the gospel. In that coils a huge dilemma.

  15. I see the same thing all over this Amazon area where I live. In Iquitos, there are many Mormon churches but when I wander around the outlying communities on the river (some study sites, some bc I just get bored of Iquitos) there are no Mormon churches but loads of Seventh-day Adventists and other evangelical Christian churches, a common one here is called Dios es Amor.

    I don’t know what it’s like to run a centrally-located international church so I have no judgment but I do wonder why Mormons never build in these rural areas. When the Seventh-day Adventists come to a town, they convert the whole town and usually build a school or hospital.

    In Bolivia, I’ve seen lots of people eating fries with toothpicks but it’s usually when it’s on the go and you’re carrying your bag of fries.

  16. It’s ironic to me that our church once had a vibrant cultural and institutional framework for whole-society immersion much like the one that various Protestant groups have used to great success in rural Latin America — but that during the 20th century it was systematically abandoned in part to serve a goal of making the church more portable across cultural boundaries. I suppose it proves the old point that there’s no such thing as a culturally neutral culture…

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