Photo by Franck Genten, licensed under CC BY NC SA.

“If you do not have lead, you are not an Oroyan!” These words reached my ear on the draft of an icy wind, as I stood huddled in a small group on the side of Peru’s central highway in the Andean city of La Oroya. Si no tienes plomo, no eres Oroyino! the voice of a woman named Mara thundered. Her tone was jovial, but she was not really joking. Behind us, the enormous chimney of the city’s smelting complex subtly glowed in the distance, silhouetted by the moon and the shimmering lights of old La Oroya, which radiate up the steep slopes of the surrounding mountainsides. As Mara talked on, her words kept rolling through my mind: if you do not have lead, you are not Oroyan; you are not of this place, the city of La Oroya, the so-called metallurgic capital of Peru. This was in December 2012, on a day marked as a potential new beginning for the city of 33,000 people. After three long years of closure, today the city had celebrated the partial reopening of the smelting complex under the management of an outside liquidator. The fate of the smelter, however, still hung in the balance, for as Mara’s voice bellowed into the Andean night, everyone in La Oroya still had lead in them.

In the late 1990s, after decades of civil war, Peru entered its neoliberal era. After a few short decades of nationalization, mining enterprises of the Peruvian Andes resumed their historical role since colonization as an open frontier for foreign capital extraction. This time, international extractive industries faced new social orders and political articulations. While mining is nothing new in contemporary Peru, a new political actor emerged out of its shadow: bodies with minerals.1 While previous mining politics in Latin America and their analysts dealt mostly with labor exploitation, the new idiom of neo-extractive politics became ecology at the interface of human bodies. The rise of global environmentalisms and toxicology brought to public attention the extent of heavy-metal exposure in Peru. Scientific studies by activists and NGOs evidenced the permeation of bodies with the toxic detritus of mining operations. After ninety years, the La Oroya smelter shut down, in light of scandalously high levels of lead contamination in the city. Yet Mara’s declaration, that to have lead in you is to be Oroyan, suggests other ways that people in La Oroya embody their leaded ecology, which may not only be toxic. I am not contending that lead is materially toxic to certain bodies and not others. The term embodiment, however, suggests an analytic entry point into how somatic subjectivities are enacted through physical and semiotic assemblages of the ecological body.

In his meditation on embodiment, Thomas Csordas (1993, 138) defines somatic modes of attention as “culturally elaborated ways of attending to and with one's body in surroundings that include the embodied presence of others.” Csordas’s ethnographic focus on embodiment as a mode of integrating the phenomenological with the semiotic aspires toward an account of the body’s materiality in conjunction with modes of attending to and with the body that are always already culturally delineated. If, following Csordas, human lead exposure is an embodied ecology, then what work does the term embodiment perform as an analytic? The physical permeation of a body by its material surrounds, and the biological reactions that this unfurls, may partially constitute an embodied ecology, but always in relation to the sociocultural lens that refracts how this process is understood, lived, and experienced.

As toxicological knowledge mediates and transforms the relation that a subject has to their somatic experience––its sensations, pains, and illnesses––its power to do so exists in relation to other forces that extend or limit a body’s capacity to endure. In Peru, farming communities, at times identifying as indigenous, often passionately mobilize their mineralized biologies in the political sphere, identifying toxicity as a threat to their livelihoods and the cause of collective ecological disintegration and death. Other communities embodied toxicity ambivalently, while still others refused somatic states of toxicity altogether. Residents of La Oroya, like Mara, categorically rejected foreign articulations of their bodies as contaminated, actively refusing and resisting the infiltration of environmental discourse into their city and vehemently defending the company’s right to operate.

In Peru’s postunion neoliberal economy, many critics of La Oroya’s politics see it as a refrain of old company-town politics: a city dependent on a single industry causes its workers and residents to align with their corporate exploiters. This is indeed part of La Oroya’s story. Yet Oroyans did not ignore the presence of heavy metals altogether, as Mara’s statement attests. Many Oroyans are even well-versed in lead’s toxic properties, including Mara, who worked in the company’s nursery for children with particularly high levels of lead exposure. Oroyans like Mara, however, transformed the somatic presence of lead into a material marker of collective identity and belonging. To be an Oroyan means to have lead in you, a local biology that entails mineralogy. Lead constitutes part of the ecological assemblage that Oroyans embody, albeit an undesirable or ambivalent component. As another woman from La Oroya explained, pollution in La Oroya was unpleasant, just like the cold weather and other daily ecological nuisances. But what was worse, everyone argues, was the loss of jobs: this produced real somatic suffering.

So what is the toxic injustice that matters in La Oroya? Within ecologies of toxic materials that disintegrate life but also generate conditions integral to the mutual tending of life (cf. Roberts 2017), unexpected ecological embodiments transpire, often misaligned with the ethics of environmental and human rights. During fieldwork, environmentalists often tasked me with figuring out why people in La Oroya rejected the advocacy work done in their names. How Oroyans embody their ecologies provides part of the answer. La Oroya’s smelter emits fumes, but it also ignites livelihoods and the possibility for a social life that gives many a sense of pride. For La Oroya, an embodied ecology without lead does not.


1. In Peru, the term minerales includes metal.


Csordas, Thomas J. 1993. “Somatic Modes of Attention.” Cultural Anthropology 8, no. 2: 135–56.

Roberts, Elizabeth F. S. 2017. “What Gets Inside: Violent Entanglements and Toxic Boundaries in Mexico City.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4: 592–619.