John Gitlitz is being honored Wednesday with a Martin Luther King Jr. award for his efforts in Mamaroneck, helping to address the clash over immigrant laborers and their right to seek work from street corners. He is a familiar face locally on the board of the Hispanic Resource Center, which it established a dedicated hiring site for laborers in the wake of a federal lawsuit. In speaking to him this month I learned about Gitlitz’s primary pursuit over the years—to research and document a complex issue of conflict and justice in rural Peru.
Gitlitz is an associate professor of Latin American studies, immigration and human rights at Purchase College. In northern Peru, he explained, cattle are essentially a family’s bank account, an asset that can be sold for cash in case of emergency. Theft of cattle, therefore, is a serious threat. After a wave of cattle rustling in the ‘70s, peasants, facing inaction by police and an ineffective legal structure, organized their own system of justice—“the Peruvian equivalent of the Guardian Angels.” By 2000 there were 250,000 people involved in the patrols, he said.
Gitlitz is researching this alternative system of justice and the political and legal arguments over it. The issue intersects with human rights, indigenous rights, the exploitation of natural resources, and other areas of tension. He spoke recently at a gathering attended by Peruvian government officials on this issue of “informal justice.”
“It’s a small issue, but for a lot of people, an important one,” he said.
To explore his experiences in Peru – legal issues, profiles, patron saint festivals and the culinary use of guinea pigs – see his blog, Wandering the Andes.