What’s in a name? A case of trafficking in other people’s stories

Ruth Goldstein

‘Is writing seemly? Does the writer cut a respectable figure? Is it proper to write? Is it done?’

– Jacques Derrida, ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, in Disseminations

‘I choose… Estrella. Yes, you can call me Estrella when you write’.

‘Are you sure?’ I asked.

Estrella nodded her head, a wisp of dyed honey-blonde hair coming loose from behind her ear. Her long earrings, the gold paint flaking around a plastic ruby, swayed back and forth as she nodded in affirmation. Yes, she was sure.

‘You can write, if you want’, Estrella gestures to my notebook that sits on the table. I write instead on a napkin. It feels less official and thus less obtrusive. ‘Unless you prefer napkins… This is what you call anthropology?’ She laughs and pats my hand, the pen hovering over the flimsy paper.

I look at my scrawl on the napkin. I have written the date, ‘Estrella’ – her chosen pseudonym, and the name of the café where we sit. ‘Yes’, I tell her. This is what I call my anthropological practice of ethnography. I bring out my field notebook, already swollen with the additions of drawings and pressed plants that women have given me. The drawings are the result of trying to keep sex workers’ children occupied while I talk with their mothers, which at times becomes a baby-sitting arrangement if a client interrupts our conversation. Estrella has several children of her own, but they live with her mother in another part of Peru. That childhood home is far from her adopted one, which is a place of work in the brothels of the Peruvian Amazon’s region of Madre de Dios.

‘Do you always ask people what name they want to use?’ Estrella asks.


At the time of my initial conversation with Estrella in 2011, this was true. But as my research unfolded, I realised just how much my ideas and ethnographic practices would need to evolve to keep up with the dynamism of people’s stories and everyday lives. I offer this interactive process of ‘choosing names’ and adaptive research strategies as my ethnographic case. Choosing names can mean several things: usually, it meant inviting participants in my research to choose their own pseudonym. Of course, it could also mean that I honoured someone’s refusal to be named at all – the more typical kind of ethnographic practices of anonymity. Or, as I highlight in this case, my refusal to employ the name that Estrella’s former colleague chose, because it put Estrella at risk. The more interactive naming practices, as well as certain kinds of refusal, constitute one way that ethnographers might consider furthering relations of trust with people whose lives and stories we analyse. I hesitate to write ‘reciprocity’, a charged term so dear to anthropology (Mauss 2000 [1950]; Graeber 2014; Strathern 1990), because of what are often socioeconomic differences between researcher and study participant – and it’s the researcher who should be bound with social debt if not also moral obligation, rather than the participant.

My longest round of fieldwork, which had begun in 2010, examined three modes of ‘traffic’: in women destined for the sex-trade, plants employed by sex-workers for reproductive health that were also targeted by biopirates for commercial production,1 and gold, made solid via liquid mercury along Latin America’s Interoceanic Road.2 Completed in 2011, this transnational infrastructure project has enabled more than just the transport of soybeans from Brazil to Asian markets, its proposed purpose (Daniels 2011; Fleck et al. 2010; Gadea 2012; IIRSA 2011). It has allowed heavy machinery and people to enter the rainforest mining areas, and for gold and wildlife to be smuggled out. As an increasingly rich ‘roadology’ set of scholarship has shown, building new roads often has unforeseen consequences (Dalakoglou and Harvey 2014; Harvey 2018; Uribe 2018; Zhou 2014). Not everyone experiences socioeconomic mobility and motor-ability. From 2010–2012 and then again between 2016 and 2018, I travelled the 3500-mile road from the Brazilian Atlantic to the Peruvian Pacific coast, traversing the Brazilian, Peruvian and Bolivian Amazon. From rainforest to laboratory, from brothel to bank, ‘traffic’ functioned as my analytic to examine physical encounters and collisions as well as entwined questions of the dynamic value of people and things travelling across borders and through global commodity-chains (Goldstein 2015). As a methodological approach, I realised that I was also ‘trafficking’ in other people’s stories, capitalising on the tales they told me about themselves (Goldstein forthcoming). This underscored my desire to create a more interactive ethnographic approach. Asking people if they wanted to choose their own pseudonyms seemed easy enough. But ‘what’s in a name’ can signify ethnographic enrichment as well as present challenges, as my case suggests.

Fig. 8.1 ‘Welcome’ sign over the start of the South leg of the Interoceanic Road, from Cusco all the way to São Paulo in Brazil

Fig. 8.2 Traffic(king) of people and things along the Interoceanic Road

Fig. 8.3 Map of road integration, Peru–Brazil

The gold mining, which fuelled interdependent economies, had its greatest concentration in Madre de Dios where I first met Estrella. Situated near the border of Brazil and Bolivia, Madre de Dios had earned the nickname ‘El Wild West’ for its implosion of lawlessness and prostitution reminiscent of the North American gold rush. The fall of the US dollar and the rise of the price of gold had coincided with the construction of the Interoceanic Road, which was the first paved thoroughfare in the region (marked in black on the above map). Where artisanal mining had previously meant backbreaking work for little return, the price was now right for a liveable wage. Male miners from Brazil, Bolivia and Peru streamed into the rainforest mines. Female sex-workers hailed from these countries, in addition to Colombia and Ecuador. During my two years conducting research along the Interoceanic Road (2010–2012), I would ask miners and sex-workers, along with environmental engineers, biologists, Indigenous leaders and government officials what name they would like me to use when I wrote.

Fig. 8.4 Gold ‘changing’ – burning the mercury to leave pure gold; a highly toxic procedure

Fig. 8.5 Transport in the gold mines; mercury turns the rainforest landscape into desert

Government officials almost entirely chose their own names for accounts written about them. Sex-workers already operated under a host of fake names to protect themselves and their families from embarrassment and, in some cases, violence from clients and police (who were often one-and-the-same). Miners similarly conducted their operations illicitly. They did not employ their legal names (if they had a national identity card from Peru or a neighbouring country) – not among one another in the mines, not with the environmental engineers who tried in vain to regulate the proliferating artisanal application of liquid mercury in the mines, and certainly not with me. I asked people how they would like to be ‘named’ because people’s words have a different quality when their narratives become legible as a creative process and practice of interactive research when co-authorship is not an option.

Despite my desire to make my ethnographic fieldwork as interactive as possible, I soon realised that I could not always uphold a practice of inviting people to choose without any intervention on my part. As I became more ensconced in fieldwork, I realised the high stakes in employing people’s legal names, even when they encouraged me to do so. When it came to writing about Indigenous activists, I did not always feel comfortable honouring a person’s request to employ their full or legal names. Gaining one’s identity card and displaying nametags has become a proud gesture for people – Indigenous or not (and that category of the person also goes up for debate) – so often ignored by the State. This process echoes Marcel Mauss’s notion that having a name forms a critical step in taking on an identity as a person (Mauss 1985). Yet while Indigenous activists may have felt confident in their personhood and in asking me to use their full names, environmental activists, particularly Indigenous ones, represent easy assassination targets for disgruntled loggers, oil speculators, miners and drug traffickers. Naming people in full might not only undermine their efforts but might also put their lives in danger.

Fig. 8.6 Regional Peruvian health team performing rapid HIV/AIDS tests anonymously for sex-workers and gold miners in rainforest mining camps, pictured here outside a brothel

Sex-workers, unlike Indigenous activists, did not tell me their real names and I did not ask for them, knowing that they protected their own identities from their customers as well. I may never have learned Estrella’s full legal name had not a competing exotic dancer taken it as her ‘stage-name’ and asked me to employ it when I wrote. ‘Véronica’ became the first person who selected a pseudonym that I refused to employ on ethical grounds. Instead, I chose ‘Véronica’ for her, after making sure there would be no confusion with – or danger for – another sex-worker. My desire to increase interactive and participatory ethnographic methods had met its limits. By using Estrella’s real name, Véronica exposed Estrella to social harassment at best and to police violence at worst. Most worrying for Estrella, however, was that in the event of a police raid, the news media – armed with video cameras – would take footage and reveal her identity. Family members did not know about her line of work, and Estrella feared that they would find out. She hid under the beams of police searchlights and news cameras as best she could. It was she who pointed out to me some of the similarities and differences between sex-workers and Indigenous activists. ‘We are both trying to stay alive… they need and hate us’. Estrella’s comment that politicians both needed and hated sex-workers and Indigenous activists came from her observation that both were necessary for a strong tourist industry. But both were too often found dead.

While Indigenous environmental activists tend to participate in local and international politics with their full names – traveling to conferences with identity cards and passports tends to necessitate this – the stakes for being outspoken and visible are high. In November 2014, just as Peru prepared to hold climate talks in Lima, four Indigenous activists were murdered by illegal loggers. Death threats have become common for activists and leaders at the Indigenous federation of Madre de Dios (Federación Nativa del Rio Madre de Dios y sus Afluentes – FENAMAD). Hunt Oil, the powerful petroleum conglomerate, began its drilling in 2006. It’s unclear whether the Peruvian army, police officers, company cronies or all of them together physically attacked protesting Indigenous groups. The Peruvian government has since renewed the nine-year contract with Hunt Oil for another three years, without consultation with the Indigenous communities living on the land under extraction (FENAMAD).

In 2020, with oil and gold ever more extractable, and with growing infrastructure, people and information travelled faster than they had along rivers when I first arrived in 2010. I began to question how quickly – or slowly – my own words and naming practices might also travel. Such questions might not have been an immediate concern if the violence of extractive economies had not intensified, nor if my first round of fieldwork had not come to an abrupt and undesired end in March of 2012, when a gold mining strike in Madre de Dios turned bloody. It was not the first, nor has it been the last clash between the Peruvian government and illegal and informal gold miners in Madre de Dios.3 In 2012, The Peruvian government sent its army to pacify protesting miners, joined by the Indigenous federation of Madre de Dios. An estimated 15,000 gold miners went on strike to continue working, demanding an alleviation of environmental regulations. Several thousand sex-workers joined them. The Indigenous federation, misjudging the political climate, walked with the gold miners in the hope of entering negotiations with the state over land claims. The plan backfired. The Peruvian media painted the Indigenous federation as betraying the earth by making an alliance with the gold miners. Already targets if they did not cooperate with marauding loggers and miners, Amazonian activists once again became the focus of the Peruvian government’s ‘extraction’ efforts (large-scale protests in 2009 along the Inter-Amazonian Highway had also turned violent). The choice of the word ‘extraction’, as Peruvian secret servicemen explained to me while asking me to provide names and information to help them, was a euphemism for ‘extermination’.

Fig. 8.7 Peruvian Army extracting illegal gold miners from a rainforest conservation area

Forced to leave and worried that I would endanger people who had trusted me with their words, I set about destroying identifying data. Without a strong internet connection to digitally save interviews, everything went onto a small external hard-drive. This ended up pressed between my skin and the elastic of my clothing. I jammed the RAM on my computer so that it would not turn on anymore. I explained to the government agents going through my bags that the rainforest humidity, former ethnographic foe-turned-friend, had destroyed my digitised data.

Making ethical decisions about how to protect the people that anthropologists work with during ethnographic fieldwork is, as cultural anthropologist Paul Stoller notes, ‘a very messy business’. Stoller’s comments were made in response to the debates about ethnographic integrity and ethics surrounding Alice Goffman’s book, On the Run (2014). The book sparked interest and ire for multiple reasons: Goffman is a white woman conducting research in black Philadelphia neighbourhoods, she documents what appears to be her participation in a crime as the driver of a car, and she refuses to give people’s real names and often, their ages, blurring their identities. This means that when journalists attempted to fact-check her bombshell book, they couldn’t do it. The sensational reaction to Goffman’s book – both positive and negative – was further heightened by Goffman’s status as the daughter of Erving Goffman, famed US sociologist.

The academic and journalistic response gave me pause because I too am a white woman ethnographer, conducting research where I keenly see a power imbalance – one so closely tied to anthropological origins and practice. I meditated on the similarities as well as the stark differences between long-form journalism and ethnography. Whereas journalists must check their facts, the very concept of a fact and what constitutes truth has become part of a critical enquiry for social scientists. Ethnography is not about ‘fact-checking’, Stoller notes, but rather a weaving of personal and professional interactions into fruitful, if not fruitfully frustrating, entanglements. The ‘truth’ is not an objective one, existing outside social interaction, but rather something made collaboratively. And laws are often unjust. Acknowledging the precariousness of other people’s lives, a precariousness that the writer often does not share, may necessitate blending the ‘facts’ to protect people’s identities. At least, this becomes a necessity if one cares about people beyond the publication of their story.

Goffman’s deployment of pseudonyms and anonymity for the people portrayed in her book reignited debates that dance around the issue of race (Lewis-Kraus 2016) in social science research. While I find the critiques from journalists on this question of fact-checking easily addressable (or dismissible) on ethical grounds to protect people’s identities, the dynamics of race, and of what it means for a white social scientist to do an ethnography in and of an African-American community, merit deeper questioning. The concerns about the colonial roots of social science bear further thought. The power dynamics that play a role in qualitative research are reflective of greater social hierarchies. The structural inequalities in academia are not singular to institutions of higher learning, but they can be exposed by researchers as well as institutional policies and practices. Whether one agrees or not with Goffman’s fieldwork location and subsequent analysis, I can appreciate the care that she took to blur details, places and events. She gave pseudonyms – which I understand was also done out of respect – to protect people who shared their lives or interacted with her.

The conflict around Goffman’s book, scholarship on ‘ethnographic refusal’ (Simpson 2007; Tuck and Yang 2014; Zahara 2016; Velásquez, this volume), as well as conversations with colleague-friends about potentialising collaborative and multimodal futures of anthropology (Goldstein, Edu, and Alvarez 2017) gave me cause to reflect on Derrida’s questions that I posed at the beginning of this piece. ‘Is writing seemly? Does the writer cut a respectable figure? Is it proper to write?’ And not just: ‘Is it done?’ but also ‘How is it done?’ I continue to bring these questions with me into (and out of) the field because they not only urge me to consider my whiteness and privilege when I write, but also how and how much I write. Which is to say, if I am to be trafficking in other people’s stories in the academic context – that is, to be capitalising on telling the tales of other people’s lives – is there a ‘proper’ and more ‘respectable’ way to do so?

These are questions that I continue to ask myself as a practice of integrity. They are part of a reflexive toolkit, one which I find myself adding to on a regular basis. Kahnawake Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson’s questions for herself also resonate with me: ‘Can I do this and still come home; What am I revealing here and why? Where will this get us? Who benefits from this and why?’ (2007: 78). While ‘home’ can be an elusive concept, let alone an actual place, positioning myself to be invited back into people’s homes strikes me as a very good way to cut a respectable writerly figure.

Simpson’s critical reflections on ethnographic refusal (2007) have been foundational for me to think with, as have subsequent interventions by Unangax̂ scholar Eve Tuck and her collaborator, K. Wayne Yang (2014). Simpson advocates for limits to what the ethnographer writes, something that is especially acute for her when returning to her Mohawk community. She highlights the kinds of conflict that arise when creating and controlling silences in the text: ‘To speak of limits in such a way makes some liberal thinkers uncomfortable, and may, to them, seem dangerous. When access to information, to knowledge, to the intellectual commons is controlled by people who generate that information [participants in a research study], it can be seen as a violation of shared standards of justice and truth’. (Simpson 2007: 74). While Simpson takes up histories of colonialism in the Americas that are specific to Indigenous peoples, I do think the limits that Alice Goffman set vis-à-vis pseudonyms and the journalistic outrage speak to a European Enlightenment standard of singular truth and justice.

The kinds of ethnographic refusal and ‘stances of refusal in research’, are, as Tuck and Yang write, ‘attempts to place limits on conquest and the colonization of knowledge by marking what is off limits, what is not up for grabs or discussion, what is sacred and what can’t be known’ (Tuck and Yang 2014: 225). In many cases, it is also a question of why something must be known by a wider, reading public. Colonial European legacies of voyeurism are in play. Such grand expository writing usually indicates that the writer is not intent on staying – or returning – to the communities and people written about. Certainly, I wanted to be able to return, to continue research relationships and friendships. I also consider there to be a moment of reflective ethnographic empathy. ‘Would I want to be named in such a way?’

Attempting to collaborate in the choosing of pseudonyms is one way I try to answer the questions of what it means for the writer to cut a respectable figure when analysing the lives of others. Paulo Freire, Brazil’s revolutionary thinker and writer, espoused a pedagogy that was a ‘naming’ of the world, engaging in a dialogue with others. ‘If it is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings’ (Freire 1970: 88). This resonates with Mauss’s assertion that to become a person, one must first have a name. Freire’s formulation, however, goes one step further in highlighting (as he does throughout Pedagogy of the Oppressed) human relationality, how we bring one another into existence through naming practices. For Franz Fanon, being called a name other than one’s own – that is, hailed as ‘Negro’ in a racialised pejorative way – creates a severe sense of trauma and alienation from one’s self (Fanon 1967). One’s ‘own name’ may not be the one given by parents or typed into a legal document; it is the name that feels comfortable to inhabit.

This is why inviting people to participate in their pseudo-naming, as well as telling them why I may not be able to honour their requests, meant something more important – perhaps even more truthful – than ‘fact-checking’. It meant explaining to Véronica, who had stolen Estrella’s true name for her nightly activities, why I would not do as she wished. This did not provoke a positive response from Véronica, but it did mean that trust with Estrella and her network of sex-workers deepened. Fortunately, it also enabled a different conversation with Véronica to occur. This in turn enriched my connections with all of them. Certainly, that is a ‘best ethnographic case scenario’. However, it can only enrich ethnographic renderings by requiring us to reflect on our own motivations. Mauss’s concluding words, after considering whether the stable category of the person and naming might someday fade away, brings my own ethnographic case to a close: ‘Let us labor to demonstrate how we must become aware of ourselves, in order to perfect our thought and to express it better’ (Mauss 1985: 23). That strikes me as a seemly and respectable answer to my own questions of how writing might be done.


1 Biopiracy is the stealing of entire plants and animals, or simply seeds, eggs or genetic material as well as the associated ethnobiological knowledge. It is part of a larger multi-billion-dollar wildlife trafficking industry (UNODC 2020). In my research, I focus on three plants in particular: Maca (Lepidium meyenii), which is Peru’s most biopirated plant (INDECOPI 2014; Smith 2014; Tavui 2016), Coca (Erythroxylum coca), sacred in the Andes as a leaf, but refined into cocaine, and Ayahuasca (Banisteria caapi), an Amazonian vine revered for its potent medicinal-psychedelic effects, which has led to an increase in its pharmaceutical testing, principally for depression and Parkinson’s disease (Domínguez-Clavé et al. 2016; Djamshidian et al. 2015; Dos Santos et al. 2015).

2 While it is more commonly referred to as the Interoceanic Highway in English news media, the Spanish and Portuguese don’t necessarily differentiate so clearly between ‘road’ and ‘highway’. In Spanish, the paved infrastructure project is known as La Carretera Interoceánica and in Portuguese, as both A Estrada do Pacífico and A Rodovia Interoceânica. Carretera in Spanish is more commonly applied to ‘roads’ and autopista for ‘highways’. Similarly, in Portuguese, rodovia translates as ‘highway’ but ‘estrada’ as road. Both are used interchangeably. Brazilians, Peruvians and Bolivians who came to see the 2011 inauguration of the transnational infrastructure project in Madre de Dios noted that the route’s two-lane bridges were very narrow. For this reason, they referred to it as a road, not a highway.

3 The Peruvian government differentiates between illegal and informal mining. The latter means that there is a process to become ‘formalised’, that is, legalised. It is a moment of limbo, however, for miners, as they work through the government registration process.


This piece is dedicated to Estrella as well as Juana and Jorge Payaba Cachique, two Indigenous Shipobo activists in Madre de Dios, Peru. Jorge passed away in November 2014. His sister, Juana, fights illegal loggers and gold miners on Shipibo community land while facing death threats. She continues to support the work her brother did, advocating for ‘Indigenous communities living in voluntary isolation’ who live along the Peruvian and Brazilian border, as well as trying to keep extractive industries at bay.

Juana Payaba’s name is not a pseudonym. From 2011 onward, she has been a public figure as president of her community, creating videos to publicise the illegality and danger of mining in her community. I have chosen to honour her requests for visibility by employing her real name.


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