Welcome to the field

I’ve been putting off writing this next blog post… where to start?

When entering a community to conduct field research there is a need to establish trust and common ground – two elements that are hard to maintain in a post for a broad audience. It’s tempting to present the community only in the light of what is different and new, which can easily make people look exotic. If you’ve ever had a visitor stay in your home and write or blog about it, you know that it is not always comfortable to live under someone else’s microscope.

On the other hand, if you’ve ever seen a great documentary film, such as “We Still Live Here” directed by Anne Makepeace, you’ll know that it can be worthwhile for a community to let strangers in to help tell their story to others, or in our case, document the local language and wisdom.

I was privileged to return to a community outside the town of Tarabuco, Bolivia, for the fourth time since 2000. This time I was accompanied by a beloved native speaker and Quechua linguist, Pedro Plaza Martínez, who has had a relationship with community members for twenty years but hadn’t been back there since 1996.

We had initially considered attempting to interview people in the town of Tarabuco itself, but quickly found there was no place to set up – so we found a vehicle that was heading for a community further out where we had connections, and climbed on board. We arrived unannounced at the home of Pedro’s godson and co-author, Modesto, who was busy replacing his thatched roof with corrugated tin, along with his two younger sons. Our chauffeur parked his car and promptly joined in on the roofing project, which lasted for several hours that day and continued to absorb our host for the entire week we were there.

You might have done a double-take when I said “co-author” in regards to a Quechua-speaking farmer, and you should. There are very few people actively writing in the Quechua language today, and even fewer are shepherd/farmers. However, Pedro had developed a unique relationship with two farmers who asked him to take over their literacy class at the beginning of the education reform in the 90s. Pedro asked them to write about daily life, and eventually to interview other community members, serving the dual purpose of learning to write and helping him develop material for a dictionary. The two went on to produce what he believes may be the largest body of written work in modern Quechua history. They also visited Cochabamba several times and shared their knowledge with indigenous graduate students at the ProEIB Andes back when it was a new program.

We didn’t stay long at Modesto’s house on the first afternoon – we headed straight for his sister and mother’s house and arranged to conduct our first interviews after helping  with the potato harvest and watching a violent thunderstorm in the distance. Everyone seemed very busy – too busy to take time off for a video-recording, but Modesto’s younger brother and his wife agreed that we could interview them if we came back at 6:30 am the next day – which we did.

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Marta Llaveta Roque in traditional dress

Here are some photos from our first and second days in the community.

 

Paying attention

The woman who wove this belt was obviously paying attention!

First, I see a llama, then a condor attacking a rodent, a surprised fox, a rooster confronting another condor attacking another rodent, a spotted dog, a kid on a bike…

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then a series of galloping goats and sheep! A butterfly…

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a chinchilla (in Quechua wiskacha), a ridiculously happy cat, an ox, another kid on a bike, a butterfly seen from a different angle…

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I picked this belt from among hundreds of weavings brought to a small store in the city of Sucre. I also chose this older-style belt with stylized puma paw prints in natural colors.

Puma paw belt

At first I tried to act like someone who didn’t know much about weavings, because I wanted to hear what the store-owner would tell me and get a sense of city prices. But as time went on she began to ask me where I was from and what I was doing in town. The whole family got interested when they heard I was researching Quechua in local communities.

It turned out she and her husband have a deep respect for the weavers; her parents speak Quechua and their daughter is just beginning Quechua studies at the local university. The husband has already read Harvard anthropologist Gary Urton’s book ‘The Social Life of Numbers’ which was written about weaving practices in nearby Candelaria, and he pulled out a Quechua classic to talk excitedly about pre-Spanish counting systems.

This woman has a great eye and told me a number of things that confirmed my own observations: first of all, the really expert weavers in the countryside now prefer synthetic yarns over sheep’s wool except for their own heavy blankets, and they buy it already dyed, then respin it themselves. Hand weaving is time-consuming and weavers have trouble competing with machine made items (the old-style belt cost me thirty dollars! While the extraordinarily artistic one depicting animals with synthetic colors was only fifteen and half as long – both prices way out of reach for the average farmer or even city dweller.)

But she also confirmed that people are leaving the countryside in droves and moving to the cities of Santa Cruz and Buenos Aires. It is harder and harder to find traditional weaving practiced in this area, one of the finest traditional weaving centers in the world.

The store is at Aniceto Arce #108, in the plazuela San Francisco opposite the church. And for a truly extraordinary experience, spend a few hours at the weaving museum ASUR which supports the continued practice of several thousand year old weaving techniques still observed in the countryside around Tarabuco, see asur.org.

 

Connecting rituals

I’m a person who gets really excited about the underlying connections among different people’s rituals. So let me continue by recommending the first chapter of the book Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, written by Reza Aslan. The book begins as a thriller taking place in the first century Jewish temple – and you can almost smell the offerings and feel the jostle. Whether you end up agreeing with the author’s take or not, you get a really great sense of where much of ancient Judeo-Christian life and spirituality intersected. You can also get a great sense of where it meets other traditions that practice sacrifice of various kinds.

Here I want to talk about connections I see in Andean and Judeo-Christian sacrifice: human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, offerings to the earth, to the ancestors, to the gods or one God. I also want to talk about the unfortunately close relationship between wonder/awe/respect and fear.

Macchu Picchu has several altars where sacrifices were practiced, as do many of the amazing Inca and pre-Inca ruins throughout Peru and the high and coastal Andes. When I was first confronted with this in 2008, I recoiled. How could anyone intentionally offer the life of another being or offer one’s own life to satisfy the appetites of the gods – how could that be a good thing? Those of us who participated in the Andean Worlds Seminar grappled with this as we viewed archaeological evidence of many people being killed to accompany a dead ruler in his tomb, or being offered in ritual fights to the death which we were told brought great honor to the participants.

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Altar and solar observatory, Macchu Picchu, Peru

I remember telling my own children that the Old Testament was full of mentions of animal sacrifices and ‘burnt offerings’, and that some people believed that the death of Jesus was supposed to put an end to that culture of sacrifice by being a kind of ultimate sacrifice – a human sacrifice and a divine sacrifice at the same time – God accompanying humankind in death in order to overcome death.

As my life has gone on and some of the people I respect and love the most have died, I have come to care less about what happens to the person after death and more about how we carry on in the face of the loss of those we care about.

And now I am simply wide open to the beliefs and meanings that people ascribe to death and sacrifice.

In the little Inca town of Ollantaytambo you can go into a house in which people have the skulls of some of their most revered ancestors sitting above the hearth. In almost every archaeological structure around Peru there are niches in the walls for people to keep their mummies or some kind of altar or representation of their ancestors. In Catholic homes these mummies take the form of saints or statues that may simultaneously signify some kind of force of nature. People venerate and revere these representations by offering them food and drink or flowers and incense. Modern ceremonies such as the Mexican Day of the dead remind us in a living way that the intention of these altars and offerings is to strengthen our relationship with those we choose to remember.

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Niche with skulls of ancestors in Ollantaytambo home

I like the term used by anthropologist Frederique Appfel-Marglin to describe this relationship: ‘entanglement’. In Judeo-Christian traditions there seems to be a deep mistrust of entanglement with the animal and plant worlds and the forces of nature that indigenous people continue to venerate. This mistrust was expressed early as a prohibition against the worship of idols and an admonition to worship only one God.

So here is where I take a moment to distinguish between wonder and fear.

I have friends who have been traumatized by religious practitioners who preyed on fear. My sense is that there are fear mongers in every religion – think of pedophile priests, or think, like an indigenous friend of mine in rural Chuquisaca, of Protestants who are obsessed with hellfire and ‘always sound angry when they preach’.

On the other hand, I have atheist, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and indigenous friends who cultivate a sense of awe and wonder and awareness. These are the people I would like to be entangled with, and the ones whose rituals I would like to share in.

So I’ll end this post by drawing some connections among the altars I’ve seen during holy week and those I’ve seen in the Andean countryside.

The very first altar is the one people create by raising two sticks and a crosspiece or several crosspieces in the air. On this altar or pukara everyone in the community hangs an offering of food or handiwork such as a very fine weaving – and they sing and parade it around for all to see. You can see the raising and celebration of such a structure in the movie ‘Kusisqa Waqashayku – From Grief and Joy We Sing’ by Holly Wissler and the Q’eros people of Peru.

You can see it if you go to Pukllay in Tarabuco, celebrated a couple of weeks before Easter. I’ve also seen such a structure at a celebration of mother’s day in the countryside of Yamparaez. After the structure has been raised and covered with offerings, people dance around it and someone traditionally walks around cracking a whip and making sure they do it well. You can see this moveable community altar depicted in many weavings from the Tarabuco area – look for a rectangular structure with items suspended from it. Pukara1

To see recent footage of the Pukllay celebration in Tarabuco (featuring the Pukara altar in the first 10 seconds) click here.

My husband and I saw a similar moving altar on a much grander scale in the city of Cusco on the first Monday of holy week. We waited for several hours in what used to be the central plaza of the Inca empire, blocked by policemen and cameras who surrounded the cathedral as thousands awaited the emergence of the ‘Señor de los temblores’ (Lord of Earthquakes). Finally, a crucified black Jesus emerged on a rack that very much resembled a pukara, and was paraded in slow motion around the plaza, showered with offerings of smoke and flower petals and heralded first by people in traditional dress blowing on conch shells, later by a military band.

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I was struck by the resemblance of the backdrop of altars in various Andean Catholic churches to these pukaras – big rectangular structures full of saints and the ornate handiwork of local artists and craftspeople.

Maybe it is all connected in some basic way – or should I say, entangled.

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Altar at Santa Ana of Maca, Peru, photo by Judy Kalt Skeels

Altar-banner San Jeronimo Peru

Altar to be carried in parade, San Jeronimo, Peru, photo by Jaime Araoz Chacon

Holy Week

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Selling palms for Palm Sunday in Cusco, photo by Judy Kalt Skeels

I’ve always been curious about the things people consider important enough to celebrate on a regular basis –  whether daily, weekly, or yearly. For example, when a person walks into a room on any given day in the cities of Bolivia or Peru, they’re expected to greet everyone in the room, with words, or often a hug and a kiss. Likewise, when they leave the room, they take leave of each person with words, a hug or kiss. Forgetting to do so implies coldness or a lack of respect. Greetings and leave-takings represent little micro rituals that tie people together. Depending on your comfort level, you can adapt and embrace these rituals and participate in them, or simply observe them from afar.

But what about the bigger rituals: the ones that happen on Sundays or holidays? I was really excited this year to be in the Andes for holy week, or Semana Santa. I knew this would be a big deal in any household. I decided it would be most fun to spend it in Chuquisaca with my friend Cristina and her family.

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Maria Cristina and her daughter Natalie

Cristina grew up in the city of Sucre, the daughter of Quechua speaking parents who were also born in the area. Her mother still wears traditional dress and both parents speak Quechua at home more than Spanish. I knew that the family was devoutly Catholic, but I had never been to church with them or attended anything more than family gatherings. I was curious to see what mix of indigenous and European traditions would be practiced. I knew that all work would be canceled for the week in Cusco, Peru, and I thought the same might be true of Bolivia, but it wasn’t. Only Good Friday (the day of Jesus’ death) was a day off.

Thursday night after work, Cristina, her husband and children and I drove to a small patch of land they own on the outskirts of the city. The soil seemed rocky and rough, but they had a good five square yards or so of tall cornstalks and they wanted us to harvest it before neighbors and birds might come to help themselves. We selected the stalks that had ears of corn that were firm on top, and cut them at the base, then separating the stalks from the ears. The stalks would be sold for cows to eat, and we brought the ears to the car, driving home in the dark. They told me that we would be fasting in the morning, and traveling the ‘way of the cross’ up the hill in commemoration of the suffering and death of Jesus.

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Marcelina and Aniceto, Cristina’s parents

At 4:30 in the morning, Cris and her kids and I walked up several streets until we came to the church, where thousands of people were gathering and a group of religious leaders, men and women, had begun to read prayers and meditations around cross and a rolling loudspeaker. This event, which started in the dark and cold and gradually emerged into a murky gray dawn, lasted several hours. Thousands of people of all ages followed the way of the cross up the hill, stopping at 12 stations to contemplate the events around Jesus’ death and their significance for our lives today. Frequent parallels were made between Jesus’ suffering, stumbling, anguish, torture and the difficulties and injustices of our everyday lives, addictions and deaths. There was also a great deal of emphasis on the role of Mary, Jesus’ mother and her own heartbreak and persistent love in the face of her son’s agony.

I found it challenging to focus on so much suffering while fasting in the cold and dark, far away from home. But I decided not to turn away from it or leave early, and I stuck it out until we arrived home four hours later, having met up with several of Chris’s siblings and their families who headed jubilantly back down the hill with us.

I thought about the gory movie about Jesus’ crucifixion and the sadistic and disturbing images it brought up even in the trailer. I also thought about the recent incident in Newton Massachusetts where an athletic team from a Catholic school shouted religious slurs against the Jewish community – calling them Christ killers. How ironic from a historical perspective, since Jesus himself was Jewish and was slain by the Romans. He was betrayed by his own friends as well as by religious leaders he had criticized – all in all a pretty mixed group.

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Preparing humintas (corn cakes)

When we got back to Chris’s house, her mother and husband were already busy cooking up a storm. They told me that the tradition is to serve 12 different foods on Saturday to break the fast. Everyone in the family was expected to help prepare this meal. The most labor intensive and delicious food was made from the corn we had harvested the night before. They ground the kernels and saved the leaves to wrap humintas – the Andean version of tamales, corn mush with sugar and cheese, baked in the oven and steamed on the stove. We also ate a delicious squash and vegetable stew, spaghetti and meat dish, and three other foods I can no longer remember. I only remember being extremely full.

Easter itself was tame by comparison. Nobody got especially dressed up, but we did go to church. I don’t remember the service being especially exciting or inspiring. Cris led me into a side area to contemplate a life-sized mannequin of Jesus lying bloodied and dead in a glass coffin – which I found odd in relation to my own expectations of a Christian Easter, since I think of it as an occasion to cast aside death and contemplate spring, new life, rebirth, fertility. Afterwards we had yet another family feast, this time with grilled fish.

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Esmeralda and Jorge grill fish for Easter

Strangely enough, in all my time in the Andes, I’ve spent more time in either Protestant or indigenous earth-centered ceremonies than in Catholic ones. I say strangely because Catholicism is the state religion here and the most widely practiced. I’m grateful to have spent this holy week with Cris and her big extended family – and most grateful for their enthusiastic sharing of every aspect of this festival.

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Stations of the cross with traveling megaphone – dawn, Sucre

Killing Time

How does a person who is crazy about teaching and learning languages kill a little time? The people I was supposed to work with haven’t arrived yet, and a friend who is qualified to teach Quechua at the university level has been assigned instead to teach English in the public schools (which she barely knows). So, I figured, why not tag along and visit her classes? I spent yesterday afternoon teaching four English classes to about 120 middle and high school students. It was a blast. And, as always, a revelation. I guess I will never get tired of working with people who are learning a new language.

Then, this afternoon, I got to harvest corn for the first time in my life. All in all a great couple of days.

Blockade

I know I’m back in Bolivia because I was immediately greeted by a blockade. As I emerged from the airport in Sucre, I was accosted by a taxi driver who offered to take me down to the city, but at a high price due to a blockade. I waited around and determined that all the drivers were saying the same thing. So I got in the car with one of them and took a half hour drive on dirt roads with huge ruts and ditches…reminding me of work I did here in 2000 in a shanty-town on the edge of the city. Today’s blockade was carried out by residents neighboring the airport who want more city projects to help with basics such as roads and plumbing. I asked the driver if these blockades really reach their intended audience, and he said he believed that without them the officials would not pay attention.

It was a beautiful and gritty welcome back to this country – shepherds sat on the ground and schoolchildren walked by, offering advice to the taxi driver as we passed.

Spring Break

Many students and faculty in the US celebrated Spring Break last week and I did too, though it is Fall here. My husband, sister and brother-in-law came down to join me in these extraordinary places.

If you ever have a chance to travel to Cusco, I recommend you start as we did with a trip down into the Sacred Valley. This allows you to acclimatize, since most destinations in the Valley are actually lower than Cusco (11,152 feet). Macchu Picchu, the Inca town built on a mountain jutting up out of the rainforest at a mere 7,972 feet, is often referred to as one of the seven wonders of the world. We decided that Peruvian cooking counts as the eighth. (Try the ceviche mixto at El Paisa on Avenida del Sol in Cusco.)

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Dancers at restaurant El Paisa in Cusco

Stunning photographs don’t do these places justice. There is nothing like being surrounded by the majesty of the mountains and the endless miles of terraces and stone buildings that make them habitable and productive. The terraces prevent erosion and extreme fluctuations of temperature, capturing heat and water. The buildings serve many purposes: housing, astronomical observation, ritual life, storage, defense. In fact, these purposes were reflected in every place we visited.

In the course of returning to the city, we visited the salt mines that served donkey trains shuttling silver from Bolivia to destinations in Lima and then Europe. We also saw the pre-Incan concentric  circular terraces of Moray.

Nowadays in the Sacred Valley and even parts of Cusco, the primary economic activity is tourism. We were concerned that we might be rained out of the valley, and yet I was certain that Cusco alone would be worth the visit – Saqsaywaman and related wonders are within walking distance of the center of town.

I saw several things I’d missed on previous visits, including the extensive ruins at Chincheros which I had neglected by not walking beyond the church yard. An indigenous teenage boy who tried to sell us keychains in a courtyard of those ruins ended up giving us a fascinating recitation of everything he knew about the Incas and their descendants in the valley. He told us about the primary ‘products’ of each town: weaving, potatoes, and in the case of Macchu Picchu: young beautiful women. According to his grandfather, the Incas did not marry these women because they were not good weavers – only good looking. Needless to say, Chincheros is known for its weavings.

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Tip of the iceberg – top part of Inca ruins under Catholic church in Chincheros – photo by Judy Kalt Skeels

 

Our taxi driver told us that he would take us to a place in Chincheros where we could dress up in traditional ponchos, have our pictures taken and be sung to in Quechua. I had something even better in mind, and requested that he take us to the Center for Traditional Textiles, an NGO founded by Nilda Callañaupa which also has an outlet on the Avenida del Sol in Cusco. There we saw everything from washing, spinning and dying raw wool, to setting up the warp and weaving on a backstrap loom. This organization has had great success with cataloguing and regaining the prestige of traditional weaving techniques and patterns while spurring economic growth and new designs. If only we could be so successful with endangered languages! Once again we were amazed at the creativity and resourcefulness of Andean people in ancient and modern times.

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Weaver at the Center for Traditional Textiles, Chincheros, photo by Judy Kalt Skeels

We finished the week with four more days exploring in and around Cusco. According to an indigenous friend, the Catholic church, Peruvian state and private enterprises have appropriated and built on top of nearly everything created by indigenous people – he complained bitterly that a fraction of this wealth makes it back to Quechua-speaking communities in the countryside. Time cannot be rolled back, but we all wonder how these communities can take their rightful place as they move forward.