Crashing Amaru

There had been some disquiet about our planned visit to the Amaru community, one of twelve that ring Pisac on the slopes of the mountains above the valley floor. It wasn’t clear to some of the students why we were going, and for others, why we were paying to go. 

I tried to explain, and even went so far as to suggest that it could be in some ways the most important day of our time here in Peru: our one chance to visit a more or less self-governing Indigenous community, recognized by the state as such. By some measures, this was perhaps our only opportunity to see and interact with “real,” Indigenous campesino life. And of course we couldn’t simply barge in to such a place, certainly not as twenty foreigners, many of whose Spanish is basic at best. This would have to be a curated, and even to some extent commodified experience. I warned that it could well be disappointing (“rubbish” was the word I used). But it was worth trying.

My worst fear was that it would be undignified: not for us, but for our hosts. But our experience so far of the Kusi Kawsay Association, who helped organize the trip (and whose school we had visited earlier in the week), has been generally positive, so I hoped for the best. In fact, it turned out that we were visiting families involved with the Association up in Amaru.

In the end, if anyone lost any of their dignity, it was me. I had been a bit sick in the morning before breakfast (almost everyone in the group has had minor stomach upsets or possible flu-like symptoms over the past few days), and then once in the field in which we were rather unceremoniously dumped upon arrival, I started to feel a little faint and dizzy. I felt even more uncertain of myself when, after being asked to put on a poncho and cap then take some ceremonial coca, I contributed some frankly risibly token efforts (even more token than everyone else’s) to work the chacra with hand-plough and pickaxe. So when we then moved on, and once we had been greeted by members of the Association for lunch, I promptly crashed out on the ground in the Andean sun. For the next little while I was more or less aware of little boys making fun of me and poking my face with bits of straw, while weaving demonstrations and the like went on around and about. The students were amused, I think, at my wholesale uselessness. I only gathered myself together once it was time to go, and finally on return to the hotel I promptly threw up again. The only saving grace was that I had managed to hold onto myself sufficiently not to despoil the community with gringo vomit.

Yet the fact that I felt able to crash out was a sign that I felt comfortable: comfortable enough to give in to my physical discomfort, at least. And I would say that that was the prevailing tenor of the visit. We visitors were gently challenged, even to do a little physical labour in unfamiliar and sometimes ill-fitting garb. But we were also made to feel welcome, with quite elaborate rituals of greeting and farewell that involved rounds of embraces and kisses. We were put at our ease and yet our hosts, I felt, had the upper hand, helped no doubt by the fact that there was not too much effort put into explaining or justifying the proceedings. We were asked simply to let fate take its course. It was no doubt performative (so much for the “real”), but the Amaru performers were happy and able to take charge, and perhaps smile at how badly their guests, myself above all, performed our own roles.

Still, I was left with many questions, and if I hadn’t been laid low I would probably have tried to ask them. Above all, I wonder about the relationship between the members of the Association and other members of the community. We didn’t really get a sense of the community as a whole, and I wonder whether there are frictions or even rivalries within it, not least because the Association seems to be doing such a good (and perhaps profitable) job hosting such instances of experiential tourism. Moreover, our guide did tell me (while I was still more or less compus mentis) that the Association’s goals of “reinvigorating, promoting, protecting and celebrating the Andean Culture” are driven in part by fears about the encroachment of Protestant sects, such as the Seventh-Day Adventist Church that we passed on the way through the village. I wonder how such differences are negotiated in the everyday life of the broader community.

But perhaps such questions are too much to ask over the span of just a few hours, even if I had been feeling more myself. We were only going to see (and feel) a small facet of things, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves otherwise, but that was plenty for the time being. At least it wasn’t rubbish.

Punk Indigenism

Yesterday, I broke a chair. I’m not particularly proud of the fact, but I’m also sorry / not sorry. If by any chance the owners of Sapos pizza bar are reading this, then I will indeed pay for the damage. But I suspect the chair must have been pretty flimsy in the first place. And it was part of a performance that is perhaps symptomatic of my feelings about this place, and even of a couple of other things, too.

I can’t sing. When I was at primary school, I was asked simply to mouth the words of collective songs and hymns, as the noise I was emitting was deemed to be putting everyone else off. But I do like performing. So when, years ago, in Lima, I was taken by some friends to the karaoke bar at the Centro Cultural Peruano Japonés, I couldn’t resist putting myself forward. And the only song they had available (probably by some kind of mistake) that seemed to fit my style, and which didn’t involve any actual singing–rather, shouting–was the Sid Vicious version of “My Way.” Which duly became my karaoke party piece, although only in Peru. Elsewhere, I tend (with only very occasional exceptions) to avoid karaoke. But in Peru, I sing. And I sing Sid Vicious.

So when the students excitedly wanted to go to a makeshift karaoke bar here in Pisac, I duly trundled along, and after an introductory rendition of “Piano Man” (for which I was helpfully drowned out by their own enthusiastic participation) and a rather less successful attempt at “So Long Marianne” (which I thought they would also turn into a sing-along, but I guess these days young Canadians don’t know their Leonard Cohen), I ended the night as Sid. And when it came to the line “I shot it up or kicked it out,” somewhat carried away by the occasion I kicked at the nearest unoffending article of domestic furniture, which turned out not to be quite as robust as I had imagined.

But a bit of punk in Pisac seems appropriate. Because this is a town riddled with New Age tourists, neo-hippies, and of course the punks hated hippies: “Never trust a hippy,” as they used to say. And to be honest, the posters plastered on Pisac doors featuring white-bearded gringos advertising such things as “Sacred Healing Ceremony and Musical Oracle” or “Psychedelic Counseling” and “Authentic Yoga” were getting me down. So the chair paid the price, in what was no doubt a bit of personal catharsis.

To be honest, though, I do have hippy friends. Yes, the old cliché: “Some of my best friends are hippies.” I’m thinking of one in particular, Steve, who I last saw on a very brief trip to London in March, who is very unwell, and who I fear I will not see again. Indeed, I could no doubt go on at length (also in clichéd fashion) as to why these Pisac neo-hippies are so unlike and different from the “real” hippies that I love back in Penge and Beckenham.

But I think the main thing here is that the New Age business is a distraction. As a group, we’ve almost begun to see and think about it more than about the issues of Indigeneity that we are actually here to consider and reflect on. Not that the two are easily entangled: obviously, the New Age Spiritualism feeds on a construction of Indigeneity that is specific to highland Peru and the Sacred Valley (the very notion of a “sacred” valley). It is not for nothing that they are here, as well as other places (Pisac reminds me for instance of Antigua, Guatemala) where Indigenous culture remains strongly embedded. And of course, for the locals, though there may well be grumbling about some of their ways and their impact on the town, they also contribute to the economy, and the guides for instance willingly play up to the image of spirituality and peace, much in fact as way back in the 1600s Garcilaso de la Vega portrayed Inca imperialism as a process of smothering the subjugated in peace, love, and understanding, “so that however brutish and barbarous they had been they were subdued by affection and attached to [the Inca’s] service by a bond so strong that no province ever dreamed of rebelling” (33). Arguably, the neo-hippies are similarly neo-colonists but preaching wellness, breathwork, and organic veggies. Still, I’m not sure I want much to do with it.

If I were to choose (though I’m not sure I can), I’d rather a punk Indigeneity or Indigenism. This might be along the lines of the graphic artist Cherman Quino, whose work I love. In my office I have a poster of his, which features an image of César Vallejo and the text: “Hay Hermanos muchísimo que hacer. . . y no has hecho ni mierda.” But I think there’s something of the punk spirit in the rebellion of the chicheras in Arguedas’s Los ríos profundos, or even in the multitudinous arrival of the colonos in Abancay at the end of the same book, where they are described as “crawl[ing] around like big lice, bigger than merino sheep; they’d eat up the little animals alive, finishing the people off first” (226). Arguedas is always aware of the dark side, of the threat of Indigeneity. What else is “yawar mayu,” the bloody river that he constantly predicts and fears, but the ultimate in punk? Or, further back, if Garcilaso is hippy, isn’t Guaman Poma the first punk (even before Los Saicos and “Demolición”). Doesn’t his handwritten artwork have something of the aesthetic of Jamie Reid? Or his self-staged interview with the King of Spain something of the sheer chutzpah of the Sex Pistols on TV with Bill Grundy?

Perhaps not. Perhaps this is as much of an imposition or fantasy as that of the neo-hippies. But it’s one I prefer.

Music and Dance in the Plaza de Armas

Music is important in the Andes, and we have certainly heard plenty over the last few days. As I write, outside in the Plaza de Armas is some kind of “battle of the bands,” which has been going on for hours and, we are told, will continue for many more. There is a wide variety of styles and content: from a cover of Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk” to a kind of Andean Rock featuring pipes alongside guitars, glorifying the city of Cusco.

Late last night, also in the Plaza, was a rather more impromptu musical performance that gathered up a crowd in the central park singing and no doubt drinking until late. In the streets around the Plaza are bars and restaurants aimed mostly at tourists, some of which feature live bands, but all of which have music blaring until the early hours. During the day, there are also buskers, not least a guy just outside our hotel who sings his heart out from a wheelchair.

A couple of days ago, many of us went to a concert in the Municipal Theatre, featuring upcoming “Q Pop” star Lenin Tamayo, whose fusion of Andean music (and Quechua lyrics) with K Pop beats and extraordinary dancing was quite something. On the same bill was Lenin’s mother, Yolanda Pinares, a veteran singer whose speciality seems to be torch songs that express the struggles and triumphs of Andean womanhood: she sang for her Warmi, even when life was hard and they felt they couldn’t go on.

It is festival season–we are in the midst of Corpus Christi–and so perhaps the music we have heard most has been the marching music, less drum and bass than drum and brass (no band is complete without a couple of tubas, if not half a dozen), that accompanies the parades that thread through the city streets and circle the Plaza. This is the music that accompanied the transport of the saints from the parishes that constitutes the essence of Corpus Christi. But it is also the music of the school parade that we saw the first morning we were here, accompanying a wide variety of Indigenous dance troupes as well as students marching along in their school uniforms. It is repetitive and insistent; it keeps threatening to stop, only to be picked up and continue on. The stamina of marchers, dancers, and musicians is impressive.

Then there was the music of the sung mass held outdoors before the saints paraded around the square. Music and chants drive home the liturgy of the church, not least for a society that historically has had high rates of illiteracy. It adds to the pomp and splendour of the occasion. But even the church music is subject to hybridity and fusion of various kinds: for us, there was a strange recollection of home to hear a Spanish interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” broadcast around the plaza.

Finally, I want to mention the performance I stumbled across in the Plaza yesterday evening, which was not simply music and dance but also a form of narrative theatre that reminded me of everything from pantomime to (what I have read about) the European Commedia dell’arte of the late Middle Ages and beyond. There was no dialogue or lyrics, and there were more or less formal dances but also much play-acting and drama. 

This, one of the audience told me, was specifically a performance called “Los majeños” (put on in this instance by the Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo), which features a whole set of stock types such as a Harlequin-style clown and satirical portraits (with masks) of the mestizo merchants who once trafficked liquor through the southern highlands, introducing the vice of alcohol. Only a turn to the church and the cross (and the representation of a procession much like those we had seen in the Corpus Christi celebrations) finally saves the day. 

The message was no doubt intensely moralistic, combining nationalism with religion in a version of the Peruvian flag with a cross in the middle panel. But along the way the audience laughed most at the comic consequences of the portrayed drunkenness, oohing and aahing at the physical comedy of bodies falling over or slumped on the ground, or the fights that broke out between women and men alike. The carnivalesque disruption required a moralizing resolution, of course, but that same resolution also enabled the carnival that preceded it, which provided most of the draw and all the entertainment.

Plaza Mayor

Yesterday we went to Lima’s city centre, a UNESCO world heritage site, designated as such in 1988 for “bear[ing] witness to the architecture and urban development of a Spanish colonial town of great political, economic and cultural importance in Latin America. It represents an outstanding expression of a regional cultural process, which preserves its architectural, technological, typological, aesthetic, historic and urban values adapted in terms of availability of materials, climate, earthquakes and the requirements of society.” And it is indeed impressive: the grand Plaza Mayor, with the Presidential Palace on one side, flanked by the Municipality on another, and the Cathedral opposite, and then buildings that (now) include the headquarters of the Caretas news magazine. In true colonial style, then, some of the major centres of power are represented (or instiantiated) at this symbolic and real heart of the city: politics, religion, and the press.

Other elements of power were also evident. Yesterday, the whole square was essentially closed off (though you could walk the pavements at its edges), with barricades preventing anyone crossing the roads to the park at its centre, and there were plenty of police lurking around the perimeter. Later, I saw a bunch of riot police (with shields) watchfully wandering around. I talked to several people to try to find out what was up: the first person I asked, a guy trying to drum up custom for a nearby restaurant, shrugged his shoulders and said simply the single word: “Politics!” He then apologized, but I told him there was no need. A few minutes later, a policewoman told me the closure was something to do with a “protocol” meeting at the palace. A third opinion (from another police officer) was that it was in preparation for an incoming march by disaffected workers who had just been laid off by the municipality. This last version seemed the most possible, though we didn’t see any evidence of the demonstration over the next few hours, and in any case the laconic first response I’d received had already summed everything up nicely. Politics!

Later some sort of event did start up at one side of the square, with music and speeches and dancing. There were flags, too: someone was carrying around a large Wiphala, the flag associated particularly with the Aymara people in Peru’s far south, near Lake Titicaca, and also in neighbouring Bolivia. It was hard to get close to the event or to hear what was going on (and at point in any case I’d made arrangements to meet the students in the Plaza San Martín a few blocks away), but I heard some reference to Manco Inca, one of the last Inca rulers, installed after the Spanish conquest and originally allied with them as the Inca Empire split and dissolved in internecine disputes much aggravated by the Spanish. He later escaped the Spanish and laid siege first to Cusco and then to Lima. He was murdered in 1544 by Spaniards who had previously also murdered the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, as the invaders similarly broke up into contending factions. Yesterday, around the perimeter of the square, one guy was wandering around holding up a home-made sign saying “Manco Inca Anticolonial.” I asked him if I could take his picture, but didn’t talk to him any further. I have no idea whether he was part of the event on the other side of the square, or whether he was protesting against it for some reason. Perhaps there was simply no relation between the two things.

Meanwhile, life went on around and about. Tourists (including ourselves, of course) looked on, visited the museums, and checked out handicraft shops, while regularly approached by ambulant vendors offering everything from postcards and maps to trinkets and shoeshines. Many but not all of the people trying to make a little cash from the milling crowd were Indigenous. There was at least one wedding about to take place in the Cathedral, the guests waiting in their finery while little boys in matching suits who were perhaps nephews or cousins of the bride or groom ran around and their parents looked on to ensure they didn’t stray too far. And, despite my predictions to the students that Lima the Grey would be perpetually covered by its characteristic cloud as we enter winter and approach the solstice, in fact the sun burned off the sea mist and burnished the buildings’ yellow-painted walls. Later that night, in the Plazas San Martín I saw the riot police get picked up in a van, presumably to go back to the station. It looked like they hadn’t seen any action. The crowds and the music continued long after they, and we, had gone.

T-3 to Peru

My plane leaves Monday evening. so this is the last weekend in Vancouver before the trip. Arrangements continue… Just this afternoon, for instance, one of the museums we’ll be visiting (the Museo Larco) wrote to tell me that their charges are going up, but that we can still visit for the old price that we were quoted when I asked for a guided tour a few weeks ago, so long as we now pay in advance.

But paying in advance is not simple. This goes also for hotels and everything else. Peruvian businesses much prefer to be paid via bank transfer, which is a long and laborious process to arrange via the university. So I try to pay by credit card (I now have a university credit card precisely for this purpose), but this has its own complications, sometimes at this end, sometimes at the other.

At times the issue is the Peruvian enthusiasm for bureaucracy. Perhaps as a legacy even of colonial administration, as elsewhere in Latin America businesses like things written down and sealed with some kind of identification: National Identification Card (or DNI) for citizens, passport number for foreigners. The lettered city lives on.

But at times the issue is the various ways in which Peruvians try to get around these same strictures of documentation… in ways that make my university’s financial administration’s metaphorical eyebrows raise a centimetre or two. The real city endures, even as the formalities of the paperwork are theoretically respected. “Obedezco pero no cumplo” (I obey but I do not comply), as the old phrase has it.

In my experience, however, everything has a way of working itself out. 

Meanwhile, I’ve been meeting up with the students on a fairly regular basis. Our final get-together is this afternoon. These have been optional exercises in getting to know each other, and there have been varying numbers each time, but I think they’ve been pleased to meet each other, and maybe relieved to discover they have some of the same interests and enthusiasms. To me, they seem like a very good group, and it’s also been good to have a better sense of them before we go.

In many ways they are typical of students I have in other Faculty of Arts classes. They have a variety of different experiences and perspectives. The majority, but not all, are Canadians (mostly but not entirely from British Columbia), and yet even among the Canadians many are first- or second-generation immigrants. A couple have some kind of Latin American heritage. There are (by quite a margin) more women than men. Some have officially graduated, others have still to declare a major. Of those who have, they are studying a variety of different subjects–Latin American Studies, but also Anthropology, English, Sociology, even the Sciences. They seem to be fairly well-travelled, but few have been to South America, and only one to Peru before. Some speak at least some Spanish, but most do not. They all seem almost as excited as I am.

I will be there a day or two in advance, and meeting most of them in at the airport in Lima early in the morning on Thursday. 

Then after settling in at the hotel, our first activity will be a tour of San Isidro, the neighbourhood where we are staying, including the Huaca Huallamarca, a (mostly) reconstructed Indigenous pyramid, and El Olivar, a park featuring olive trees that are descendants of saplings brought over from Spain in 1560.

The Lettered City

In The Lettered City, Angel Rama stresses the utopian dimensions (literally) built in to the colonial cities of Latin America. For here, the plan came first, often with scant regard for the material (or human) environment. The classic grid system, with a plaza mayor or main square on each side of which were arrayed the various centres of power whether spiritual (the cathedral) or temporal (the town hall or municipality), reflecting an ideal conception of order and hierarchy. These were cities of “signs” that, in Rama’s words, could “be made to represent things as yet only imagined–the ardently desired objects of an age that displayed a special fondness for utopian dreams” (8). In the New World, the Spanish imagined a <em>tabula rasa</em> on which to construct a vision of civilization untrammeled by the messy history they had left behind in Europe. They were of course not the only ones to think this way–colonial settlers in North America, for instance, had similarly utopian dreams–but what was distinctive about the Spanish imperial enterprise was the focus on urban design and cities as nodes of power and influence from which order would flow from the centre outwards.

Rama explains the longevity of this urban dream, and the resilience and adaptability of those who came to construct, supervise, and implement it: the letrados, that class of professions (lawyers and accountants, civil servants and bureaucrats, priests and architects) who wielded power with a pen to work with the signs that were always to dominate material reality. The letrados outlasted even the imperial project of which they were such a key component, “weather[ing] the revolutionary storm” of the struggles for independence from Spain and “reconstitut[ing] their power in the independent republics” (45) that followed. 

By this point, however, the initial utopianism of the letrado project had long since faded–there was no longer any serious intent to bridge the gap between sign and reality–and the letrados had become a conservative force, dedicated merely to their own reproduction. Indeed, though Rama observes how reformers such as Bolívar’s mentor, Simón Rodríguez, drew on the <em>letrado</em> tradition as inspiration for change, he also shows how they were defeated by this same tradition, which ensured that “The new nations of Latin America [. . .] failed to construct democratic, egalitarian societies, and their educational institutions, instead of producing an informed citizenry, turned out custodians of the traditional, hierarchical social order” (47). The belief in the dominance of the sign built into the urban social fabric had by this time traced an affective inversion, from the utopia of infinite possibility (because the sign could be changed almost at will, so could the world), to the dystopia of entrenched cynicism (all that ever changed was the sign). 

Perhaps all this helps to explain the wild swings so characteristic of Latin American political history: between resigned fatalism on the one hand, and periodic outbursts of exuberant hope, on the other.

Behind the scenes, however, another logic is at work: not the lettered city, but the much more anarchic real city, which draws on and constitutes the context that letrado utopianism disavowed, including for instance “indigenous social networks–their agricultural zones, their market centers, and above all, their labor power” (12), but also the everyday reality that the ideal grid could never capture. For the intellectual class, the resilience of the real brought only dismay, as it resisted their vision of utopian transformation. But surely it is here we should look if we seek hope for the future. 

Two weeks to Peru…

It has just struck me that it is now less than a fortnight before I will be in Peru, to take a group of twenty UBC undergraduates (accompanied, fortunately, by a very reliable Teaching Assistant) for six weeks of study and exploration in Lima, Cusco, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu.

I am asking the students to write a regular travel blog, on which they will reflect on their experiences and observations while they are there (alongside a reading blog, in which they comment on a respond to the texts we will be reading and discussing). And so I thought, pour encourager les autres, that I would do the same.

At present I am still caught up in logistics–just yesterday I heard from our hotel in Cusco, for instance, that there has apparently been a misunderstanding about how many rooms we need; I am very much hoping this gets resolved today! But the sudden realization of how close the trip is may perhaps, paradoxically, help me stand back and think again about what I hope we achieve.

The theme of the course (because it is also a regular, six-credit university course) is “Making and Unmaking Indigeneity in the Andes.” Its basic premise, I suppose, is that we cannot (and should not) take Indigeneity for granted. Indigeneity is a product of history–and of course, specifically colonial and postcolonial history–if only for the fact that, prior to colonization, there was no such category as “Indigeneity.”

There were of course Inkas (and Chankas and Ashánika, and so on; elsewhere, Maya and Mexica etc.), but there were no Indigenous people. Indigeneity is a result or construction of colonialism. Indeed, the term “Indigenous” (in English) is first attested to by the OED in 1632, and it is in 1646 that we have the first occurrence of what we would consider its modern meaning, in a reference (by Thomas Browne) to “indigenous or proper natives of America.”

So we will read and think about how Indigeneity has been made–and at various points, also un-made–in the Andes from the seventeenth century (with Guaman Poma) to a present that we will, partially at least, see around us in Peru itself.

Inevitably, we will be tourists–and I hope that the students have a good time, and do not get sick or break legs and the like–but we will also be studying tourism, thinking about a history of outsiders’ gazes or Occidentalism, reflecting on our own participation, and even complicity, in making and unmaking Indigeneity. There is a lot to learn, and not only for the students. I am very much looking forward to the trip, although I am also a little nervous. . . if mostly in a good way. As I have told the students: we need to expect the unexpected and prepare for our plans to be derailed. That will be part of the learning.