Spectacle, Movement, and Impasse at Inti Raymi

“Inti Raymi,” sings Q-Pop (that is, K-Pop in Quechua) pioneer, Lenin Tamayo: “Vamos a bailar. . . todos a cantar”; “We’re going to dance. . . everyone sing!” And the music video, in which K-Pop takes on Andean scissor dancers, is well worth viewing. . . 

But the Inti Raymi celebrations we saw in Cusco were not much like this, and not only for the lack of K-Pop beats. Above all, where Tamayo presents festivities in which everyone can (and should) take part, a collective, mass celebration that is diverse and hybrid, what we saw instead was much more a show with a clear division between actors and spectators. Whether in the city’s Plaza de Armas, which was first cleared of people early in the morning in preparation for the arrival of the dancers, or later in Sacsayhuaman, Inti Raymi was a spectacle to be seen, rather than a festival of participation.

Moreover, proceedings also followed a program, a script, whose key points or steps were announced in both Spanish and English. There was a plot and direction to the performance, as we prepared for the dramatic arrival of the Inca (preceded by the Inca Queen), leading ultimately to the symbolic sacrifice of the llama, whose entrails were read for what they may say about the coming twelve months. This was a performance of power and continuity: both the impressive display of fealty to the Inca from the various quarters of the Twantinsuyo, as it has been reimagined by twentieth and twenty-first century Indigenists, but also the notion that this sense of territorial unity continues into the present. Downplaying or even erasing the rupture that was the Spanish conquest, Inti Raymi claims a more or less unbroken link to a distant past, replayed now in all its vibrant colour and impressive coordination of exotic difference.

Indeed, it was a show: but what a show! The sheer stamina of the dancers and musicians, who began in the morning at Qorichancha and didn’t finish until almost sunset eight or so hours later, was remarkable, not least as we spectators started to wilt in the heat of the Andean sun. All around, there was movement and motion, albeit ultimately calmed by the hand of the sovereign as the dancers bowed to his authority. And if this is a fiction of state, as it surely is, it certainly has the power to attract and capture the crowds: not simply the foreign tourists who (mainly) were those who, like us, had paid for the privilege of seats as Sacsayhuaman, but also the cusqueños who also traipsed up the hill, and then beyond, to observe the performance from the more distant but elevated perspective of the surrounding outcrops.

As we then made our way back down to the city, via the narrow and uneven path that leads to the highway, the sense of coordination soon fell apart. As tourists and locals merged, there was a logjam of people and much frustration at the fact that we weren’t moving faster, or at times even moving at all. Apart from some who had sped off already in chartered buses (but I doubt the roads were much clearer), here the different audiences were now cheek by jowl, pressed against each other, with a common but frustrated aim of escape. There were a couple of police officers looking on, who received many insults from the crowd for the fact that they seemed unable to bring more order or get the flow going again. It was literally an impasse as the physical contours of the cliffs on either side prevented anyone getting around the crush of people. Eventually the traffic restarted (no thanks to the police), but it felt as though we were once more in a more familiar Peru, and (briefly, at least) all in it more or less together.

Later, there may have been a party, who knows? If so, it wasn’t obvious, and/or we weren’t invited. But we had already felt, in suitably (and literally) dramatic fashion some of the country’s tensions: the spectacular display of coordinated unity, on the one hand, and then a rather different commonality of a delayed and frustrated, but ultimately successful, line of flight, that the authorities could only observe from the sidelines, powerless to intervene.

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.