Our Lady of Guadalupe

After several failed attempts to reach Cornelio on the village’s single Entel telephone to inquire about his availability to serve as my interpreter, I am heading solo to Chimpa Rodeo. I will participate in the Fiesta de La Virgen de Guadalupe without my regular translator, no intermediary, no one to help me find a place to stay if Don Angel’s family is unable to house me. I was half hoping that I might not be able to reach Cornelio. I am anxious to discover the most popular annual festival of the region on my own.

I have been told that the event unites not only Chimpa Rodeo’s residents in celebration but, in light of their chapel’s legendary significance, residents from Jalq’a communities throughout the region. This auspicious occasion is also the preferred date for marriage. Ravelo’s Catholic priest will join several Jalq’a couples from the surrounding area in ‘holy matrimony’ during a mass in the chapel on Saturday afternoon, once he has issued each couple a marriage license.

I arrive in the late afternoon to find my regular hosts able to house me. Angel is already at the festivities but eighteen-year-old Lucia is home and willing to serve as my new interpreter during conversations with her mother, Desideria. They seem genuinely pleased to see me and to have me participate in this festive occasion. My small gifts of sardines, pasta, and marbles for the boys and a small tube of hand cream for Lucia appear to be much appreciated. I leave my belongings, a small knapsack and sleeping bag, on the bed that Lucia graciously offers me when I stay overnight. I grab my camera and flashlight and head up the hill to the open-air festivities outside the community’s small adobe community centre.

I plan to be the self-appointed photographer of these festivities. From my first day in this village, residents have always demonstrated a great interest in my photos of their community and more particularly of themselves. Perhaps that is because there are no mirrors in the hamlet. Capturing a photographic record of events is consequently very straightforward. And having received copies of photographs taken during previous visits, residents trust that I will produce the promised copy.

Off to the side of the circle, I photograph a recently butchered cow being expertly carved into roasts, steaks, and chops. This year’s event is an especially important one for Chimpa Rodeo since one of their own, twenty-two year-old Victor, will be married tomorrow to his twenty-year old common-law spouse of the past four years. The food for such occasion should be tasty and plentiful. There are many guests to feed.

Several sheep have already been sacrificed. Their cleaned skins and rib cages have been hung to dry in the noonday sun, their intestines put to boil in a large stew pot and their blood smeared on Don Victor’s and his fiance’s faces as well as the faces of the Padrino and Madrino for this festival, Don Eduardo and Doña Antonia. The sheep’s blood, extracted only from a white-fleeced male, has been painted on their faces to ensure that no disease enters their bodies or homes. The lattice of sinewy tissue on Eduardo and Antonia’s hats will augur good fortunes as well.

Beside the kettle of hard boiling innards, there is a huge vat of potatoes and an equally large pot of cornmeal soup, the latter heated by placing extremely hot stones from the cooking fire directly into the soup. Mutton and beef are roasting above the slow-burning wood coals of an asado or barbecue pit. Several women have gathered to prepare the food, with each family contributing what it could. There should be enough to go around, although the crowd keeps growing. Every time I look around, there seem to be more outsiders. The few families with small greenhouses of adobe and plastic sheeting have contributed lettuce.

I regret not having brought food to contribute. Cornelio would have undoubtedly advised me to do so, never forgetting to contribute himself. But I do know that my gift of coca leaves will be much appreciated. Indeed, when I do pull out my bag to drop quarter handfuls into cupped hands, there is a rush to get some. Don Caspian tells the anxious recipients to calm down and wait their turn. Chimpa Rodeo’s elders should be the first to receive their share, he insists.

As dusk turns into a moonlit night, the young devil dancers pull onlookers into the circle to dance. My arm is tugged and I join in, working hard to catch a rhythm that feels rather awkward at first. After several dances, food is served. Much to my dismay, my plate arrives with a healthy helping of sheep’s intestines. I eat a small piece that to me tastes like stewed elastic, then manage to pull it from my mouth and onto a dog’s salivating tongue without others having taken notice, at least that is what I tell myself. I eat as much as I can of the mound of potatoes and slabs of tough, extra-lean meat remaining on my plate. I then take a small plastic bag out of my pocket, explaining that I want to save some food to share with IPTK compañeros, an acceptable explanation for not having finished my meal.

I am also given chicha to drink quite frequently throughout the late afternoon and evening. I drink this fermented corn brew from conch-like tutuma shells placed in both my hands (in honour of the forthcoming union of the bride and the groom). I sip it gingerly, concerned not so much about possible inebriation since it is not terribly strong, but instead with the particles of dirt floating on the surface. Pachamama gets a particularly generous offering from me before each sip until one of the women observes my extravagant splash. She reminds me that I need only give Pachamama a drop or two. So I resign myself to a probable short course of antibiotics after my return to Sucre.

Drinking shots of 80- to 100-proof home-brewed alcohol is another matter altogether. I simply can’t handle this more potent distillation. I accept the small cup, wet my lips, and again give Pachamama a big slurp. Since the shots are considerably smaller, this strategy works reasonably well. But like a hot brick in bare hands, I pass the shot cup onto another before it is once again filled.

Given residents’ willingness to share what little they have, I haven’t the heart to turn down any of this generosity. I have thought of feigning illness or suggesting that my religion forbids meat and alcohol. But in the end I decide that such a simple demonstration of appreciation should not be passed up.

The meal is over and it is time to prepare for the community parade down the hillside to the chapel. The Madrino and Padrino will lead the parade with a community banner announcing Don Victor’s marriage. Each host is taken into a separate room for sprucing up and, I suspect, a bit of sobering up. It has been a long day of celebration already. The hosts are finally ready. They lead the parade, followed by five women holding hands and dancing joyously behind them, occasionally weaving their snake-like chain into a circle.

A woman grabs my arm and I am pulled into the chain and danced down a gully, then a narrow mountain path, along with the rest of the crowd. While I must stoop to hold the hands of women a good eight inches shorter than me, they laugh at my occasional tripping on a loose rock or rubble. I have my hiking boots on, after all, and they wear only their simple ojotas. Music, as expected, is our constant companion. Chimpa Rodeo’s band accompanies our march down the hillside and when we arrive at the chapel, I discover bands from other communities, each taking their turn at serenading the crowd. The music will continue until dawn, I am told.

There are no formal proceedings tonight. Instead, people file quietly into the chapel to light a candle and pray. I take my turn, eager to visit this legendary small chapel and to view the painting of the Virgin and her son. I am somewhat awed when I finally enter. This humble memorial to honour Mary stands in such sharp contrast to the ornate, often garish, monuments I discovered in Sucre’s numerous Catholic churches.

The altar is flush against its mountain wall. On it are a plain cross of thick tree branches, fastened with leather twine, and the boulder with the painting of the Virgin, made visible by the flickering light of numerous small white candles. The painting is still vivid, its colours likely touched up from time to time, although legend would suggest that it remains as it was when first discovered. I light a candle below the painting and hear a woman whisper words of devotion to Pachamama, interspersed with words to the Virgin Mary. After leaving the chapel, I sit with the women on the chapel steps for a while. Lucia is not around to help with translation and the Spanish-speaking men are deep in their own conversations. So we smile a lot once my basic conversational words run out.

After an hour or so, my eyes are stinging and watering, likely from something in the smoke of the several small bonfires keeping participants warm. They sting to a point of considerable discomfort. So I am heading back up to Lucia’s room. I am also anxious to jot this rich experience down in my field journal. I meet Desideria on her way down to the chapel. Her children are all settled now and she can finally join the others. Her eyes, arms and few words of Spanish ask me why I have decided to head back well before midnight, when most women will journey home. I gesture that I am tired and bid her good night in Quechua.

The music is still blaring in the distance as I put this journal down, zip my sleeping bag up to my ears and switch off my flashlight. Will I dream of the devil’s dance, doves and revelations, Pachamama, or Desideria, a tireless Jalq’a mother finally able to relax and have fun?

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