Victor’s Wedding

Cornelio arrived this morning with regrets that he had not received my messages until earlier that morning. He has been asked to serve as one of Don Victor’s witnesses so he will attend the marriage service that, he tells me, will be the first of three masses. The other two services will be offered in honour of the festival of Guadalupe and to baptize children. A sole priest will lead this trilogy of worship. There will be quite a crowd, I am told.

As it turns out, the priest, one of the Ravelo parish’s two clergymen, started his day with a very heavy workload. Since 9 am, from a small table at the back of Chimpa Rodeo?s small community centre, he has been issuing marriage licenses to eager young couples, twice as many as anticipated. Since the Festival of the Lady of Guadalupe has fallen on a Saturday, today is an especially auspicious day to wed.

I head to the licensing session. With the encouragement of my local friends, I gently push through a small crowd at the entrance of the building. The classroom-size community centre is completely jammed. I squeeze my towering frame (in that context anyway) to a spot behind the priest to observe the proceedings. Don Victor, Dona Angelica, his bride-to-be and their witnesses are there, close to the front. The groom-in-waiting who is first in the queue is asked if his parents were legally married, although no legal evidence is requested. Next, he is asked to recite the ‘Our Father’ followed by the sign of the cross, as evidence of his Catholic upbringing. The groom and his bride then sign a certificate, with a thumbprint if necessary. The young couple’s witnesses also sign or add their thumbprint to the certificate. Their form is then stamped and signed by the priest. The women, many unilingual and unable to read and write, observe with nervous, often frightened eyes.

During several of the ‘Our Father’ recitations, the grooms are cut off before the prayer’s completion. Aware of the unusually large number of couples this year, the priest wastes little time. Don Victor completes the requirements. He seems extremely relieved when he holds his certificate firmly in hand.

In contrast to my trek down to the chapel the previous evening, my journey to the chapel in broad daylight is sure-footed. As I approach, I see families and friends throughout the meadow surrounding the chapel, dotting the countryside like families at a big community picnic. As I draw closer to the clusters of kin, I see that in each grouping there is a young about to be bride and groom. The future bride is in a white cholita wedding outfit – a shiny white pollera that sits just above the ankles, a satin blouse, a polyester white cardigan, and a muslin veil that falls to the edge of her pollera. She holds a small bouquet of white carnations. Her ojotas have been replaced with new white sandals fitted over feet in white knee socks or stockings. Her young partner looks rather more uncomfortable in his Western business suit and stiff-collared white shirt. He wears a tie but I notice that many other grooms have preferred an open collar in the very hot noonday sun. The men’s footgear is varied, including running shoes, black leather shoes, and ojotas. Later, in the chapel, I discover that a few couples have chosen to don beautiful, newly woven traditional Jalq’a outfits.

In the daylight I notice that there is a small, very shallow river running through this landscape. Since I am the only Gringa in evidence and do not want to attract too much attention, particularly to my camera, I cross the river over a log bridge and find a quiet perch above the bank with a good view of the increasingly large gathering. On my way, I pass several small merchants selling refreshments and small snacks, including a vendor from Ravelo who recognizes me. She calls me over and we chat for a while. This is one of her best days of the year, she informs me.

As three o’clock approaches, I make my way down to the chapel, having observed Don Victor and his party move in that direction. There are now at least twenty couples waiting to be married, so only they and their witnesses are allowed in the small church. Victor has asked me to photgraph the ceremony so I am allowed in, although I feel a little guilty as I glance at the faces of excited relatives lining the chapel’s exterior. The doors, they are assured, will be left open for those in hearing distance.

Over an hour has passed and still the priest fails to arrive. One young woman looks as if she is about to faint from the heat, although she will not fall far given the shoulders of others pressed against hers. For a moment, my mind wanders to my days in India where the crowding of people into small spaces was not out of the ordinary. Someone passes a bottle of water to the young woman and she seems to revive a little, although her panicked look remains. The priest and his lay assistants finally arrive. They are an hour-and-a-half late. I subsequently hear that the priest stopped for lunch after signing the last license, likely not wanting to faint from hunger himself.

The ceremony begins with group confession and a lecture to the young couples. It is no longer just the airless crowded room that makes my blood boil. In Spanish and Quechua, the men are not only asked to fulfill their responsibilities as providers, but admonished to work hard and avoid excessive drinking. The women are instructed to be good ambas de casa or housewives and reminded how the white they wear symbolizes purity. They must stay pure, he emphasizes and must remember that the union they will enter into is until death draws them apart. Divorce will be out of the question. The men, I notice, have been spared the lecture on fidelity.

A short mass ensues, hurried no doubt by the increasingly obvious need for fresh air. The noise of the bands outside has forced the closure of the doors. It would otherwise drown out the vows. The priest moves to each of the couples lined in two rows near the altar to witness and bless their vows. When it is Victor and Angelica’s turn, I squeeze over to a spot at the side of the altar to take photographs. Once the white candle they each carry in their hands is lit, symbolizing the hearth, and a single gold chain symbolizing their lifelong bond is placed over their heads to join them together, they repeat their vows. When it is time to exchange rings, they hand their candles over to their witness. They each take their turn at placing a gold wedding band on their partner?s right hand. Coins to represent future wealth, and herbs to represent good health, are also held in trust by the witness, passed back to the bride and groom once the priest declares to all that “what God has brought together, no one shall separate.” There is no kiss to cement the union. Simply being the centre of attention seems enough cause to blush.

I take a huge gulp of fresh air when we all spill out of the packed chapel. Squinting through the blinding sunlight, I notice that the numbers have continued to expand. Possibly as many as four hundred people colour the landscape. Several of the wedding parties now appear to have their own small band as well as devil dancers. There are also some boom boxes blasting pop tunes from worn cassettes. While there are two more masses still to go, the celebration has already begun. Flirtatious young men, emboldened with chicha and beer, shout at the only Gringa present to take their picture. I avoid their calls and wander over to Victor’s wedding party. Cornelio is there. After a congratulatory handshake, I bid Victor’s family and friends farewell. They don’t need me to help them to celebrate. It will be a long night of partying and possibly excessive drinking that I would prefer to avoid. I also would prefer not be repeaedly called on to be the resident photographer for all these groups.

There are several more requests to join the various parties as I climb back up the mountainside, some from friends who have just arrived. I wave goodbye and shout out my regrets and trek back to Angel and Desideria’s home, content to have had the opportunity to witness this very moving segment of the Jalq’a story.

Like cultures the world over, music, dance, special foods and special dress mark special occasions like that of Don Victor’s wedding during the Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe. When I first reached the community field on the first evening of celebrations, for example, eight teenage men performed a devil’s dance with beautifully crafted wooden or papier-mâché masks and colourful costumes. They danced in a circle to the sounds of a community band of a drummer; a charango player, with his small lute-like instrument; and two able pan-flute performers. Their acknowledgment and honouring of the darker forces of nature and the spirit world would help to protect the brides and grooms from harm.

As in all dynamic societies, with time, longstanding traditions give way to the new. Residents over 30 years of age in both Chimpa Rodeo and Moj’n lamented the decline of the more discernible expressions of their traditional Jalq’a culture. They were especially unhappy about the disappearance of the Jalq’a charango, differentiated as Jalq’a by its comparatively larger size and because of its more voluminous sound. Traditional Jalq’a songs and dances, they also complained, were simply failing to capture the imagination of their youth. A majority of the 25 families I surveyed said that their children did not know Jalq’a songs and almost half hadn’t learned Jalq’a dances. While the new dances and songs of their sons and daughters were folkloric in style, they were mostly fused versions from barrios on the edges of the city. Jalq’a youth had transported them home from the high schools and cities that for many symbolized a more exciting future.

Parental concern about the impact of these ‘modern’ influences was considerable. Within Chimpa Rodeo, 50 per cent of respondent families were concerned their grandchildren would no longer follow Jalq’a ways. In Moj’n, 64 per cent predicted a switch to ‘modern’ living within two generations. Like them, I wondered about the future of the youth returning from temporary migration to the city, their large boom-boxes perched on their still narrow shoulders. But the parent in me, and I suppose the development anthropologist as well, made me question the inevitability of rural depopulation.

The popular argument is that dreams of a more adventurous and a brighter future – however elusive for the majority – will inevitably lure rural youth into the cities for good. There is simply not enough to keep them in the countryside. And as will be discussed in the final chapters, the farming methods outsiders have imposed do not bode well for a viable farming future. The returns are not enough to make farming worthwhile and most of my research participants were not optimistic. I am more so.

The parents of the Jalq’a youngsters I met had maintained an incredibly strong sense of being Jalq’a, despite generations of outsiders telling them what to think and how to be. Their ‘devil’s dance’ during the Virgin of Guadalupe celebrations were but one concrete example. Children internalize more of their parents? values and ways than they often like to think or than the parents themselves anticipate.

These Jalq’a children were schooled in the navigation of competing worlds by masters of the give and take. By adding new traditions and dropping some of the old, and by returning to more resilient farming systems if such systems were allowed and encouraged to flourish, Jalq’a youth could well be ready to stay in the countryside. Since the cities they admire from afar are generally not equipped to provide a more secure livelihood, there will be additional incentive to return to the land. The eager look I saw in the eyes of young urban migrants returning to their home settlements during the planting season betrayed a very strong sense of such priority. And as the next chapter suggests, the strong spiritual dimension in their rural experience revealed a connection to the land not easily obscured by city lights.

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