A Festive Cusco

Cusco is an exciting place to be at the moment.  In addition to the sense of political possibility stoked by the significant election victory and the ongoing struggle in nearby Puno against invasive Canadian mining ventures, the city is celebrating its annual Corpus Christi and Inti Raymi days.  Together the days, and the weeks leading up to them, constitute Cusco days, a period of intense revelry complete with parties, fireworks, and various parades through the central square.  This year is especially exciting because it marks 100 years since Hiram Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu, an anniversary the authorities are touting intensely to boost the already booming tourist attraction (a TV crew showed up in the archives to film the earliest known reference to Machu Picchu).  In addition, Yale (where Bingham worked) just recently returned various artifacts taken from that expedition and they will soon be displayed in a local museum.  The result of these concurrent trends is a markedly optimistic Cusco.

The celebrations themselves are packed with local meaning.  Vari0us groups, including businesses, student groups, university departments, political organizations, peasant communities, sports teams, and many others, work create a spectacle for the parade.  They build floats, put together costumes, and choreograph dances and plays to be performed as they march through the Plaza de Armas and surrounding streets.  These groups regularly reflect community or regional pride (depictions of Machu Picchu and the condor-puma-snake motif key to Andean mythology are popular) but often they relay simple messages or morals.  For example, one health group depicted a nurse battling death with a paper mache syringe in an effort to popularize its own immunization program.  Another radical student group had a float of the world being destroyed by environmental damage with soldiers (several labeled CIA) surrounding it, this globe was followed by an angelic depiction of justice holding scales which balanced human development against a glass of water, alluding to the water pollution which now threatens Lake Titicaca and Puno.

In addition to containing social, cultural, and political messages, the parade is an arena to display standing and to renew rivalries.  This tradition stretches back to the colonial era.   On Friday after research, I skipped one of many parades to visit the museum of religious art.  In the museum, I found a series of 17th-century paintings depicting the religious procession of Corpus Christi.  In most, a religious artifact is led by an indigenous nobleman who is regaled in Incan imagery, a stark reminder of how indigenous leaders appealed both to Spanish and indigenous symbols of authority.  Indeed, the existence of the paintings (which often included the name and position of nobleman) demonstrates both the significance of indigenous participation in Cusqueñan festivals and the use of festivals as a font of legitimacy.  Indeed, I have also found colonial court cases explicitly referencing the importance and controversy of the celebrations; for example, leading indigenous leaders brought cases requesting documentation to support their right to participate in the parade as indigenous nobles.  The festival seems to continue to fulfill this central cultural role as the participation in the festivities give groups a chance to portray their continued significance to society.  This process also fosters competition both for control of individual groups and between different sectors of the population.  In addition, the uneasy interaction between Catholicism and indigenous identity continues; for example, in the calendar provided by the archive of the archbishop Inti Raymi is not named but simply called Cusco Day while in the Centro Bartólome de las Casas (which offers Quechua education and assistance to indigenous peasants) and the University largely ignore Corpus Christi while emphasizing the continued significance of Inti Raymi.

(Pictures to Follow)

Posted by David Klassen — PhD Candidate in History at NYU

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