When most people think about Peru, the first (culturally significant, you know, besides llamas) thing that comes to mind is Machu Picchu. I’ve been around people who don’t know my country at all and it’s sadly expected at this point. There’s something my uncle once said to me –, “if you haven’t visited Machu Picchu, you haven’t really been to Cusco.”
I spent four weeks in Cusco this summer, in a small village in the Valle Sagrado, Calca. I learned about their music, and their language, and the yupana, the tool that my namesake derives from. I lived the celebration of Mamacha Carmen, I built a huatia and burned my fingertips peeling potatoes, I saw the giant terraces my people built in Chinchero, I rode a van up a rocky hillside, witnessed an offering to the apus (spirits of the mountain, guardians to the Andean people– the dancers I was with offered their vitality and energy to the apus through their performance), then ran (and fell) back down. I laughed, danced and drank. I learned about the history of my people: the history that they don’t teach in textbooks, the history that even anthropologists and art historians tend to get wrong, the history that is not actually history at all, but a people alive and breathing and kicking and screaming. I never visited Machu Picchu.
In all my time in Cusco, whenever I came across foreigners, especially Americans, Spaniards, and evangelizing Christian groups, I couldn’t help but wonder how they dealt with the emotions that arise in one in the face of such astounding culture. Where I felt so moved and raw, did they feel any guilt? Did the white women who traveled wanting to liberate their Andean counterparts realize that there already existed a balance between the gender identities of these women, one rooted in the observation of the Earth around them, that was inherently equal and reciprocal? Did they feel the same awe I did, or did they come away from the experience still believing that “indigenous” is synonymous with “primitive”? That the lack of Western commodities did not mean that a culture and traditions and people persevered, but that progress and advancement is stagnant? Did they even make the connection in the first place, between the privilege derived not only from their socioeconomic ability to travel but from all the advantages they inherited from their colonizer forefathers/ancestors?
The tourism industry is quite beneficial to the Andean community, but it mostly benefits big companies, perpetuating false information and catering to European and American consumers. A resident of Calca I met during my trip had a particularly interesting point of view on the tourism industry in Cusco– “it’s basic exploitation, they’re pimping out Machu Picchu and all of the major sites.” It’s disappointing how quickly indigenous value is reduced to aesthetics, to mere history—how its reduced and diminished, period. It’s beautiful, it really is, but it’s sad to think that the only thing most people know about the Andes is how good it looks on their Instagram feed. It’s sad that what little people care to know about indigenous groups is based on how pret-ty or impressive it might seem to others. Even my own family and other Peruvians I encountered were immediately put off by the fact that I didn’t have my own post-card selfie– posing with a llama or with my finger positioned to appear on the tip of Huayna Picchu.
It is especially interesting to follow this train of thought all the way to the States, where indigenous groups are so devalued and marginalized that they aren’t even considered worthy of a second thought by most of the American population and the government, let alone tourists.
This is a consistent theme when thinking of any indigenous group, and even more so when we think about the heroes our history books tell us to venerate. While Columbus Day is another insignificant day off to most people living in the United States, it is a symbol of colonialism that should not be so easily accepted. Recently, Los Angeles, California changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, which is certainly a step in the right direction. However, a change like this only being enacted in 31 cities (only one in Ohio– Oberlin) and 3 states, is not remotely enough to count as real change or justice for the indigenous community. In Peru, the small town of Cerro de Pasco has been having their water poisoned because of a mining project that refuses to close despite knowing the lead poisoning it has brought upon the population– sound familiar? A number of members from one of Brazil’s uncontacted tribes, whose financial support has been significantly slashed by the current president, have been reportedly murdered by miners. In Mexico, thousands of indigenous women working in maquiladoras went missing and their bodies are found under bridges, raped, mutilated, and murdered, and the government does little to nothing. The North Dakota Access Pipeline fostered a lot, if short-lived, support for the indigenous population in the States, but is far from a solution. In fact, the drilling of the pipeline started up even after a federal judge, U.S. District Judge James E. Boas-berg, ruled its approval illegal. Reservations in the US are low resource areas, far from local health care and food sources, and have historically been forced into poverty, exacerbated by the lack of proper schools and other social institutions that are very much needed.
Claiming that the traumatic events of colonialism are in the past and remain there is purely fiction. The effects are strongly felt today, all over the world. In the United States, the nation as a whole should engage in a moral reflection of its past and recognize the injustices and disgraces that allowed it to become the “great” country that it now claims it is. This is something I experienced in Peru itself– while my family in Lima celebrated Peruvian Independence Day in July, my Quechua teacher reminded me that even though patriotism and freedom of colonialism is valid and important, much was lost in the process. Our independence day marks the day that Quechua stopped being the official language of Peru, the day that Cusco lost its title as the capital of Peru. And while there is a somewhat deep appreciation of our history and culture, there is still much more to take accountability for and many more wrongs to attempt to make right.
While I was in Cusco, I was hyper aware of the cultural richness around me, dynamic and surviving. It was not just because these places are much less developed, in the Western sense of the word, rather it was the respect that all people had for it. That is sacred ground. We are on sacred ground. Everywhere we step is sacred, yet we take it greedily and never give thanks. Leaving Calca behind and landing in Lima, then leaving Lima and landing in the States was a gradual but definite return to “reality” as I know it, which reminded and showed me just how beautiful and painful the world is.
This article appeared in the October issue of The Vindicator. The online version of the issue is here!