September 8, 2005

September 8 in Orcotuna

Too many good things happened to me today, and yet it wasn't until almost the end of the day that I realized the significance of this date.

Today, 8 de septiembre, is the feast day of the patroness of my grandfather's Andean village, Orcotuna, my ancestral homeland.

I suddenly realized that in Orcotuna, today would be a day of processions, ritual dancing, eating, and drinking. A small image of a white Virgin would be paraded along the dusty streets, followed by chonguinada dancers dressed in elaborate 16th century costumes.

Musicians with violins and archaic harps would parade around the plaza playing syncopated huaynos, and encouraging the throngs of visitors to dance.

Vendors set up stands around the plaza, selling food and drink (since copious ingestion of beer and chicha and aguardiente are part and parcel of Andean festivities.

Four years ago I went to Orcotuna to witness the event for the first time since my childhood, when I was dragged religiously on a yearly basis. Although my grandfather's reality had far removed him, in consciousness and experience, from the village life, the yearly visits to Orcotuna on 8 de septiembre were his way of linking his present with his past.

It had taken me over twenty years to make that same journey, and although I had been to many parts of the world, there was something that had kept me from returning to the one place where I can say: My people come from here.

Atop a hill, overlooking the red tiled roofs of Orcotuna, is the shrine that becomes the focal point on the ocho de septiembre.

It is built around a cave where apparently the Virgin first appeared, and as I trudged up the dirt road with all the other pilgrims, revelers, and tourists, I saw myriad Indian women, dressed in their many-layered skirts, kneeling before the cave entrance.

Their offerings were white candles they held in their hands oblivious to the wax dripping slowly on their bronze-colored skin. They prayed and chanted, their long braids bobbing, their heads covered by high-brim white hats.

It was being seven years old again. It was having my grandparents still alive, holding my small hands in theirs.

And as I looked into the cave, I realized that worshippers had imbued special meaning to a unique rock outcropping right inside the cave walls.

And it all made sense. Because in animist Andean cosmology, the mountains, the glaciers, rocks, and all manifestations of Nature, possess their own spirts.

Despite 500 plus years of Spanish post-colonialism and the unique synchretic reality that has since arisen, in Orcotuna, as in many other parts of the Andean world, there is still a link to that millenial past.

Suddenly I realized that I belonged there, that despite the vicissitudes of my own life and space and time, I too had link to that ancient past.

Although the cultural landscape I best understand is the chaotic fractured polyglot post-modern megalopolis I call home, on that ocho de septiembre in Orcotuna, I could say:

My people come from here. And I too am from here.

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