Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Warmi Pacha Kuti: Wañuchiy Machismo! (Down with Sexism)

When I first arrived in Cochabamba, I met members of a singing group called Warmi Pacha Kuti and later travelled with them to commemorate Andean new year. The group has 18 members, all of whom are female and they sing traditional Andean music (Música Autóctona). There are only 6 traditional Andean music groups in Cochabamba and theirs is the only all womyn group. So I decided to interview one of the members Alejandra, an indigenous womyn born outside of Cochabamba.

According to her, the presence of an all womyn's group in the city is important because other traditional music groups are notorious for their exclusion of indigenous womyn. A few of the groups prohibit female members from playing instruments and only allow them to participate as dancers. Other groups seek to "compromise" by allowing womyn to play instruments provided they wear male clothing in their performance. Here womyn must pass as men to be legitimate performance artists. Alejandra claims that some womyn have been publicly insulted by their male counterparts during performances and it is very hard for indigenous womyn to partcipate in much of Andean performance art. She argues however, that is not the indigenous male elders who discrimnate against female artists but it is mostly the young, newly-arrived sons of migrants who currently run the music groups. Hence, the Warmis as a performance group signify an intervention in predominantly masculinist performance practices and has created a space for womyn to participate equally and fully in preserving Andean traditional music and culture in Cochabamba.

The groups political stance on gender politics is most apparent in its Quechua name Warmi Pacha Kuti. Warmi means woman, Pacha means [mother] earth and Kuti means return. Pacha Kuti literally means the return of the earth but it can also be interpreted in other ways. Pacha Kuti is the name of the 9th Incan King often referred to as the "Napoleon of the Andes". Under his rule, the Incas expanded and conquered all across Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile forming the Great Incan Empire called Tawantinsuyu (the four provinces). It is believed that Machu Pichu was built as an estate for him and he was the father of the great Incan warrier Tupac Yupanqui. He is a pivitol figure in Andean mythology which claims that many of the ancient Inca leaders will return to help indigenous peoples fight against and overcome their oppressors. The group named itself Warmi Pacha Kuti to engage not only the forthcoming return of ancient leaders but also to ultimately engage Andean liberation practices themselves from a womyn's perspective. While some of the members do not necessarily identify as feminists, they all share the group's fundamental philosophy that each of its members is an individual with equal rights to participate and share in Andean cultural practices as women. There are no leaders in the group and 2 of its members are foreigners from Spain and the U.S. Alejandra says that they allow non-Bolivians to participate because they believe that all womyn are children of the Pacha Mama (mother earth). Therefore, it is crucial to create alliances across race and nationality, and to act in solidarity with womyn from different backgrounds. This encourages them to find commonalities in their experiences as women emerging from different historical and contemporary contexts and ultimately ensures that their political vision against oppression arises out of a diversity of perspectives and opinions.

Of particular interest is the fact that within the group, some womyn do not identify as indigenous even if they have indigenous physiological features and speak Quechua. According to Alejandra, there is a split among many people living in the Andes as to whether to identify as indigenous or not. For some, if you live in the countryside (el campo), and speak Quechua then only then you can identify as indigenous. For others, if you are Quechua-speaking but live in the city then you identify as an "indígena urbanizado/a" (Urbanised indigenous people). This distinction is important and forms part of a debate surrounding the definition of indigeneity in a school of thought called "indianitud". Indianitud thinks through indigeneity by engaging in questions such as "how do we name ourselves--are we indios or indígenas?", "what does our liberation entail or look like?", "what is our relationship to Pacha Mama (the earth) and modernisation?" etc. Amidst this ongoing debate, I therefore cannot say that all the Bolivian members of Warmi Pacha Kuti are indigenous even though, my initial reaction upon seeing them perform was to assume that they would all identify as such.

Labels and definitions aside, the group performs at several cultural events and local bars and I've posted a brief video of their performance at Andean New Year below. After three years of existence, they are fairly well-known and respected by other Andean music groups. So cheers to their shout in Quechua to audience members during their performances "Wañuchiy Machismo!" (Down with Sexism) to which we all respond "JALLALLA!"

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

First Joke in Quechua

I am always interested in discovering the type of humour of any country I visit. Joaquín claims that much of Andean humour is smutty and shared the following joke with me:
(If smut is not your type of humour, stop reading here!)

An old woman's husband died on his way to the store. They carried his body home, cleaned it and prepared it for burial. When they were getting ready to bury him, the old woman exclaimed, "Orqopuaychis chaypi, phakinmanta, piernas chawpinpi, ukhunpi!" (Please remove and take out what is between his legs!)

Everyone was confused.

Someone asked "Imata nisanki?" (What are you saying?)

She repeated, "Orqopuaychis chaypi, piernas chawpinpi, ukhunpi!" (Please remove and take out what is in there, in between his legs!")

A member of the town said to her in Spanish, "Ahhh, Señora, mira, con un poquito de tiempo...puedes encontrar otro..." (Ahh Maam, you know, look, with a little bit of time, you can always find another one...)

The old lady interjected, "Mana, Mana. Ahinata manañapuni tarisaqchu!" ("No, no, one like that, I will definitely never ever find!")

Everyone was scandalised.

But they agreed that he was, afterall her husband.

So they stepped aside.

She approached his body.

And proceeded to remove...


a small sack of money from his crotch.

In Andean culture, people bury their dead with the person's favourite, most important things such as money, food, drink, jewelry etc. Even today, people have found cadavers from Pre-Incan times with pieces of gold hidden in their clothing. Also, in Cochabamba, just as women hide their money in their bras, so too do men hide their money in their crotches. So take your mind out of the gutter! The Señora was thinking of something else...

Incidentally, Doña Petra has demonstrated for me on several occasions how to put my money in my bra before heading to school everyday. But I have told her not to worry. I am a professional and I know what I'm doing.

Quote of the Week

"Sikiyta much'away!" (Kiss my ass!)

---Doña Petra's response to her husband Don Lino when he tried to contradict something she taught me in Quechua.

Yes. Love after over 50 years of marriage...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Happy Andean New Year

According to the Incan Calendar, June 21 is the beginning of the New Year. In the Andean world, we are not in 2010. We are currently living in the year 5557. The Incas worshipped the sun and so to commemorate the New Year, each person hikes to some of the highest mountains to watch the sun rise. When the sun rises, you must raise your hands to receive its first rays and that will give you energy for the rest of the new year. The hike to the top of the mountain is treacherous and the altitude is outrageous so I decided to swallow my adventurous pride, just take the bus up and leave the hiking to the experienced locals instead. That turned out to be a very wise decision. I am a seasoned traveller but altitude sickness in Bolivia is very real! My host family warned me that I would not be able to handle the cold and advised me against doing the hike. Doña Petra also dressed me personally which annoyed me but I thanked her for it later. When I arrived on the mountaintop, I was wearing an undershirt, a long-sleeved shirt, a fleece and a bubblejacket as well as long johns, thick socks, jeans, some legwarmers, a scarf and a hat. I looked like an eskimo and for the first time in my life, I had an idea of what it must feel like to be a fat person. I was carrying so much weight on me, I was breathing heavy.

Anyway when we got there, there was much singing and several bonfires. I sat beside one of the bonfires and enjoyed the singing and dancing taking place. The one thing about celebrating Andean New Year is that you are required to share chicha with everybody. So every random person who is there, comes up to you, pours out some chicha, toasts and drinks with you. You have to put your hand in the chicha and sprinkle some outside, look the other person in the eye when you say cheers, drink and then they take your cup and drink from it as well. Now thats a lot of germs to share with people you don't even know. I tried to say no but its offensive to do that and so I have never shared so much food and alcohol with so many RANDOM strangers in my life.

After a few hours, my body was exhausted and so I decided to take a nap by the bonfire. Suddenly, there was much noise and commotion because the sun was about to rise. So I jumped up but my head was spinning and right before the sun was about to rise, I threw up in the middle of the crowd of people....TWICE! Without my knowledge, (and my host family later explained this to me), I had eaten a mixture of things that one NEVER mixes in Bolivia or anywhere for that matter. Not only had I eaten some buñuelo, then eaten a sandwich with egg, plaintain and chicken, but I had also drank api (a corn based drink)-- made by someone in the street which probably wasn't clean--, shared chicha--a heavy alcoholic beverage with a bunch of strangers-- and had some mate de coco while standing at the highest altitude my body has probably ever endured. And while I was vomitting a Llama was being sacrificed a few yards away. In the midst of my vomitting spree, I looked up and asked my friend, "Is that a llama?" Because I don't know about you, but I always ask about Llamas when I'm vomitting. My friends in Jamaica would attest to that. Seriously.

What a way to end year 5556!

Anyway, a Bolivian friend of mine grabbed me and pulled me up. She stuffed coco leaves in my mouth and told me to suck and chew on it. My Australian friend Kylie gave me some water to drink. Then the sun finally rose and there was dead silence among the crowd. I took off my gloves and let the first rays touch my hands and face, closed my eyes and like everyone around me, I silently said a prayer to the sun.

Then everyone began to sing and dance, the Llama was being cooked and people were drinking more chicha but I decided that throwing up was my cue to go home.

Getting home was difficult. I told my friends I would be fine and went alone like an idiot. I had to take a bus from the mountain top to Sipe-Sipe. The bus stopped a couple times for people to vomit and there were representatives from a local radio show that interviewed me and some other passengers about the New Year celebration. I am sure I was at my most articulate and by their facial expressions during my interview I am sure they would agree. Then, I took another bus from Sipe-Sipe to Quillacoyo, another one from from Quillacoyo to Cochabamba's main plaza and then I took a cab home from there. It took me a little over two hours. My head was spinning, my body was weak and by the time I got home I had a fever. Doña Petra nursed me back to life and explained that I was coming down with the flu. As much as this experience sounds horrible, it was actually really worth it because the celebration was so exciting and fun. However, its one of those things that I would probably only do once. You know, the first time was enough. I mean, I feel much better now and everything. But I have to say that my entrance into 5557, just was not sexy enough.

Days of The Week in Quechua

When I had just started learning Quechua, I had been told that they didn't have days of the week but since I've moved to the Andes, I have learnt that they actually do have them. I am so in love with them that I have started using their translations when referring to the days of the week in English just so I don't forget. Here they are:

P'unchaykuna --Days of the Week

Intichaw--- Sunday (Day of the Sun)
Killachaw-- Monday (Day of the Moon)
Atichaw-- Tuesday (Day of Power)
Quyllurchaw-- Wednesday (Day of the Stars)
Illapachaw-- Thursday (Day of the Lightening Bolt)
Ch'asqachaw-- Friday (Day of Venus)
K'uychichaw-- Saturday (Day of the Rainbow)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Favourite Quote

Ama suwa, ama qhella, ama llulla (Don't steal, don't be lazy and don't lie)---A greeting the Incas used to say.

I recommend using this completely out of context. It helps to kill awkward silences, especially in elevators, enclosed spaces (crowded busses for example) where people are looking at you funny.

Aqhata munani ujyayta...When in doubt, speak italian!

Learning a language is the source of a lot of confusion in the house. Needless to say, the first few days are the most difficult for both the hosts and the guest. My host mother Doña Petra has had three run-ins with me that I am sure have left her feeling very confused:

1. I am not a morning person. After my 30 hour journey to Bolivia I decided to rest and to go to school at 1pm instead of 8am like the other students the next day. Joaquín was completely okay with that since I was exhausted when I arrived. Doña Petra woke me up at 7 to ask if I wasn't going to have breakfast before I go to school. Now by her own admission and that of her children, she speaks quechua extremely quickly and spoke for about 5 minutes. The only part I caught was that she asked me if I wasn't going to school. Now at that time of the morning, when my body is exhausted, I don't speak any language. So half asleep I responded, "Oggi non devo andare a scuola. Joaquín ha detto che posso andare verso l'una quindi rimango a casa." Yep, I responded to her in ITALIAN! Of all languages?!?! Somehow, my brain is programmed so that if the language I am hearing is not English or Spanish, then it must be italian. So in my state of between sleep and consciousness, I spoke not in my mother tongue, but in Italian. My response lasted for about 30 seconds and I noticed she was looking at me blankly. Then she said, "Imata ninki? (What are you saying? but her face was more like "what the hell???") Then finally I go, "Mana kanchu yachana wasi kunan pacha. Yachaywasiman rini a la una. Chayqa wasipi qhepakuni. (I don't have class right now. I'll go to school at 1. So I'll stay home). That was a lot of confusion for 7 am. I'm used to confusion at any time after say around noon... but not that early.

2. In Bolivia, they have a typical drink called Chicha. In quechua, the word for chicha is "aqha". The problem is Quechua is a language of explosive, popping sounds so you have to distinguish words sometimes by sound. For example, you have the word tanta which means together, thanta (th is pronounced like hindi so the t sound is heard and the h sound is heard almost separately. It sounds something like ta-hanta) which means old by means of excess use and t'anta (t has a popping sound) which means bread. Now qh is pronounced like you're breathing into the h. It takes a lot of effort and I was really tired so I didn't breathe into the h so it came out as the word "aka". So I was very lazy and said to Doña Petra, "akata munani ujyayta" (I want to drink chicha) "Aqha" is chicha but Aka is sh*t. So she looked at me and just burst out laughing. I had said "I want to drink sh*t." She was like "In Bolivia, we don't drink that." I was sure to clarify that that was a genuine linguistic error and not a cultural one. Jamaicans find drinking that to be apalling too.

3. Janine had told me a story about Bolivian slang. She went to the market with Joaquín and a lady asked her if she liked plátano boliviano (Bolivian plaintain). Janine responded that she loved it because in Switzerland they don't have it and when they import it, its usually very green. In Bolivia however, its so great. They have all this variety in different colours and sizes and she could eat it everyday etc. So of course, Joaquín and the lady burst out laughing because in Bolivia, plátano is slang for penis. So we thought that was really funny and made fun of Janine for the rest of the ride. When I got home, Doña Petra asked me if I liked plantain so of course I just start laughing. She asked me again. So I paused before I responded and eyed her with some suspicion. She assumed I didn't understand and then decided to explain in Spanish that its like a banana, she is going to make it for dinner. I can have it boiled or fried. If I don't like it, I don't have to eat it etc. The whole time I was smiling and then I said, "yeah I'll have it for dinner." I didn't bother explaining but I think I will tomorrow since she continues to look at me awkwardly.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Ima Rayku runa simita munani yachayta? (Why do I want to learn Quechua?)

The hiatus of The Long-Legged-Short-Torso Diaries has come to an end. I restart my blog to chronicle my own process of learning to speak Quechua in Cochabamba, Bolivia. My decision to learn an indigenous language is related to my research on political humour and social change in the Americas as this experience is part of my own engagement with linguistic hegemonies and racist structures of power that shape Latin American humour.

Quechua is a racialised language in the Southern cone that marks its speakers as "outsiders", "inferior", "uneducated/uncivilised", "dangerous" and "backward". There has always been rampant discrimination against indigenous peoples including campaigns of genocide, economic exploitation, political and social marginalisation, imposed assimilationist practices that begun in colonial times and continue to today. (For more information, I would say, just google it!) Indeed, the pressure to assimilate remains and many indigenous people have changed their names, stopped wearing traditional clothes and refuse to teach their children to speak Quechua in order to protect them from discrimination. In fact, during colonial times, speaking Quechua was punishable by death. So of course, my decision as an outsider to learn the language has been greeted with confusion by some Spanish-speakers in Bolivia. A light-skinned Bolivian looked at me as if I was crazy to have decided to learn "that" language. On the other hand, I am greeted with elation by the average Quechua speaker when I start speaking to them in Quechua. I also notice that if I speak quechua in the market, the asking price for any item I am buying is IMMEDIATELY cut by, at least half. So in many ways, learning the language is just a good economic decision.

Apart from the bargaining tools that Quechua offers me, I chose to learn the language because while many Latin Americanist on the left engage with questions of indigeneity and comment on the overwhelming silencing and exclusion of indigenous voices in institutions of power, I know very few who have actually invested in learning an indigenous language. In this way, there continues to exist a certain distance/disconnect between the academic and the indigenous subject despite the presence of rigorous academic debates on indigeneity. I am not suggesting here that learning the language now makes me an authority on everything to do with indigeneity, nor that if they do not speak an indigenous language, then they have no right to critique linguistic hegemonies/structures of power in the Americas. Rather, I argue that the language gives access to realities that have been systemically invisibilised, undervalued and ignored and knowledge of such realities will help me not to participate in and perpetuate the exclusion of indigenous peoples in my academic work. So learning to speak Quechua is an attempt on my part to reduce the distance between myself as a Latin American scholar and the Andean world, to ensure that I place value on the culture and stories of the most disenfranchised and marginalised in my own work and to generate the broadest possible perspectives of the realities that shape performance practices especially humour in Latin America.

Maypi? Where?
It is winter in South America but Cochabamba is one of the warmest cities in the country because it lies in the centre of Bolivia. However, the weather moves from extremely cold weather in the morning (sweaters, hats, underpants and gloves are a must) to very hot temperatures in the afternoons. The constant climatic shift from one extreme to the next in the span of 24 hours can be very hard on your body so I had to take it easy for the first few days.

I am now living with a young professional Roxana, her son Elias and her parents Doña Petra and Don Lino. Her parents and the cook Julia are quechua speakers and her younger brother Eric studies Engineering at the University. Although, only the parents and the cook speak Quechua, Doña Petra insists that I speak to all of them in Quechua especially her grandson Elias because everyone in the family understands it perfectly. They are a middle-class indigenous family from the countryside of Potosí and they run a shop from the house itself.

I am studying at the language school: Escuela Runawasi. It is run by Joaquín and his Swiss wife Janine. Joaquín was part of an armed guerrillero movement in Bolivia. He was tortured in Chile for three months then exiled to Switzerland where he met his wife. After his involvement with the armed struggle, he now defines himself as a pacifist but politically he remains on the ultra left. He is one of my Quechua teachers since it is his mother-tongue. My other professor is an indigenous womyn called Ilda who defines herself as a staunch socialist. She has done a lot of work in adult literacy with indigenous, quechua speaking womyn, indigenous workers unions and is very vocal about womyn's rights.

I live in Villa Juan XXIII and many of the people living in the barrio are indigenous people who migrated from the countryside looking for work. The people in this area voted overwhelmingly for Evo Morales (the first indigenous president) and they mostly identify on the left. There is much elation right now in the community because a new law has just been passed requiring that Quechua be taught in all schools across the country and that all public servants learn to speak the language. Of course, this is a historic moment for the country, as it has created a new space not only for indigenous languages and cultures but also for indigeneity itself within the national imaginary. I will provide a summary documenting reactions to the new law in another post.

The journey to Bolivia
Now I have travelled a lot but I think my 30 hour journey to Bolivia is worthy of mention. I bought the cheapest ticket I could find without paying attention to the length of the journey from NYC to Cochabamba, Bolivia. I flew from NYC to Miami, Miami to Lima Peru, Lima to Santa Cruz Bolivia, Santa Cruz to La Paz, La Paz to Cochabamba. I left on Monday at 3 30pm and got to Cochabamba on Tuesday at 8:00pm. Needless to say I was exhausted. As we flew to La Paz, I noticed we were flying over mountains with snow on their tips and then we landed in the airport El Alto just below a few of the mountains. When I landed in La Paz I exited the plane and noticed the strangest thing: there were oxygen masks at each of the passport/ immigration/customs booths. In fact, below the "Welcome to Bolivia" sign, there were a few tanks with more oxygen masks around them. I thought to myself, "how strange that the message you would send to tourists visiting for the first time is "welcome to Bolivia, have some oxygen...you're gonna need it!" Anyway, I collected my luggage and went on my merry way. I checked into my connecting flight to Cochabamba and as I started walking to pay the airport tax I realised that my heart was racing, my head was spinning and I could hardly breathe. Then I remembered that La Paz's airport: El Alto stands at 4,000 metres above ground. That's higher than CUZCO! But I thought to myself, "I've never gotten altitude sickness. I can handle this. Just look at all these locals walking around just fine." I took a moment to collect myself. Then I looked behind me and the flight attendant who checked me in was no longer standing. She was just on the ground...motionless.

Okay she wasn't. I'm kidding.

But my suitcase was on the ground.

And I was on top of it.



I hadn't actually lost consciousness (YET!) but I could barely move. Then I got up and started hugging the wall really tight like a crazy person. A older lady approached me and asked if she needed to notify security so they could bring me an oxygen mask. I told her I was okay, got a hold of myself. She told me to eat something sweet so I bought a cinnamon roll. I know that sounds strange but all the other foods on sale were unfamiliar so I went with what I already knew. It gave me a boost, I thanked the lady, got on my flight and left.

Moral of the story: Cinnamon rolls save lives.