Welcome to Inti Raymi: the feast of San Juan (1/3)

Shortly after midday. Cotacachi, province of Imbabura, 2418 meters above sea level, 104 km. northeast of Quito. It’s June 24, 2010. The air reverberates with noises and the stamping of the indigenous crowd flanking the four corners of the main square.

There is something harsh and dusty in the air. Groups of indigenous people that have come down from nearby communities are gathered in unruly rings, whirling in tight circles, singing and chanting in voices gruff with chicha and virility. Dozens of policemen carrying anti-riot gear have formed barriers here and there and wait with the boredom of bureaucrats, even a conniving smile, for something they know to be inevitable. Squalls of wind push me roughly, portending a surge, but I don’t know where.

Two groups start to advance on each other close to the church steps. These are the men from the communities of La Calera and Cercado, a rivalry spiced up by politics and alcohol. The turmoil is electric, unpredictable. From the park, I watch the groups getting nearer to each other and, like someone trying to find out in what direction bulls will stampede, I ask a young indigenous woman wearing a glossy blue shawl what is happening. Picking up her little boy in a clear movement of retreat, she answers that the fight is about to begin.

The last syllable of her words merges with the explosion of a tear gas grenade thrown by a policeman. With a furtive glance, I see sticks and stones tracing curves in the air between the opponents, as if they were the artifacts of jugglers. The pungent smell of the gas starts to irritate my nose. Now, almost automatically, I am running away, in a chaotic mass of tourists and bystanders with prickly reddened skin, covering their faces with flustered gestures.

This is one of the highlights of the most important festival on the indigenous calendar for celebrating the Christ that overcomes the darkness, the shining star, the Sun – or Inti in Quichua. In Imbabura and other provinces with a large indigenous population, following the summer solstice on June 21 festivals for the harvest and the start of a new farming cycle begin. This is a time of thanksgiving, liberation, virility and the insemination of the cosmos. A celebration dating from pre-Hispanic times, juxtaposed(1) by the religious traditions brought by the conquistadores (continued on next post, click here).

Pictures: Caroline Bennett  www.carolinebennett.com

English translation: Claire St. Lawrence (clarestlawrence@yahoo.co.uk)


(1) Religious juxtaposition and transposition:

The debate about the nature of the indigenous religiosity is not simple. However, it can be said that Andean religiosity has characteristics, among others, of:  juxtaposition, when there is no fusion in one religion, but certain practices based on one faith coexist with other practices based on a different faith (A+B= AB); and transposition, when the rite of one religion is kept, but the content of another religion is put inside of it (A+B= A[B]). Thus, we can see Christian rites with a non Christian content, or vice versa (Rueda, p. 89; 1982).

Also, during colonial times in order to spread Catholic faith the missionaries had to adapt their symbols, rites and ceremonies to the indigenous culture.  Thus, missionaries adapted the non official indigenous rites, such as fiestas and processions, leaving intact the official liturgy. The outcome, according to Peruvian sociologist José Carlos Mariátegui, is that ethnic customs subsisted below the Catholic cult (Rueda, p. 89,90; 1982).

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