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


Once the purification on the eve of San Juan has been completed, what follows is the collective march to take the square of Cotacachi. María went to a meeting attended by the leaders of some of the communities taking part in the San Juan celebrations and representatives of local indigenous organizations, including UNORCAC, and the police. The aim: to organize the event in such a way as to avoid violence breaking out among the danzantes during the traditional taking of the square, which is countered by tear gas from the police. Be it said, however, that this makes the celebration even more exciting and has not deterred public turnout over the years – quite the contrary!

The conflict stems from the nature of the ritual, in which two different, rival factions play their role: the “high” indigenous communities and the “low” ones from near Cotacachi. Sometime mid-morning on June 24, the groups of danzantes from each community set out on foot towards the main square. The low communities are the first to go into the square and are allowed to do this three times, while the high communities can go in twice. Each entry involves three laps of the square.

Every time the groups from the low communities leave the square, they go to eat and rest in nearby bars or on corners, while the dancers from the high communities come in. Fights, however, break out as one group leaves and the other comes in. When push comes to shove, keeping order among hundreds of men in such a boisterous state on the public highway is no easy job. And there are also cases of a group going to the bars where their rivals are resting, just to pick a fight.

In the midst of these tensions, the women from the community of Cercado also have a job to do, as they follow their husbands right from the community, gathering stones along the way in case in there is a brawl. Once the celebration is over, they will be the ones who help their drunken, beaten husbands home. Incidentally, on July 1, the women have their own celebration, Huarmi Punlla, or the day of Santa Lucía, when they get their own back for what happened during San Juan and San Pedro (García Cobos, p.119:2007).

On the morning of the 24th, we accompanied the groups of danzantes of the community of La Calera. Each group has a leader, known as the capitán, and assistants, all chosen a month before on the basis of their leadership and physical fitness (García Cobos, p.43; 2007).

On this day, the costumes (1) were more striking than the night before: the men wore leather chaps, big black pointed hats and sunglasses, and carried guitars and conch shells. The outfit was complemented by leather and wire whips, which they snapped to one side and the other, violently cracking them on the ground. At some point in the past, dressing like this was intended to mimic the hacienda overseers or the whites (Mendizábal, p. 353; 1982); it was a kind of mockery, one of various transgressions permitted at festival time. Nowadays this practice additionally has other connotations.

 The cacophony was similar to that of the night before. The atmosphere was rife with whistles and repetitive guitar chords, interspersed with exclamations and shouts to boost spirits. As they advanced down the dusty lanes, the danzantes stopped in the yards of the houses they passed, where they were given chicha to quench their thirst. The exclamations heard include: “Churay, churay cunan carajo!” (Put in, put in – your strength – now, damn it!); “Imata manllai?!” (What are you scared of?!); “Chaquimi yacha!” (Dance with your feet, don’t be afraid!) (García Cobos, p.85; 2007).

The sky was clear and the sun was fierce, its light blending with the dust whirls blown up by the trampling of the participants. I had agreed to wait a few blocks ahead to pick up Caroline, who was taking the photos. Through lack of forethought, I hadn’t moved the jeep in time and a group of danzantes passed just next to where I was parked. It was a true rampage that shook the jeep for quite a while. It brought home to me just how seriously this ritual is taken in this part of the world, as well as the social forces it galvanizes.

The arrival at the square still has some nuance of the symbolic occupation of the white men’s space. This practice has persisted despite members of indigenous communities being elected to high-ranking political posts over the last few decades and becoming part of the local bourgeoisie. The fact that, at one time, the main square of Cotacachi was controlled by the whites and that it is still a center of power (occupied by government offices, the judiciary and the Catholic church) shades the entry of the indigenous men from rural areas with a tone that is martial as well as festive.

The taking of the square also echoes the cultural inheritance of the Incas in the encounter of the two halves, different and yet complementary. This was the principle on which their world was organized: hanan (2), or the masculine part above, and hurin, the feminine part below. It is a symbolic, ritual confrontation in which the forces comprising the cosmos are represented. After the fight, the participants traditionally end up in jail or in their houses, where they arrive humiliated or “herded” by the “victorious” community (Mendizábal, p. 350; 1982).

When the different groups reach the streets surrounding the square, they advance rhythmically in small jumps. It is here that their costumes can be appreciated at their best, clearly revealing the syncretism (3) of local and global influences, reflecting not only the rural indigenous culture (which is mestizo in itself), but also television personalities, mariachis, military figures and hippies. There are even danzantes who dress up as women. One had a doll impaled on a stick, while another had a Mickey Mouse, all conspiring to give the festival a male, irreverent air.

The first groups, of 20 to 30 men, entered the square in an orderly fashion and gathered in one corner, shuffling round in circles for a few minutes before moving on to the next corner. However, the ritual is like a play that has to be seen through to the end so it was only a matter of time before a brawl broke out among the participants. What is more, it seemed as if everyone there – tourists, locals and policemen – were awaiting this climax.

The explosion of the first tear gas grenade and the ensuing chaos in the main square of Cotacachi did not put an end to the clamor, as this resumed as soon as the danzantes and bystanders had stopped running and recovered from the effects of the pungent gas. A rite with the same script is repeated the following day and the festival goes on until the start of the celebrations of San Pedro and San Pablo on June 29 and 30. In practice, Inti Raymi (San Juan) and these two other festivals all roll into one.

When all the commotion was over, I met up with Caroline, who had been very close to the action taking her photos, in another part of town. We were joined by María, who had come down to Cotacachi with her friends from the community of Morales Chupa. The time had come to rest a little and pay our own tribute to the Sun with a few beers.

Pictures: Caroline Bennett  www.carolinebennett.com

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


(1) Clothing:

Men and women used to by new clothes to celebrate these Fiesta of San Juan, something that is rarer due to financial reasons (García Cobos, 53:2007). Men usually rent their leather chaps and the sombreros that they wear on the 24th.

(2) Hanan and Hurin:

Cuzco, in Peru, and several cities of what is now known as Ecuador had a “Hanan” and “Hurin” section, which respectively correspond to what is high and masculine, and what is low and feminine. The struggle between the two halves –Hanan and Hurin- during the Inti Raymi may be influenced by the Andean festivity Tinqui.

According to anthropologist Emilia Ferraro, the rivalry and the blood shed after the fight to take Cotacachi´s main square would help, not only to acknowledge ethnic identity and the complementary nature of the two  halves, but also to fertilize the soil and control social tensions (Ferraro, p.137; 2004).

(3) Mestizaje:

Bolívar Echeverría, Ecuadorian philosopher, argues that ethnic groups in America are mestizos too. Although there are those who propose that ethnic groups represent a cultural essence untouched for centuries, there have been significant cultural changes in Ecuadorian ethnic groups since the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the 15th century. Colonialism, racism, conflicting cultural norms and dynamics of European and indigenous national cultures (especially with respect to their interactions), as well as the indigenous strategies implemented to counter white domination have contributed to such culture cultural changes in Ecuadorian indigenous groups.

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