Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Inti Raymi / San Juan in Cotacachi, Ecuador

Iglesia la Matriz, Cotacachi
The winding down of Sisa's baptism party led right into the ramp-up for Inti Raymi. In the Otavalo area, Inti Raymi (the solstice festival and celebration of the corn harvest which harkens back to Inca times) has become intertwined with the saints' feast days of St John the Baptist (San Juan) St Peter (San Pedro) and St Paul (San Pablo) which were introduced by Spanish missionaries. Today the terms Inti Raymi and San Juan are used interchangeably. Lately, indegenous groups think that a festival called Inti Raymi has more appeal to tourists than a saint's feast day does, and so that term has come into vogue since the1990's.

We were not quite sure what to expect, though we had done some preliminary reading in Michelle Wibbelsman's Ritual Encounters: Otavalan Modern and Mythic Community and Lynn A. Meisch's Andean Entrepreneurs: Otavalo Merchants & Musicians in the Global Arena. Both books describe the San Juan dances of June 24 and 25 as attempts to "take the square" in Cotacachi. Groups of costumed young men from neighboring villages storm the Cotacachi town square (La Plaza de la Matriz) and dance/march to hypnotic music. The symbolic taking of the square represents an upheaval of the social order, so that traditionally and
historically marginalized Kichwa natives temporarily dominate the mestizo / white majority population.

On Thursday, June 23, we went to our first Inti Raymi / San Juan activity. Antonio announced that this was the day when the children perform the San Juan dances. He said that we were about to see a small-scale representation of what we could expect to see during the following twi days, when the grown men would dance.

Children dance for San Juan in Cotacachi
We sat on the church steps in front Iglesia la Matriz, overlooking the plaza. Vendors sold inflatable toys, ice cream,  cotton candy, lollipops, and granizadas. Schoolchildren were walking counterclockwise around the plaza with teachers and chaperones. Many little boys were wearing white shirts, goat leggings, and exagerrated black cardboard hats. Girls were dressed in traditional Kichwa female attire: embroidered blouses with dark wool skirts. When thr groups of children arrivaed at a corner of the square, they would start to dance
in a spiral motion. Some people played harmonicas, others had mouth organs. The songs had a cadence to them, and the children marched in one direction until someone called for them to reverse direction. Adults punctuated the dance with shrill whistles.

After watching several groups go by, we walked down the church steps and walked across the plaza to the municipal building. Here were stood on the sidelines of the dance and kids marched past us. It was a little too intimidating for Sisa (she's afraid of people wearing goat leggings) so we veered off down a side street and took a little break.

When we came back, the dance parade around the plaza was winding down, and family and friends were picnicing on the green. Antonio bought us some chocho from a vendor. Chocho was lupin seeds with salt and lemon served with roasted corn kernels. It was good, and the rest of the family got some served with ceviche. I bought an ice cream cone dipped in cherry for 25 cents. The family ran into some friends, and wound up eating some corn and potatoes with them. We ran into a student whom we had met on the bus several days before. We buy some sugar-coated donut holes from a vendor and then take the bus back home.

That night, we are woken up at 11:35 p.m. by whooping, whistling, and stomping. We look out the window and see a large number of men in San Juan hats dancing in a circle on the patio. After a while the noise syubsides and they move on to another house.  Antonio tells us in the morning that the dancers stopped by on their way perform ritual bathing in the river at the bottom of their ravine.
Morochos San Juan dancers arrive at the house

Morochos San Juan dancers arrive at the house

Watch footage of Morochos San Juan dancers on the patio
The next day, Friday June 24, was the Feast day of San Juan Bautista. Shortly after breakfast, Antonio mentioned that he had to get the chicha ready because the San Juan dancers would be stopping in on their way to Cotatachi. Rosa also threw a large pot of mote on the fire. We could hear the dancers as they approached. They marched down the driveway sand into the yard. Some wore goat leggings. Some wore oversized bkack cardboard San Juan hats. Some carried whips. Some were wearing camouflage. Some had masks or bandanas over their faces, looking like outlaws.  They played flutes, harmonicas, mouth organs, or blew on conch shells. The men danced in circles on the patio, drank warm chicha and boxes of wine, and ate Rosa's mote. Antonio joined them with his flute. They poured drinks for Craig and myself. One of the men asked Craig if he would join them dancing in Cotacachi. Antonio told us he'd see us in the afternoon, and he marched off with the dancers toward Cotacachi. This is known as la largada de los sanjuanes (departure of the San Juan dancers).

A couple of hours later, Rosa, Aida, Sisa, Yupanki, Craig, and I took a pickup truck to Cotacachi. We walked toward the square to see if Antonio and the Morochos men were dancing. When we didn't find them, Aida went to a phone booth to call Antonio. He told her the location where they were eating lunch, and we walked several blocks to it. It was chilly and sprinkling. Aida gave Antonio some lunch she had packed. It started raining harder, and the dancers in their goat leggings and exagerrated hats, along with their wives and families who came for support, packed underneath a sheltered area. Eventually the rain died down again, and it was time for the Morochos dancers to go to the square. In lockstep the dancers thundered forward, whistling, with Antonio playing a sanjuanito tune on his flute.

San Juan dancers descend on Cotacachi
Watch footage of Morochos San Juan dancers storming La Plaza de la Matriz
The square was packed full of spectators today. Police in full riot gear (shields, helmets, and gas masks) stood at the ready. As the group arrived at a corner of the plaza, the musicians congregated in the center of the group of men and the dancers revolved around them, changing direction every few minutes. The sanjuanito song is in 2/4 time, which makes it easy for the dancers to stomp to the beat. Their footfalls add percussion to the
music and perform the ritual function of waking up the earth. Fueled by music and alcohol, the men slip into a trance-like state as they concentrate on the dance.

Swirling mobs of dancers converge on each corner of the square. Each group is surrounded by an entourage of wives and family, who supply their men with food, drink, and support during the dance.

After a while the groups shift and march down the straightaway to the next corner. There is tension between groups for dominance. It feels as though conflict might arise if the groups are allowed too close to one another. The women and kids follow the men around the plaza and act as a buffer between rival groups. Sisa is right down next to the action but is not frightened by the dancers or their goat leggings. She holds hands with her friend Natalie and dances along from the sidelines, caught up in the festival atmosphere..

The Morochos men invite Craig to dance with them. He is absorbed into the mass of bodies, and stomps his way into a  state where he is functioning as part of a collective being. Some of the stronger men act as motivators for the group, encouraging the weaker more tired participants. They also set the pace and decide when to change directions.  They also try to act as a buffer between their dancers and the police, to try to avoid any confrontations. It is a high-energy activity and the men bond with one another.


Craig dances with the Morochos men
The symbolic nature of the taking of the square seems obvious. It is a reversal of social order, where the traditionally marginalized Kichwa people take their destiny into their own hands and rise above the mestizos. We don't see a whole lot of mestizos our tourists in the crowd. It is a day for the Kichwa.

After about an hour and a half of dancing, the police put an end to it for the day. Antonio told Craig that he could do it all over again tomorrow. We take a bus from Cotacachi to Quiroga, and then another bus from Quiroga to Morochos. When we get home, Sisa, clearly inspired by the day's events, sets up Aida, Craig, and myself to dance with her around the kitchen.

The next day, Saturday June 25, the San Juan dancers once again descended on our house, a little bit earlier in the morning. They asked Craig to join them in a dance on our patio. I took some video footage while they all danced in a circle on the patio. After the dancing, Antonio gave Craig a pitcher of wine to offer to the other dancers. Several people congratulated Craig on his performance yesterday, and asked if he would join in the festivities today as well. He said that he would dance once we all got to Cotacachi.

Antonio and the dancers took off marching down the dirt road. We got the rest of our things together and started walking down the street ourselves, looking for a pickup truck to take us to Cotacachi. We caught up with the Morochos dancers, who had stopped for drinks at a neighboring house.

We got into the back of a pickup truck which slowly followed the parade of dancers toward Quiroga. The truck then turned, taking a slightly different route to Quiroga, so we would beat the dancers there. When the dancers thundered into town, we joined a group of wives and other onlookers who fell into step behind the dancers.

We marched all the way from Quiroga to Cotacachi together as it started to rain. We truly felt like we were storming the city. As soon as the dancers arrived in the square, they started to dance. We followed the dancers around the square and Antonio motioned for Craig to join in dancing with them. Once again they rhythmically danced in circular patterns on the street corners of the square. They would then march down the straightaways and supplant the prior group at the next corner.

Craig dances with the Morochos men
Craig and Antonio dance with the Morochos men
After about an hour or so the groups of dancers left the main square and started to dissipate down side streets. Antonio led us into a little hole in the wall restaurant in a non-descript building for lunch. He ordered us bowls of pork soup and chicken drumsticks. The restaurant was running out of food so the family dug into some leftivers they had brought from home. Craig and Antonio shared two bottles of Pilsener beer.

We didn't realize it, but there was another whole round of dancing after lunch. With a stomach heavy with lunch and beer, Craig decided to sit out for a while. When he accidentally got separated from Rosa, Aida, the kids, and myself, he joined back in the dancing to stay with Antonio and the rest of the Morochos men.

Aida, Rosa, the kids and I sat on the church steps watching the festivities. In a far corner of the plaza we saw what looked like a small skirmish between the police and a group of dancers. We saw some smoke which I assumed was tear gas. The whole plaza seemed to gasp for breath at once, and there was an eerie silence. People sought higher ground by climbing up the church steps. You got the vague idea that you could be trampled if this escalated. Groups of dancers were disbanding. We didn't know where Craig and Antonio were. Aida ran into the crowd to find them, and eventually returned to the church steps with them. Antonio had told Craig that there were fights erupting between upper villagers and lower villagers, and had ushered him away from the danger.
Craig dances with the Morochos men
Ritual violence is no stranger to Inti Raymi / San Juan festivities as Michelle Wibbelsman writes in Ritual Encounters:

Inti Raymi fights are considered an opportunity for leveling accounts and resolving conflict accumulated throughout the year...[Some believe in a] correlation between the loss of the San Juan tradition and rising day-to-day conflict in their communities.

We walked down a side street and had a view back at the square. We could see a line of police clashing swith dancers, and smoke filled the air. People climbed up to the balconies of a building which was under construction to try to get a bird's-eye-view of the conflict in the distance. It seemed like we were probably walking home from here, but a pickup truck passed us and people in it were yelling "Morochos!" Aida, Rosa, the kids, Craig, and I all piled into the short bed (I counted 21 of us) and made a very cramped ride back to Morochos.

During dinner, a truck with a loudspeaker drove through town. It made an announcement and Aida and Rosa stopped eating to listen carefully. They explained that the announcement said that a fight took place in Quiroga, and many of the Morochos men were involved. They worried about Antonio's safety and Rosa immediately left the house for Quiroga. We helped Aida clean up after dinner and went to bed not knowing how Antonio was. The next morning we learned that he had been hit above his right eye with a rock, and had required
stitches. His eye was purple and swollen shut. Aida gathered a medicinal plant from the garden and made him a preparation to put on his eye, which brought the swelling down quite a bit.

We felt badly that the festivities had ended this way for Antonio, but he tried to downplay it. Aida and Rosa explained that this kind of thing happens every year. We went into Quiroga the next day to get some Ibuprofen for Antonio, and we saw some damage which had been done to property  during the previous night's riots. We saw the leader of the Morochos dancers and we told him that we would be leaving the next day. He thanked Craig for joining them in the dances and invited us back for next year's festival. We were really touched by the way the community had embraced us during Sisa's baptism and the Inti Raymi / San Juan festival.

Later in the day we went to Cotacachi to buy a cake for dessert on our last night. The place looked deserted with none of the Inti Raymi crowds. Rosa told us that there would be more dancing on Wednesday June 29 and Friday July 1. One of those days is the opportunity for women to dance. We asked Rosa if she would dance, and she laughed and said that she doesn't dance San Juan herself.

After dinner we all shared the cake we had bought in Cotacachi. The family gave us some really thoughtful gifts including wool hats and alpaca scarves, and a woven tapestry. They told us that even though we needed to leave the house at 4 am to get to the airport tomorrow, they would all be waking up early to ride with us to the airport! That was so sweet of them!

On Monday morning, June 27, the whole family accompanied us to the airport.  The trip was a great success on all fronts. We really enjoyed being able to get to know the whole family over the course of two weeks.  We liked being able to help with the preparations for Sisa's baptism and to be able to share in the unique way in which the Otavalan Kichwa people celebrate a baptism. We are lucky to be a part of their family and community, and look forward to visiting again soon.

This was also Craig's first trip since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in April. He is on medication that he needs to inject every day, so it means traveling with syringes full of medication. We had no problems flying with the medicine (my metal hair barrette attracted more attention than the needles did). The climate in Ecuador was such that we didn't have to worry about the medicine getting too hot, so that was helpful. It was fortunate for us that our first trip with the injections was a trip where we got settled in one place and were able to get into a daily routine. We will have to work up to trips which have more challenging itineraries.

Sisa and Rosa
Craig and Sisa
Antonio and Yupanki


  1. Anonymous9:30 PM

    Thanks so much for the great and thoughtful account of the Inti Raymi. I experienced it quite on accident in 2004 while visiting a Otovalo and Cotocachi with a group of friends from the U.S. Embassy. We were shopping in some of the stores in Cotocachi when men wearing bandanas and goat pantlegs came storming down the streets riding a wave of tear gas. All of the store owners starting slamming shut and locking their doors, while at the same time burning newspaper to mask the tear gas. Until I read this, the only explanation I never got for that incredibly bizarre experience was that it was part of an annual fight between villagers for control of the town square and statue. Thanks again for sharing!

  2. Thanks for your comment! We can imagine that your experience must have seemed very strange and even intimidating without context. Glad we were able to help shed some light on the customs. It's a very intense tradition! Thanks again for writing. Happy travels!