This story could have been written yesterday, or it could have been written 200 years ago. Life can be painfully hard, or joyously fortunate, but life goes on. This story is excerpted from a book we published in 2013, Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Andes, and details the life of a typical Elder in the Peruvian highlands. The book profiles more than 50 Elders from the ten villages associated with the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC). This month, we are donating 50% of all our sales of Peruvian-related books to CTTC for an emergency fund to aid the villages under stress from the effects of COVID-19.
—Linda Ligon, Publisher Thrums Books
Their Daily Lives
We will call her Aurelia Huallpayunca, this elderly woman who has lived alone for much of her life. Her story echoes the stories of so many of the Elders you will see in Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Andes. Many of her particulars are different, but her underlying way of life, how she moves from one day to the next, one season to the next, is the story of many.
She has outlived her own generation and her one daughter; a teenage granddaughter sometimes keeps her company now. Aurelia rises at dawn each day, lights a ﬁre in the earthen stove that comprises the kitchen area of her home, to begin heating water to wash or drink tea, then to boil the potatoes that will nourish her throughout a day of work and walking. Her house is made of adobe, earth tempered with grasses and water, mixed by a team of her neighbors and carved into blocks that are dried and piled to make thick walls that keep out the elements, and small high window openings. Wooden beams, eucalyptus logs, provide a roof structure so that ichu and other locally-harvested grasses can be tied, spread, and placed in a pattern that will shed rain and snow for years.
The smoke from the ﬁre ﬁlters through the thatched roof, blackening it and killing any insects that might try to live there. The room is very dark but Aurelia is retracing steps that she has taken every day for decades, and she knows where every object is. Over that time, she has collected and kept many useful tools and items of curiosity, which are hung on the walls or sit on a high shelf around the perimeter of the room.
Her wooden door is painted blue to brighten the adobe; in some good years, whitewash has been added to the walls to brighten the interior.
Aurelia’s house is spare and tidy, while her neighbor’s is neat but cluttered, but both contain what they need to nurture and shelter them from storm, cold, and other unwelcome intrusions. Adobe benches, softened by handwoven textiles, line the room. Strong baskets, woven locally in all shapes and sizes, with braided borders and handles, are scattered everywhere—made from ﬂexible niwa grass and woven so tightly to be impermeable, or ﬂat and broad to hold a single layer of berries when they’re in season, or wide and nearly as tall as a person to hold potatoes.
Many households in Aurelia’s community are shared by multiple generations. These houses, answering to the needs of many, are typically cluttered with tools, textiles, ﬂeeces, and ropes hung around the edges of the room, calendars on the walls more for their decorative value than as references, with potatoes and other foods, baskets, pots, and kettles on the ﬂoor. In these neighboring houses, grandparents, sons, and grandchildren may take a moment together to eat, talk, share stories or just feel each others’ presence. Aurelia’s house is quiet though, only echoing voices from the past, long gone.
Another layer of life covers the ﬂoor of Aurelia’s one-room home, as guinea pigs search out any food scraps or grasses or their favorite, alfalfa, that have been dropped on the ﬂoor for them. Their eyes seem to glow in the darkness and they make popping sounds that signal their active presence. Guinea pigs, valued for providing dietary protein and ﬂavor and adding texture to a special meal, are part of a household cycle as they clear ﬂoors of food, and leave dung that is swept up and dried for use as fuel in Aurelia’s stove—especially valuable in these high altitude settings where wood is scarce. Chickens wander in from outside, and sometimes ﬁnd a special place to roost and lay eggs. Patties of llama dung are laid out to dry on an outside wall. These are used for fuel too.
While Aurelia’s house is a simple one-room shelter, many homes in her community are connected to an enclosed courtyard, providing a space for outdoor work, including weaving; work animals (burros, cows, sheep, or llamas); household foodstuffs drying or curing, or storage of tools, utensils, or projects too large for the indoor stove, such as giant dyepots or chicha-making kettles. Outdoor space, whether enclosed or not, is important for the daylight and fresh air they offer, since indoor space is dark and smoky.
Aurelia still keeps a small household garden for growing greens, garlic, and other herbs to ﬂavor her potatoes — potatoes of many colors and shapes which, in their variety offer a complete diet in themselves. Large cribs store a household’s annual supply of potatoes, mixed with huacatay, muña, and other pungent herbs that repel insects or rodents. Other plots belonging to other households might grow fava beans, corn, quinoa, or amaranth, or other grains, depending on the available altitude zones near at hand. Andean farmers possess agricultural expertise and precise control in the same way that Andean weavers possess mastery of their craft.
The potatoes in Aurelia’s pot likely came in payment for her spinning or weaving, since she no longer has family with ﬁelds to help support her. In the months following harvest in May or June, she will retrieve stored potatoes in handwoven costales (potato sacks); as the year goes along, or when those potatoes are gone, she may turn to rehydrated chuñu, freeze-dried potatoes.
To make chuñu, her younger neighbors join together to spread new potatoes out on ﬂat grassy spaces to dry in the strong sun of winter and then freeze in the very cold nights; when the potatoes become soft and squishy, they dance on them with bare feet to squeeze out the liquid and leave them to dry another day, then sweep them up to store in costales or baskets for use throughout this year or even future ones. These small, hard, gray vegetable pellets have no attraction for predators, but reconstituted and cooked with herbs and other vegetables, they are a tasty and very nutritious meal.
Aurelia’s daily activities—ﬁre tending, spinning, gardening, walking to market—end as darkness falls, with day lengths much the same all year at this near-equatorial latitude. Though electricity now reaches far out into the Cusco countryside, lights are not sufﬁcient to encourage work into the night except perhaps in an emergency such as an impending wedding or ﬁesta requiring careful and extensive preparations. The quality of daylight changes, as clouds block out the sun for much of every day during the long rainy season, and the strong winter sun forces retreat into the shade.
Living alone presents challenges for Aurelia. So many daily tasks are harder for her with every passing year. Some of her neighbors are more fortunate. In one nearby home, two widowed sisters in their 70s and 80s share their space with ﬁve grandchildren, children of a daughter who died young. While providing for these children has been difﬁcult, they will be able to help as their grandmother and great-aunt grow older.
In another household, two brothers, both weavers, both musicians, have joined forces against the challenges facing elder residents. They are ready at any moment to pick up their ﬂute and drum to enliven an occasion—a festival, a birthday, a wedding—with music that encourages anyone present to dance a stomping, twirling huayno, to smile, perhaps even to sing. They are welcome at any occasion for the entertainment and accompaniment they provide. They may be joined by a grandson or nephew who is pleased to learn what they know and carry on a family art. They are fortunate to have extended family to help take care of the essentials of life, as their strength diminishes to do the stoop labor with short-handled hoes that their steep ﬁelds require.
Though it has been many years since Aurelia has carried a child on her back, she is never without a carrying cloth at the ready to wrap up tools, food, seeds, or items to trade or sell. Her neighbor, though, even at age 70, is strong enough to carry on her back the orphaned great-granddaughter she looks after everywhere she goes. The bent posture of Andean Elders is well-earned.
Walking is a primary activity in the Andes, for people of any age. Children walk, often long distances, to school. Men walk many miles up steep slopes to tend their ﬁelds. Women of any age walk and walk, taking animals to pasture or goods to market. And as women walk, they spin. Aurelia is never without her wool and spindle. She walks with cloths tucked in a belt to wrap boiled potatoes and fava beans to snack on, maybe coca leaves to chew as a special treat. Perhaps a few coins. Each item is wrapped in a cloth appropriate to the purpose.
Sometimes she still goes on long walks to forage areas where she hopes to discover seasonal treasures: round bubbles of an edible algae that grows in high lakes, or the fungus that infects certain species of plants and can be used as a rich green dyestuff, or the scale insects that can be scraped off tuna cacti to process into the world’s best red dye (cochineal). But as the years go by, these walks become less frequent.
While Aurelia has enough corn and potatoes to sustain her, one of her neighbors tells of a homeless stage in her life. Abandoned by her husband and without any family beyond her own small children, she had to forage for food in the streets, ﬁnding bones that had already been gnawed by dogs but could be used to make soup.
She lived without resources except the knowledge of how to spin and weave, knowledge that made it possible for her to rescue her family from this period of hunger and deprivation. Her story is sad, and not unusual. Early widowhood is common, as men succumb to alcoholism, disease, or accidents while working.
But Aurelia remembers the fortunate years, and these are the memories she likes to recall as she walks through her solitary days. Years of meals prepared and shared, large pots of potatoes and soups perhaps ﬂavored with the head or the tail of a work animal past other usefulness, or on a very special occasion, a feast based on entire roasted animals: guinea pigs, sheep, pigs. Years of wattias, everyone’s favorite meal during potato harvest, as dirt-clod ﬁeld ovens built on the ﬂy house an intense ﬁre for roasting potatoes of every shape, color, and ﬂavor, peeled and eaten with spicy sauces and celebratory corn beer.
Aurelia, like other widows in her community and the rarer men who have outlived their wives, has walked over every inch of her local landscape in the course of her lifetime. (She is especially aware of a few dangerous places that are carefully avoided by every sensible person, of course.) She still leaves her house to join neighbors for special occasions, celebrations, memorials, and meeting for consensus-based decision-making. She cherishes the opportunity to spend days at the CTTC weaving center in her community as it provides an enclosed shelter where she can join other weavers to spin, weave, dye, discuss their work, share life events, recall earlier times.
Even if Aurelia’s house had electricity, its artiﬁcial light would not be good to weave by. For the narrow warps she now weaves—wide manta warps being beyond her strength now—she counts on the pure light of winter—strong sun, sharp shadows—to warp and weave the meticulously planned and ﬁnished cloths, narrow versions of those she has woven since childhood. When she has a few richly patterned narrow bands or small carrying cloths, she can exchange them for fruits, or coca, or other unusual items that add interest to her diet and her life: dyestuffs, perhaps, or needles and buttons; or chiñi challwa, tiny dried ﬁsh from the coast.
Aurelia, well into her 80s, remembers back to days before glaciers began melting and water was abundant, when smoke from burning ﬁelds in the lowlands didn’t cloud the skies, and planes didn’t ﬂy overhead. More than these modern threats, she’s concerned about the loss of importance of rituals that expressed respect for the powerful apus (sacred mountains) and Pacha Mama (mother earth) and the reduced scale of festivals and rituals that always provided joyous escape from laborious duties and obligations. Apparent days of fun and festivity — dancing all day dressed as a condor or a gaucho, or a foolish soldier or housewife, drinking chicha together and competing to share the most varied potatoes, the tastiest soups, and the hottest salsas—are dedicated and traditional. But private rituals also provide proof of allegiance to spiritual forces, acknowledge their power and prestige through offerings that may include well-formed coca leaves or other agricultural products, ﬁne small textiles or amulets, and the breath and voices of devoted people.
For Aurelia and the others of her village, whether the day has been passed in tending ﬁelds and animals, observing rituals, traveling to trade or celebrate, or any other productive pursuit, the workday ends at dusk. A ﬁre may still be burning in the stove, to sit near for ﬁnal reﬂections on the day past, and then to crawl under thick blankets to sleep solidly in silence until another dawn.
—Nilda Callanaupa Alvarez and Christine Franquemont