It has been a few days since Peru suffered this terrible earthquake. The suffering, of course, is ongoing and will be for some time. Usually, I reserve this space for fairly theoretical stuff, or at least comments with some distance from affected parties. But Peru is special to me. I’ve spent time there, I have friends there, I do research and write on the country, and so it is more than just a news story. An earthquake is really just sad. There is little more to say. No one causes this sort of thing and a place like Peru – one of the poorest countries in the Americas – means the most vulnerable will be affected. Still, I wanted to say a little personal thing or two about the Ica department, where nearly all of the devastation took place (and is ongoing).
The port town of Pisco is beautiful. I was struck by a series of photographs of doorways in the LA Times, how huge and carefully carved they all are, and how oddly suggestive it is that only doorways remain of so many old buildings. Pisco is the economic portal for the Ica department. The whole department is beautiful, really, emerging along the highway from Lima in the strangest way. South of Lima, the hills look like dirty sand. There are farming collectives everywhere. Life is pretty rough, which is not really news in itself about Peru. But there is something poignant about potato farming collectives build on what looks like sand. The crop grows underground, hidden, yet there is nowhere for the people and their tin roofed shacks to get an inkling of privacy.
I remember sitting on a bus from Lima to Chincha, another town in Ica. I’d been booked on a “first-class” bus (that’s how the booking agent described it, in the one English phrase of the transaction), which meant that it had the strangest collection of old and new. It was an old bus – clean, sure, but really pretty old. The first-class part of the booking seemed to be reflected in the small televisions installed every five rows. A film showed. Not just any film, but Secretary. You know, the sado-masochistic fantasy with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhall…seriously. With a ton of little kids heading South with their families, it seemed an odd choice. It was the first English language thing I’d seen in two weeks, so I watched. It flickered a lot. No one was interested, except the young guy I’d identified as a fellow U.S.er, though it turned out he was Chilean, from Santiago de Chile. At the moment, it was funny. We chatted. He’d thought I was Israeli. Neither of us were even close. I’m from Idaho. Alas. We were on a bus going through these strange sand foothills.
Things change as you approach the trade-center town of Chincha, a crazy noisy town square with all sorts of buying, selling, music playing, eating, and socializing. There is suddenly splotchy green, palm trees and other coastal trees (Chincha is ten or so miles inland), with rambling farms everywhere up to the town center. The bus had to drive through crowds of people and scooters in order to get to the station, reminding me again that I don’t know shit about driving. Even watching made me anxious. Getting off the bus at the stop in Chincha was amazing and surprised me more than I’d expected. I came from spending a lot of time, this visit and another, in Lima, Puno, Ayacucho, and various spots along the way. In that sense, I’d seen most of what one expects from Peru (except the jungle; never been). I’d eaten food expected and unexpected, from a lot of Spanish inspired stuff to cuy and alpaca steaks, and of course ceviche.
In Chincha, though, everything was different. You see, Chincha (and the Ica department in general) is the heart of Afro-Peru. Here, the whole mestizaje thing, that term which defines so much of what we call “Latin America,” resonates very differently than what you see in Chincha. Mestizaje normally resonates as the crossing – in bodies and culture – of indigenous peoples and Europeans (though “indigenous” is a strangely general term for enormously diverse groups of people…whatever). In fact, there isn’t a word that really makes sense when you walk through the town square in Chincha, which is just so interesting. The natural word, of course, is creole, which nicely describes the food and the music and the sounds and the look of the social space. But that word resonates up around and in the Caribbean. And I just mean resonance here, really. Chincha is a place where the mixture that we normally call mestizaje or creole isn’t European at all. It is mixture of indigenous and African.
This all gets pretty concrete when you enter a church. I remember being struck by all the Inca skirts put around Jesus on crucifixes in Catholic churches in the Andes, even some in LIma, something that bears witness to the power of interculturality. When I got to Chincha, I walked around a bit and then took a cab ride to a hacienda where I’d be spending a few days. It was to be my contemplative time, processing many conversations I’d just had in Ayacucho and Lima about the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I slept for an hour in my new room, then walked down the dirt road to the town center of San Jose, outside of Chincha, and stopped at an old church. It was from the early 18th century, built on top of old slave quarters. When I read that on the placard outside the church, I thought it was strangely poetic, strangely perfect for the blend of religiosity and capitalism that justified the genocides and enslavements we call the “discovery” of the Americas. Honestly, I felt a little sick. It made me iffy about going into the church, to be honest, afraid just a bit of the ghosts in both places, above and below. But I went in and there was only a priest inside, sweeping the aisles. I looked up at the Jesus on the cross, expecting another Inca skirted Christ. I did see that, but I also saw Jesus with black skin and hair that was a creole or mestizaje or whatever term one might apply of African and Indian. He also had sandals on that, as the priest informed me, were distinctive in design to the coastal region. He walked me through the symbols on the skirt, symbols both Yoruban and Inca.
It was all so unexpected. The “unexpected” part, of course, is all about me and not the place itself. The place, Chincha and the Ica department, has been the heart of Afro-Peru for centuries. Arriving there, walking there, eating there, talking and looking – it all reminded me how small my picture of even a complex place can be, and how this place we call the Americas is mixed and new in so many different ways. You just don’t think of Chincha’s folks when you think of Peru. We should, though, because Chincha is a place that tells a lot of stories. Stories of cultural survival and transformation unlike we find anywhere else – a fact true, no doubt, of most places, when we pay close enough attention. And standing in that church, I wondered about the ghosts of those who’d suffered beneath the church, hearing hymns to peace and brotherhood as they were undergoing the unthinkable pain. What would it mean for those ghosts to rise to the church floor and see this Jesus, with this cluster of significations, reinvented to save these people here, instead of those people there? And so on. So many questions.
This is really about me, I know. And how I found something unexpected in Ica, something about which I thought “I should have known this!” I didn’t. And about which the place would no doubt respond “uh, yeah. We’ve been here a long time!”
And so I wrote these thoughts on this Saturday morning because reading about the earthquake made me think about unexpected things and how they’ll be lost, for better or worse, in the story of natural disaster. Ica, whether Pisco or Chincha, is something other than a disaster zone. In fact, what makes it so humanly disastrous is that it has a long history, complex and compelling, that is so easily forgotten. I guess I’ve written this in hopes that someone sees in those pictures an unexpected place. Or, if that someone already knows all of this, it is some sort of reminder of how beautiful the roads, language, food, history, landscapes, religions, and much more are in that department. San Jose, Chincha, Pisco…more and more. There is this earthquake and helping these people get their lives together is first and foremost. Amidst it all, though, I just want us to know that Ica is a really lovely place with an endlessly complicated history of cultures and souls.