Wednesday, 6 May 2015

A meagre harvest

If you're reading this in the UK this week, the mere mention of politics will probably be enough to make you slam shut your laptop. All I can say is good luck to you all tomorrow.

Peru doesn't go to the polls until May 2016, but already seems set for the usual tumultuous year of electioneering nonsense. Get ready to jump aboard the magic roundabout.

All this by way of forging a (somewhat tenuous)  link to this latest story from the Anecdotes. Land rights I suspect haunt the dreams of many a Peruvian politician. It's a complex issue, with no easy fix guaranteed to unravel the fearsome web of conflicting interests. That said - no reason not to try.

In this story. Tello's assistant Mejía Xesspe bigs himself up and poses as a special government envoy in an attempt to track down some ancient artefacts. In the process he gets caught up in the brouhaha between two provincial warring factions.

A meagre harvest
In which we see what happens when the gloves come off in a rural community in Andahuaylas

Tello had always been really fascinated by the Inca quero. So it was with great excitement that one day in October 1925, his devoted follower Toribio Mejía Xesspe, reported that he was on the scent of a trail that promised to uncover some. There ensued a saga that Tello always delighted in recounting to us with great amusement.

Over the years Mejía Xesspe had acquired as much patience and skill in sniffing out archaeological discoveries as the master himself. he understood and spoke both Quéchua and Aymara perfectly, and this allowed his to move at ease among the native communites, inspiring a confience which greatly facilitated his research. it was this skill that served him so well when, passing in front of the capital's Parliament one day, he came across an Indian sitting on the kerb. Fallng into conversation with him, he quickly established that he came from Chillua in the province of Andahuaylas.

Hilario González Atquipa was newly arrived in Lima. He was there hoping to present a case to the courts denouncing the constant abuses to which his community was being subjected. The governors of surrounding towns, local landowners and even licensed army recruits were stealing their land and cattle.

The two men stayed chatting for a while and Mejía Xesspe, after a few prudent enquiries, came round to his usual question: were there any Inca ruins or any artifacts such as huacos, quipus or queros in his area.  The answer was encouraging. Although Atquipa didn’t know the term quero, he told him about the decorated wooden drinking bowls that he had inherited from his grandparents, which they used for drinking chicha.  They drank from them especially during the herranza - their cattle branding ceremonies - because that ensured that the animals would continue to be healthy and fertile. Mejía Xesspe’s ears pricked up. He hardly dared to believe it. It seemed almost too good to be true. He didn’t pursue the subject further for the moment but promised to help the man and his community if he would just come with him for a moment to see someone.

Inca queros

He took him straight to the museum. Tello nearly fell over at the news! A few minutes later his excitement grew tenfold when Mejía Xesspe took the man to a display cabinet where some queros were exhibited.  He asked him,
“Are these like the ones you have in Chillhua?”
“Yes, yes, exactly the same as those Sir. I’ve got five, my uncle has got two and my cousin has got two very pretty ones too. My brother in law has got six. Almost everyone in Chillhua has got them – they make our cattle breed very well”

There was no doubting it; they were Inca queros and to their delight the Indian continued giving them a long detailed list of them all. Neither Mejia Xesspe nor Tello pressed the matter. They didn't want to upset their chances of getting their hands on a veritable harvest of queros.   

They started to discuss the grievances of Chillhua’s inhabitants. Atquipa did not really know how to progress with the case. He had not been able to resolve much since coming to Lima. His efforts seemed to have consisted mainly in rambling aimlessly about outside the Parliament. Mejía Xesspe, an expert in cases such as this, stepped in. He promised to take care of everything. It would make things much easier as the farmer was illiterate and hardly spoke Spanish.

Mejía Xesspe told him how he proposed to help and they had soon elaborated a plan. There was only one obstacle - Atquipa had no notion of a calendar. How could they fix a date for Xesspe's proposed trip to the region? Happily, All Saint's Day was approaching and so they fixed upon that day as the date when they would meet in Coracora. Atquipa would wait for him there with two mules, one for him and another for his luggage and equipment. Mejía Xesspe suggested that he advise the villagers of the imminent arrival of a government envoy charged with finding a solution to their problems. 

And so it was that on the arranged date he arrived in Coracora. Thanks to a written recommendation from Tello, the sub-prefect gave him credentials requesting for all the relevant authorities in the jurisdiction to accommodate and assist him to the best of their abilities. Carrying his papers with him, he set off to Chillhua, six days ride away.

tending livestock in Andahuaylas
photo - Max Altamirano Molero
RPP imágenes

On his arrival the ‘government envoy’ was careful to tactfully conceal the real motive for his journey. True to his word he set to the task at hand. He began by compiling a sketch representing the location of the scattered huts in which lived the twenty five to thirty families making up the community of Chillhua. Next he made a detailed genealogy of each family, outlining a list of their legitimate claims to inheritance and the evils they had suffered. It was, in short, a kind of ethnographic report. Very soon after came a listing of all the individual disputes that had arisen. The ‘government envoy’ even went so far as to command appearances before him from all the accused extortionists.

He was surprised and angry to find one of them to be an ex officer of the armed forces. Each one of these rogues was palpably nervous in the face of the interest their behaviour had seemingly excited in Lima, and promptly promised not to repeat their wrongdoings.

Then came the most difficult work; that which was at the core of the Indians’ problem, the physical laying out and marking of boundaries. Each plot was to be added to the map along with the names of gorges, brooks, rocks and other landmarks. The farmers were obviously proud to have among them none other than a ‘government envoy’. They had already spread the news to all the neighbouring areas, alerting them to the fact that they were preparing to defend their borders.

Atquipa and his people, both men and women left before dawn. They were all armed with whips and ready to use them on anyone who dared to get in their way.  At their head marched Mejía Xesspe.  The day progressed just as planned with no trouble. After all, the Chillhuans were only marking out the territory that legally belonged to them anyway. But then just as dusk was settling they came to a deep, narrow gorge, which they could not cross without trespassing onto neighbouring land. To make this worse, the owners were there and refused to let them pass, even by request of the ‘government envoy’. They thought that by letting them pass they would be conceding that stretch of land also to Chillhua as it was customary in those areas for boundaries to be drawn according to where people needed access.

Seeing himself stuck like this between two bands of increasingly angry peasants began to make Mejía Xesspe uneasy. What was, in fact, a minor misunderstanding looked like developing into a huge brawl. No matter how hard he cautioned, no matter how hard he tried to instill calm and moderation, no one was listening.  He tried explaining that the government didn’t as a rule take land like this and was not trying to cheat them, but that they only wanted to cross through in order to continuing demarcating the legal boundaries, but his words fell on deaf ears.

Meanwhile the insults were growing on both sides, and a row was brewing which, as might be expected, very quickly degenerated into a downright riot.  The situation quickly became perilous. The peasants brought out their whips and a brutal duel ensued. Both sides knew how to wield their weapons very efficiently. Their aim was fiercely proficient and soon great wounds were opened up on the skin of the adversaries. Many of them were doubled up in pain, and some of the women began to keel over and faint under the ferocity of the attack.

Mejía Xesspe found himself now in real danger. If he was to spur on his horse and try to separate them he would most likely be grievously injured. All he could do was to remain on the edge of the fray, shouting at them to stop. But it was useless, in their blind fury, women and men alike continued relentlessly.

The uproar lasted for more or less half an hour and only came to an end with the increasing weakness of each side and the growing numbers of the wounded. 
Seeing that they were losing the strength in their arms and unable to handle the whips quite so proficiently, Mejía Xesspe took advantage of this brief respite to step in and deliver a longwinded speech. He invoked their ancestors, the Inti, Mama Quilla, and the Pachamama. He appealed to their sense of their birthright – to all the great Inca wisdom that had gone before them. Then and only then did they finally begin to see reason and each side retreated and withdrew their wounded.

It took a short while for the ‘government envoy’ to recover himself sufficiently to begin further negotiations. He continued with his promises that there would be no incursion of the Chilluans into Ayacuchan land and eventually they were able to cross the gorge and continue with the demarcation.

Two weeks later, Mejía Xesspe had explored all the area’s archaeological sites and thoroughly investigated its people’s traditions and customs. It was time for the ‘government envoy’, with all the formality that his post afforded him, to officially found the town of Chillhua. The act was drawn up and signed. It was hermetically sealed in a glass bottle and buried in the central square of the future town. They marked out the plaza in small stones on the ground in front of a small rundown chapel and traced out some side streets radiating off the square for a few blocks, indicating sites for the school, the municipal buildings, the jail, and lots for all the families in the community.

He recommended that they should start with the construction of a school and a church. Finally, in the last days of his visit, he showed them some of the customs from the great metropolis, and showed them how to cook some of the dishes prepared there.
wooden Inca quero
Brooklyn Museum
At last the time came to approach the subject of the queros.  Still avoiding an outright request, Mejía Xesspe, instead insinuated that it was required for him to take back with him some objects which would verify his presence in Chillhua. Of course the obvious objects were the queros and what’s more they should be the best ones they could offer. It was, after all, government business. 

A small ripple of discontent ran through the group. The fertility of the cattle relied to some extent on these drinking vessels and there was at first an understandable reluctance to give them up. 

But Atquipa managed to talk the others round by stressing to them how well the donation would go down with the government, and how that might help favour their situation in the future.  In the end he collected twelve queros; some small return for all Mejía Xesspe’s efforts.

Nevertheless, a month and a half later Tello thought all his Christmases and birthdays had come at once when he was able to take delivery of the dozen Inca wooden cups which had not cost the museum a single cent.

And our story doesn’t finish there. Mejía Xesspe, afterwards received authorization to continue and expand the exploration of that whole area bordering Apurímac, including parts of Ayacucho, and Arequipa, which he did for eight months. 
Quinoa growing in Andahuaylas
photo by Musuk Nolte ©PromPeru

However, in spite of his exhaustive enquiries, it seemed that the townspeople of Chillhua were the only ones in the region to have, at some time, found a necropolis where there were queros. And sadly they could never account for their provenance. According to them, they had simply inherited them. They could never direct him to a site. 

And so, there never was the longed for mighty harvest of queros, but at least the archeologists had been able to keep their part of the bargain. When Mejía Xesspe’s report reached Lima, Tello reported the abuses to the Department for the Protection of Indigenous Races. This all took place before the time of the Ministry for Indigenous Affairs. But the case was presented to the relevant authorities and they finally guaranteed legitimate protection for the citizens of Chillhua.

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