Peru's Inca Renaissance

The 14,000-foot-high plain of the Andes, where the Inca civilization flourished five centuries ago, is as barren a land as the world possesses. With its packs of llamas running across the puna, pursued by the rain, it is to most eyes abandoned and strange.

The last twenty generations have been stilled by the shock of the Spanish Conquest. The Quechuaspeaking Indians stand like ancient brown statues in the spotty sunlight, their cheeks swollen by the wads of narcotic coca leaves, which relieve the pains of cold and hunger and history.

But today, the descendants of the Incas, both the pure-blood Indians and the mixed-blood cholos, are awakening politically, socially, and psychologically, and with such renewed cultural energy that the phenomenon is called by some an Inca renaissance.

In fact, Peruvian politicians of a new and modern-minded breed began looking around five years ago for effective ways to develop Peru, and they were astonished to discover that many of the Inca ways of life were intact — the community work groups, for instance, and the reciprocal aid groups. They are now adjusting development programs to these old social and political structures instead of trying to destroy them as before.

The Spaniards were predators, but they were also fussily legalistic. So in the National Archives in Lima these days, Indian leaders come in to leaf through the brittle 400-year-old deeds which show the passing of land from the Incas to the Spaniards. Through agrarian reform, the Indians are now reclaiming their ancient lands.

The major Indian language, Quechua, has been said by anthropologists to have died out twenty years ago. Actually it is spoken by more people than ever. It has become stylish to learn Quechua — more Peruvian university students study it than any other language. Three years ago the national culture magazine of Peru, always very Spanish, published its first poem in Quechua.

All over the altiplano (“high plain”) of Peru, new Indian political organizations are springing up to challenge the old aristocracy, which has always controlled political life from Lima. These new Indian peasant leagues and peasant parties are taking over mayoral posts and local councils in several key areas. In the Bolivian altiplano, the Indians took over so completely in the 1952 revolution that Bolivia could best be called an Indian state.

Perhaps most important, the Indians have gained enough adventurous security to leave the altiplano, where they have always lived, and to which they have become physiologically adapted. Now they are spilling over into the coasts of Peru and into the eastern jungle regions in Bolivia, These cholos, or citified, deracinated Indians, are transforming cities like Lima. Anthropologists and politicians say they will transform a large part of Latin America in the future.

“The people did it”

The awakening of the Incas actually began in the thirties through APRA, Peru’s labor party, the model for subsequent democratic left parties in Latin America. But the Apristas offered merely a symbolic reappreciation of the Incas. The major part of the credit for opening opportunities for Indians goes to Fernando Belaúnde Terry, the elegant aristocratic architect who was elected President of Peru in 1963.

Belaúnde likes to tell the story — he tells it incessantly — of how in his campaign he traveled to every corner of the country, and how surprised he was to discover roads, schools, and community buildings in even the most primitive little villages. When he asked where they came from, Belaúnde relates, he was told “El pueblo lo hizo” — “The people did it.”

He was discovering rather belatedly what anthropologists in the Andes have known for years — that the Indian villages, far from being hopelessly somnolent or unstructured, are dramatically alive, and that through their community work groups, they have managed to build what they needed. Self-generating and spontaneous, this work failed to catch the eye of the authorities because those authorities despised everything Indian.

After he took office, Belaúnde resolved to encourage the minka (one family group helping another), and the mita (public service offered to the entire community), and to build his community plans around them. So he promulgated the law of Cooperación Popular, calling it “the cornerstone of my platform” and noting, “From the very beginning I have always proclaimed that this law is fundamentally based in our deep historical traditions and that a vigorous Peru can and will be built upon it.”

This was revolutionary in a most profound sense for a country like Peru. It was socially and psychologically revolutionary because it signified a new public respect toward the formerly despised Indian ways. It was politically revolutionary because it gave representation to the Indian communities.

Cooperación Popular

Cooperación Popular sent students into the mountains in a Peruvianstyle Peace Corps. For the first time young middle-class Peruvians, who used to shun manual labor, came into the most remote parts of the country and into intimate contact with the Indians. The way the law worked, the Indian communities would go to the local Cooperación Popular offices with projects (some brought impractical proposals like swimming pools or plazas), and with the officials in Lima, they would decide what projects got government aid. In 1964— 1965, the government estimated the value of national capital produced through this communal work at $60 million. The results included 2600 kilometers of new roads, 3700 community buildings, and 250 irrigation works.

The budget allocated to Cooperación Popular was cut down this year by opposition political parties who feared Belaúnde was developing his own political cadres through it. As a result the number of college students working in the program has gone down from 700 in 1964 to about 200 in 1967, even though there are several thousand who have volunteered to go.

Another of Bclaúnde’s measures to bring the Inca community into the mainstream of the nation — and thus really to create for the first time a united Peru — was the revival of municipal elections in 1963, after forty-two years. There are about 12 million people in Peru today, with an estimated half of them classified as cholos (largely a cultural and not a racial term), another 35 percent as pure Indians, and 15 percent as Creoles or as being primarily of Spanish descent. But only 2,200,000 vote. Illiterates have been barred from voting, and in effect, it has been the small 15 percent — Creoles and Spanish descendants — which has always controlled Peru from Lima. Consequently, the wealth of the country poured in from the countryside and stayed in the capital; one recent year saw $15 million expended on government services in Lima and $20 million going to all the rest of the country. The municipal elections are redressing the balance.

Land invasions

Another emanation of the awakening in the Andes is the new insistent demand for land. There are some 5000 “comunidades indigenas” (native — that is, Indian — communities) which still hold land in common, but about a third of the Indians still work as virtual peons on the big haciendas.

Until recently you could see Indians hitched up as oxen plowing badly worked fields in front of the magnificent and productive terraces which their Inca forefathers created. They care for the hacendado’s (“landholder’s”) alpaca packs, which roam all night, and they have to pay with one from their own pack if they lose one. To keep them in a passive state, the Indians often arc paid not in money but in the narcotic coca (cocaine) leaf.

The dramatic land invasions by which the Indians, organized by Trotskyites and peasant dissidents of every type and usually led by cholos, walked in and took the land they claimed was theirs “from Inca times” reached a height in 1964 and 1965, when the valleys of the Andes around the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco were ablaze with haciendas burning and people marching. In one period of six months, official estimates were that 150,000 persons had invaded 500 plantations throughout Peru and occupied more than 2 million acres of land.

Today the violence and the land invasions have temporarily subsided. Belaunde put through his agrarian reform, and the Indians are downtown in the archives trying to straighten out their old deeds. But observers say it won’t go on this way very long — it is going too slowly.

Another aspect of the real and symbolic reawakening of the Inca empire is in the reconstruction of roads on the old Inca scale. President Belaunde says of his project now under way to build a long marginal highway all along the eastern slopes of the Andes, connecting the West Coast from Colombia to Paraguay: “The marginal forest highway represents the first large-scale regional planning in South America since the Incas molded their empire.”

Thin air, rich culture

The altiplano, that high plain which balances at 14,000 feet like a slate between the two spectacular black ridges of the Andes, has formed and influenced the life of the Incas more than anything else. Its thin stern air has even affected the bodies of the Indians, giving them larger lungs to bear the strain and more red corpuscles to stand the cold.

It is a stunning part of the world, with broad barren valleys and purple mountains dotted by floating clouds that can suddenly erupt in convulsive showers. Historians say that the very barrenness of the land and its prohibitiveness are what prodded the Incas into their astonishing accomplishments. They had to use every piece of land, to terrace and burrow and organize and work together, to be able to live there.

The Incas (the term originally was used only to refer to the emperor and his family, who were descended from the sun, but is now used for the entire nation) created one of the most judicious empires of all time, dividing land among the people with absolute equality. Granaries kept food for drought periods along the extraordinary highways the Incas built from the borders of Colombia to the north of Chile; runner-messengers formed a communications system connecting the kingdom.

Extending their hegemony largely by reason, persuasion, and example, the Incas brought into their world all the tribes of Ecuador and Bolivia. But it was in no sense a Western empire; its dominating characteristics were absolute discipline, perfect obedience, and total, hierarchical organization. The empire, which was called Tahuantisuyo, was divided into four quarters, each governed by the equivalent of a viceroy and further divided into provinces ruled by Inca administrators. The major social unit was the ayllu, the traditional Indian family group, whose chief was responsible for all the acts of his clansmen. The Indians were further organized into groups of ten, each headed by a decurion; and these groups organized into groups of fifty “souls,” then one hundred, then five hundred, and finally a thousand, because, the Inca is supposed to have said, “the care of one thousand persons is quite sufficient to occupy one man alone.”

There was no appeal from the absolute power of the emperor, who traveled in a gold palanquin the lengths of the empire and wore his specially woven clothes only once. Status was fixed from birth, and punishment for disobedience or crime was severe and immediate, usually death. For an individual to steal from the state or church lands meant an entire ayllu might be wiped out. Yet, typically too, nobles were punished more harshly than peasants, and the decurion was compelled to report any juridical misdemeanor in his group of ten within an hour or he himself was doubly punished — for not doing his duty and for keeping silent.

In the end, it was the perfect obedience of the Indians to the emperor and his equitable realm that was the empire’s downfall. Francisco Pizarro came up the Andes on foot with 180 men and 27 horses and defeated a great empire of 5 million persons with the single act of capturing the Inca Atahualpa. Once the Inca was captured, the empire was captured, for all power was centered in his person.

The exquisite Inca gold art works (there was gold corn “growing” in the Inca’s palace in Cuzco) were melted down into bars and shipped to Spain. The Indians themselves were taken from their obedient collectivism and tied to the haciendas, to be bought and sold with the land and the animals.

Some fled into the eastern recesses of the Andes, to the hot damp high jungle on the eastern slopes, where they built escape cities such as Machu Picchu. Indian rebellions such as the one under Tupac Amaru in 1780 were cruelly put down. Future leaders were bought off by the Spaniards with certificates of “whiteness” which allowed them to enter, if peripherally, Creole society. In the last 200 years the Quechuaspeaking empire fell into silent deathly passivity.

Charm and despair

In the face of the dynamism of the Spaniards, all of the Indians of the Americas were peculiarly vulnerable to destruction, having all the same obsession with destiny and unavoidable catastrophe. But looking at the old Inca poetry and songs, historians have noted that the Incas, unlike the blood-worshiping Aztecs, were always singing of peace and orderly collectivism.

There is also a distinct melancholy which led from the happiness of their own empire to the hopeless nightmares of the time of the Spanish Conquest. A modern historian. José de la Riva Aguero, has written about the Quechuas:

“Theirs is a tender, gentle, doleful poetry of naïve charm and pastoral softness, suddenly darkened by fits of the most tragic despair. More reserved and bound by tradition than any other people, this race possesses the gift of tears and the cult of memory. Guardians of mysterious tombs and forever mourning among these cyclopean ruins, their favorite diversion and bitter consolation are to sing about the woes of their history and the poignant grief that lies in their hearts.”

The sadness and mourning for what was, and the feelings of despair and hopelessness in the face of history, are major elements in the psyche of the Indians today. Anthropologists note how much they sing of lost mothers who have abandoned them. Psychologists who did Rorschach tests of Quechuas found they continually saw men with no hands and feet.

Given these feelings, it is all the more surprising that the Indians today are breaking away, opening their lives to new forms, and asserting themselves in the world outside the altiplano, a world riven with disequilibrium. The form change takes, culturally and psychologically, is largely that from Indianness to becoming a citified or Westernized cholo. And the cholo is a totally new and different kind of person.

Barriada life

Anyone who knew Lima twenty years ago, anyone who was familiar with Pizarro’s aristocratic City of Kings would be astonished to see it now. Though still dotted with the grand plazas and churches and palaces of another age, there are today around the city jerry-built shatcktowns that have sprung up overnight, every night, during the last fifteen years. They house half a million Limeños, or about one fourth to one third of the population. These are the barriadas of the cholos.

At dusk on the narrow downtown street of Lima now, the cholos roast chicken livers on sticks over little black coal stoves and sell them for a few centavos. Along the throbbing Jiron de la Union, Lima’s busiest street, these entrepreneurs hawk rope bags, plastic covers, toys that make the noise of wild birds, cheap leather pocketbooks, magazines, and a thousand knicknacks that roll, squeal, and turn somersaults. In the barriadas they are equally competitive and imaginative: a common sight is a home generator from which a cholo rents electricity to his neighbors.

“Twenty years ago this was a Spanish city,” noted Dr. José Matos, head of the department of anthropology at Lima’s San Marcos University. “No more. Today it has an Indian flavor. The whole atmosphere has changed.”

It started, he went on, after World War II; by 1962 every one of seven presidential candidates was going out to the villages, for the first time in history, talking about change, about the new Peru, and about such formerly untouchable subjects as land reform. Meanwhile, a great coming and going had started between the mountains and the coast.

At first they moved into the cities, into the callejones, or big apartment slums. Later they organized themselves and began moving out to the government land in the deserts around the cities. They depended upon each other and worked together effectively in a country where mutual distrust has always been the rule.

Squatters’ rights

At night there would be only the empty sand, looking astonishingly like the Sahara. In the morning, there would be an entire city of several hundred mat houses, usually with a Peruvian flag flying, all standing bravely against society. There were many killings by police, but in the end Lima capitulated to its cholos. In 1961 the barriada law was passed giving squatters legal title to the land. Now the barriadas are there to stay. The woven mat houses are giving way to permanent cement houses which the cholos have built themselves.

The cholos are inveterate joiners. In Lima alone they have 670 registered provincial aid clubs, usually with offices that remind one of the German Hod Carriers or the Polish Alliance. They tend to be skeptical and critical of society, and there is the sense about them that they, or at least their children, are not going to put up with the status quo. They are surprisingly democratically oriented. This stems in part from the old communities, where every voice is heard. Long before the last municipal elections they were electing their own barriada mayors — spontaneously and without outside help or hindrance. They also have learned, apparently spontaneously, how to picket and protest. On almost any day you can see a barriada delegation walking downtown to the newspapers, with huge banners that stretch across whole streets asking for water or sanitation in the barriadas. This generation is largely interested in their homes and in establishing themselves on the coast; the next generation, experts say, will be the revolutionary one.

Georgia Anne Geyer