Teaching the Andes: Redefining the Common Good and Reclaiming the Public Square

Cusco, Peru and Kentucky, U.S.A.

I remember a few years ago when I was taking grad courses in Mathematics, I was fascinated by the fact that there were other number systems besides base 10.  It required a huge conceptual shift to rearrange numerical quantities as other than ones, tens, hundreds, and thousands and to think in other terms-a completely new and foreign way of looking at something.

It’s just this kind of shift that has been taking place in me again on this trip, but not related to math.  It’s more than a shift, really, it’s an an awakening.  In previous posts, I stated that I really knew nothing about South Americans or Andean culture.  This trip has shown me the history and the people in a way never possible from textbooks, photos or lectures, and I feel as though my heart has learned just as much as my mind.

In Ecuador, at least in Otavalo, there is a strong sense of warmth and welcome and solidarity.  Our new friends have literally reclaimed space for their history and their future-that’s a fascinating thing to ponder.  One of our lecturers on this trip proposed that history can be lost in a few generations.  The Quichua in Otavalo, feeling the urgency of time, have been tirelessly working to ensure that can’t happen to them.  The dedication of the people to do what otherwise wouldn’t be done to preserve their story and not allow history to be shaped by those who rule but do not live is a strong movement in Otavalo.

In Cusco, el ombligo del mundo, we witnessed awesome pre-Inka and Inka architecture and astronomy knowledge, wiped out by the Spanish in a few short decades.  The tour guides, language teachers and university professors we worked with showed us firsthand what the overthrow of history looks like and how difficult it can be to find truth 500+ years later.

I’ve been thinking about all this for weeks and there’s more than can be put in a blog post swirling around to say.  But I can say I think differently about a lot things now, having experienced the last month immersed in Quichua and Quechua, the languages and the people: What is history?  Who writes it?  What is valued in the writings and what is omitted?


Teaching the Andes: Redefining the Common Good and Reclaiming the Public Square

Otavalo, Ecuador

Tomorrow we leave Otavalo; our beautiful journey is already half over.  I’m definitely hatching plans to return soon with the love of my life, and the reason is the people.  We have had the immense privilege to work and learn with a diverse group of people-internationally known authors, researchers, anthropologists, entrepreneurs, dramatists, cinematographers and social activists who are working across different strata to preserve and honor indigenous and AfroEquatorian culture.

Several things have struck me in these last two weeks about the people of ecuador and of Otavalo, specifically.

  1. Despite being well-published and well-known, the academics we have been learning from and working alongside are warm, receptive and very down-to-Allpa Mama. They each have years of experience in their fields, have published scores of articles and books, and yet are willing to travel to us or host us so that we might get a peek into their expansive cache of knowledge and theory.
  2. EVERYONE in Otavalo has traveled extensively.  Seriously.  Every person we’ve talked to: our hotel owner, the people at the new laundry business, the taxi drivers, the people we’ve chatted with in the plaza, everyone.

The great duality/dichotomy at play here is the cosmopolitan people in this small town who have seen the world and have come back to live their lives here.  I can’t help but feel a bit awed by what Otavalo must mean to them- no, what the people of Otavalo must mean to each other.

Teaching the Andes: Redefining the Common Good and Reclaimng the Public Square

This post is from a few days ago- June 29, 2017 

Peguche and Otavalo, Ecuador

A mysterious illness knocked me out of the daily life here- a 24 hour bug that made me truly sympathetic for my roomie and declared hermanita Becky who experienced a terrible bout of altitude sickness in what is to be our next destination, Cusco, on a previous trip- and I missed a school visit and a visit to the cemetery to offer food and drink to los difuntos (not the dead-those who have passed on but remain nearby).

The attention to the difuntos, who will visit come back and visit their families if they don’t tend to their needs still on Earth and who are believed to be able to smell the carefully prepared foods brought to them in the cemetery, is so impressive to me and is definitely in keeping with the social structure of the indigenous people.  Here the moral economy prevails.  Taking care of one another, related or not, and helping take care of the mallka (the motherland) or the Pacha Mama is a major component of living the beautiful life.  Reciprocity and community are the backbone of the indigenous society and it extends as much to those still living on this plane as to those beyond.

In a few days, I will say goodbye to Ecuador and the wonderful people here. The natural affection and acceptance of the Kichwa people is something I will never forget.  New friends and colleagues have tirelessly worked to educate our group of educators and have opened their homes and their hearts to show us the magnificence of their culture, one they are collectively reclaiming, reaffirming and reinforcing.  I proudly stand with them.

Here’s a last look at last year’s Inti Raymi (Sun Festival- summer solstice and harvest rituals I have talked about in previous posts) video by Museo Otavalangohttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uN858P7H9hE

Teaching the Andes: Redefining the Common Good and Reclaiming the Public Square

Peguche, Ecuador

We’ve retreated to an amazing hotel higher up in the Andes to, ostensibly, take time to read, reflect, process and continue our work of trying to find various authentic ways to teach our students about the Andean culture and Kichwa (an indigenous language and people).

I’m sitting here in the sun-filled balcony overlooking the forest and the “valley” (close to 9000 feet above sea level) city of Otavalo, nestled in the Andes, listening to Johnny Cash play softly and trying to put into words what these last few days have meant to me.

We have had the great fortune to meet and work with so many wise people, each adding a layer to the knowledge we’re building and to the application of all we have experienced to the classroom.  Right now, my head is swimming with it all and I’m not sure I can do it justice for a few more days.

So, a post that doesn’t say much but promises to to at some point.

Stay tuned…

Teaching the Andes: Redefining the Common Good and Reclaiming the Public Square

Summer Solstice festival, Peguche

Last night was inolvidable- unforgettable!  Our amazing hosts at the Museo Otavalango, Ana and Nasim, took us to the nearby pueblo of Peguche, where at midnight on the day following the summer solstice the indigenous people and the mestizos (as well as a handful of visitors) come together to dance and sing, play music and celebrate life for hours and hours as they make their way to the waterfall for a ritual bath.   La cascada purifies the midnight bathers and prepares them for the season ahead.

Arriving in Peguche around 7:00 p.m., our small group of atrevidos was immediately welcomed with open arms into the gathered communities.  Food and drink were shared among the festivalgoers and each community began to form groups surrounding musicians who would keep playing until well after midnight.  As we stomped and shuffled in circles to the lively Andean music, I felt an enormous sense of joy and fulfillment.  As many times as I’ve pinched myself at the opportunity to be here in Ecuador (and in a week Peru),  this experience was one I could never have imagined.  I felt such a deep sense of connection to my new friends, American and Ecuadorian. As gratitude and awe washed over me, it didn’t matter that I didn’t end up partaking in the ritual bath.  I danced and laughed and sang for hours; I was a part of Inti Raymi, the Sun festival, and I was renewed.


Teaching the Andes: Redefining the Public Good and Reclaiming the Public Square

The Fabric of Life

Yesterday, we learned about local indigenous organizations serving the pueblo of Cotacachi and nearby regions, where 50 percent of the people don’t have access to potable water.  UNORCAC is working to educate both the mestizo and the indigenous populations to gain rights, educate and advocate for all in the areas of agribiodiversity and in regards to other issues such as women’s rights and equality.  This fits right in the concept of Ally Kawsay or Sumak Kawsay- the Quichua (Kichwa) term for the good life or the beautiful life.  This beautiful life is not tied to wealth,  possessions or material wealth but is rooted in the connection to the Pacha Mama, Mother Earth- we are all the Earth, the water, the air, and Ñukakanchik which can be translated as we are one- you are me and I am you, we are us.

I’m learning that this duality, Yanantin, is woven through the indigenous Andean culture.  This concept and that of reciprocity, Randi Randi, are the basis of life here.  The connection to and care of the Earth, the notion that we live in the present but look forward to the past (because we can see it clearly, right? doesn’t that make so much sense?) and behind us is the future (we don’t know what will come), the balance of masculine and feminine, the connection to their ancestors.

Finally, I’m thinking about the idea Michelle Wibbelsman et al proposed: that texts, especially for a cultural and language which only formalized a written version in the last 30 years, are not the only way to document history.  Here, the indigenous people are known for their textiles and pottery.  These hand-woven pieces are traditional to the culture and they are, given that the alphabet and written structure of Kichwa began to be codified in the 1990’s, the texts of indigenous Andean are in the artesanry.  It’s fascinating to note this: textere is the Latin root: to weave. 

Stay tuned and spread the word!  You can share this link: srajohnsonblog.wordpress.com

Teaching the Andes: Redefining the Common Good and Reclaiming the Public Square

This Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad, through THE Ohio State University, is subtitled “Redefining the Common Good and Reclaiming the Public Square”. What does that mean?

We’re here to learn about the Andean people, specifically the indigenous people of the Andes, in order to effect change through advocacy and education. Without framing it for you in the North American sensibility, but to make a simple reference for those not here to hear the stories and history of the indigenous people- the indigenous people have suffered since even before the colonial times when Spain assaulted this region and began to exploit in back in the 1500’s.  Marginalized and treated as less than human then and still now, their stories of atrocity harken back to the days of slavery in our America and the racism they continue to experience is something that would be familiar to some in the United States as well.

A bit of background here: My education as a Spanish major was wonderful for acquiring the Spanish language.  I first had an amazing teacher (Mrs. Grubb of the Oakridge School in Arlington, Texas- le debo mucho por haberme inspirado y por haberme mostrado la via en que todavia camino) in high school and some fantastic professors who taught about Spanish and Mexican culture.  We did not talk about South America.  Of course, I know the names Pinochet and Guevara and the capital of the countries.  But unlike my Fulbright colleagues who are from and have lived, traveled and studied in South America, I came as a tabula rasa.  I am a complete novice in regards to South America and the Andean cultures of Ecuador.  I’m also learning Quichua, one of the languages of the indigenous people of Ecuador.

Our classes are taking place in a reclaimed factory.  A large group of ex-workers of the factory, which sat abandoned for a long time after it closed, formed a colectivo of sorts and bought the factory and the land surrounding it.  This place of former suffering where these workers were beaten, drowned, shackled and hardly compensated for their ingenious textiles has become a museum and a school and a studio and a concert hall.  To tour the property and listen to firsthand accounts of the indigenous workers’ experiences under a patron was so moving in the literal sense of the word.

There’s so much more to say, but to do justice by my new friends I will need some more time to process.


Redefining the Common Good and Reclaiming the Public Square

We’re in Otavalo now, where the program leader has been coming for 20 years for her research.  Last night we arrived and headed to the cultural center called the Casa de Artes Centro Intercultural Yawar Wawki.  It’s also gaining recognition as a living museum- Museo Viviente Otavalango.  We were invited to come visit the space before the week’s studies of Quichua and Andean music commence today.  What a welcome!! The internationally known group of musicians that played and sang in the reclaimed space (more on that in the future) were phenonemal, using traditional Quichua (one of the languages of Andean Ecuador) and a collaboration of “Western” instruments like the cello and the flute with Andean instruments like the palla.  We met many members of the community who have retaken this former colonial factory in the last couple years and turned it into a music and art space for Otavalo and the surrounding areas.  There they offer music classes for children in nearby communities as host space for local artists.  The indigenous community, long oppressed here and marginalized, is reclaiming the public space and rising up for the common good.  There is so much more to learn and to say, but the idea of Runakuna is heavy in my mind- I’m learning it’s the concept of being a full and true human being, in step with and in synergy with the arts, the people and the cosmos.

Teaching the Andes

Today was day one on the ground in South America for me.  A couple months ago, I applied for a Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad program to travel to Ecuador and Peru to learn about the Andes, Andean culture in Ecuador and Peru and to study Quechua and Spanish.  I hoped like mad that I would be selected and waited with baited breath for the call.  Well, the call was an email that went right to spam or some other nether region of the Internet; when I finally got confirmation that I was chosen to live in South America for a month, it was too much to fathom.  Now I’m here with 12 other Fulbrighters, writing my first-ever blog post in a hotel in Quito.  I’m still pinching myself that I get to be here, experiencing the beauty of these countries with our amazing director.  It’s beginning to sink in that yes, I am really here and that my purpose is not one to be taken lightly.  As a Spanish major who studied in Spain and learned all about Spanish history who went on to teach children from Central American countries, my woefully inadequate knowledge of South American history is what prompted me to apply to be right where I am.  I am here to learn about and advocate for teaching the Andes.  The voice of the indigenous people, their languages and their culture was not a part of my education.  I am here to make sure that from here on out their presence is strong and their history is told.  There’s much more to come-stay tuned…