*NOTE: This post covers events from May 25-26
Of all the questions I thought I’d ask, “That’s a tortilla?” was definitely not one. Growing up in California, I was primarily exposed to the Mexican tortilla – a paper-thin flatbread made from corn or flour. It was thin enough to wrap around vegetables, roll into a makeshift telescope, and fold into an origami boat (trust me, I know). So naturally, when I saw my first Peruvian tortilla, I could not believe my eyes. Yellow in color and spongy in texture, the Peruvian tortilla was as far from the paper-thin Mexican flatbread as possible. Upon a cursory examination, I estimated that it was about as thick as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. How’s that for culture shock?
The Tortilla Epiphany, however, was not the only cultural revelation I’ve had in the last week. Alex and Mily have often told us, “Siempre hay fiesta en Cusco (There’s always a party in Cusco).” Over the past few days, we’ve been startled more than once by the resounding crack of a firework. And, on Thursday afternoon, those festivities came to a head. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After the Incan Empire fell, Catholicism was established as the state religion of Peru. Today, most families in Cusco – including mine – identify as Catholic. Now, those families are split up by location into 14 different barrios (neighborhoods), each with its own patron saint. On Wednesday, all 14 barrios paraded the statues of their patron saints from their neighborhood churches to the heart of the city. The leading men and women of each barrio donned their finest traditional clothing: spotless top hats, vibrant dresses, and elaborate sashes for the mayors. Then, groups of young men hoisted their patron saints’ statues onto their shoulders and proceeded down the Avenida del Sol (Avenue of the Sun) to the Plaza de Armas (Plaza of Arms/Weapons). They were preceded by groups of traditional dancers and trailed by immense marching bands. According to my host mother, San Jerónimo (Saint Jerome) and San Sebastián (Saint Sebastian) have an annual race to the Plaza de Armas. Despite starting farther away, San Jerónimo always wins.
We watched this entire spectacle from up close during our city tour on Wednesday. But that by no means prepared us for the insanity of Thursday.
Thursday, May 26th, was un día feriado (a holiday) in Cusco. Catholics from across the city milled into the Plaza de Armas, braving the scorching sun to watch all 14 saints parade into the Cusco Cathedral. My host mother explained each one to me as he or she arrived – San Antonio (Saint Anthony), patron saint of bachelors; San Jerónimo (Saint Jerome), patron saint of librarians; San Cristóbal (Saint Christopher), patron saint of travelers; four versions of the Virgin Mary… The statues were all adorned with gilt capes, precious stones, and enough gold to outdo Midas. They moved towards the cathedral slowly, revolving and swaying with the steps of their carriers. “¡Mira! Están bailando (Look! They’re dancing),” my host mother exclaimed.
The star of the show, however, was a large silver altar furnished with an intricately carved cross. At the center of the cross, a round glass window showed the consecrated Eucharist inside. Catholics believe that, when the Eucharist wafers have been consecrated, they literally become the body of Christ. Hence the name of Thursday’s festival: Corpus Christi (Body of Christ).
In Catholic-dominated Cusco, Corpus Christi was a huge deal. A literal sea of people flooded the Plaza de Armas during the parade, causing traffic congestion multiple blocks away. Meanwhile, food vendors lined the Avenida del Sol, displaying edibles from spongy tortillas to cooked cuy (guinea pigs). After purchasing a tortilla and hydrating ourselves with fruit juice, my host family and I headed back home to eat chiriuchu.
An iconic dish derived from Incan tradition, chiriuchu unites ten elements from different regions of Peru. Among its most interesting components are minuscule fish eggs and cooked guinea pigs. At first, I couldn’t bring myself to touch the guinea pig. We generally stick to white meats at home, and I couldn’t even imagine sampling a rodent. Slowly, cautiously, I persuaded myself to lift the cuy by its leg and nibble some of the meat. To my surprise, it was incredibly flavorful, though a little hard. My host father told me that Peruvians eat all parts of the cuy – meat, organs, skin – everything but the bones. Being the extranjera (foreigner) that I am, I polished off the meat but refused to bite into the skin. “That’s enough adventure for one day,” I told myself.
The festivities of this week introduced me to Peruvian culture in a jarring, slightly overwhelming way. I pushed my way through crowds for photos of dancing saints; tasted tortillas as thick as bestselling books; and sampled meat that almost scared the living daylights out of me. While none of these experiences were particularly comfortable, I can safely say that they were all necessary to begin understanding Peruvian culture. I’m still far from an expert – but, hey, I’m learning.