People of the Andes

DSC02320The Quechua are a proud people. Descendants of the Incas, they’ve survived on the harsh slopes of the Andes mountains for centuries. They stretch from Ecuador throughout Peru, into Boliva and parts of Chile. Mostly short, with coarse, straight black hair and strong patrician noses, their cheeks are red, chapped from the dry Andean wind.

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The slopes of the city of Ayacucho, Peru are dotted with Quechua communities. Mud block homes, dirt clod fields and herds of sheep cling to the unforgiving mountains.

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Ayacucho was the scene of the last battle for Latin American independence: in a nearby valley Simon Bolivar fought the final battle against the Spanish colonialists.

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Now the proud Quechua find themselves at odds with the modern world. Bustling Peruvian business centers are overwhelming to the reserved farmers. Their self-sufficient farming leaves them with little cash with which to participate in this world. Their children attend government schools, learn Spanish, forget their mother tongue, wear Western clothes and move to the cities.

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But during the 1980s and 1990s, the Peruvian Quechuas confronted an even greater enemy: civil war in their very mountains. A communist guerilla movement called the Shining Path was born in the university in Ayacucho. It’s young and violent members took refuge in the Quechua’s hills while they waged war against the Peruvian government. Those who got in the way had to be sacrificed, including the farmers and sheep-herders whose only possessions where the land where they slept.

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Countless were killed, senselessly. Many lost everything they had. Others spent night after night, sleeping in caves and behind rocks in the forest, to afraid of the guerillas to sleep at home. In time, the Shining Path movement lost momentum; it’s leaders were killed and it’s followers dispersed. But the scars of those long days and nights remain in the hearts of those who lived through them.

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The Quechua of Ayacucho are still poor. The dirt in which they sleep sometimes clings to their sleeves. But they are slowly but surely rebuilding the destroyed communities, mud block by mud block. The scattered are returning to their mountain villages bit by bit. The government is bringing electricity to even the most remote places. Rough roads are creeping higher and higher into the mountains.DSC02239

Water from mountain springs is plentiful and the rivers teem with fresh water trout. The rich earth is revealing small potatoes, harvested, boiled with salt and then peeled before being eaten with relish.The women once again spin wool from their sheep, dye the cloth in vibrant colors, weave it into flowers, stripes and plaids.

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The proud, weather-worn cheeks of the Quechua, now bearing deep lines of remembrance, split into a smile as his gaze caresses each ridge and river within view. Though hard work and perseverance, a brighter future for the proud people seems within reach.

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