TARA MCGOVERN, a UIUC junior in Sociocultural Anthropology, is studying abroad in Ecuador’s capital city this spring (’12), at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito.
She recently sent us this riveting, breathless account of her cultural immersion in a place that has clearly captivated her, body and soul—a place that has pushed her to think about how to use her anthropological training to make the world a better place. If you’d like to read more of Tara’s thoughtful and anthropologically informed impressions—of Inca gold, Renaissance paintings, Cortes’ legacy, and more–check out the terrific and aptly-titled blog she’s been keeping, “Claroscuro:
A Gringa’s Perceptions of 21st Century Latin America.” You can find it at: http://tararaquelclaroscuro.wordpress.com.
El Nuevo Jerusalén, 16 April 2012
How do I even begin to tell you about this place?
Every hour of every day is a spectacular montage of light and water and earth. Shimmering green mountains exhale swirling clouds that billow into the sun; in the night, the moonlight becomes so thick in the damp air that you can breathe it. Quito’s glass skyscrapers and pastel box houses sprawl beneath the grand silhouette of the volcano Pichincha, transforming into a carpet of gold stars at night. Steep snowy peaks of volcanoes appear like apparitions of ancient gods when the clouds suddenly clear. The dramatic statues of virgins and angels crowning fountains, facades, and mountains could have descended from the low-hanging clouds moments before. The gilded interiors of hundreds of Quiteño churches suck the breath right out of me; the grisly sculptures of Jesus’ bloody, bruised body and the Virgin’s pained, averted eyes raise goose bumps.
How do I even begin to tell you about these people?
Just at first glance, the “diversity” of Ecuador is unique and complicated and beautiful and dark. Four-foot-tall, deeply wrinkled women and men in indigenous-style fedoras crouch beneath spectacular polished colonial architecture, begging photo-snapping tourists for coins. Trimly dressed businessmen crowd next to tattooed guitar players on the El-like Ecovía during rush hour. Afro-Ecuadorians from the coast swing jugs of milky liquid, advertising “¡jugo de coco, jugo de coco!” between market women with toddlers strapped to their backs. Throbbing reggaetón and Latino Top 40 mingle with merry salsa and the sophisticated lilt of traditional music on the street, inside buses, across plazas. On the streets of the luxurious nightlife district, La Foch, foreigners and Ecuadorians flutter from club to club while poor women and children wander around trying to sell packs of gum and cigarettes. Men’s glossy aviators, carefully sculpted fauxhawks, and distinctive strut evoke a sleek, aesthetic masculinity. Otovaleña women proudly wear full traditional dress–a complicated arrangement of lacy embroidered blouses, tight handwoven belts, fitted floor-length skirts, and dazzling coral and glass beads–to their jobs one day, and formal business attire the next.
How do I even begin to tell you about this history?
Ecuador, embracing snow-capped mossy mountains, tropical coast, and the Amazon rainforest, has been a cultural and environmental crossroads for thousands of years. Quito’s sleekly designed museums house impressive collections of Pre-Columbian artifacts: homoerotic Moche pottery, brilliant gold jewelry of matriarchal societies, and elaborate textiles glorifying Pachamama (Mother Earth). Even the accomplishments of the famous Inca, who only managed to conquer Ecuador a few generations before the Spanish arrived, pale in comparison to the archaeological diversity of Ecuador.
With the Spanish Conquest (or “Invasion” as it is called here sometimes) Quito continued as a thriving artistic, economic, and cultural center centuries before the United States had even dreamed of independence. Quiteño indigenous and mestizo artists established conventions that bucked Western notions of “high art” and instead innovated their own Quiteño School of Art. Early Spanish writers, enthralled with Quito’s explosion of artistic production and monumental architecture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, proclaimed that Quito was to be the Nuevo Jerusalén, the New Jerusalem–grander, more impressive, and more idealistically Christian than any city in human history.
As I read the literature of the cronistas, or the “chroniclers” of the Conquest/Invasion–Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés, Don Felipe Guamán Poman de Áyala, Bartolomé de Las Casas, Ginés de Sepúlveda–I’m coming to more intimately understand the inescapable global forces at work on the human beings involved. These writings flesh out the grotesque violent narrative of conquest into a story inhabited by characters that are both victims of circumstance and actors of passion. For example, I’m seeing Ecuador with the eyes of a terrified foreigner–the harsh jungle and rabid mountains so much grander and more threatening than the temperate environments of Europe or the U.S. The conquistador’s acts of violence and fear make more sense in the context of terror, and the context of militant conversion inherited from Reconquista-era Spain. I’m seeing the mystic scenery of Quito through the eyes of someone full of hope and fear for the future, for a “New World.” At the same time, I’m imagining the harrowing life of Don Felipe Guamán Poman de Áyala, an Inca noble who learned Spanish and wrote a 1,189-page illustrated letter to the King of Spain about the daily lived realities of early colonial Latin America. Bartolomé de las Casas saved one “race” and condemned another, when he suggested the importation of African slaves to lessen the burden on indigenous workers. These cronistas were 16th-century anthropologists. They encountered the unknown, the Other, in the context of strife for power and resources, and tried to make sense of this Other with the theory and philosophy available to them at the time. Their conclusions and observations created a continent and its ideology, setting the tone of gender, race, and intercultural relations for centuries.
How do I even begin to tell you about this present?
The word desarollo, or development, is hot on everyone’s lips. The president, Rafael Correa, was not so long ago a graduate student in Economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Two weeks ago, several unions and CONAIE (Confederation of the Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) marched against the President and some of his “development” plans involving exploitation of mineral and oil resources. Government reports on television have Quichua and sign language subtitles. My Quichua-speaking friend gleefully informed me of the most common use of Quichua on campus: discussing the hotness of women. “They’ll understand you if you speak Spanish or English, but not Quichua,” he explained matter-of-factly.
Studying abroad among the people I’m “studying” is incredible. I’m attending the most prestigious university in the nation, La Universidad San Francisco de Quito, alongside a thousand other gringos –and the next generation of Ecuador’s governing elite. A friend from the Amazon–half-Quichua, half-Shuar–told me he chose to come to this university because “the whole world is here–indigenous, gringos, mestizos, Europeans, rich, poor, everyone.” My classes, my professors, and my experiences sync together and spread their complex narratives and subnarratives before me. In my Art of Colonial Quito class, the power-resource-religion complex that shaped colonial society is apparent in the content, donors, and location of Quito’s greatest artwork. In my Quichua language class, I’m learning pieces of a language that bring me closer to several of the students here who speak it as their first language. In my Andean Anthropology class, I’m meeting dozens of really fascinating, brilliant, motivated young people from all over the U.S. and Europe–involved in activism, politics, minority or women’s rights, public health, global studies–who are just full of energy and great ideas and authentic desire to save the world however they can. Just by sitting in class, I hear the opinions of young elite on their own history, politics, religion, art, and culture.
My best friend here is from what must be one of the poorest villages in Ecuador. He told me his deep struggles with the intense cultural and material contrasts between his home and his university–the most expensive and pretentious in the country–and he told me that he wrote a personal book of poetry about it. Then, in some fit of artistic angst, he burned it. He was very upset when he told me this. I sort of smiled and told him that all the best writers, like Franz Kafka and many other “great” writers, had at some point ordered all their work to be burned, and then someone else published it and it became great. That seemed to make him happy. I told him my personal opinion that the world of literature needs more perspectives like his: well educated, emotionally intelligent, politically aware, and from a unique disadvantaged background.
Last time I wrote for this blog, from a corner of El Salvador where I was doing research last summer, I asked myself and my fellow Anthro majors and whoever else cared to read it, “What good is my privilege if I can’t do anything with it?”
Well. Latin America first made me ask that question, and now it’s finally starting to give me an answer.
Some people might cringe at the term elite, but, well, let’s face it. I’m elite. And there’s nothing I can do about it. No vows of poverty, no Marxist rants, no self-indulgent reflexivity can change where I’ve been for the past twenty years of my life. So I’m going to embrace it and do something with it.
Studying among, making friends with, and observing fellow elites–whose lives resemble mine–is helping me realize where the potential for my own life and talents lie. Here, I’m learning what elites do. Elites create culture. What’s more, they create dominant culture…even hegemonic culture. Which is a scary, powerful thought.
The cronistas, those Spanish and Inca nobles who wrote the first dark ideologies that shaped Latin America for the past five hundred years–they were elites. All of them. Did they know what they were doing? Did they know that their quickly-penned words in 16th-century Spanish would echo and resonate all too strongly throughout the centuries?
I don’t mean to romanticize, but I can’t help it. I’m no scientist, I’m barely an anthropologist, I’m a storyteller, I’m a chronicler, I’m a cronista. I’m a creator of culture. I can’t just sit back and analyze; every analysis is a creation, every analysis is its own new seed that can take root and blossom or explode or shrivel or strangle or nourish humanity’s vague cosmos of ideas and ideologies.
Here I sit, with the quill of the 21st century shuddering beneath my fingers, creating culture with every keystroke. Here we go.
The Virgin of Quito, a giant statue crowning the hill overlooking Historic Quito. The Virgin of Quito, also called La Imaculada or the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, is a distinctive Quiteño artistic trope that appears all over church facades and interiors and in little figurines sold in markets. The Virgin is depicted with wings and a crown of twelve stars, standing on a globe and crushing a serpent with her foot. This is how the Virgin appears in the Book of Revelations.
Façade of the church La Compañía de Jesús, or the Company of Jesus (better known as Jesuits). Art historians glorify La Compañía as the most extravagant, innovative, and influential church in Quito, and that it inspired architecture throughout Latin America. While the floor plan is based on an Italian church by Alberti, Il Gesú, in Rome, Quiteños used local pumice (light, strong volcanic rock) and advanced architectural experimentation to create a well-lit and majestic church. The interior (no pictures allowed) is literally covered in gold, plastered over dozens of side-altars with statues dressed in rich textiles. Construction started when the Jesuits arrived to Quito in the 1600s and finished almost two centuries later in 1765, just two years before the Jesuits were expelled from all territories of the Spanish Crown. Bad timing.
Interior of the church San Francisco in the center of Historic Quito. It’s significantly older and smaller than La Compañía, completed sometime in the early 1600s. I took this photo at a special service of La Virgin Dolorosa (the Sorrowful Virgin) on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. It was a beautiful, enchanting, devastating service; Quiteños lit candles around a life-size statue of the Virgin and chanted prayers about the terrible sorrow that must have wracked the mother of Jesus as she watched her son die.