Food Culture, Literature

To Dance with the Corn Flowers

Working the Corn, Cuzco, March 28, 2010

Spring has begun, where I write, like the tentative pushing of daffodil buds above ground, but in Cuzco the rains still fall though people promise they will soon end and corn can begin drying.

Seasons differ between here and there. Some people in Cuzco call the dry season winter, a time when at night it often freezes, while others call the time, like now when it rains and rains, winter because of the humid chill that permeates all.

In Cuzco, European seasons like spring, summer, fall, and winter feel a metaphor, a reference to a place and time from a different continent. Instead, in the Imperial City the world shifts as the rains come and then they go, both ends fraught with anxiety.

In September people begin to worry whether the rains will come and with what intensity they will arrive. If they are too delayed, like travelers stopped by a cancelled flight, or if they come too strongly, like the rude bore who insists on his way while in another’s home, food will be scarce.

In April people worry the rains will not stop, like a guest who won’t go home, and food that grew lush and rich with such abandon will now rot. That is how it is now, though I am told people sense the rains are beginning to end and the sun will soon own the sky by itself during the day.

To travelers, Cuzco may offer comforts they find in other parts of the world — CNN, morning coffee, and a hot shower —  but it is a different place where summer can poetically be winter, and vice a versa.

Rainy Day in Cuzco
Rainy Day in Cuzco

The great Peruvian writer José María Arguedas, when writing about the title of a book of poems in Quechua by the Cuzco poet Andrés Alencastre, captured something profound that begins to suggest to us some of this difference.

Alencastre was a land owner of European descent, not someone with Tawantinsuyo fully in his veins, though it certainly beat in his heart. He grew up in rural Cuzco, bilingual, speaking Spanish and Quechua. Part of a generation of Cuzco writers who celebrated the Indigenous, Alencastre, an educated and formal poet, published a book of verse in Quechua and took a pen name in the tongue of the Incas.

As Kilku Warak’a he published a book that is celebrated for the quality of its verse in Quechua, the language of valleys and valley people. Alencastre chose a name for the title that is extremely difficult to translate. He called it Taki Parwa.

Arguedas wrote that in Quechua parwa is “corn’s flower”, “la flor del maíz” while taki is dance and song. One can imagine the corn’s flower, its tassel, shimmering and dancing in the slightest breeze, its pollen bouncing all around, or even more a field of tassels standing proud and dancing, like a troupe of people in costume rhythmically entering the plaza.

The adoration the Indians, and other men of the mountains, feel for this flower that has no shine, of gentle light, is fed not only by the special beauty of the parwas that dance so lightly and musically on the tops of the hills — a music with which nature makes harmony through the sounds of the leaves –; the adoration of the flower is part of something that they hold for this ancient crop, for the ageless cereal that has nourished American man since his beginnings [. . .] “Taki Parwa” is an almost untranslatable phrase. One can explain it like I have tried to do, but a faithful and exact translation is not possible. It does not mean a song to corn but song like the corn flower.

Dancing with the Corn, Cuzco, March 28, 2010
Dancing with the Corn, Cuzco, March 28, 2010

A group in Cuzco that studies and performs the folk music and dance of Cuzco, the Centro Artístico Cusco, mentions a similar idea in describing a dance called Saras Pillu from Laq’o, Marcapata District, Quispicanchi Province in the Departament of Cuzco. Saras Pillu also means corn flower, they say, though they note it literally means corn hair from the Spanish “pelo” or hair. So, it refers to the hair of the corn’s “head”; not the silk of the “ears”, but the tassel on top of the stalks.

They write: “One thanks the rain by dancing constantly.”  Not only do they mean days of dancing, their description continues to describe a picture of ritual struggle. “The warakanakuy is part of the execution of the dance where the men with slings (warakas) encounter each other and fight.” The description continues to suggest this is a custom to “thank the pachamama (the Lady of the Earth) for the good production of corn.

But, if we take Arguedas seriously then we would see the dance as singing with the corn and rain. The conflict of men fighting with their rope slings becomes an image of energy and dynamism, like the growth of corn when the rains fall and spikes spring upward, reversing the lightning that falls to earth with the rain, and ears of corn begin growing on the sides of the upright stalks.

Instead of thanking for the production, as if the Pachamama were a European Goddess who requires constant praise and thanks, the dance and song model the growth of corn as the rains fall. In solidarity, in hope of a good crop, people dance like they see the corn tassels, shimmering in the sunlight and bowing in the rain before striking upward again, as ears grow fat and sassy.

Men Fighting for the Corn, Cuzco, March 28, 2010
Men Fighting for the Corn, Cuzco, March 28, 2010

The dance/ song, responds to the concern for getting a good crop when so many things can go wrong. At the same time, it recognizes how flowers, including corn tassels, are part of growth, fertility, and the promise of a full belly.

But soon the rains will end. As they do so, Holy Week will arrive. Already Cuzco is gearing up for this most important of celebrations, when the Lord of the Temblors will come out of the Cathedral and make his way through the city, visiting its neighborhoods and re-membering its streets.

On the Monday of Holy Week tourists, who normally flit around the main square like a flock of visiting yellow birds, will be squeezed out of that space as what seems like the whole population of Cuzco fills the square and surrounding streets to great the dark Jesus on the Cross when he exits the Cathedral, goes through the streets, and once night comes re-enters the sanctuary.

Señor de los Temblores, Cuzco, March 29, 2010
Señor de los Temblores, Cuzco, March 29, 2010

As he makes his way through town, people will share with him their joys, fears and hopes, as one season passes to another. They will toss little red flowers called ñuqcha until he is covered in red. People share a symbol of their growth and produce, a good harvest, with the dying Lord on his cross, a desire that after months and months of sun, when the seasons change again, those flowers will lead to rains and new growth so that by December the Christ Child will be reborn again to be set in his cradle in a mountain cave from which life and growth can flow, just about the time those corn ears really begin to grow.

And thus the seasons move, in my case from Spring to summer, fall, and winter, before little purple violets again dare to flower when snow threatens, while in Cuzco rains turn to sun and then to rain again. Corn is harvested, laid out to dry, before the fields are opened, planted, and people hope the rains will come. If they do, the corn sprouts and grows, opening to the sky, and tassels learn to dance again to the sounds of brushing leaves.

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Resources:

Here is a poem by Warank’a Kilka in Quechua accompanied by guitar for you to hear. It is about the puma that stalks the hills and occasionally enters into the corn fields.

Here is a video of a performance of Saras Pillu for you to enjoy, as well as here, here, and here. Here and here are videos of the dance of the corn harvest, sara kallchay. Both of these are taken out of their context within the communities now, to be performed as festive folkart for an audience elsewhere, such as in the main square of Cuzco.

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