Commentary, Food Culture

The Meaning of Bread Babies in Cusco

Two halves that meet each other and can be folded over and over to make complex forms. That is the classic carrying cloth of Cusco and other parts of the Andes. Called the queperina or lliclla, it is traditionally made in two almost identical pieces stitched into a whole. But, this is also a description of the bread babies, the panwawas or t’antawawas that abound in Cusco these days.

Bakeries, stores, markets and fairs have opened to offer babies and horses made of bread with colorful, sweet sprinkles and a face mask.They will be bought and given as gifts, sometimes baptized. They creating in the process families and friends, parents and godparents who are compadres to each other, and the bread is almost always eaten. Children, boys and girls, will each get their own: baby for the girls and horse for the boys. They can play with them and also eat them.

Bread Baby, Pan Wawa
Bread Baby, Pan Wawa

Like so much in Cusco these creations of bread are doubled, two different things are stitched together and thus unified while maintaining their separation and difference. For example, the name, pan wawas, as they are commonly called in Cusco has one half obviously Spanish and the other half obviously Quechua (although Spanish is increasingly claiming this word in Peru), The breads are rich in signs that seem to demand interpretation and motivation. They have one set of explicit meanings often retold, and another set that generally remains unspoken and yet, like an Inca highway of one paving stone next to another, it leads many places if one wishes to travel.

The spoken story that one often hears is that the bread babies represent the souls of the departed. In this way it fits with the Christian All Souls day, paired with All Saints day in this holiday. They All Saints may be celebrated in the churches but the All Souls is what has grabbed the popular heart in Peru with its distinctive culture of death that is not the same as in countries far from the Andes.

The generally unspoken meanings require one walk the road of meaning, or unfold the cloth and notice its designs and shapes and how they fit with similar shapes and designs elsewhere. People do walk this road in talking to outsiders or to children. Mostly, though, the meanings remain implicit, unspoken, yet feel right and make sense as a pattern of similar things is created and maintained as a common sense and a material world that enables the rest to be.

To me it seems this is basic to life in the complex society of Cusco, modern Peru, and other places in the Andes.

It involves stitching together historically and then folding on top of one another the spoken and the usually unspoken or only partially spoken; the explicit and the implicit, the representational where the meanings are said and fit into the formal teachings of the Church or the country, and the path of connections where you can see similarities yet you do not have to ever make them into representations.

We could do the unfolding here and verbally walk the path of similarity, between forms, shapes, and acts in bread babies and elsewhere. Indeed, we have in earlier years on this page. But for now, it is enough to just notice the doubling and folding, whether baby and horses, dead souls and fresh bread, or of formal, spoken meaning and often silent yet very rich performed and lived connections and differences.

The two often contradict each other as they are sewed together. Though the two halves of the queperina are identical, these are not—just as boys and girls, babies and horses, are not the same. Contradictions that are bound together form much of the fabric of Andean life that is the common sense, the background in which people live and feel, are born, love, and pass on.

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