Commentary, fiestas

The Ordinary and the Fiesta in Cusco

Ordinary time is returning to Cusco. The fiesta season, when the city breaks into ritual and celebration is about over; its lasts bursts are ending. The city returns to its more ordinary life.

People will go to work and school; they will play soccer, hang out at the mall, see Finding Dory, the latest X-Men, or Alice through the looking Glass. In short, it will be like most cities in the world.

Still Cusco will have its own rhythms, its own mix of Spanish and Quechua, and its own food. Many of these will pass just below the level of consciousness as the city seems ordinary, except for the Inca stones and when people have to explain things to tourists.

Cusqueños in the Feast
Cusqueños in the Feast

Instead of defining that ordinary difference, here, I want to talk about what just happened, in short, the fiestas.

We no longer have a good word to describe fiestas in English, we have lost it. The word that is from the same roots is feast. Though it can describe the celebration of a saint, part of what happened in Cusco, it has become mostly a word to describe a big or special meal, such as what Muslim eat at night during Ramadan, a feast. We can also use a French word fête, which means to honor someone, like at a birthday. And now we get two other words, festival and party.

In English, a festival to me is like when a bunch of tents with vendors spring up in a park and there is a stage with music and performances. People roam around, buy, eat, watch, and hear. A party, on the other hand, is a time when people get together to enjoy each other, sometimes eat, bust mostly drink, laugh, and just be together. When bars or organizers throw parties they often involve music and lots of drink. They come close to speaking of part of a fiesta, but only a small part. For one thing, these are not public events, but private, even if lots of people are involved.

In Cusco, fiestas are public. They are organized by combinations of organizations, but at the center is either EMUFEC, the municipal body responsible for organizing them, or the Church in combination with EMUFEC. In other words, these are scripted and organized with many meetings and discussion, as well as assignments.

The Parade During the Feast of Cusco
The Parade During the Feast of Cusco

The main part involves taking over public space, such as the Plaza de Armas and often many streets. While parties and festivals are private, in my experience, these are massively public and at their ritual core involve dramas, arguments, symbols and stories of what the public is and how it should be. They are celebrations of that solemnity that is the public.

They take place following a ritual calendar and often are holidays, or have holidays at their core, i.e. formal days when formal work stops and people go into ritual space.

They also involve public eating, drinking, and dancing, either as individuals and couples, or as corporate groups—comparsas.

Finally, in them and especially on their edges is the playful and sometimes dangerous interruption of the fiesta and ordinary life that is called, following Bakhtin, as the carnivalesque. This is where the fiesta comes to seem more the party, including having a heavy police presence to contain and restrain subversion.
Nevertheless, a fiesta, with its mix of solemn and profane, sacred and vulgar (public drunkenness and urinating in the streets as two examples—things much protested by middle and upper class Cusqueños these days) punctuates the ordinary.

One must also look to see how the ordinary, especially the world of high capitalist commerce, such as in the Mall, the Real Plaza, tries to capture the fiesta and bring it into the domain of consumption and commerce. It wants the festive to be a characteristic of the dreams sold there and something that marketers have in their palette to offer customers, giving them a sense of the drama and solemnity, the effervescence and the vitality, that the market wants to claim as its and its alone.

Together, the festive and the ordinary, go to make up life in Cusco, even if the word fiesta is unavailable in its full meaning for us English speakers and, as a result, Cusco’s ways are tinged with Anglo romanticism.

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