Literature

Potato Flower

Potato Flower

“La Flor de Papa” is a cheeky song considered folklore which is very widely known in Cuzco.  Though ostensibly simple and flirtatious, as well as a tad arrogant as befits a certain masculinity, the song is worth a detailed look.   Here it is in translation, followed by a small discussion.
Potato Flower

Paulito Rebaza Rodriguez
(El Trovador Andino)

Potato flower, potato flower,
Potato flower, potato flower.
That plump beauty won’t escape me.
In just two weeks I’ll make her skinny

The oca flower, the oca flower,
the oca flower, the oca flower.
That cute girl, how she can flirt.
When I kiss her, I’ll win her heart

The cane flower, the cane flower,
the cane flower, the cane flower.
That young man sure has his ways.
Its been three years since he bathed.

The wheat flower, the wheat flower,
the wheat flower, the wheat flower.
That sweet girl is my friend’s.
But she’ll go with me in the end.

The rose flower, the rose flower,
the rose flower, the rose flower.
That fine girl lives in a cloud.
That`s why she always is so proud.

though they call me a drunk,
though they call me a punk,
even as a drunk punk
I was the first to kiss you.

A Rose
A Rose

The song was composed by Paulito Rebaza Rodriguez, also known as El Trovador Andino, The Andean Troubador.   This mere fact alone, distinguishes it from classic folklore which is seen more as the product of a people rather than an author.  Yet like folk music in the English speaking world which has moved from being something characteristic of tradition and the people, Peruvian folklore became a musical style and the product of known and credited artists.

Though it is a huayno, one of the traditional Andean song styles, “Potato Flower” represents a change.  The huayno was generally sung in Quechua while this song is in Spanish.  It stands, as a result, as a symbol of the movement of forms and content from rural to urban Peru, especially in the person of the “cholo” someone who was neither Indian nor Mestizo but in between.  Often considered a pícaro, a word that is untranslatable into English other than as a rogue, the cholo carried some of the weight of a trickster and also the valence of untrustworthy and unstable.

Yet today, in Peru, cholo is a common term of address for young people, not unlike the “dude” of more northern climes.  As such they has claimed and reworked word such that its earlier negative charge seems missing.

But the cheekiness of this song suggests something different, despite its being sung in Spanish.  Rather than simply a cholo song, it brings together an indigenous Andean focus on flowers, especially the potato flower.  There flowering is not only a signal of the summer rains when there is abundance, it is also a metaphor for the growth of people from infancy to adulthood.  Indeed Javier Medina claims that the potato is the metaphor par excellence of Andean Civilization.

This song treats the flower of the Andean tuber–as well as the flower of other common crops–as if it were a young woman, plump and sassy with sex appeal.  Of course the flower can stand for young women who carry the reproductive power within them that flowers promise.  After all, flowers appear abundantly on the traditional skirts and shawls of courting and mature women.

But the poem is not sung from the position of the young woman, rather from the point of view of a young man who promises to seduce her and transform her with his sexuality.  The only direct image of maleness in the song is the sugar cane standing tall and vertical, like men in community assemblies.

The poem emphasizes the transformative abilities of the young man when discussing Andean crops such as potatoes and ocas (oxalis tuberosa).  But the Spanish-origin plants such as wheat and roses, move from belonging to a “friend” or to being remote and perhaps unobtainable.

As a result, in its two sections, with the sugar cane of perhaps Spanish maleness — but certainly a maleness of the lowlands and not the highlands where potatoes, ocas, and runa (as Quechua speakers call themselves) are found– in between we find two parts of the Andean world.  In the one the male can change a woman through his sexuality, while in the latter he may end up blocked.

Andean thought understands courtship and, indeed, sex as a struggle.  This is not the metaphor of the West in which love is a kind of finding the soulmate, but rather one of endless difference.   The poem subtly seems to emphasize this.

The final stanza, though, posts a response to the stereotypes abounding in the urban and Spanish domains of Peru.  There the Indian, but especially the cholo, is seen as a drunkard and a chewer of coca.  (This latter, to keep the rhyme of the song, I rendered as punk, which is not a strict translation but rather a rendering of overall emotional charge.)

These charges go to the first days of the conquest and they continue to have that dominating effect.   But in the song “Potato Flower” the voice notes the negative images and then responds as if cuckolding the elites, the Spanish.  He turns their value system against them and notes his prior claim to the land, crops, and hence women, of the Andes.  Fun and humorous, the song is also an analysis of society and very strong.

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