If there is anything more Andean than lifting a glass of chicha, beer, or other alcoholic beverage, flicking a pouring a few drops to the earth and then wishing your companions “salud”, “good health”, I do not know what it is. Even when the Spanish first came the chroniclers commented on the drinking of the indigenous peoples of Peru. Though strong, this culture is facing extreme pressures to change.
Friends gather in the town’s chicherías after a day of work, to sip this ancient beverage of corn, get a light buzz, trade news, laughter, and lots of verbal play. When families gather for celebrations bottles of beer appear and people share glasses while talking, sometimes dancing, but almost always eating. And, during the ever important feast sponsorships, the jurqas (hoor-kahs), cases of beer, buckets of chicha and cocktails appear given by friends and family to the sponsor for them to share with all the attendees.
Drinking together is a tangible sign of solidarity at the same time it brings people together in a shared inebriation where joy, laughter, and abundance indicate to all that life is good. Furthermore, people not only share with each other, they also share with the figures that are holy to them, such as the earth.
It is common, although not universal, for people to pour or flick a few drops of their beverage to the ground to share it with the earth. Sometimes in humor people joke about how hard the Pachamama, or earth mother, must work to get the drink through modern concrete floors. But still people will make her that offering, not unlike how many religious people say a prayer or a blessing before partaking of food.
People also drink as part of celebrating saints’ days. Their shared tipsiness shows devotion and draws the saint into the human world of drinking and building ties of loyalty and solidarity. Traditionally, during these celebrations, people dance. Moving together not only produces its own intoxication, with alcohol to help fuel it, it becomes another way of creating, building, and expressing shared loyalties with the saints and the wakas (sacred places).
The sharing is very important. While people sometimes have their individual glasses and drink simultaneously, often there will only be one glass and everyone drinks from it. A person will receive the bottle and then the glass. They will pour themselves a glass, pass the bottle on, and then drink before shaking out the remaining foam on the ground and passing the glass on to the person with the bottle. This custom even continues for when people drink sodas.
However, people also feel ambivalent about drinking because as the drinking continues anger can flare, thieves can take advantage, people fall down and die in the night cold or from the fall if someone does not help them, and individuals may become dependent on drinking to get through their day. The alcohol can take over their lives
This ambivalence, strong positive feelings about the sharing but concerns about the impact and the consequences mark drinking as something deeply Andean. In the balance between extremes one finds the good life, the sumaj kausay, as it is often called today.
Sharing drinks , with all the ambivalence, has a deep history, at least half a millennium and probably millennia. Since the Spanish came there have been efforts to stamp out or seriously discipline drinking to make it fit metropolitan, that is European, norms.
Today, the attacks come from several fronts and they are having an impact.
Many people are joining one of many Evangelical groups which encourage them to not drink. Though people sometimes backslide, this new religion is tearing apart the classical ritual fabric of daily life. However it is doing so because of other forces of modernization that favor this new religion.
Proponents of Andean folklore as a manifestation of the soul of a people want to present performances of their culture, for themselves and for outsiders, without what they see as negative interferences. As a result they may look at the performance of an offering or of a dance and take it from context. In order to perform well they feel people should not drink. So, while drinking may take place before and after, they will insist that while performing the actors not take drinks, even though in traditional life the dance or ritual never occurs without drink.
In addition, the World Health Organization has urge countries to move against problem drinking. While there is not doubt that problem drinking is a social problem. However, the definition of problem drinking and its medical model stems from a vision of proper society that is not Andean and it stigmatizes Andean ways by labeling them as means of creating problem drinkers.
National governments, such as Peru, which sign on with the WHO, agree to develop programs to stop problem drinking and these programs often involve developing measures and policies which attack traditional culture in order to make it conform to international norms that express their concern in terms of medicine, without taking into account the full impact of context of their actions.
Despite these latest efforts to limit and reformulate the Andean tradition of drinking, people in Cuzco still get together to share beer, chicha or cocktails. These are important in their life and stem from a very long tradition. The culture of drinking here is not the same as that of Ireland or New York; it is key to being a Cusqueño and living in this beautiful city.
Justin Jennings and Brenda J. Bower, Drink, Power, and Society in the Andes (University Press of Florida, 2009).
David Knowlton, “Will You Accept My Love? Ethics, Aymara Culture, and Global Society”, Jill O. Jasperson and Jeffrey S. Nielsen, eds., The Ethics and Public Policy Implications of Free Market Economics (Center for the Study of Ethics, 2010, p 18-39.