San Blas, the neighborhood above Cusco’s cathedral, broke into feast yesterday. Its plaza was filled with carnival games for kids and a line of food vendors snaked down the street. A stage opened in front of its own colonial marvel, to the side of a stone cross struck by lightning. Sunday was the 99th anniversary of its annual feast of the Coming of the Wise Man.
The street in front was filled with waiting spectators waiting for something to happen when a noise from behind broke the crowd. On a colonial balcony a man in black face and another with a corsair’s hat were wrestling over who controlled the plumed pen and the black ink with which Herod’s words inquiring of the Sanhedrin about the birth of the King of the Jews were to be written. The corsair kept yelling, “stop it black man, stop it” as the pushed out over the balcony’s rail. Almost dropping both the pot of ink and the feather on the young men dressed as Roman shoulders below.
Once the note was written the soldiers mounted horses and crossed the street to the platform where the Sanhedrin—dressed as Bedouins—awaited. After receiving the note and reading it they said: “Wait thirty minutes and we will answer”.
This thirty minutes and the doddering and fighting of scribes actually became one of the most important points of this passion play. It was hard not to take it as a critique of the bureaucracy that came with the Spanish and is such a characteristic of modern life.
In baroque times, plays were an important part of feasts. In most cases they have disappeared. But in Cuzco at Easter and Christmas almost every parish, and in this case neighborhood (and parish) put on a play drawn from the life of Jesus.
In the first half of this act, notes were passed back and forth on horseback, while the Sanhedrin doddered and the corsair and servant wrestled as if trying to push each other off the balcony,
The second half of this act involved the Three kings coming up Carmen Alta Street on horseback trailed by servants. The rest of that act involved them making speeches on the street and then, once unmounted, on stage. One king spoke in Spanish, as did his servant, another, his skin reddened perhaps with ground brick, spoke in Quechua (representing the Indian King), while the last in blackface stood for the King from Africa (Congo and Angola). The last spoke a pidgin Spanish that I assume was meant to be the creole spoken by the Angola and other black sodality of colonial Peru.
For me, this portrayal of the three kings with the three elites of colonial Peru, the Spanish, Indigenous nobility, and the leading Africans, may well have been one of the most interesting parts of the performance.
After the departure of the kings and a break, Herod ordered the beheading of the innocents and heads like those on bread babies were sundered as fake blood spurted.
The performance ended with the performance of traditional villancicos, the Spanish word whose closest match in English is Christmas Carols.
The neighborhood organization of San Blas is strong, and this performance was an example. Here were once people came in devotion to the lord Illapa, the lightning and thunder god, and which has for a long time been a neighborhood of artisans, maintains the strength of Cuzco’s traditional neighborhoods.