Nieto’s “The Romance of the Charangos”

A knife fight between young men who hope to attract the attention of an attractive young woman is at the heart of Nieto´s three part poem, The Romance of the Charango which Cuzco Eats publishes today in translation.

Nieto’s poem does not simply describe a battle between two youths, handsome and lean. Rather it becomes a duel between charangos fought in song, though the wounds and death are real and vivid.

An Andean instrument like a small, then stringed guitar, the charango has become known through the global popularity of Latin American music and especially through the activities of itinerant musicians and merchants from Otavalo in Ecuador. They played in train stations, parks and concert halls all over North America and Europe.

In Cuzco the instrument was the symbol of a cholo class, indigenous people who did not live in communities but in towns and cities. It is an instrument of courtship and a symbol of the aggressive cholo youth, dressed in finery, a courting.

Charangos, Strung and Unstrung ( wiki/File:Charangos.jpg)
Charangos, Strung and Unstrung ( wiki/File:Charangos.jpg)

Traditionally indigenous youths from neighboring communities would meet in the wilds, above their villages for a battle called chiaraje, generally held during the time of the high season for rain, carnival, and battle to the death. Their spilled blood would make the earth fertile and productive, it was said.

Nieto displaces this relationship between the earth’s fertility and the life and death of young, courting, men onto the cholo and their conflicts with each other. Though music becomes the heart and soul of the battle, Nieto keeps the relationship with nature in a poignant and moving, poetic rendering of the woman, Rita, the Fight, and the Burial, as Andean as can be.

A Young Woman by a Stream in Cuzco
A Young Woman by a Stream in Cuzco




From the hour of dawn
Rita is getting ready.
She says she’ll take communion
‘cause yesterday she confessed.

She is fresh and she is cute
perfumed like milk and grass.
In her lark-like heart
a thrush matures it song.

A lamp of birdsong
the poplars give her.
Their harvest of stars,
the late-night gulches.

With her, ready to party
breezes come down whistling.
A fall of dew overflows
from their hands.

The hills continue sleeping
since it is still early.
The serenading birds
are barely going to sleep.

Along the lit path she goes
smiling and dreaming.
For her thirst the springs
regale her with a cup.

How wildly the town’s
bells call out.
Rita’s going to communion.
Yesterday she confessed.

Young Men Battle Today in Cuzco
Young Men Battle Today in Cuzco

The Fight

Rita returns alone.
She’s happier than a wayno.
She dreams of a sparrow
in her heart of spikenards.

Suddenly shouting shakes
the neighborhood.
Voices of angry fighting
sprung from the vacant land.

It’s ‘cause Rita who went
down the open path
fell into a great ambush
made by tricky charangos.

For her love, the sneaky
sharks raised a stink.
They attacked each other
with rocks and at times knives.

On the edge of sobs
laughter is burning.
From their open wounds
escapes a painful song.

A spring of rubies
ran down the road.
It was the moan of blood
in the mirror of a puddle.

Between pride and blasphemy
died those two fighters.
The knives were bathed
in the blood of the opponents.

Many fell dead.
Others went on bleeding.
The streams were a choir
of resigned laments.

What is it that Rita has
that ignites such scandals?
Whenever she comes to town
the charangos begin to fight.

Mourners Singing in the Cemetery of Cuzco
Mourners Singing in the Cemetery of Cuzco

The Burial

Filled with red carnations
the chests of the charangos,
by the side of the road,
bleed dry while sobbing.

Wounded, tomorrow she’ll moan
on the edge of the canyons.
Rita leaves her tears
stuck among the thistles.

Rounds of anguish and flutes
drop down from the cliffs.
(The breezes carry off
the fallen to their graves.)

The breezes leave suffering
down a road of anguish.
In silence the sad wind
accompanies them in mourning.

The cortege of waynos goes by
among shrouded trees.
From a planting of wounds
the birds are now crying.

Above the fallen blood,
above the cold bodies,
doves of dawn and tears
extend their white kerchiefs.

Shorn and tragic,
the guitars have fallen silent.
(From sleepwalking paths
arrives broken a bitter scream.)

On the road the breezes knit
their white collars,
to cover up with song
the sweet snow-clad remains.

Rita’s heart
is the waynos’ tomb.
In it, by two whips
were buried the charangos.

Luís Nieto Miranda
(translation by David Knowlton)

A Troubled Sky in Cuzco
A Troubled Sky in Cuzco

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