Between Magic and Reality
On Otavalo, the largest outdoor indigenous market in South America.
Hiding in between the fertile Andean nostalgia, overlooked by the volcanoes Imbabura and Cotacachi, the colorful textiles of the city of Otavalo, in northern Ecuador, contrast with the green pastures and grey volcanic soil. In this commercial post the past and present are in permanent dialogue in the ongoing process of self-actualization of the Otavalo indigenous people, once more strained by the tension of Westernization and tradition.
Waking up before the sun raises, Julio goes out to work in the minga (communal reunion) that the town council has invoked to fix the road that leads down to the city. Cars will soon be passing by. With a hoe in his hand he works for the next hour. As the sun appears in the east, he can’t help but think that the best places in the market have already been taken.
He returns home and feeds the chicken grains of corn while his wife, María, cooks potato tortillas for the three kids. He sends the two oldest ones to school, while he ties the two-year-old in a green sheet behind María’s back. It combines well with her blue anaco (dress), her embroidered blouse, her golden necklace and her single black braid falling down her back. He wears his espadrilles, white pants, a blue poncho and a hat from which the same black braid falls.
Julio uses public transport, a small bus that rolls peacefully down the mountain and sometimes shuts down its engine to save some gas while endangering the passengers. After an hour he arrives to the warehouse where he keeps his textiles. He packs them all into a bag twice his size, and heads to the centennial Plaza de los ponchos, crafted, at least in its current design, by the Dutch artist Rikkert Wijk in 1971. It is the largest outdoor indigenous market in South America.
Once inside, he notices the familiar array of alpaca sweaters and socks with animal and symmetric patterns, wool pants of every (in)conceivable color, paintings and tapestries depicting the triangular ponchos and hats worn by anonymous figures, jewelry and handicrafts, the Andean charango (a string instrument) and the quena, an instrument which imitates the sound of the wind. Some are handmade and others are cheap imitations of folkloric paraphernalia and motifs.
With his stand open, the first American tourists arrive. This haggling event will become a multilingual experience. Americans will begin speaking in a broken Spanish, to which the Otavalo will answer in a more fluent English. The dialogue will continue in both languages, an agreement is close to being made, but then Julio turns to María and asks in Quichua what does she think of the price.
The American tourists have to wait for an agreement. If Maria doesn’t approve, more haggling will be done. The American tourist may have overpaid, who knows, but he will leave with the sensation that he did not just buy a textile, but an entire folkloric experience.
But rather than romanticizing the history of these centenary people, the present state of Otavalo is a coincidence of historical events. Their plight has been the plight of many indigenous people throughout South America: trying to maintain and reclaim their own culture since the Incaic expansion to the north.
The Inca method of conquest included relocating and fragmenting the conquered people to prevent any organized uprisings. Nevertheless, the Incas were impressed with the Otavalo technique of manufacturing textiles and assigned them to weave for their nobility. Later, during the Spanish colony, Otavalo was made into a textile producing obraje, a business enterprise in which indigenous people were employed, and usually exploited, as the workforce. Yet, despite continuously succumbing to foreign rule, the Otavalos managed to maintain the community united and to recreate their identity around the textile manufacture.
In 1822, the independence of Ecuador from the Spanish crown accelerated their transformation. Since then, a mixture of external forces and domestic agency have gone to reshape the identity and subsistence of the Otavalos.
After its colonialist expansion and Industrial Revolution, Britain had a virtual monopoly of the world trade of wool and cotton, which it could produce cheaply. This monopoly lasted until World War I when British exports were blocked by German U-boats.
This shift in the global market further developed Otavalo’s local textile industry, but it was not the only factor. In 1954, an UN-sponsored mission had brought Dutch artist Jan Schroeder, who taught interlocking tapestry to communities in the mountains. In the 1960’s, members from the American Peace Corps came to town and, in a still polemic move, encouraged locals to change their craft and to incorporate other cultures’ designs so they could make their sales more efficient and their profits bigger. Finally, the building of the Pan-American Highway, which goes through Otavalo, put the town on the map.
The question is then, how genuine is the Otavalo product and culture? Nowadays, Otavalos can be merchants or farmers, rich or poor, may have never left the city or have travelled worldwide. Nevertheless, their continual ritual existence, anywhere where they are in the world, has located their identity somewhere in between the magical and the rational.
Besides the material symbols of identity and their language, they embrace both Catholicism and traditional legends, celebrating Christmas and Inti Raymi as a community happening. These traditions of feasting and dance become spaces of dialogue where the identity of the Otavalo is put under question. Despite the differences and inequalities, by engaging in dialogue, they develop bonds of belonging.
One traditional legend tells of a drought that hit the region. The elders demanded that a young and beautiful virgin had to be sacrificed to the god of the volcano. Nina Paccha was chosen but her lover Guatalqui preferred to run away with her. They were persecuted and, as they ran, the elder or taita Imbabura turned the woman into a lake and Guatalqui into a tree, now known as El Lechero, while drops started to fall from the sky, marking the end of the drought.
In the Otavalo worldview this story is as real as the market economy they live in. This is evidence of the negotiation between oral memory and immediate material surroundings; a negotiation which has entered a new stage in the era of information and the tension between tradition and Westernization. One won’t trump the other. Instead, they will coexist as a conclusion for the meaning of being Otavaleno: a way in which, from communal belonging, you can draw a sense of individuality.
- This piece first appeared on The Culture Trip.