My encounter with the Aymara Women
Por Carolina Holado Balta*
I was raised in a middle-class family originally from Chimbote, Peru. In 1998, my family moved to Cusco, Peru as a result of the “Fujishock,” the 1990 economic adjustment announced by then-president Alberto Fijimori to quell the country’s unrest. The massive privatization of northern Peru had resulted in big unemployment, and I wanted to actually use my professional skills as a tourist guide and not just have my title adorn the wall.
Once in Cusco, I applied to the faculty of tourism at San Antonio Abad University. I wanted to become a tour guide because I was smitten by the city’s beautiful cobblestone streets and gorgeous churches and arcades.
That same May 1st I encountered for the first time the Aymara. They are indigenous people who live in the Andes and in the Altipiano region of Peru. Large populations also exist in Tacna and Cusco.
Almayrans celebrate numerous feasts of virgins and saints, and it was during one such festival, the Cruz de Mayo, held annually in Cusco, that I first came across this fascinating culture. People were eating and chatting around a dressed cross. Elsewhere a cluster of women were drinking beer (liter bottles!) while their husbands quietly watched them dance and drink. I found the situation very funny and unreal. One woman in particular caught my eye. She seemed very proud, dressed in her silk blouse, her big gold earrings, and other gold ornaments that adorned her shawl and hat.
On weekends there is a highland fair where I again saw these jeweled, proud women. This time though they were selling products. While they were conducting business, the men were scurrying around and carrying supplies. It soon became clear to me that the Aymara society is matriarchical. We see further evidence of this at the frequent parades sprinkled throughout their calendar. Decked out in lavish costumes and dancing to big bands, the women carry thick wads of cash in the pockets of their silk petticoats. (Using credit cards is a foreign concept.) It is the women who pay for things; it also falls to the women to run what is an active street and market trading in southern Peru.
Aymarans are very protective of their culture and have many fascinating traditions. When Peru was colonized they feared assimilation so strongly that, in order to ensure they would not have any mestizo children, some of the women resorted to suicide if they became pregnant by a European.
One of their traditions involves something called a family “ayni.” If members of the community are going to live together, the ayni helps them set up their household by providing basics such as mattresses and appliances. If they get married, then, God! Family and friends give them not only blessings and furnishings but cash, a car, beer, trips, and more. This socio-economic system reflects just how important to the Aymara people the values of reciprocity and complementarity are.
Aymaran weddings are interesting in their own right. They feature “sikuris,” Andean musicians who play sampoñas (a type of Andean music) as the bride and groom dance out of the church and are greeted by dancers and family. The reception is enlivened by orchestras and live folkloric groups, and there is dancing and food everywhere. The family dances around with boxes of beer on their shoulders, and the celebrants dance carrying trays of cooked piglets. (Ultimately both the beer and the piglets get consumed.) So everything is jubilant. Notably, it is always the female in a given couple or family who bestows the congratulations and gifts upon the bride and groom.
When I asked an Aymara woman merchant her opinion of women’s empowerment, she answered without hesitation: “What is that? I am what my mother and my grandmother taught me: Be always strong. First comes work. Then raise strong and healthy children who study and will help at home. Then the rest will come.”
*Carolina Holado Balta is a professional tourist guide in Cuzco