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In 1946, John Collier, Jr. and Aníbal Buitrón wrote The Awakening Valley, telling the story of a social miracle happening in Ecuador - in the valley at the foot of Tiata Imbabura. (1, cover) In 1993, forty-three years later, I set foot in that same area and discovered a valley, not awakening, but awake! My son, Matt, and I were traveling by bus, north out of Quito, on our way to Colombia. (4) We had been advised to be in Otavalo on a weekend to experience the famous market. Little did we know that this trip would evolve into many more trips and to special relationships with the people living in this valley, high in the Andes.
Ecuador, among the smallest and most unspoiled of South American nations, owes its name to its geographic location - astride the equator. (6, p. 59) The Andes divide into two parallel chains in Ecuador - the western and the eastern, which run like twin spinal columns from north to south. The valley in which most Ecuadorians live, and where most of the mountain areas agricultural produce is grown, runs for about four hundred kilometers in between. Some thirty volcanoes serve to fence in the valley from either side. The deep river valleys (hoyas) are home to agricultural communities whose way of life seems to have remained unchanged for centuries. (6, p. 64)
A book written by Linda A. Newsom, Life and Death in Early Colonial Ecuador, and reviewed by Mary A. Y. Gallagher, (2) begins with a study at or just before the point when the Ecuadorian sierra began to be incorporated into the Inca Empire (ca. 1460). She describes in great detail what can be inferred about the preconquest population of Ecuador’s regions: sierra, coast and Oriente. She then describes the disastrous impact of Inca penetration and partial conquest of Ecuador, and of the prolonged wars still being fought there when Spanish brought Ecuador’s first colonial period to an abrupt end and began a new series of invasions which subdued and "reduced" the indigenous population over a number of years.
This history, laced with the invasion of the Incas and the Spanish had a great impact on this small country.
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The air in Otavalo beats with the rhythm of the looms that courses life-blood through the veins of the Otavaleños. The story of the phenomenal success of the Otavaleño weavers is an intriguing one. Their ability as weavers was harshly exploited by the colonialists who forced them to labor in obrajes or sweatshops. Miserable though this was, it did have the effect of instilling a great knowledge of weaving into the Otavaleño people. This ability, combined with a shrewd business sense, has made the Otavaleños the most prosperous Indian group in Ecuador and perhaps on the continent. Their prosperity in a changing and difficult world is to be applauded, but a truer measure of their success is perhaps not only their prosperity but their continuing sense of tribal identity and tradition. See "Daily Life Near Otavalo"
One of the most evident features of the Otavaleños' cultural integrity is the traditional way of dress. This is not just put on specially for the tourists at the Saturday market, (7) but is worn on normal workdays in their houses, villages and fields. The men are immediately noticeable because of their long single pigtails, calf-length white pants, rope sandals, reversible grey or blue ponchos and dark felt hats. The women are very striking with beautifully embroidered blouses, long black skirts and shawls, and interesting head cloths whose color and style of folding denotes marital status. The women also enjoy wearing bright jewelry; the most obvious are the many strings of gold-colored blown glass beads around their necks, and bracelets consisting of long strands of red beads. (5, p. 71)
The children dress as miniature versions of the adults in complete traditional costume. It is not merely cute -- it is a way of indicating and teaching sex roles and ethnic identity. Children generally own two sets of clothing (but only one poncho), wearing one set while the other is being washed. (3, p. 144)
The textile culture of the Otavaleños goes back to the earliest history of the Andean Indians. Before the Spanish conquest, before the coming of the Incas, the Otavaleños and Indians of other tribes in Ecuador were weaving blankets and cloaks from cotton they obtained in trade with the people of the Amazon jungle. The backstrap loom (5) that served them in forgotten times is still in use today in the making of blankets and ponchos. (1, p. 163)
The Spanish introduced tools and fibers which are the basis of the modern industry - especially the tools. These include wooden carders with metal teeth for carding wool, the spinning wheel, and the treadle loom. They also introduced silk and sheep wool. The Spanish also intensified the cultivation of cotton. Because of the lack of land around Otavalo for sheep raising or the cultivation of cotton, these products had to be imported from other areas.
For centuries, natural dyes had been used to put color into the fibers. In my library is a book, with simple dying instructions -- showing steps one, two, three, four, etc., resulting in rich, natural colors. All one needs is 1) plantas, 2) agua, 3) fuego, 4) equipo, 5) mordiente, 6) lana. One of the colors is obtained by collecting tiny bugs, cochinilla, from the cactus plant. It takes 200 grams of these tiny bugs to die 1/2 kg of wool. (8, p. 71) Other colors come from crushing and boiling flowers, roots, leaves, or shells of nuts. It was reported by Spanish travelers centuries ago of a natural dye in use on the coast of Ecuador. This was Royal Purple, obtained from a mollusk. The dye, which was used by the Romans, was obtained in Europe from the Pupuramollusk found in the Mediterranean. The dye was so scarce that its used was limited to royalty, hence the name. (3, p.42)
In the Indian home everyone works -- men and women, children and old people. For each there is an appropriate task: washing the wool, drying it, picking out the burrs, beating it with a flexible rod to loosen the bits of dirt, carding it to straighten the fibers, spinning, winding the yarn into skeins, dying it, washing it, and drying it again. When the wool has been spun and dyed, the men of the family begin their exclusive work, warping the loom and weaving. Under the porch of the weaver's home all these activities go on at once. The husband may be weaving a section of poncho, a rectangle of flannel for a woman's skirt, or a length of European-style goods, while his wife spins a new pile of wool, and beside her the children pound up dye or card and wind up balls of wool. Children are a happy and functional part of Indian life. From the beginning the child finds a secure place in the family and the community. The infant goes to market on his mother's back. The young child trots along behind when his father and older brothers go to the fields to cultivate or harvest. From his earliest awakening the child finds himself in the midst of a working pattern. As fast as his strength and dexterity develop, he is given real work to do. See "Time for Celebration"
Indian children not only dress like their parents but also share the same spirit of responsibility in work and they have the same mature social manners. This maturity comes primarily from their absolute integration into the family group. They are not expected to spend their youth in a child's world of make-believe, for there is only one world in Indian life -- the real world of hard work and survival. Because they know that their contribution is real, they learn quickly, and take keen pleasure in their tasks, and work with a spirit of genuine responsibility. Every morning in their well-scrubbed white suits and bright ponchos, they hurry off to school to learn how to make sums, how to speak and read and write in Spanish -- and to catch a little glimpse of the vast world beyond their community. (1, p. 182)
The first time we came to Otavalo, we stayed in one of the older hotels, near the market place. Late that evening, I went up on the roof of the hotel and enjoyed taking in the world that lay below. In the court yard next to the hotel was the bent, old grandmother, carding wool and making it into rovings. She continued with her task until it was too dark to see. Early the next morning, I watched as Indians came in from the countryside, carrying loads three to four times their own size, carefully tied and balanced on their bent backs, a strap crossing their forehead to distribute some of the weight to the neck. The market was set up long before daylight and the vendors were ready as the sun began to rise.
One section was devoted to live cattle; another to slaughtered ones. The meat lay on a mat, ready to be picked over by the buyers. A part of the market had skeins of yarn, still wet from having just been dyed. There was a section with fresh fruits and vegetables. But the majority of the market was devoted to beautiful tapestries, bags, hand-woven and hand-made garments, scarves, and rugs. There were tables of beads and finished jewelry -- tables of spices. (7) We were amazed at the policeman standing with folded arms, supervising the cutting of two inches off of the end of one of the vendors' tables. It was two inches over the regulation size! Other vendors smiled as they watched the process.
By afternoon we were on the bus again headed for Colombia. It was a typical bus, carrying many more people than there were seats. On the bus with us were chickens, a few pigs, a goat and the new purchases from a day in Otavalo. Matt and I were the only grengos on the bus. We would be spending the night in Tulcán. Son Sunday, we walked across the border into Colombia to fly from Pasto into Bogota.
Before our next trip to Otavalo, we were told of a wonderful oasis in that city, called Ali Shungu. It was a hotel, run by two North Americans who had gone to Otavalo in the '70's and have been there since. We soon became good friends with Margaret and Frank and enjoyed the hospitality and good food of that hotel. They had won the hearts of the Quichua and all of their staff were from well respected Indian families of that area.
I was standing outside my room one morning and watched as Margaret and "her girls" went into the flower garden. They stood in a circle, prayed and then placed something in a hole in the ground. The explanation -- when the construction crew excavated the land for building the hotel, they unearthed a burial plot. Margaret had kept some of the contents of that grave in her possession, but felt that it was important for the remains to once again be returned to the earth.
A two mile taxi ride out of Otavalo brought Matt and me to the small village of Peguche. We stopped in front of the old church building and walked between the buildings to enter the home of one of Ecuador's most famous weavers. His name is José. I stooped to enter the small room. Packed dirt floors - hard as stone, from years of wear were partly covered with grass mats. Stacked high on these mats were tapestries, fresh from the loom. To the right was another small room. In it was a platform with a mattress, tumbled with home-made quilts and an infant lying contented and asleep in the center. She was the newest member of José's family. The room to the back of the house was another bedroom. This room also served as a weaving workshop with three treadle looms and various other tools. José greeted us warmly and invited us to look at his wares. This we did with delight. Beyond this room was the court yard. Corn was spread flat, from wall to wall, drying in the sun, creating the look of golden carpet. This would feed the family through the following months. Freshly dyed, drying yarn was hung from lines - waiting to be woven into new designs, into new tapestries. The yarn covered the court yard walls forming an abstract design of muted colors. We made our choices and struck a "deal" with José. We were all happy.
José does not sell his work in the family's quarter-kiosk in the Otavalo market nor is it shown to other Peguche weavers. He is afraid others will make cheap imitations. The tapestries are sold only to several exclusive artesanias shops in Quito and to personal visitors to his house. (3, p. 91)
The Indians have what the white men have not -- energy and profound faith. The center of their energy and their faith is their land. Not just any land, but their land on the slopes of Tiata Imbabura. Their confidence in their land is like that of a tree on a mountain ledge. The Indians have their roots as firmly in the soil of the Andes as any mountain tree, and they can take the greatest of humiliations and sufferings as long as they cling to their land. The white men are transient; they are ready to move again. But not the Indians. Come drought or landslide, their roots are in the mountain for survival or extinction.
The white man must look only to his own individuality for strength, and this individualism leads him into greed and antisocial patterns of behavior. The Indian looks beyond himself -- out to the lake, up to the glittering peak, and down into the soil -- for his strength. He is never alone. His energies are forever tempered by the forces of wind, fire, water, and growth that he shares in common with the earth itself. Despite his success in textiles and his ability to make money, he is still an Indian farmer. All his gain is returned to the circle of his strength -- land, crops, and community. (1, p. 195)
The valley is awake!
1. Collier, John Jr. and Aníbal Buitrón. The Awakening Valley: The University of Chicago Press (1949)
2. Gallagher on Newsom. Life and Death in Early Colonial Ecuador. 1996.
http://www.h-net.msu.edu/logs/showlog.cgi?ent=19&file=h-oieahc.log9603d&list=h-oieahc(April 13, 1998)
3. Meisch, Lynn. Otavalo - Weaving, Costume and the Market. Ediciones Libri Mundi (1987)
4. Perry-Castaneda Library Collection. Maps of the Americas, The University of Texas at Austin. Produced by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Ecuador (Shaded Relief) 1991 (259K). http://www.lib.utexas.edu/Libs/PCL/Map_collection/americas/Ecuador_rel91.jpg (April 13, 1998)
5. Rachowiecki, Rob. Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands - a travel survival kit. Lonely Planet (1986) http://www.lonelyplanet.com.au/dest/sam/graphics/ecu17.htm (April 13, 1998)
6. Shichor, Michael. Michael's Guide - Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela. Inval Travel Information Ltd. (1988)
7. Western Michigan University Student. Ecuador ’96 Trip Diary
http://eol5a.erim.org/~roussi/realtravel/ecuador96/day5.html (April 13, 1998)
8. Zumbühl, Hugo. Tintes Naturales. Edicion para la Sierra Central - Especial Para lana de Oveja. Una Publicacion de Kamaq Maki (1986)