Memories of Chacas

Memories of Chacas was written in 2014, reflecting on my earlier trip through the Peruvian Andes. There I visited my great-uncle, Padre Ugo de Censi, a ninety-three year old Salesian priest who in the 1970s visited the village of Chacas and fell in love with its landscape; a mountainous, verdant land which reminded him of the countryside from which he came, the Italian Valtellina. The piece was first published in Pulse, the University of Canberra Anthology of Creative Writing.

There is a village at the heights of the Peruvian Altiplano, in the region of Ancash, where the highest sublimity of the natural world grates against the deepest injustices of the social world, where the ceaseless grinding of the tectonic plates beneath the Andes is mirrored in the human lives above, and where there exists a community stronger than any other I have seen.

View over Chacas

In that village, Chacas, I was introduced to Daniel, an out-of-work labourer who agreed to guide me around the district during my two-week stay. I was introduced to him by an Italian migrant who had come to Chacas in the great tide of altruism which had been swelling since 1976, when Salesian missionary Padre Ugo De Censi came to the valleys of the Cordilleras to help reconstruct the villages following the disastrous earthquake of 1970. The earthquake, which struck an 8.0 on the Richter scale, shattered even the side of the giant Nevado Huascaran, triggering a landslide that killed some 100,000 people in the neighbouring villages. Chacas escaped the landslide, but did not escape the shockwave: the village church was destroyed alongside countless homes and shops. It was to this scene of rubble and pain that Padre de Censi and his disciples came, and it was from this rubble and pain that the new Chacas was built as a palisade protecting the community from the prevailing winds of exploitation blowing from Lima all across the deserts, sierras and rainforests of Peru.

The Santuario de Mama Ashu, built 1570 and reconstructed in the 1980s

Knocking on the door of a white-washed brick building, I was greeted by one of Daniel’s daughters and welcomed inside by her father who was coming downstairs to see his children off to school. I waited in the front room while Daniel finished preparing a pack for the day’s ride through the valley. His home was modest, and nothing decorated the walls but for a small picture of himself, dressed in a mountaineer’s clothes, standing on a mountain-top among jagged white peaks that ringed the horizon and shrank below wide blue skies. The photograph seemed impossible, entirely out-of-place in this home of clay floors and hessian ceilings. Daniel noticed me looking at the picture, so he took it off the wall and told me how, as a young man, his lungs and legs well-trained on the sides of the 6,700-metre Huascaran, he was invited to travel from the Andes to the Alps and take part in an international mountaineering expedition.

Looking down on the Plaza de Armas from the church

For a second there, looking at Daniel’s photograph, I thought that maybe it is true what they have always said: that one day the meek shall inherit the Earth, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Because there, in that brief moment captured in the photograph, surely the meekest had inherited the Earth and the last had come first; because there in that photograph Daniel, with reddened cheeks and frosted gloves, was standing on top of the Earth feeling the energy which makes the alloy of snow, sky and summit the intoxicating blend that it is; where awe mixes with fear, beauty with fragility, immensity with insignificance; where in a moment the slightest slide of rock or slip of grip can take away all that you have ever known.

Advent Mass in Chacas

After Daniel had prepared the day’s pack and saddled the horse he had borrowed for my visit, we set off to explore the valleys around Chacas. Riding through the village in the early morning mist, I was struck by the strength of the community—a community that insists on living with dignity in spite of the indifference of the modern world and all the injustices that history has heaped upon them—a strength smelt in the baking of bread before dawn, heard in the laughter of the children walking to school and seen in the labours of the campesinos working the fields. This is the self-same strength seen throughout all the valleys of the Altiplano.

Stuck in the mud after delivering firewood

Leaving the village proper, Daniel and I veered onto a new mountain highway still under construction. Daniel had worked here not so long ago, and he told me that when the government switched its contractor, the new company demanded a cut in wages and an increase in hours. Others accepted, but Daniel refused, so he lost his job. As we trotted down the muddy road Daniel greeted his former workmates, though there were some faces he didn’t recognise: the company had brought in cheaper labour from across Peru to work on the roads of the Cordilleras, displacing local workers like himself who demanded too much, with their many children to feed.

‘Campesino’ peasant housing

We turned off the highway and followed a minor road for several kilometres as it snaked through the misty valleys leading away from Chacas. We were aiming for a Quechua ruins site that sat on top of a steep ridge. To get there, we would have to find the path which led up from the valley floor; but the mist was so thick that we could hardly see beyond our horse’s nose. And to reach the path we would need to cross a narrow footbridge suspended across a fast-flowing stream. From the first trot the horse had been infinitely patient with Daniel’s demands and my inexperience, but now it positively refused to test the bridge. After several attempts we decided to let the horse rest on the near side of the stream while we scaled the ridge on foot. We hid the saddle in the brush, crossed over, and began navigating the hillside, which was by then covered in even thicker fog. Trying to find the old track that Daniel had helped wear down as a boy, we searched blindly through wet bush and slid across lichened shale for the rest of the morning until, half-exhausted, we stopped to break some bread on the hillside. By now the fog was turning into drizzle, so with disappointment we returned to the stream where our horse stood patiently waiting, his chestnut hide satin-shiny in the wet. My body was aching in exhaustion, unused to the thin air of the Cordilleras, the strains of horse-riding, and the demands of scaling such a steep ridge.

Some boys play out the front of a newly–built church

Slowly plodding back towards Chacas, with each of us walking and riding in turn, we decided to take a different route, which Daniel said would be drier than the muddy highway and higher than the cloudy valley-floor. This track took us past an old Quechua cemetery on the peak of another steep ridge. There, standing among graves marked only by mossy wooden crosses and broken rectangles of pebbles laid out on the ground, Daniel explained some of the history of the Quechua nation—a people who, after being subjects of the Inca Empire, were then subjected to the immense theft and slaughter of Francisco Pizarro’s conquistadors, and later ignored and exploited by a new national and international elite, an elite no less intent on gold and glory than Pizarro himself. Daniel told me how the people in the Quechua villages hid their treasures so deep within huge dirt mounds (previously used as ovens and kilns) that the Spaniards never found them. He later showed me one of the few remaining artefacts from those times—a perfectly preserved clay urn painted with black leaf-like patterns, as precious and fragile in my hands as a newborn baby. The urn no longer carried water or food, but it carried for the Quechua people a thousand stories of old, a thousand years of history and more value than if it had held a thousand carats of gold. As we descended the hills to Chacas, Daniel tried to teach me some Quechua words, and while I forget the particular words he said, I will never forget the sound they made, the following Sunday, in a half-built chapel full of young boys and girls singing the old psalms made up of verses in four different tongues: Quechua, Latin, Italian and Castellano.

Boys show their work in a Sunday-school 

Finally we were back in Chacas. Cold, exhausted, my legs bowed like a horseshoe by the horse’s belly, I returned to the parroquia—the parish cooperative—for a warm meal and a deep sleep. Daniel had shown me the valleys and hills of Chacas, but he had shown me much more. He had shown me the significance of his people’s history, which is as present and tangible in their collective memory as that ancient urn was in my hands. I saw that while capitalism is relatively new to Chacas—carving its way through Ancash in the form of a half-built highway—it is but a particular form of the general rule that has commanded life there for so long: that of the naked exploitation of one by another—of Quechua by Inca, conquered by conquistador, labour by capital. And yet I also saw in Chacas the true meaning of community—a latent thread of history, language and culture all made tangible in those hymns sung by the children in the half-built chapel. In Chacas there is a community which is in many ways powerless, but in so many more ways it is strong; it is both tragic in its poverty yet heroic in its humanity, poor in goods but rich in spirit.

Want to read more on Chacas?

You can read more on Padre Ugo de Censi and Chacas in my translation of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Chacas and Heaven.

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