Five Months Gone

Yesterday morning five months ago, my mother got off a plane in Cusco, Peru. I can’t begin to guess how many times in her life my mother had done just that, or how many times — just like this one — she was met at the airport by Nilda and her husband Paulino. I was imagining it, actually; I would have been there too, except that my plans had to change and I couldn’t attend the 2013 Tinkuy de Tejedores put on by Nilda and her Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco.

When all is said and done, I suppose that really, I spent more time with my mother in the Cusco area of Peru than any other single region. She first took me there when I was a small child, 37 years ago, when it was a whole different world than it was the last time I saw her there, with my own son in tow, for the first Tinkuy in 2010. I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of my mother and not thought of that part of the world; even before our family went there together in the 1970s, my parents spoke of Peru constantly (it was where they had met) and I’d seen pictures and desperately wanted to go. My mother was a teenager — barely older than my high school sophomore son — the first time she set foot on that ground.

Christine Robinson, 1964, high school senior
Christine Robinson, high school senior, 1964

The night before her arrival, she’d texted me from the Miami airport, with sparse words as you’d expect from a text: letting me know that my sister’s daughter (whose guardianship she had assumed in 2008) was an inpatient at the same hospital where my father spent his last days. “She’s safe and making progress,” my mother said, “I will get email in Peru if you want to send any messsages. Hope all is well or even better.”

I didn’t answer quickly. I didn’t really know what to say. She hadn’t even really explained why my niece was hospitalized, but I’d gathered it was psychiatric. I’d probed for information, but she really hadn’t wanted to tell me anything. The next day — six months ago today — I finally texted her back. “All is fine here. I can only imagine having to go to that hospital more. Ugh. You should just move. Like to Cuper finally. Or anywhere. Fuck it, La Paz sounds better.” That’s right, La Paz — long known to be my least favourite place in the world, a place where my mother and I had never shared a less enjoyable time — except for those final weeks of my father’s terminal illness.

I went on. I figured she’d see the iPhone message sooner or later, when she had net. “I am so unbelievably sad not to be there with you,” I said. “Not to be in Peru but more than that, not to be there with my mom. Please give everyone my love and let me know if there is anything I can do. And when you get back, don’t be afraid to call me and vent about Q or anything all. I love you, and I miss you.” She didn’t answer, but then, the message didn’t show as delivered yet either.

Ed Franquemont and Christine Robinson, 1966
Ed Franquemont and Christine Robinson, 1966


The next day about noon, I was at my studio getting started soaking some silk fiber to start showing my intern-turned-staffer how to dye it with low water immersion. Over the sound of running water and suchlike, I didn’t hear my cell phone the first time it rang, or the second. But moments later I felt it shake and when I took it out, there were two missed calls from an unknown number, two voice mails, and a VIP email alert for email from Nilda, in all caps, saying it was urgent and I had to call her about Chris.

Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez
Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez, 2013

I dropped everything — didn’t listen to the voice mails or anything, just called. I couldn’t get through on my cell phone, and the studio phone would connect but then you couldn’t understand a thing the other side was saying. I finally replied to the email, what seemed like forever later but it was only minutes, telling Nilda I was having no luck and asking if she could try me back on my cell again.

She did. She was upset. I wasn’t surprised; there was clearly a problem and I knew all of this couldn’t be good news. But then she said it: “No hay Chris,” she said, Chris is gone. I was stunned, and at first, it didn’t sink in, and I asked stupid things. Gone where? She isn’t there? Did her plane not arrive? Did she miss her plane? And Nilda said it again, several different ways, ultimately telling me that she’d just gone into Chris’ hotel room and found her there, fallecida.

Fallecida.

Dead.

“Are you sure?” I asked her. Such a stupid thing to ask, but… there you have it. Shock makes you say stupid things. “There’s no mistake?” But no; there was no mistake. And Nilda was there with the police and the fiscal and my poor dead mother, who was like another mother to Nilda, Nilda with a cell phone in her hand and me with a cell phone in mine, the both of us stunned, her right there and me some four thousand miles away as the crow flies, looking around a daily life that suddenly made no sense at all.

I called my husband. I went home. I talked to Nilda again. We all tried to make lists, and determine actions to take. Nilda’s Tinkuy was to start in hours. My son would be home from school in hours. Phone numbers I had for family turned out to be out of date. There were a million things, even apart from the shock of it all. But at least these were action items.

My son arrived home from school, and we sat down with him in the living room. My husband told him the long sad story, beginning with the stuff we’d barely touched on with him: how my sister was not just missing but genuinely a missing person with a police investigation; how his cousin had serious problems the scope of which we couldn’t even speak to accurately yet; and how yesterday, his grandmother had arrived in Cusco — and we knew he’d wanted so very much to go, too, just like I had, and that he had such fond memories of going there for Nilda’s 2010 Tinkuy — and that she’d had a good morning in Cusco, a lovely lunch at the Trattoria with the good tortellini, and then… that morning… that Nilda had found her dead at the hotel.

Edward, 2010, Peru
My son Edward, 2010, at Machu Picchu

My son sat there, stunned. He looked at me and, you know, I just looked back. “That’s… not where I thought this story might be going at all,” he eventually said. “Are we sure?” I knew exactly how he felt, and then some. It was all so implausible — the kind of thing that happens in some strange movie. But then it’s not like my family’s life was ever staid or predictable. Indeed, there were times we all talked about how it would have been easier to let people believe a fiction than to try to convince them of the truth, like about how English is actually my sister’s third language, and Japanese her fourth; or how it was the old bluesmen from Chicago who ultimately convinced me life would be easier if I just answered “Where are you from?” with “Chicago,” and didn’t try to explain. Nobody believes you anyway, when you tell them that your father was captain of the Harvard wrestling team 3 years in a row and your mother is the chick from the first Indiana Jones movie, and compared to them, a would-be musician turned computer professional turned handspinning teacher is pretty ordinary.

But, we were sure. Nilda was sure, and we talked with her again throughout the afternoon, while the coroner and the police and the officials removed my mother’s body and her personal effects, and Nilda passed her phone to the fiscal after briefly pointing out I might try to sound like I didn’t have a normal Cusco accent so I was plausibly the daughter in the United States. I asked the fiscal to allow Nilda to have my mother’s cell phone, to try to access her contacts. He agreed, but there was a passcode, and we failed to guess it. “We’re sealing up her things and taking them into custody,” the fiscal said. “It’s routine. We can give them to you as her next of kin, or to your embassy.” There with the whole scene, apparently, were other members of the board of directors of Andean Textile Arts, and I spoke with them too; it was moments from when everyone needed to be at the kick-off parade for Nilda’s Tinkuy. “The press is here too,” Nilda told me. “This will probably be on the news.” Which only meant I had to make sure to get the word out, here, sensitively, before… well, before who knew what stories started flying around. Oh God, I thought, how horrible would it be if I can’t reach her brother before the Internet and social media and stuff start to hear.

Around four that afternoon, the phone rang. “Hello,” said the man on the other end after asking for me, “I’m calling from the US Embassy in Lima, Peru, regarding your mother, Christine Robinson Franquemont.” I paced alongside the kitchen counter while we spoke of funeral homes, repatriation of remains, timelines, and next steps. I numbly gave him my email address for him to send forms and contact information for funeral homes, officials.

My husband poured me a shot of Jim Beam, and I tossed it back like a pro. My father would have been proud. I stared at my handwriting filling page after page with notes about what needed to happen. We made lists of who to call, in what order, what to say, how to ask family to help spread the word carefully. When, I wondered, should I call the detective in charge of investigating my sister’s disappearance? Would that hospital even let me talk to my niece? What was her condition and how should we best handle telling her? Who should we first contact in New Haven, where Chris lived — had lived? Did we have keys for everything? Were my frequent flyer miles enough? What did we have in our emergency savings? What does it cost to do something like this? Oh my God, how is Nilda holding up?

Molly and Abby, 1980
Molly and Abby, 1980, in Florida after Earthwatch expedition

“This is the most surreal day I’ve had in a very long time,” I said to my husband. I could only call the look on his face incredulous as he poured me another shot of bourbon and said, “Since when? What day in your life has actually been more surreal than this one?”

I had to admit he had me there. Not even the days when we’d fled Peru (1978) or Ecuador (1983) during national strikes; not the time we took the train to La Paz, Bolivia (1977) and it crashed and we thought, should have taken the bus, but no, that day the bus had blown up; not the day when we were trapped on a train between two landslides (1986); not the day when I told my mother I was leaving for Chicago on 24 hours’ notice with a plane ticket bought for me by an old bluesman I’d met once (1990); really no day was ever more surreal or implausible. But at least all those days had trained me up to be someone who just proceeds through the list of action items. At least a lifetime of explaining the complex and unorthodox events of my family’s lives made me able to tell the tragic news calmly, again and again, to family and lifelong friends who — just like me — never saw this coming.

Abby Franquemont, Christine Franquemont, demonstrating in 1980
Abby Franquemont, Christine Franquemont, demonstrating in 1980

It took time to get ducks in a row and things figured out to get me to Cusco. I was floored by the generosity of many, helping me to pull that off. It took time and effort to figure out what I needed in documentation to be able to start handling things on my mother’s behalf, on my niece’s behalf. I needed to assemble paperwork sufficient to make everything solvable in Cusco, and in Lima, and at the embassy, to get the certificates I’d need in Peru to get the certificates I’d need in the US, and that’s not even getting into the question of my mother’s remains at the morgue in Cusco.

“A number of folks from Chinchero went to the morgue,” Nilda told me. “Everyone wanted her body, to dress her and sit with her. But they said no; they can’t, because she is a US citizen. But in Chinchero everyone knows she is one of ours. It is hard.” I pictured that scene. I thought about the times when things were crazy, when my parents, my sister and I all half-joked about ending up a puzzle for future archaeologists, gringos buried in the cemetery in Chinchero. Those were jokes in the beginning, maybe, but we all knew it could really happen. I knew when I was five years old and saw my friends die and get buried that I could be there with them. I thought of the countless loved ones in whose funeral processions we had all walked. I thought of walking, sobbing, through early rainy season rains in 1985 when we buried our comadre Benita, and how when the sound of her tomb being sealed up took all the strength from my legs and my best friend Angelica caught me before I hit the ground and we cried and cried. I thought of Nilda’s letter in 1988 telling us Angelica had died, again just before rainy season, and the many times I had imagined her body there beneath the eucalyptus trees and the apus (spirits of the mountains) that watched over us all.

Antaquillka, Chinchero
Antaquillka, seen over Chinchero

I thought of all our comadres, compadres, and my god-siblings — of a vast community that had claimed our family as its own, where we had all lived and loved and struggled and laughed and sometimes perished, unflinching and unfaltering in our shared humanity, even when it would bring us to our knees. I thought about the mothers of my girlhood friends (including the ones who didn’t make it to adulthood), sitting outside the Cusco morgue, asking for the body of a beloved kinswoman with whom they’d shared motherhood in a way that transcended culture or background, and in conversations with close family, we all concluded that Chris could find no better resting place than that same graveyard in Chinchero where more of our family’s loved ones rest than anywhere else in the world.

Chris, Simeona, Nelly, Wilfredo and kids
Chris, Simeona, Nelly, Wilfredo and kids

So I said this to the funeral home guys, on the phone: that we would plan to retrieve her body from the morgue, and bury her in Chinchero, with no flight to Lima or coffin on an international plane trip and contacting funeral homes in the US also. They said okay, and then later called back to say that when they checked, they were told there was no room in the cemetery in Chinchero. I told them that there was room for her there. Nilda concurred, and her parents in turn proferred a family mausoleum spot. The guys from the funeral home continued lining up which papers had to be done in what order on what day of the week to retrieve the body from the morgue. I proceeded with digging up documentation that would satisfy anybody in Peru that I was, in fact, my mother’s next of kin, ultimately settling on the passport I had been issued in 1982, featuring a stapled-in resident alien visa with an Ecuadorian consular seal stating — in Spanish of course — that the purpose of my visit was to live with my parents, and their full names.

“Don’t panic about the timing,” the embassy told me, “but it’s usually at least 3 weeks before they’ll release a foreigner’s body under these circumstances.” But with Nilda’s steady work, and various other people’s assistance, and perhaps the constant visits from folks from Chinchero asking to at least visit Chris and dress her, it was only 6 days until the morgue signed off as willing to release remains to next of kin.


In just-before-midnight dark of November 20, not quite 8 days since Nilda’s call from my mother’s hotel room, I cleared immigration in Lima, rented a Peruvian cell phone and then, on the first flight up after the dawn of Thursday the 21st, landed at the Cusco airport that has always meant I’m almost home. It might seem strange that the thin high altitude air, the dust of the city and the smell of Andean life all around, would always be so comforting, but it was even more so this time. Somewhere in this city I’d be united with my mother’s mortal remains, and here — where she had spent more of her adult life than anywhere else — surrounded by loved ones, we would take her home for the last time. I walked that airport and claimed my bags where I had so many times before, imagining my mother on that final day of her life, doing the same.

Edward at the Cusco airport, 2010
Edward at the Cusco airport, 2010

Nilda and her husband met me, and we went essentially straight to work. That’s not the easiest thing to do when you’ve just hit over 11,000 feet above sea level, but Nilda’s an old pro at dealing with folks arriving at altitude and I, of course, know my routines and what works for me, which is good because it’s counter to the usual advice. We dropped off my luggage at Nilda’s sister’s house, and went straight to a restaurant to feed me lots of food. While I ate my second entire lunch, Nilda laughed: “This always cracks me up,” she said. “You’re supposed to sit still, drink mate de coca, and have a light broth.”

Nilda, Paulino, and Lino, 1992 or 93
Paulino, Lino and Nilda, 1992 o 1993

“You know that doesn’t work for me,” I said. “When we’d get here, Chris and Molly would do that, and it worked for them, but me and Ed, we’d go right out and eat big, rich meals, and then go for a walk in the Plaza de Armas, and then by evening we’d basically be fine.”

Sopa de moraya
Sopa de moraya — a kind of freeze-dried potato

While I ate, the representatives from the funeral home joined us, and we traded papers and documents and made plans. They’d go over to the morgue and determine the schedule of things there; Nilda and Paulino and I would go to the Policia de Turismo office and work on retrieving her personal effects. But at the Policia de Turismo, we learned that her things were in the custody of the other team, who didn’t work Thursdays; they were there, but come back Friday, they said. So we went to the fiscal (like a district attorney) to see if he could help us there, and he wrote us a note urging the tourism police to help us out. Returning, though, it was still no go; first thing Friday morning, and that was that.

Nilda’s cell phone rang; the funeral agents had been successful getting the next needed form from RENIEC (Peru’s civil status registry), which would need to be signed and sealed appropriately by the medical examiner and the coroner, after which, it could be returned to request issuance of the Peruvian death certificate (signed, sealed and apostilled), with which a burial permit could be issued, after which, the morgue would release her body, after which she could be buried and a certificate of burial received; in turn, all of these things could be presented back to RENIEC for the truly final, internationally valid RENIEC certificate which, when combined with various passports and such like in the presence of a United States Consular Agent, would transform into 24 copies of a Consular Report of Death Abroad, retrievable by me at the US Embassy in Lima.

Even better, the coroner and medical examiner were to meet the funeral agents mid-afternoon, and thus the forms could be back and the papers issued Friday morning, and so we were clear now to do things like select a casket and firm up the mortuary plans. And so, despite no luck retrieving her personal effects, Nilda, Paulino and I found ourselves at a mortuary desk, negotiating the selection and pricing for casket, capilla ardiente, and transport, whether in the very fancy Volvo hearse exactly like my station wagon and so many cars my mother had owned, or the Mercedes van.

My mother loved that car.
My mother loved that car — a 1972 Mercedes 250

We picked the Mercedes, remembering how very much my mother had loved the used Mercedes she drove in the 1980s, and went back to her sister’s home to review the clothes I’d brought for my mother just in case: what if we encountered delays, if we couldn’t get her luggage, if we couldn’t get permission to go dress her and the funeral agency had to do it, what if, what if, what if? So many what ifs, and we tried to cover all the bases, and went to the market to fill out what gaps might be in the wardrobe we needed to hand over. Plus, of course, a hat for me, to keep me safe from the burning tropical sun. I always get a hat in Cusco.

Tom and Flora's wedding
Tom and Flora’s wedding

Nilda’s sister, Flora, married a longtime expatriate friend named Tom; in 1985 and 1986 when my mother was doing her doctoral fieldwork, our family had an apartment just a few doors up the street from where Flora and Tom now live, and Tom had lived just a few doors further up. This was just around the corner from the post office, ah the post office, once the only real line of communication with the world beyond Cusco, back when Chinchero was so much more remote than it is now, only half an hour from Cusco. It’s another of those things that seems implausible, but I sometimes take for granted — that we really did used to rise before dawn, run down by Angelica’s family’s store and in front of the sanitario, and ride cattle trucks for hours to reach Cusco and do things like go to the post office to learn if the world beyond Cusco was even still there or remembered our family existed.

Correspondence, 1977
Envelope from a letter from my parents to my grandparents, 1977, mailed fro that same post office

I took ten minutes to call my husband and son and make sure they knew I was in Cusco and all was well and, indeed, not about to go stay alone in a hotel considering, you know, everything. Nope, I was staying with family, which was conveniently also just a few doors away from the consular agency in Cusco. Progress was being made, I said, but was probably at a standstill for the day. Nilda and Paulino and I went to meet the other members of the Andean Textile Arts board who were in Cusco with the ATA tour group who’d come for the Tinkuy. We shared a snack and coffee, and news of how things were progressing since I’d arrived that morning. I thought of all the board meetings, and past textile events, and how this meant now I’d be the last Franquemont on the board — unthinkable. I left with Flora, and she and I and Tom spent the evening talking about old times and how Nilda was really doing, with all of this having fallen upon her just now. We’d have stayed up late, for sure, except Nilda and I needed to be at the PolTur by 7:30 the next morning. I fell asleep, exhausted, against the unmistakably Cusco city sounds of a block I’d once called home.

In the morning, right on time as the PolTur building opened, Paulino dropped me and Nilda off and went to check up on the tour group. For whatever reason, Nilda and I had expected this part of things to go fairly quickly, as the incredibly helpful fiscal had come to expedite the approval of our request to retrieve my mother’s personal effects. He waited with us until the first officer of the team in charge of the personal effects — the same team which had removed them from the hotel room, you must understand, and thus the ones accountable in the chain of custody — arrived, and things finally began to happen at about 8:15.

The officer carried in three bundles, swathed entirely in black plastic which was in turn covered entirely in packing tape. Very formally, the fiscal turned to Nilda and asked her, as she had been present at the retrieval of these effects from the hotel room, to verify that they were undisturbed and as they had been when she saw them taken into police custody. She concurred, and the fiscal asked if this was satisfactory for me, to which I assented. “Proceed!” he said, leaving the office. The officer picked up the smallest of the bundles, and began to pick at the tape with her fingernails. After a moment, Nilda silently reached into her bag and handed the officer a nail clipper with a small knife, which the officer used to cut away the black plastic and packing tape cocoon around what proved to be my mother’s purse (a handwoven bag from Nilda’s Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco) and shoes (a pair of black Danskos).

On a decrepit computer, the officer began to type, unsuccessfully, as the purse and shoes sat on her desk and Nilda and I sat in chairs along the wall next to the desk. This resulted in some muttering and rearranging as a series of (RS-232, I noted, trying to remember what year I last had one of those) keyboards were swapped in and out from a locked cabinet across the room, and finally, things were go. “Time of day,” the officer stated as she began to type, “8:30 AM.” She took my name and documents and verified me as the next of kin, asking my residence while in Peru and what my occupation was. “Escritora,” I told her, writer. She verified Nilda as a witness to the retrieval of personal effects into police custody, and as a witness to their delivery into the hands of the verified next of kin. Our document numbers and copies of identification and so forth were all duly recorded, and at last, the entrega de los efectos personales started to actually move.

“One pair of shoes,” she stated, typing this, “Brand: Dansko. Size: 38.” Oh God. You never think about this, when you know you wear the same size shoe as your mother; you never imagine someday you’ll find yourself sitting in some run-down pastel-painted 1960s office building with machine-gun-armed guard out front, watching some students apparently gather for a protest of you don’t know what, while the tourism police documents your dead mother’s shoes. I mean, even when you’re me — even when you lead an implausible life — you just don’t see that one coming.

Nilda and I concurred with this description, and her cell phone rang. She hit ignore. “And this is a purse,” said the officer, typing again. “Handwoven, Peruvian, tourist goods.” We did not argue with that either. The officer reached inside. “This would be her cell phone,” she said. “Would you say it is in good condition?” I looked at it where she held it in her hand, across the desk; I couldn’t tell if the screen was cracked, but something was funny-looking. “A ver,” I said, leaning forward. She pressed the black button on the front, and a banner of a text message popped up. “It does turn on,” she said, handing it to me. “Is it an iPhone 4, or 4s?”

“4,” I said, numbly, the message in the banner reading: I am so unbelievably sad not to be there with you. Not to be in Peru but more than that, not to be there with my mom. Please give everyone my love and let me know if there is anything I can do. And when you get back, don’t be afraid to call me and vent about Q or anything all. I love you, and I miss you.

I was suddenly short of breath and my eyes were stinging. It wasn’t the altitude. I put the phone down on the desk and, in a moment, the screen went black again. I breathed carefully, steadily, not too deep, because gasping at high altitude never helps. The officer reached into the purse again. “Package of facial tissues,” she recorded. “Chocolate, estadounidense, tipo Snickers. Here is a list. Does this mean anything to you?” She handed me the paper. “Yes,” I said. “This is my niece’s handwriting. She… my mother was her guardian. This is a list of things my niece wants from Peru.”

Nilda’s cell phone rang again, and again, she silenced it, and silently, took the list from me. Tourist goods. Peruvian candy. Some earrings or similar.

“This is the wallet, yes?” the officer continued.

“Looks to be,” I said, “although she usually had another one, that looked exactly like this one.” It’s true — by coincidence, my mother and I both had these small CTTC zippered bags that were made from the same exact warp. We’d confused them for each other’s on several occasions, mine holding ipod cables and the like, and hers being her wallet. So this was a different one, smaller, just sized for credit cards. The officer unzipped it, pulled out this cards.

“This one,” she said, “It is a VISA, yes? Is it credit, or debit?”

“Credit,” I said. “Tarjeta de credito VISA, American Airlines AAdvantage Miles,” she repeated, typing it in, and the same for a few more similar cards. “And this? What is this?” I took it from her. “It’s a… it’s a frequent buyer card from an heladeria,” I said. “You buy an ice cream, they punch it, when it’s full you get a free ice cream.” I resolved to clean my wallet of all kinds of things before travelling internationally ever again. I imagined my son having to explain a yarn shop frequent buyer card to this uniformed lady with a badge and a nametag reading Y Cardeña A. and a computer older than he is.

Nilda’s cell phone rang again, and she answered it. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I think we’ll be here for… I think this is going to take all morning, maybe to after lunch.”

It did. I could see why the Thursday crew hadn’t been willing to get us the personal effects; if this was required, then indeed, nobody’d pick that up and just handle it.

It didn’t get any less creepy for me, either; definitely not when the medium-sized bundle proved to be her backpack, and from it emerged my mother’s brand-spanking-new lightweight gray jacket that said “Radcliffe Class of 1968” on it. She’d just been to that reunion, and been so happy about it. And now she was dead, somewhere in the morgue somewhere in this town. Nilda’s cell phone had been ringing like crazy, and she’d made a few calls too, commanding calls, dispatching troops like the general she is — this person to retrieve these clothes, from here, and take them to meet with us at the morgue because we’ll be there about 2, and that person to confirm things proceeding as expected at Nilda’s house in Chinchero for the velorio, and so forth.

It wasn’t any easier when they pulled from her backpack her copy of Faces of Tradition, or when the other book in there was called “Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity.” And nothing at all prepared me for the moment when we unzipped her suitcase and opened it up and damned if it wasn’t packed exactly like I pack. I mean, of course it was; who taught me to pack, after all? How many times did my mother oversee my packing when our family traveled, which we did, you know, constantly? Of course I pack the same way. I just never thought about it. And now I’d never even be able to tell her I recognized her in me. Talk about parents, children, and the search for identity, although I know I wasn’t the reason for a book like that to be in her backpack.

It was a little after noon when we were finally done. The funeral agents said everything was ready except flowers. Nilda’s armies were running everywhere, doing everything, and Paulino picked us up and drove us to the street of florists. Everything in Cusco has a street where it’s concentrated, or at least, it used to always be like that, and sometimes — in a lot of things — it still is. So if you want flowers, you go where the florists are, and just walk from shop to shop and get it all handled. I mean, you could call a florist, but why would you when you can just go to the street of florists?

At the street of florists, I thought briefly about my parents approving of me taking my high school’s controversial “Death and Dying” class, which covered many things including funeral norms and what to expect — and how very helpful that would all be, if only it had included words like “carroza” and “capilla ardiente” and “embalsamamiento.” But still, it had given me enough to not feel out of control or railroaded at the funeral home — to be able to ask about each line item on the price sheet, to ask why there’s a fee for embalming when we requested no embalming, and somehow to balance in with my Peruvian upbringing to find logic to “Well, in Lima, they do a thing where they pump fluid into the veins, but that doesn’t get done in Cusco, but it’s a national requirement to have the certificate stating that embalming was done, so this is just the legal fee for that.” Of course. And flowers. How many times, I wondered, had I heard the bells of our church in Chinchero toll for a funeral, and walked in its procession, lamenting, holding a flower whose petals I tore off one by one instead of wringing my hands in helpless grief, to throw those petals on the casket of someone I loved while we processed through the streets? Flowers.

“You’ll want to get an arrangement from each family unit you’re responsible to,” Nilda prompted me gently, “for the velorio.” How many times, again, I thought, taking candles and flowers and some small token of food to a family, sharing food and drink and sitting with a loved one, and oh my God, here we are. Flowers, and a short note, and names. For myself and my husband and son I chose a bird of paradise like had grown at our California home and orange lilies similar to our Ohio ditch lilies; from my in-laws I chose roses, lilies, and rare irises from the jungle, that look like the irises that bloom in Ohio in spring; from Chris’ brother I chose simple white Peruvian lilies; and from Molly and Quilla, the largest bouquet of all considering the love of plants they shared with Chris, the centerpiece for Chris’ casket: enormous orchids, roses and lilies. I thought how exotic and extravagant it would be to have flowers like this in the US, and how here, these are just some of the flowers that of course you can have, and I spent a hundred dollars of the money so many friends and students of mine had gathered to help me with this. Nilda called the funeral agents and told them which florist to come get the flowers from. It was really no surprise to see other friends and family also there, also buying flowers. We parted ways and went, at last, to the morgue.

It was on the corner, and there didn’t seem to be anything particularly outstanding or noticeable about it; it was just the building on the corner. Nilda’s sister-in-law dashed up suddenly from across the street, handing us a bag of clothing. Nilda handed her some of the soles we’d just changed from dollars. “10 kilos of potatoes,” she said, “and about 5 of carrots, and probably 5 kilos of lisas, and get a medium sized sheep, maybe and another half sheep above that, but make sure it’s medium, because we’ve got to feed a lot of people but if it’s a big sheep it’ll be older and have to cook too long. And rum! Also rum.” She nodded and off she went.

Inside the morgue, there was an office portion with a cashier in it, where we met the funeral agents, and then we went outside and were let into a small people-sized door next to a car-sized door, into a courtyard. Back across the courtyard there was a large room with steel tables, one bearing a mostly complete skeleton too new to be archaeological in nature. I mean, you learn to easily recognize and look at such things when you’re raised by anthropologists. At least to some extent. As the morgue officer came in to join us I realized, oh God, this is all really happening. I thought about Nilda finding her in the hotel. Suddenly I couldn’t talk. Nilda clenched my hand and I clenched back.

“Buenas tardes,” she said, clearing her throat. “We are… we have come for the lady from the United States who died last week. This is her daughter.”

Chris Franquemont, Cornell 1986
Chris Franquemont, Cornell University 1986

“Just so,” said the morgue official. “She is here.” He began walking toward a small room, almost a breezeway, that we’d passed coming in. The funeral agents moved with him, and as we turned, Nilda and I saw eight steel-fronted drawers mounted in the wall to which we’d previously had our backs. We stood side by side, clutching each other’s arms and the bag of clothing, and from the bottom row of drawers all the way towards the back of that alcove, a steel-fronted steel slab emerged with my mother’s body on it.

Chris Franquemont, Ollantaytambo 2012
Chris Franquemont, Ollantaytambo 2012

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead body; far from it. Heck, it wasn’t even the first time I’d seen the dead body of my beloved parent. But ten days of international wrangling and logistics had all been leading up to this, the moment when we could take her, dress her, lay her to rest… and this was, for me and Nilda both, the first time we’d seen the body of someone we loved autopsied and frozen ten days prior. Even though Nilda had been the one to find her, this was different. We clung to each other, sobbing, as the funeral agents prepared to dress her. The morgue official took from her ears an inexpensive pair of hoops, and from her left hand, her wedding ring. I remembered standing with my mother when she slipped my father’s wedding ring from his dead hand, reminding me he couldn’t have grave goods since he was being cremated. But that was almost ten years ago, and in another world.

Abby and Chris Franquemont, Tsukuba Japan 1989
Abby and Chris Franquemont, Tsukuba-shi, Ibaraki-ken, Japan, 1989, while Chris was a foreign researcher at the Tsukuba Medicinal Plants Research Station

I slipped her ring onto my pinkie for safekeeping, her hands being thinner than mine. Her poor, dead hands. Oh my mother, my mother, my mother. This is why we beat our breasts and rend our hair. This is why we wash our dead, we dress them, we lavish them with the last opportunities we have for a touch in this world, before it all slips away from each and every one of us. This is why we put on black clothing if we must walk forth in the world, so the whole world can see we are the walking wounded, the ones who remain when our mothers have gone and we are now orphaned children no matter our age. This is our last chance to take a deep breath and do for you as you used to do for us, when we were helpless and frail and our lives were entirely in your hands, oh, your poor, dead hands. Soon even this will be gone. Your dust will join that very same dust that’s always welcomed me home in the high altitude air here. Your bones will last who knows how long, joining here with the bones of so many we loved and remember and so many we never knew. Oh, my mother, it has all come to this, and here we find ourselves, no more nor less human than we ever were, soon to take you to the home that always loved our family — and especially you — the hardest, the most unflinchingly, no matter what.

The funeral agents did fine with the Western clothes from the waist down: a comfortable knit skirt, warm socks, those battered black Danskos. But Nilda and I had to help with the dress of a real Chinchero woman: embroidered blouse, embroidered vest, jobon. But finally she was ready, and in the casket, and as she was loaded into the Mercedes van we were met by Betty and Jan from the board, who did not know if they would make it to Chinchero for the velorio. And then we were off, Nilda and I riding in a van completely filled with flowers, out to Nilda’s house in Chinchero, where the funeral agency had gone ahead with that mysterious capilla ardiente among other things.

Velorio location, at Nilda's house
Velorio location, at Nilda’s Chinchero house

It is a blur, mercifully so, and the next thing I really remember is everyone cooking, cooking vast amounts of food, and the big public room set up with candles and all the many many flowers, surrounding Chris’ casket. There was no one but family and the funeral agents in the room as we made the final preparations. These included finding Chris a good warm hat and a pretty scarf, and making sure she had everything she would need for the next part of her voyage: a spindle for one hand, and the alpaca fiber being spun on it for the other; in one jacket pocket, $10 US, and in the other, 10 Soles; in her montera, the traditional Chinchero hat, some coca leaves. Normally you’d also supply her some tobacco, but in her case, we all decided she wouldn’t have approved.

Velorio
Velorio. A capilla ardiente in this case means all the pedestals and stuff for candles, and the draperies, and the various stands and so forth, so you can do all of this. We had the option of an electric one with light bulbs, or one for candles, and opted for candles.

Beneath her in the casket, two handspun, handwoven, natural-dyed llicllas cushioned her body, and a pillow covered in the same was laid beneath her head. This done, the lid was placed on the casket, with the upper part opened revealing the viewing glass. With these things all handled, it was time for the velorio to start.

The velorio is like what people in the US think of as a wake. The objective is to stay up the night with your loved one, gathered together, eating and drinking and talking and remembering. Everyone pays their respects and says goodbye to the deceased, and shares in the loss with the bereaved.

Casket, with flowers
Casket, with flowers

As the afternoon progressed, more and more people came, from all over. The word spread by every means available: esta noche vamos a velar, tonight we bring candles, and tomorrow, we inter.

Vamos a velar
Vamos a velar

Weavers from Chinchero had started cooking before we all got there, and continued throughout the night and into the following day. There was food and drink from the start of the gathering, and everyone who came was given food and drink.

Weavers cooking
Chincherinas cooking

As new mourners arrived, they would come in, light a candle or if the candle holders were all full, place candles to be used if one burnt down, and then proceed to the glass-covered casket to say goodbye. After this, they would go on to the bereaved family, speak briefly, and then find a seat and stay as long as they stayed, some of them all night.


Goodbye

As the night went on, conversation shifted until eventually it was essentially all in Quechua. People came from near and far; some walked a day’s walk and didn’t arrive till the following day, to march in the funeral procession. A million stories were told — like about the time in 1977 when all the women were afraid to go to Cusco in traditional dress, and Chris said “Let me borrow some clothes, then, and I’ll go first, and we’ll see what happens to me.” In traditional dress, they pointed out, it was true, with her almost-black hair she looked Chincherina at a glance; and after that, many women said, they weren’t afraid anymore.

1977
1977, on the steps from the plaza to the churchyard

I would translate these stories, as quickly as I could, remembering them all myself, for the non-Quechua speakers. These were heartfelt, amazing tales — things that I remembered, mostly, but as a child remembers them. Old women remembered, while their kids a little younger than me listened, how Chris had sat with them while their babies were sick; how Chris had trusted the town with her own little ones, how she had worked as hard and right alongside, in that hard year in 1977 when the harvest had all but failed entirely because it barely rained in 1976.


A moment in the shade to write field notes in 1977

Remember the time, someone said, it was on a market day, and toddler Molly fell of the cursed wall in the plaza? And even though Chris didn’t know what to do about the angry Inca spirits who were bound to take Molly’s life, Chris trusted and believed what had to be done with herbs and rituals, and Molly lived.

Molly, our godsister Nelly, and a chicha jug
Molly (right), our godsister Nelly, and a chicha jug

Remember, when it was time to fix the road, and Ed went out with the men from Cuper, and worked just as hard swinging a pick and hefting a shovel, fixing the road so you could get to and from Cusco?


It’s not building the road; everyone was too busy for pictures that day.

Your parents, Abby, they were different. They didn’t come here to study only what they wanted. They came here to live, like a family. They were willing to know it all, even the hard stuff.

Do you remember, in 1980, they brought back the Chujchus, the dancers that hadn’t been able to be fielded in so very very long, for the town’s patron saint festival? They took on the cargo; they bore the load.

Chris and Virgen de la Natividad
Christine Robinson Franquemont, born 1948. Virgen de la Natividad, painted 1572. Hat belonging to Ed Franquemont, photographer, 1980.

Remember when it came time for the mojonamiento, the running of the boundaries? Nobody thought someone who wasn’t from Cuper Ayllu could run the whole way for Cuper, but your family did. Everyone knows you are Cuper people.


People from all over, feeding mourners

And over and over again, thank you, people said. Thank you for trusting us with Doña Cristina. Thank you for letting us hold her here in our hearts forever. Thank you for letting us honor her for all that she did; all the young ones now may not really remember, but when we were ready to throw away our legacy in favor of digital watches and someday a television, your mother said no, let us build a museum, for everyone in town, so you’ll know what is amazing; so you’ll know what it’s worth. It was worth a mother bringing her young family here from far far away in the United States, before it was too late and it was all gone. We just hope, so very very much, that what we can do to honor her here in some small way measures up to what a woman of her stature would surely receive from the thousands who must admire her in the US.

When I translated that last to our longtime friend and fellow ATA board member Betty Doerr, Betty cried. “I know,” I said. “I know.”

“Did you tell them,” she asked me, “did you tell them that in the US, a funeral lasts a few hours?”

“Yeah,” I said. “And nobody walks to it from a day’s walk away, do they?”

I kept translating for her. “You know what happened,” someone said, and not for the first time, “is that she was suffering. But then she came home, here, to Our Lord of Earthquakes, and he said, take a load off. Stay. You’ve done enough. Let me take your burdens.”

“I can’t disagree with that at all,” said Betty. Neither could I.

Chicha de Pitumarca
They came from Pitumarca, probably 200km away, by crowded minivan to bring their special chicha, which normally doesn’t get taken places

In the morning there were more people still; it had been hundreds and hundreds of people already. Still they came. Groups of weavers from other communities came, tearful and missing Chris. From far-off Pitumarca they even brought their special chicha, that they only make there, from barley instead of corn. I was drinking a glass — the first time I’d ever had it — when I looked up and from Ollantaytambo, there was Beverly, and Adela, and Wendy and Ishmael who years ago laid Wendy’s husband and Ishmael’s father to rest when he was probably the first of our crazy Cusco-area-dwelling gringo set to fall.


Inside again, my late friend Angelica’s parents were waiting. It had been many years since I’d seen either of them; Angelica’s tragic, untimely death from typhoid when she was only seventeen, well, it broke all of our hearts. “I thought you’d want to see this,” Angelica’s mother (also Cristina, just like my mother) said, pulling out a battered old photo. I cried, immediately. “It was 1986,” I said. “I remember that day. I was 14, and she was 15.” It was me and Angelica, dressed up for festival dancing. Angelica’s father Manuel, once upon a time the mayor, sat with red-rimmed eyes and we mourned together, again, like we’d done before.

Mote -- corn and habas mostly
Mote — mainly corn and fava beans

Mutton stew
Mutton stew over rice. If you’re ever looking for comforting food for most of the world, try some sort of stew over rice.

The weavers’ delegation from the town of Patabamba began to carry out the flowers, to get ready for the procession.

Patabamba weavers carry flowers

Patabamba weavers carry flowers. These are all the flowers and bouquets and everything brought to the velorio, and they will be carried for the entire procession and stay at the cemetery with the deceased.

And that’s when the band struck up, the first notes of the dirge that walks you a funeral procession.

Funeral Band
Funeral Band — a family band, more often than not

Oh, you know that tune. Well, maybe you don’t, actually. But I do. We all of us did. Every person there who ever laid anyone to rest with full indigenous Cusco-area honors knows that tune, and it breaks you down with its minor key brass and drums.

Young Escort, Abby, Simeona
Young escort, Abby, Simeona

The priest came down from the church, and he read the 23rd psalm. There was a girl, maybe 8 or 9, who took my hand, and stood beside me; and at my other side, my godmother Simeona. And then the walking started: out the gates of Nilda’s courtyard, to the street and turning right.

Leaving the courtyard
Leaving the couryard
Procession. Can't count how many times I looked up I saw Wendy sending me peace.
Procession. Can’t count how many times I looked up I saw Wendy sending me peace.

Up to the corner, all houses all the way now when so much of it used to be fields.

It used to be all fields.
It used to be all fields.
It's not all fields now.
It’s not all fields now.

Procession from near the front, approaching the corner

And left. Left, past what was Angelica’s family’s store, the procession swarming around a Coca-Cola delivery truck.

Bodega Q'uerapata
Because of her family I always wanted to someday have a store on the corner with a balcony above.

Past the medical post.

Puesta Sanitaria
He was one guy, with a nurse, and limited supplies, and people came walking, carrying the sick on their backs from almost day’s walk radius — he served probably 25,000 far-flung rural people for whom a small cut could end up costing a limb, or diarrhea could end a life. He had this table, and a medicine cabinet.

Past where we caught the trucks for Cusco all those years ago. First the flowers and then us, me and my godmother and my godsister Nelly, and Nilda, and the white casket on the shoulders of strong young men.


Up to the next corner, walking my old route home, the band behind us, and then left, left towards where the trucks would arrive on market day, toward the albergue where my parents had once housed research volunteers in the early 1980s, towards the ruins. On the right, the same Inca walls; on the left, now houses and storefronts where it used to just drop down a level to some fields.

By the small chapel beside that albergue we stopped for a rest, and for words, spoken in Quechua by Don Tomas Huaman, one of my parents’ closest friends, the man long in charge of the ruins, a man who’d hauled me out of a thousand silly scrapes in those same ruins when I was little.

Abby, Tomas Huaman, Ed, 2002
Abby, Tomas Huaman, and Ed, 2002, on Ed’s last trip to Chinchero.

Tomas’ voice was always booming, a natural orator’s gift. Here we all looked back out across the pampa, the soon-to-be-an-airport pampa. I was glad, suddenly, that my mother would never see that. I hated that I would. I thought about hundreds, maybe a thousand, people who I’d already seen, and how many of them had asked: if there remain any of the pictures you and your parents took all those years ago, if there remain those stories, please save them. Please save those stories and images and make them so we can show our grandchildren, who don’t know. Go another generation with your family joining us in reminding everyone that these things we take for granted are treasures.

Pampa de Chinchero
Pampa de Chinchero, 1977.

This town is our home. It will always be. It will always own me. Small wonder, truly, that my mother should end up resting there.

1977
1977, at the corner of our house on the plaza

Albergue Chinchero, 1980
Albergue Chinchero, 1980. Volunteers for my parents’ Earthwatch project stayed here when my parents rented it that year for that purpose. It featured the only indoor bathroom with sit-down toilet in town.

At the albergue, where now there is a checkpoint to go up to the archaeological site — which is to say, my old home and community — a right, and up the hill. And a left, and a right after my comadre’s house, and up past the old casa comunal, through the arches into the plaza.


Straight through vendors of tourist goods we went, diagonal across the plaza, past our family’s first home; past the wall that Molly fell off; up the steps to the main church yard; past the cross, and into the church.


Chris is, in this photo, exactly where Molly fell off the wall.

In this photo, exactly where she stood raising a glass to everyone in that 1977 group photo.

The steps are worn smooth, but you can still see the carvings in them from probably 500 years ago.

The young trumpet player is standing right where Chris stood with that 16th century icon in the 1980 photo.

The church’s construction began in in 1572, and was completed right around 1600. It’s a historical site, but also just the church in town. It’s not a big, fancy cathedral, really, but it’s pretty awe-inspiring, and most importantly, in my entire life, it’s the only church my agnostic mother ever attended with any regularity. Indeed, she was pretty well bound to it in 1980 when she and my father took on the cargo for that dance troop at the September 8th festival of the Virgin of the Nativity. So it felt right to see her casket carried inside and set before gold-covered altar, under the saints and angels painted four centuries ago. It felt right to hear all of this said in Quechua, Tomas’ words echoing from the stone floors to the frescoed ceilings, witnessed by the selfsame icons that bear mute testimony to every other Chincherina’s life events — the baptisms, the weddings, the burials, everything in between.









There is no photography allowed in the church, so naturally I have no idea how these photos turned up.

After these words, back out to the churchyard, and back down the steps, as the churchbells ring the funeral tones.




Fourth niche from the right, that’s where Molly fell. She was sitting above eating an illicit popsicle (we weren’t allowed to have ice because they wouldn’t have boiled the water for it), and she leaned too far out and fell. Everyone will always ask me if she still lives; everyone still worries about her, that the angry Inca spirits will someday claim her. Perhaps they have. This time when they asked I had to tell them we don’t know, that nobody does, se ha desaparecido, and that the police keep investigating, but it has been since March of 2013 and we fear greatly.

We lived under that belltower; there was hardly anyone closer. You could hear them all through town when I was little — and far away, far out into the ruins down that valley, across the pampa, up the mountainside behind the church and well into Ayllu Cuper. The funeral bells would ring, and people would pour out of houses to meet the procession if they didn’t already know. You would follow the sound of the funeral band, triangulate against the route to the graveyard, come forth to share the grieving.


In front of our first home we stopped, the band silent as Tomas removed his hat — well, everyone removed their hats, of course — and in Quechua, booming across the plaza that had been the old market square, Tomas spoke of when, in January of 1977, written down in the books and everything, the town elders voted to allow our family to rent the upstairs of this house that was the home of Mateo Pumaccahua, here in the heart of the town; here it was that Cristina and her husband Eduardo, became comuneros del Ayllu Cuper, and their daughters Abby and Molly, children of Cuper.

1977

And later, Tomas continued, in 1980, Chinchero’s elders asked of Doña Cristina and her family to build of this house a museum, with Chinchero people, for Chinchero people, about Chinchero people; so Cristina and Eduardo went to the United States, and came back with volunteers, and built that museum.

Museum, in progress
This upstairs room had been the room we mostly lived in, in 1977, because it had windows. Transformed into a music room, in the museum it would play recorded traditional music at the touch of a button, had displays about instruments, photos of fiestas and dancers and celebrations. Standing here are, from right to left, Manuel Chavez Ballon, his wife Frida, and it looks like their son Sergio.
Manuel Chavez Ballon frente del museo
Chavez Ballon, and really his whole family, were pillars of Peruvian archaeology; the Machu Picchu site museum is named for him. My parents were friends going back to when they had lived in Cusco in 1968 and 69; when we arrived in 1976 our family visited theirs frequently, to both socialize and pore over pot sherds and the like.
Manuel Chavez Ballon y su esposa Frida inaugurando el museo
Manuel Chavez Ballon y su esposa Frida inaugurando el museo en Chinchero
Frente al museo
Museum crew, minus some volunteers who had already gone back to North America, plus Chavez Ballon family

Comprehending nothing of Tomas’ words, tourists watched, snapped pictures. In retrospect, I wonder if to them we seemed a strange and motley crowd, clearly assembled of people from many towns, and including a handful of gringos — or if they didn’t even have the eyes to see it. But at the time, I thought only, yes, it was always thus — my family here just living, and the passing-through gringos snapping pictures they’d take home and say “Oh, we saw this indigenous funeral!” while I’d think, like I always had growing up, but don’t you know, don’t you realize, this is real — it’s someone’s spouse, or parent, or sibling, or child. This is grief. This is saying goodbye. This is what Americans do in a formal, contained way, standing still, in special places dedicated to keeping death well out of our daily lives. It is only that here, we do it in our homes, and take it to the streets, and up to the church at the heart of town, then back through the streets to where we lived. We do it in the open air, in sunshine or in rain, for all to see, for all to come join, and we don’t care if you take pictures. This isn’t about you. This is about our family, our community, our strength to remember and keep going even when it is one of our best beloved in that casket.

Strong men lifted the casket from its stand again, while mourners threw flower petals.

Once, twice, three times, they surged forward with the casket toward the door of our old house, and then back: goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, Chris, say goodbye to this home where you raised your little girls and sat in the courtyard knitting and weaving and spinning, goodbye to this home where you cooked whatever food was to be had with a Primus for a stove all year, where we huddled for warmth in our sleeping bags on straw pallets on the coldest nights of the year, where in the corner of the patio we piled the vast heaps of potatoes from the shared labour of our family with our community, where you chronicled your time and your work with ballpoint pens in whatever notebooks could be bought. Goodbye; in the memory of Chinchero itself it matters as much that you lived here as that Mateo Pumaccahua did. Outside of here, who knows; but you are an elder of Chinchero, much loved, desperately missed.

Back down the hill we went, a growing throng, the bells tolling again as we left the plaza. Back past the “show me your tickets” checkpoint; back past the albergue, the little chapel, the view of the pampa soon to be forever changed. And here and there as we went new people would join, and we would stop and wait and someone would speak, or pray. Back around the corner, back to what used to be the main road where the trucks would come and go; past the medical post, past the new weaving center named for my late friend Angelica, and then on out the road.



From mud to… sidewalks

When I used to walk that road every day to school, it was dirt; in the rainy season, it would be mud where sometimes I’d sink in as deep as my knees. Barefoot in skirts made sense, considering that, or in rubber tire sandals so you could wash off easy in the streams or at the outdoor faucet in wealthy courtyards or municipal areas. But now this road is paved. The houses all have two storeys, and windows with glass, and there is electricity everywhere, and toilets. And down this road we carry one more of the last few people who’ll remember Chinchero without those things.


Such were the things people said when we stopped. I’d have said them too, if I could have spoken at all. My little girl escort, my godmother, and I, we clung together and alternately sniveled, sobbed, and simply walked. It was the middle of the day and the sun pounded me hard every time I took off my hat. My mother would have scolded me, reminded me how much I hated burning so bad I scabbed. My girlhood friends knew it too. “Stop taking your hat off,” they chided. “Tin-head.” Because my hair had been so pale, and my head so hard like metal when I was stubborn in school, and when we were all little girls my mother helped us all learn to read and practice our letters, so of course they were all here with me to bid her farewell. If they still lived, at any rate. And we all remembered this walk from even when we were small, when it was our classmates sometimes, from the sarampion or escarlatina or other things.


And then we were at the cemetery. We gathered once more around the casket on its stand, and raised the hinged part of the lid for last goodbyes — this time for real. This would be the last time I’d look upon my mother’s face. There was condensation forming on the underside of the glass, and gently the lid was raised and the condensation cleared. For the last time, the high altitude tropical sun touched my mother’s face, her hands with her spindle and alpaca fiber, her garb of Chinchero woman, those Danskos and knit skirt out of sight.


Jenny, Nelly

“Wait!” someone said, putting in a handful of camellias. Once the last goodbyes were all said, the casket reclosed, again the strong men — including Paulino, Nilda’s husband, who had been carrying her every time I looked, every step of the way — lifted the casket and this time, through the cemetery gates we went.





I admit I did not look at the cross closely this time, but from when I was little, I recall the base of it saying 1603. At the top, of course, it says INRI, as in short for what Pilate wrote. I always mean to take a survey in the United States to see how many crosses say INRI on them; in Peru it is basically “all of them,” but as noted, many of the crosses are rather old.

When I was little, there were still some dug graves in the ground; but now, the cemetery so much fuller, it is pretty much all mausoleums with niches. There had been discussion about the nicho, whose nicho it would be, what part of the cemetery, and finally it was concluded that nothing but family ties would be right. So, past the stone cross at the center of the cemetery, a bit to the left, and we were at the Callañaupa family mausoleum.



The flower bearers placed their flowers on bamboo racks and stakes as her casket was slid carefully into the nicho, its grate unlocked and metal gate opened wide. Tomas spoke more words of farewell, and then it was time for me to say … to say words. It is customary to talk, at this time, about all the rest of your family who’s here in this same graveyard, and so I did; I named so many, like Benita and her husband Julian, huasi masi, cancha masi (partners and sharers of house and courtyard), and I thought of so many more. I could smell eucalyptus on the breeze and in every direction, see the snowcapped peaks of my childhood, the mountain guardians of my mother, my family, my community — the things a Quechua girl learns to work for, in that order: mother when you’re small, family when you’re a bit bigger, community when you’re a near-adult, all of the above plus your own family and children when you’re a grown woman. Nothing stops an Andean woman; the Andes have her back and she belongs to them, and you’ll notice nothing’s ever really ground the Andes down flat.

My mother was seventeen when she first set foot in the Andes, and I think — I always thought — that they knew her. They knew who she really was. She might have been born on the plains of Illinois to parents whose lineage on both sides goes back to the start of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; but she was in a hurry to leave the plains, and she dreamed of adventure all her life. She may have been the youngest person in her class at Radcliffe by two years, but she spent half that time in the Andes and she hurried back there just as fast as she could. She may have married a Harvard guy and settled into a commune farm in then-rural Massachusetts to have her babies, but as I’ve come to really understand since reading old correspondence, she spent the bulk of those years too trying to get funding to return to the Cusco area to do specific textile study — and when she couldn’t get anyone to fund it, well, she just went anyway, and so did we all.

So in a way maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising that my mother managed to get back there just in time, hours before the apparent stroke that she did not survive — that she would not have survived in the United States, either. Maybe it really was Nuestro Señor de los Temblores, or the Virgen de la Natividad, or both of them, who chose to keep her when she came back into their demesne. But with bricks and mortar sealing her nicho she became forever one with the Apus who claimed her in her youth.

We went back out to the courtyard, with the band, and case upon case upon case of beer. For hours we drank to her, and then as shadows began to lengthen, still accompanied by the band, we wound our way back to Nilda’s house, where we ate and drank and remembered more, until the wee hours of the night when almost all had slipped away.

In the morning, on Sunday, masses were said for her in multiple cities and towns, and again each week for a month; and in December, another memorial (traditional after a month) was held in Cusco’s Iglesia de San Francisco. I couldn’t go; I was back in the US on the 27th, and pretty much straight to New Haven and starting to sort through all the rubble. But now that it’s been five months, and close family has all seen the pictures and heard the story from me firsthand, now I can share it publicly.

I can never express enough my gratitude to everyone all over the world who made this happen for my mother; there are so many of you who deserve thanks. First, my community of Chinchero, who keep tending to my mother’s grave even when I can’t be there; secondly, my family, friends, colleagues and students in the US who pulled together to get me to Peru and help with expenses; thirdly, the staff of the US Embassy American Citizen Services and the US Consulate, along with every single official everywhere in Cusco and Chinchero who amazingly, managed to handle all the logistics and paperwork in only 2.5 business days; thanks also to all the family, friends and colleagues in Peru who came from all over to remember Chris, and to the wonderful folks who took photos and videos for me so I could bring these memories back to those in the US who couldn’t be there.

Tell me a bit about Andean spinning!

I’ve answered a few questions in various places over the past several months about Andean spinning, which is a subject very near and dear to my heart. I first learned to spin in the Peruvian community to which my family moved when my sister and I were little, and spinning in the Andean way is totally second-nature to me. So, first, let me give you a little bit of background.

My parents actually met doing fieldwork in Peru as undergraduate students in anthropology and archaeology during the 1960s. My mother had grown up skilled in all manner of handwork, as all the women in her family have been since time immemorial; it was all just a fact of life for her. My father had no such background, but shortly after my parents married, he underwent then-experimental knee surgery, leaving him with restricted mobility for over a year. His mother-in-law, my grandmother, loaned him one of her several looms and got him started learning to weave during that year. By the time I was born, he’d become obsessed with the fiber arts. Some of my earliest memories are of crawling under his loom, watching treadles and heddles and sheds and shuttles.

In the 60s and 70s, there wasn’t an awful lot of information around about Andean textiles. You could find some stuff about pre-Columbian items, archaelogical stuff, and a few things which were largely conjectural — technical and academic studies of textiles performed largely by means of deconstructing textiles and theorizing how they might be made with Western methods. My mother being a brilliant ethnographer and my father being an eclectic anthropologist, one of the questions which occurred to them was simple: “Hey, you know, when we were in Peru we saw people doing this. Has anybody gone and asked them how?”

The answer turned out to be “sort of.” The bottom line, though, was that there was definitely lots of room for extensive and in-depth research, which really needed skilled textile people to conduct it. And so it was that my family moved to Peru in 1977, and joined the community of Chinchero. Over the years, my parents wrote numerous things about Andean textiles. Of these, my personal favourite is probably “Learning to Weave in Chinchero,” in the Textile Museum Journal, 1987. Perhaps more widely read and easy to find is my father’s spring 1985 Spin-Off article entitled “Andean Spinning,” reprinted in A Handspindle Treasury and quoted for its line about Andean spinners being slower by the hour, but faster by the week, than a wheel spinner. And of course, if you’re quick right now, the current issue of Spin-Off features an excerpt from Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez’s new book!

Recently, folks have pointed me to a few videos around the web showing Andean spinners in action. In fact, it’s because of some of these videos that folks are asking questions! The questions have been great for me, because Andean-style spinning is so second-nature to me that it’s hard, sometimes, to know where to start describing it. It might be something like trying to decide how to describe American cooking. “Well… stoves are used. Oh, and microwaves! Ummmmmm, hrmmm, is eating meat typical? Are there regional variations? How do stoves work? Oh, that depends what kind… yeah, there are several kinds… uhhh, also there are backyard barbecues, except that’s really grilling and the word ‘barbecue’ can mean different things depending where you are, and… okay, some people say pizza is like that, but others don’t agree…”

For me, Andean-style spindle spinning is as commonplace and ordinary event as ordering pizza. More ordinary, in fact, because even though I have a fourth grader and consequently “pizza” is requested for every meal, I’ve spent a lot more time spinning than ordering pizza (to his chagrin, perhaps). I learned to do it exactly as described in my parents’ writing, and Nilda’s. For the Andean spinner, producing yarn is (as Nilda says) a lifelong pursuit. You start early in childhood, with an expectation that you’ll be doing it at a production level by the time you’re 8-10. Basically, your spindle is always with you.

In a thread on Ravelry’s Spindlers group, someone asked about a quote in that Spin-Off article by my friend Nilda, excerpted from her recent book. The quote, from 80-year-old Emilia Yana of Pitumarca, saying “Only when I die may I be done with spinning, although when we die we take our spindles… so perhaps we will continue to spin in the other world…” The poster asked if it was traditional to bury spinners with their spindles. Here’s what I said:

Well… it’s not uncommon in indigenous Peru for folks to be buried with some grave goods – some of their daily things and/or best loved things or gifts from loved ones. Much of this harkens back to Inca beliefs about death, the afterlife, and the ability of the living to interact with the dead and vice versa. There’s quite a bit of complexity to it and all in all I think that a lot of what ends up going with folks depends on the folks who survive them. I think those urges are fairly universal when you’re looking at a dead loved one, but the American ways of dealing with death tend to shunt some of that stuff aside thanks simply to logistics.

In the rural Andes, there aren’t any morticians or what have you; your family gets you ready to be buried. Caskets are generally borrowed (yes, borrowed) from the church, and used in a funeral ceremony and procession; at the graveyard, the dead are buried without a casket. There is an 8-day mourning ritual undertaken by the bereaved, which includes all manner of things intended to make sure that the beloved dead are settled comfortably in that other world (such as the ritual washing of their garments at a fork in a river, various specific types of feasts and gatherings, and so on). Anyway, most likely anybody who has ever been part of the process of getting a loved one’s body ready for burial or what have you can relate to the desire to send them off with grave goods; it is quite primal in my experience. So, it’s not just spindles – I can remember childhood friends of mine being buried with treasured toys, and my comadre (like a godmother/grandmother, a complex relationship but a very very important one) we buried with a spindle and some of her very fine weaving, but there were tools she cherished that she wanted the rest of us to have and keep using, and I wove my coming-of-age stuff with her equipment.

Textile production capability is a huge, huge, HUGE part of the identity system for traditional Andean textile producers. I can’t stress enough how huge. Traditionally, you would literally be raised from birth to engage in it. As a stage of life thing, the spindle is both the first, and the last, of the textile tools to be taken for granted; it is everpresent. Peruvian spinners do not usually think of themselves as spinners primarily, unless they are truly exceptional at it in some way (I, for example, am somewhere in about the 50th percentile of spinning capability, by Andean standards – adequate, but a long way from being “a spinner”). Instead, spinning is a simple fact of life. Everybody does it, or if they don’t do it now for whatever reason, can do it.

Well, or so it was, but started to shift away from being, in the past 30 years or so, with the advent of new roads and modernization and lots of things. For a woman of Emilia Yana’s generation in most textile towns, though, it was totally true; she would have been born and wrapped tight in swaddling and bound with handspun, handwoven belts, carried on her mother’s back a year or more while her mother had little time to weave but only time to spin. By the time she could sit up she’d have had fiber in her hands; by the time she could toddle, a spindle; by the time she could talk, fiber to pick and clean, and by the age of 5 or so, weaving would have begun. By age 6-12 she’d have been a production spindle spinner; in her teens, she’d have mastered more weaving; by her mid-to-late teens and entry to motherhood, she’d be back to doing lots of spinning again, and as her children grew a little older, eventually more complicated weaving, on until old age starts to make that hard and then back once more to spinning.

But, you know what’s interesting? Odds are she’ll have identified herself not as a spinner, but as a weaver. Why? Because “weaver” includes all those other things, in the traditional Peruvian definition of most towns (who does what can vary from town to town; there’s no real firm and absolute gender role about it, necessarily).

The Spin-Off article is an excerpt from my friend Nilda’s new book, which in my admittedly non-neutral opinion, does a great job of showing what the traditional Peruvian textile life is like. It is part of your identity, what you do, what you wear, what you are.

In a thread on Knitter’s Review, French spinner Klara tells about a documentary she saw which included spinners in the background of footage from the Andes. This is, indeed, a ubiquitous piece of footage to include, partly because the sight of spinners is so commonplace. Andean spinners, who walk a lot, spin anytime they’re on the go, or doing things which may require them to be interrupted periodically. They spin in every moment of possible downtime — they’re just always spinning. Well, and plying.

The Knitter’s Review thread includes a link to a video of Patabamba women spinning and plying (okay, the video says it was shot in Q’enko, but the women are in Patabamba clothes, which is nearby.) The video is set to music, and the words to the song are “Hey, spinner woman — you teach me to make thread, and I’ll teach you to fall in love!” Anyway, here’s what I said in that thread:

Andean spinners use low whorl spindles exclusively. Within that, they’re generally referred to as a pushka (or Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco spells it phusca — one of the fun things about working with things in a language that has been entirely unwritten until quite recently is that you just don’t know how to spell it) and a canti. Pushkas are smaller and lighter than cantis, and are for spinning as opposed to plying; neither is “light” by modern standards. You might use the same spindle (in a medium weight) for both purposes, but the words for doing it remain the same: pushka is the verb to spin, canti is the verb to ply.

There is essentially no low twist Andean yarn; low twist yarn does not wear well and Andean spinning is still a living tradition dealing with the production of textiles intended to be used, a tradition which until recently had little interaction with the industrialized world’s acceptance of lower-grade, less-durable textiles. The amount of twist in Andean yarn far exceeds what modern first world standards will generally accept — for the entire life of the yarn, no matter how it’s washed and so on, plied yarn will kink up on itself when not stored under tension. However, fabrics woven (or knit) from this yarn wear incredibly well: I have daily-use items over 20 years old which need only minor repairs, and textiles which have seen many generations of wear (such as a child’s lliclla or manta which is about 60 years old).

Fiber prep consists of hand-teasing, and pulling cleaned fiber into a roving. This is often a task that children are put to work doing. The majority of the action, however, is in the spinning stages. Typical spinning technique is a very fast double-drafting method which uses an initial long draw followed by subsequent slub correction. Spinners will spin varying lengths of yarn per draw before winding on, but they’re generally much longer lengths than modern first world spinners think is feasible with a spindle. By storing spun yarn via walking it up into a butterfly on your hand, it’s possible to control very large lengths of yarn — limitless, basically.

For spinning, the spindle is generally started with a flick of the fingers akin to snapping them. Yes, you may run out of spin, but if you do, you walk yarn up and give the spindle more spin again, and keep going before you wind on.

When you have a full spindle, you will either spin another full spindle (thus arriving at a point where you have two full spindles), or, if you only have one spindle, wind off into a tight, coursed outer-feed ball (I tend to refer to these as Peruvian style balls to differentiate them from the loose, non-coursed balls commonly wound by hand in the modern first world, but they’re not the only place such balls are wound). Once you have either two balls of singles, or two full spindles, you then wind these together in turn. If you plan to dye the yarn, you wind them into a skein — typically by planting the two spindles in the ground, standing next to them and then using your arms to wrap the skein. This particular trick is a lot easier to do than to describe, although it’s not exactly easy until you get the hang of it.

When you get to the end of one spindle, this is where some spinners make use of what Americans now call “Andean Plying,” after my father’s article entitled “An Andean Plying Technique,” in Spin-Off a while ago. Folks with an interest in the cultural aspect of things will perhaps find it worth note that not all spinners use this technique, and those who do use it only sometimes. While clever and convenient in various settings, it is not widely viewed as a production technique; and even where it is used, it tends to be used to wind a two-stranded ball most of the time.

Most significant, in my opinion, is that this technique, and many others like it, are obvious and throwaway things to the Andean weaver (who is by nature a spinner as well), and whose comfort with all things textile-related allows for all manner of tricks such as this to facilitate the completion of textile tasks with simple tools or even no tools at all beyond your own hands. I believe this to be the most significant difference between the Andean textile producer’s mindset, and the mindset of modern first-world producers who tend more towards creating tools to handle specialized purposes.

Yarn is dyed in this two-stranded, unplied state — because if you tried to dye it after plying you’d have inadequate penetration due to the amount of twist in both spin and ply which gives Andean textiles the resilience and water resistance they posess (an Andean poncho will shed rain for quite a long time, becoming wet on the outside but not soaking through to the inside, literally for hours).

Experienced spinners then drape the dyed, double-stranded skeins over their arms — inserting one arm through the center — and ply straight from that as it hangs there. I don’t recommend this technique to people who are not comfortable with working directly from loose skeins, especially loose skeins of extremely fine, extremely high-twist yarn. Instead, I recommend doing what kids do: rewind the skein into a tight ball that feeds from the outside, with those courses for various other clever reasons I won’t get into here, and go.

Neither the pushka nor the kanti has a hook or notch; both have a simple shaft, and a plain round whorl near the bottom of the shaft. The very bottom of the shaft is tapered to a point, so you can easily stick it in the ground to wind off from and so that it reduces the drag when your spindle gets really full and you’re in semi-supported mode, as may happen. While a lot of low whorl drop spindle aficionados in the modern first world use a wind-on method which involves going under the whorl and then back up to the top of the shaft, leaving a chunk of yarn floating in midair, Andean spinners simply twirl the yarn up the shaft and secure with one or two half-hitches. This is essential to the real Andean plying technique that allows you to get the speed you want to get the job done.

To start the spindle for plying, place the shaft flat against the palm of one hand, lightly holding it there with your thumb if you need to. Put your other hand flat aginst it, fingertips basically where the spindle is. Put your elbows at about waist height or so, and then take that second hand and push forward, rolling the spindle shaft down the first hand as you go. When it gets to the end, let go, and let double-stranded yarn feed out, stopping it before it hits anything. You can now use that first hand for all manner of manipulations on the yarn if needed, including making a big upside down L out of the yarn so you can control really staggering lengths of yarn doing this… or, as I showed folks at SOAR last year, do the thing we did as girls showing off and goofing off: ply off an Inca terrace or a balcony or what have you.

That trick, incidentally, requires a fair amount of confidence in your yarn, your plying, and your ability to feel the yarn to gauge how much twist is still going at a great distance, because you can’t see it. And also your half hitch. Screwing it up when we were kids would mean the spindle would go flying and there’d be a lot of teasing. It was one of a number of silly tricks kids would do.

The most important spindle behaviour required to make this type of production spinning possible, btw, is sustain. The spindle needs to spin for a long, long time. How fast it spins is not necessarily relevant; you can get a spindle spinning faster than most people (outside the Andes and being raised to it from birth anyway) can draft, and what becomes a bottleneck to productivity is if it *stops* spinning.

It doesn’t take 20 years of practice to learn to do these things, however — in fact, it takes about a half an hour. But, they’re much easier to learn in person, and I find they’re sometimes easier for people who have not already learned other spindle techniques which they’ve then got to set aside a little bit.

Andean spinners get most of their spinning done while on the go — walking from town to town, walking places in general, etc. Indigenous Andean mothers also carry their babies with them pretty much all the time (like, unless their big sister is carrying the baby or something — in the third world, there’s often not a good place to put a baby down). Babies are swaddled tightly, and carried on the back in a kheparina, which is like a manta (a square carrying cloth). When babies are awake, they’re perched such that they’re watching over mom’s shoulder. When asleep, the kheparina is relaxed so they’re laying down flat. When they’re nursing, it’s swung around to the front.

Let me know if you want to hear more about knitting; this is already long. Or, of course, if you have questions about what I’ve said.

One other comment that I neglected to add is that in that video, most of the spinning is actually in slow motion. This actually gets to the heart of one of the challenges involved in learning some of these techniques in the Andes — incredibly tricky things (if you don’t know how to do them) happen at very high speeds, and the cultural belief is that the burden of learning is on the student more than the teacher. Really, the best way to learn these things is to be a child growing up with them… or, as my parents have been wont to say, be trained anthropologists with a child to send out into the mix, and then be prepared to learn from children.

As an aside, I once commented to an anthropologist that I’d been raised by anthropologists. “How does that differ from being raised by wolves?” she asked me. “Well,” I told her, “I think those raised by wolves are less likely to feel that they’re engaging in participatory observation within what’s nominally their own culture.”

Okay, maybe you have be an anthropologist to find that funny. But I assure you, if you are, it’s a knee-slapper. I promise! Just try it out at your next anthropologist party (and, if you’re looking for the good anthropologist parties, ask for the ethnomusicologists — they’re like professional party researchers).

Anyway, there’s a little bit to ponder about Andean spinning. There’s tons more stuff to think about, discuss, and show — but as I say, for me, it’s a little like answering a question such as “So, tell me about food.” I’m always thrilled to discuss the subject, show how it’s done, and answer questions. I’d love to have Andean spindle techniques more widely known — they’re extremely fast, extremely productive, and, well, they’re cheap! They’re not tool-dependent; you could leave an Andean weaver on a desert island with a few sticks, one sharp object, and some potential fiber animals, and come back a year later to find her thriving with clothing, shelter, and the roots of civilization.

Historically, there’s a reason for that: the high Andes are not a forgiving and easy environment. Near the equator at high altitude, the sun burns but it’s still chilly; it freezes many, if not most, nights. Many crops won’t grow; there are few trees. Livestock, too, is somewhat limited, as even the grasses are coarse or very short. The extreme mountainous terrain makes things like the wheel of marginal use. The only metals around in any quantity? Gold and silver — pretty, but too soft for tools and weapons. In the rural Andes, everything is stone and clay and textile, and the textile is the key to survival.

But even though that’s true, the Andean weaver — who of course spins — doesn’t view production as drudgery or anything like that. It is high art, and play, and social activity. As little girls, my friends and I compared ourselves to the big girls we wished to be like, gaining status in our social circle by acquiring new skills, showing off to each other with them, challenging each other. These trends persist throughout one’s entire life, and are important even after death — my late best friend’s younger sister commented to me that she thought her sister had died before ever mastering a particular pattern, and I vehemently stated that wasn’t the case… but couldn’t resist saying I learned it first. I remember who taught me every pattern. I remember racing to out-produce my friend Maruja weaving belts for sale to tourists, and who all came to sit with me in the plaza while I worked on my first big weaving. I know how to quietly reinforce a young girl watching me warp, who figures out what pattern I’m warping for. I have spun for the extended-family stash of yarn, and taken my withdrawals from it for my projects over the years. I’m secure in my identity as a human being, the master of my surroundings and my destiny, and I can feel all of that with every toss of the spindle, with the twist in my hands, and the production never stopping, no matter where I am.

I tell people it’s like a fidget that’s productive; but it’s much more than only that. But it’s also… nothing at all, and totally ordinary. Yes, I spin (and ply) while I’m walking places, or standing around, or on the phone, or in meetings, or riding in the car, or in a waiting room. I hate dead times when I can’t do it; I will always try to find a way to spin, and I’m certain this is because of the Andean upbringing. So this is part, in my opinion, of why Andean techniques work the way they do — every spinner is like that, and every spinner finds ways to be able to spin during all the possible moments one might do so. So imagine if you spun with the time you might spend biting your nails, doodling on a notepad, waiting to stir the soup, waiting to pick up your kid from school, waiting for the bus… you would be surprised what you get done, and how easy it would become!

A First Look At Something Huge

It’s hard to know where to begin, so I’ll dive right in. Something arrived in the mail last month, packed in an Interweave envelope and bent in half (argh!) in my mailbox. I knew right away what it had to be and I was torn between opening it on the spot in the chill at the end of the driveway, and getting back in the truck and driving up to the house to take it inside where I could really have a look at it. I’m a smart girl sometimes, so I chose the latter.

So let me backtrack a little now. Well, a lot. It was the very start of 1977, very early in the morning, and I remember the airplane landing after it seemed like we’d been traveling forever. My mother carried my baby sister down the steps and I followed her with my father riding herd behind me. My ears popped, then swelled again. The world tilted funny. A long long way away across the tarmac there were pillars and a building. The air smelled like dust and nothingness and live growing things. People were talking and I don’t remember much about all of that; I just remember I walked, dizzily, faint, feeling like my feet didn’t quite touch the ground, eyes focused on one of those pillars, till I reached out a hand to steady myself on it, and puked my guts out, sobbing, choking, and short of breath.

Room 4, Hostal Loreto
I know that days passed after that, but I don’t remember them much, except for a hotel room with an Inca wall in it, the taste of chicken broth with noodles and cilantro, simple bread, and Coca-Cola. Eventually, I remember sitting in the courtyard of the Hostal Loreto, whitewashed walls and cobblestones and geraniums, and the sounds outside of a city speaking languages I didn’t know — car horns, street vendors hawking their wares in singsong refrains that would become very, very familiar to me in time, but which then were new and alien. The sun was so very, very bright, clear, yet chill; I was so hungry and so tired all at once, and the sorroche or extreme altitude sickness was fading. A man was talking with my parents in Spanish. “Sunday, market day, we’ll go,” my father translated for my benefit. “My birthday!” I said gleefully, and the man asked me in English how old I’d be. “Five,” I said proudly.

That man came back to take us to our destination. “For your birthday,” he said, “I brought you earrings,” and gave me a pair of dangly, jingly, silver things. “You don’t have pierced ears!” he said, then turned to my mother, “You haven’t pierced her ears!” Laughing, my mother affirmed this, and thanked the man, who insisted she keep the earrings for when I could wear them. And then we were off.

We were, it turned out, bound to see the town of Chinchero for the first time. “If we like this town, maybe that’s where we’ll live,” my mother explained. “We’ll like it!” I insisted. “It’s my birthday.”

In retrospect it all should have seemed more foreign than it did. Perhaps if I had been old enough to know what foreign was… but I guess I wasn’t. There were lots of kids, and lots and lots of them had no shoes. In fact, neither did lots of grownups. But some people had great shoes made out of rubber, and I envied them those incredibly cool shoes. There was a marketplace filled with people, a constant underlying murmur punctuated by occasional braying donkeys, someone yelling at a scruffy dog, children shrieking and running around. Fish was frying and I stepped on a mango peel in the cobblestone walk. The sky was perfect blue and I wanted to run and run and run with the other kids but I was tired just from walking.

Chinchero, 2005

We were the only gringos around. People pointed, talked amongst themselves, ran up and touched my hair — which in those days was as blonde as blonde can be. My parents were asking what seemed like everyone in the market about some piece of weaving; people were laughing. When it was time to eat, we walked away from the hubbub a while, out into the nearby ruins, and sat on a large, carved-up boulder I later learned was called the Pumaqaqa. My father opened cans of tuna with his pocket knife, and we feasted on tuna sandwiches made on the small, flat round bread that was a Peruvian country staple. We washed it down with Coca-Cola and had watermelon for dessert, and back we went to the market.

At some point that afternoon, the tone of things changed. My parents were talking to a Big Girl (because that’s how you see the world when you’re a girl who’s just turned five: there are grownups, and there are also Big Girls, you know? Impressive, awe-inspiring Big Girls) and then we went with her to her house, and a field just above her family’s courtyard. She was showing something to my parents about some weaving thing, and they were intently watching and listening and asking questions, but honestly, I didn’t care that much because she did have lots of sisters and nieces and several were about my age, so we played tag until it got dark and we had to go.

Our house, only in 2005

The next thing I knew, we’d moved into the upstairs of a house right on the plaza where the Sunday markets happened, a house that belonged to the town. My parents were learning weaving stuff, lots from that same Big Girl, whose name was Nilda. She and her family lived down the hill. The lady across the street came and got me one morning and sent me out with Sabina, the Big Girl who lived down the street, to learn to tend to the sheep, and after that, I didn’t see my parents as much because I was out with the girls tending sheep all day every day. People would come get my father and whisk him away in a swirl of men, out to work in the fields, and he’d stagger home at night under the weight of enormous sacks of potatoes. The whole town would come check on us and make sure we were eating and knew what to do with potatoes and things like that. I showed some kids how to color with crayons, eventually breaking my crayons in pieces so I could give them away. Kids gave me yarn, old ladies gave me scrap wool and a spindle. Bigger girls made small warps, tied them around my waist and nailed the other end into the dirt, then stuck my hands in the yarn of it all, earnestly, assuming I knew what this was, and why, and that I’d learn it.

One day my parents sent me to go buy matches from the store around the corner. They sent me with an empty box of matches, and enough money for them, and told me the word: fosforos.

“Fosforos,” I repeated, “fosforos, fosforos, fosforos.” All the way to the store, and then I walked in, and the Big Girl who was obviously in charge said something, I didn’t know what, and I went to say “Fosforos,” but I couldn’t remember the word, suddenly. I held up the box. “Inti?” she asked, looking at the picture of the sun, also the brand name for the matches. I shook my head. That wasn’t it. We went on and on. More of her family came in. I kept showing the box and trying to think of the word. Then finally, the girl said, “Fosforos?” I brightened right up, the transaction was complete, I ran home with the matches, and my parents cooked dinner on the Primus stove.

A few nights later I woke up in the middle of the night when some men walked outside, talking loudly. What woke me up wasn’t the men talking — it was the realization, in my sleep, that I understood every word they were saying, and it was in Quechua. From then on, I spoke Spanish and Quechua too.

I had the run of the town, which really, all the kids did, so long as they were also getting their work done. Mind you, the adults and Big Girls of the town also had full say to scold, discipline, and school any kid found out and about. I ran with the girls aged 5-10, and we looked up to the girls aged 10-adult, and we answered to them too, and the one Big Girl that everybody knew was the Big Girl, the one who everyone looked up to and stood in awe of, was that one named Nilda that we met on my birthday.

“Nilda still goes to school,” someone would say. “I think I’ll do that, like Nilda.”

“You will not,” another little girl would scoff. “She’s the only girl that does. Girls have work to do and can’t waste time in school.”

“Nilda’s not wasting time. Plus she does everything.”

“Yeah well that’s her. She can do that. It’s just crazy.”

We grew up that way. And the amazing Nilda would do all manner of amazing things. She was the one we copied tactics from when we were selling our little weavings to tourists. We’d go to her as often as not to get tricky weaving questions refereed, things that the grown women would have answered more brusquely. She’d call us all waylakas and we’d all work harder. She was our role model.

Jump now to about 1981. My family was back in New Hampshire, and winter was settling in, and I got out of going to school for a whole week! What a great deal! What was the occasion? Nilda was coming to the US, and staying with us for a bit, and we were all going to New York City so she could do some demonstrations and lectures. I wondered what she’d think of the US. I’d answered questions for everyone in Chinchero, lots and lots — but it’s not the same as being there, just like you couldn’t explain Peru to people who’d never been there. I thought it was so cool that we were going to get to show someone from Peru around the US a little bit. It was like totally separate parts of my life coming together. It seemed fair.

I was old enough, worldly enough, by then to realize how vast the gulf was between the worlds in which I’d lived. I’d seen gringos in the Andes completely fail to cope. I’d met people in the US who couldn’t envision it, had never heard of Peru. I’d known people from the country in Peru who tried to go to the city and it didn’t work out. There were gaping chasms between the vast gulfs separating my worlds. What would Nilda think of November in New England, the poptop soda can, the fact that literally everybody has plumbing and electricity and cars?

Well… I think she blinked a couple of times, took it all in, and in a totally unassuming way, gave these lectures and presentations at the Smithsonian with the same ease and presence she commanded anywhere in the rural Andes. In one breath, she’d tell me in Quechua to fix a loose braid in her hair while she demonstrated backstrap weaving, and explained things in English to people who’d come to see her at a gallery.

Back in Peru in 1982, my peer group was in full production mode weaving things to sell to tourists. There were lots more tourists now than there had been five years earlier, and also, sometimes we’d all go in to Cusco and sell stuff there. We quickly realized we could sell stuff at a certain price point far faster than we could make it; and so we solved that problem by simplifying designs, using more plain weave, and ultimately, buying machine-spun Dralon synthetic baby yarn, then overplying it to add sufficient plying twist to make it stand up to weaving, and using that instead of handspun. The grown women and bigger girls scoffed at us, called us waylaka, and shamed us into learning the more advanced patterns regardless. Some girls just stopped at the tourist production level though. Traditional production for traditional reasons was falling out of favor. But you knew you couldn’t show those tourist goods to Nilda and expect her not to point out what was wrong with them in ways that really made you think — think about how you marketed them to the tourists, how you made them, the time you spent on what parts of production, everything.

Skip now to 1985-86, a time we lived high on the hog in Peru, in a posh apartment in Cusco, after so many of the roads had been paved. I think that was right after Nilda finished up at the University there, and she was in the city too. City life was different from country life in Chinchero; all Spanish, not so indigenous, everything that entails, which is far too much to get into just yet, but believe me, it’s a big deal. There, too, was Nilda, gracefully and easily hanging yet another whole scene, managing all sorts of projects for tourism enterprises, getting everybody else around her to do all manner of things, and making it look easy.

Carolina Concha's Hands/><br />
Or there’s 1990. Nilda came to the US again, this time for longer. She’d been multiple other times. I worked with her that summer on demonstrations that she did, and we spent lots of time together weaving, teaching, demonstrating. She forced me to tackle my stack of unfinished objects, and finish them, deriding me nonstop for my waylaka ways, asking me to simply consider what my godmother would think if she were still alive, and who among my peer group back in Chinchero did she think I’d tell first, and look, she’d set up 31 warps and I’d only done 2 dozen, was I not even trying? She’d never stop smiling, the ribbing was always good natured, it was a dose of Chinchero womanhood, in jeans and t-shirts in a conference room at an American art museum.</p>
<p><img src=

Or maybe 2002, when I helped my father with a textile tour to Peru. It was the first time I saw the growing Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, founded by Nilda, and visited the towns where she was working her magic. One night I sat with her in a tent as the members of the tour settled down for the night. It was a bitter cold night and we were drinking tea to keep it at bay. “So your father’s diagnosis is serious, isn’t it?” she asked me. “Very,” I said, “You know, his doctors told him that other than his scheduled treatment, he should continue living his normal life, but then they really honestly weren’t prepared for what his normal life is like.” She made me more tea and we talked about cancer, out on a plain beneath a glacier two days travel from anything like the facilities my father would need if something unexpected happened.

A few nights later, back in the city, we all had a special dinner at a top-notch upscale restaurant run by friends of Nilda’s. My father’s back was hurting badly. “If I can’t go to Pitumarca,” he told me, “I’ll stay in Cusco, and you’ve got to do the tour stuff. But while you’re there, there’s a weaving they only do there, and it’s really hard, and you should learn it quick while you can.” I agreed, we headed off, and in the whirlwind of it all I asked Nilda what this weaving my father had mentioned might be called. “Palmay Ramos,” she said, “there should be someone at the CTTC building today who knows it.” Once there, it took some asking around, and eventually, one woman surfaced, out of the handful of Pitumarca women still doing Palmay Ramos. I asked her to teach me to do it, and she stopped for a moment and looked at me, pure Gringa, jeans and steel-toed boots and whatnot, but with a country girl’s hat and a weaving needle stuck in it.

“No,” she said. “It’s too hard.”

“Well, teach me,” I said. I’d done this dance before. She’d have said that to anybody, most likely — but with someone visibly an Andean weaver, she’d expect them to debate and argue and wheedle the teaching out of her. So I started doing just that. We went back and forth a few times, till she laughed, and walked away — walked up to Nilda, the powerhouse woman behind this multi-town weaving empire of which she was a part, and said, “Can you believe this gringa wants me to teach her Palmay Ramos? Does she think she can learn it or something? I mean, can she weave?”

“Yes,” said Nilda, looking at me sidelong, “she weaves okay.”

There is no taller praise. And Palmay Ramos is weaver’s madness, best left for another discussion.

Or there’s 2004. I was at my computer job on Page Mill Road in Silicon Valley when my phone rang. “Hey, it’s Nilda,” she said. “Meet me for lunch at the Stanford alumni center!” She was there, at a conference dealing with, I don’t know, philanthropy and third world economic development or something, with her husband and two sons in tow. We ate, and talked about lots of things, and when I left I got pulled over for speeding on my way to a parent-teacher conference at my son’s school. Not two weeks later when my father died, Nilda organized memorials for him back in Peru.

In 2005, CTTC’s new building opened, with a museum and a shop and class facilities — a building located on the grounds of the Qoricancha, the site which is perhaps the most egregiously-pillaged site in the history of the conquest of Peru, from which tons and tons (literally) of gold were stolen. CTTC’s building there is the first time since 1535 that indigenous Peruvians have owned any part of that land. And when it opened, the city of Cusco closed off part of the main street of Avenida Sol, a street where I remember, in my childhood, seeing city men drag and kick old indigenous women off the sidewalk and into the street, spitting on them, saying “Sidewalk’s for people, not indigenous dogs!” They closed it off — and weavers from all the CTTC communities came to town, in indigenous dress, and had an indigenous party with a Quechua-speaking master of ceremonies.

I cried my eyes out. This is the first time I’ve written of it; it was that emotional. In my life, to have seen such change — and to know that it happened because of Nilda.

Last year she called me up from Toronto, at the Textile Society of America meeting. Unable to keep laughter from her voice, she said, “They tell me you call yourself a spinner now!” I verified this shockingly humorous statement — me, a spinner.

I do, when faced with quandaries dealing with textiles, business, economies, family, culture, and identity, ask myself “Well, what would Nilda say?” I’m a woman who has struggled with her sense of self, and lived with parts of me in several worlds, wondering how to integrate them all and be who I am without constant existential crisis. And in general, I think I do a pretty good job. But if you want to see someone who makes it all look easy and who makes me look like I never achieve anything and just know a little tiny bit about textiles, well, go meet Nilda. Go see the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco.

And that, folks, is where I’m going with this whole long thing. I’ve been saying “Meet Nilda, and go see CTTC” for years now — but that’s prohibitive for some folks, obviously. Not everyone can go to Peru and see the textiles, meet the weavers, learn about their cultural aspects, and so on. But you could see what I saw in my mailbox:

Weaving in the Peruvian Highlands by Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez!

Nilda has written a book! I knew she was doing it; first of all it’s something we’ve all talked about for ages, and second of all, being on the board of directors of Andean Textile Arts, the not-for-profit which sponsors and assists CTTC, I hear a thing or two about what she’s up to on a pretty regular basis. Third, at the 2007 Spin-Off Autumn Retreat, I met Linda Ligon, founder of Interweave Press, who had but recently finished editing the book. And then fourth, I’d heard from a limited number of people who’d seen it in its just-pre-press stages, telling me they liked it quite a bit. Truly, I was beyond eager to see it. And now I have.

For me, of course, it is impossible to detach the extremely personal closeness I have to the subject, and give only an unemotional review of this book. It’s impossible for me to tell you about it, without telling you all the things I just have, simply to let you know why this is so huge and momentous, even though it’s something so small and ordinary that the postal carrier can bend it in half and cram it in my mailbox.

This book is a triumph for Nilda, for CTTC, for Chinchero, for all of our families. It is glossy and beautiful and approachable and real and perhaps it is only the tip of the iceberg but it’s there, it’s really there, this 96 page opus that can take you straight to a world where knowing of textiles is like literacy, a world where the things we yarn dorks feel drawn to are known to be essential and urgent, a world which could so easily have perished entirely a decade or two ago, and didn’t. Didn’t, because of Nilda and a small number of other committed people, who just made the world change a little here, a little there, until now, when a tiny and wizened old indigenous woman can stand barefoot drinking chicha at a gala on once-conquered terrain, beside city folk who she now out-earns with her traditional skills — skills that a decade or so ago, she thought she’d take to her grave and they’d be gone forever.

This book is not a how-to guide or instruction manual. It’s not a simple buyer’s guide or catalog. It’s not an ethnography or a memoir. It’s a little bit of all of those things. It’s a trip to meet Nilda and see CTTC and visit the world of the Andean weaver (who is by very nature also a spinner, knitter, and anything-involving-textiles-er). And if all of that weren’t enough to recommend it, there’s the fact that the profits all go to support CTTC. I just don’t know what else I can say, except to congratulate Nilda on its publication, thank everyone Interweave for bringing it to press, and hop up and down hollering “OH MY GOD YOU WANT THIS BOOK!” to everyone I know with any interest in yarn, the Andes, grassroots development, or social change. Go! Find the book! Buy it if you can, ask your library for it if you can’t, and if you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear what you thought.

The photos interspersed throughout are all from 2005; I’m still looking for, and digitizing, older ones, but it didn’t seem right to have no photos. Most of these are from my trip to Peru for the CTTC building’s dedication and opening ceremony.