john h. mcdowell


- runa of highland ecuador

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Here we see a woman who has brought food to a cemetery near Otavalo, to share with the living and the dead. Otavalo, a market town in the province of Imbabura, northern Ecuador, is the center of a vibrant indigenous community of Quichua-speaking Runa, that is, Indians speaking a dialect of Quechua, the language of the Incas. I enjoy good friendships with extended families in Ilumán and Peguche, two of several indigenous towns near Otavalo. The Otavalo Runa are deservedly famous for their weaving and their music, and for having the entrepreneurial spirit to move these commodities around the globe. I am drawn to the traditional music of this region, famous most of all for the plaintive yet inspiring sanjuanito. I am intrigued with the roles played by musicians within the community and as cultural ambassadors to the world beyond, and more generally, with the interplay between spontaneous and choreographed expressions of Runa identity in a historical moment of great change -- Otavalo Runas are experiencing a remarkable improvement of fortune, and their newfound prosperity affords them levels of economic and political power that would have been scarcely thinkable a generation or two ago.      



     My connection to Otavalo and its people began years ago during trips through Ecuador – I still recall the gravel road between Tulcán and Quito, a twelve-hour, grueling and yet spectacular trip in the buses of the 1970s. Otavalo was a welcome respite along the way, a place of beautiful Andean music, locally-woven textiles, and friendly folks. In the early 1990s I became acquainted with Luis Alberto Yamberla, who has since become my compadre, and he proposed that we arrange to bring his musical ensemble, at the time known as Inca Ñan (Inca Trail), to my home town of Bloomington, Indiana. We did manage to accomplish this – Inca Ñan, which later morphed into Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun), came to Bloomington several times to play in the Lotus Festival and to share knowledge of Andean culture, language, and music with my students and colleagues at Indiana University. Perhaps their most memorable Lotus Festival appearance was two weeks after 9/11, when they stepped into the breach when  so many international troupes were unable to travel.



     At the core of this talented group are two extended families, one based in Ilumán and the other in Peguche -- the former known for its yachaks, the native healers, and the latter for its weavers. Luis Alberto, his brother Manuel, and his brothers-in-law Enrique and Antonio, are the founding members of Centro Cultural Inti Raymi, who sponsored my research visit to Otavalo in 2005. Humberto and Alonso Díaz are two brothers from Peguche who have hosted me and my family and proved to be excellent consultants on Otavalo Runa customs. These friends and relatives have had great success playing the sanjuanitos of their region and other Andean music together over the years.


     A trip to Otavalo in 2005 gave me and my family the opportunity to meet families of the migratory musicians who had become our fast friends over the years. We had a great time getting our family together with their families, and found the women of our musician friends – especially Maruja and Carmen from Ilumán, and Marta and Maritza from Peguche – to be inspirational in their dedication to home and family. The children, including our Goddaughter, Alejandra, pictured here, like children everywhere, are just wonderful.







     With the able assistance of Alberto, I found a willing sponsor for my work in the Otavalo area – the CCIR, Inti Raymi Culture Center. At a late-night meeting, the members of CCIR drew up a contract to assist me in gaining a better understanding of Runa traditions, as they put it: “Queremos dar a entender nuestra realidad de vida” (We want to explain the reality of our life.)” In the following months, they followed through with this plan, enabling me, my wife Pat, and our son Michael to work as an ethnographic team and document many aspects of life in Ilumán. The photos and documents you see reproduced here will give you an inkling of what we have been doing with our Ilumán friends.


Alberto and Maruja




Antonio's mother is spinning woolen thread



Members of the Pinsaqui dancers



“Muyumushami”  (“I Will Surely Wander”)

Kanda maskashpa purini

I go about looking for you

Juyaiguwan kausangapa

In order to live with love

Maipi kashpapash yarini

Wherever I may be I think of you

Kamba ñahuita muscuni

I dream of your face


I will surely come back, little woman

Llaki llakimi kausani

Sad, so sad I live

Tukui tutami wakani

All the nights I cry

Kamba juyaita yarishpa 

Remembering your love


Ima punllaka warmigu

One day, little woman

Kikinwanllata purishun

Just with you we will go together

Nuka shungupi kausangui

You live in my heart

Llakirishpa kausashun

We will live loving one another



Tigramushami yanagu

I will return, little dark one

Llakirishpami kausashun

We will live loving one another

Tukui tutami wakani

All night long I cry

Kamba ñavita yarishpa wakani

Remembering your face, I cry

(A song created by the Inti Raymi band)


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     Humberto and Alonso Díaz are musicians – Humberto specializes in the string instruments (he is also an excellent chauffer), and Alonso is adept with both winds and strings. They have worked closely with the founders of the distinguished musical ensemble, Ñanda Mañachi, one of the first Otavalo Runa groups to record and still very active as curator of the tradition. Humberto has been helpful in explaining the role of musicians in the Inti Raymi celebrations, and Alonso has helped me transcribe the Quichua words to many Runa songs. In the photos and documents I have added here, you will get an idea of what we have been doing with our Peguche friends. 



Maritza and Marta with a little one





Ñaupa Taitacuna Mamacuna, Ñuca Taitacuna

Fathers, Mothers of Our Ancestors, My Parents

by Alonso Díaz

(Alonso is spinning thread)

Ñuca yarini punda imashami taitacuna trabajancarca

I remember how my parents worked

Imashami wagracunawan yapushpa

How they plowed with the pair of cattle

Guachushpa sarata trigota porotota cebadata papata tarpuncana

Making furrows, just so they planted wheat, beans, oats, potatoes

Ñucanchiman micuchingapa ama micuna faltachun

In order to give us our food, so food would not be lacking

Ñuca yarini imashami taitacuna churajushpa purincarian

I remember how the men went about clothed

Gushto sumbrota ruanata pargatita muquiticalsonda churajushpa purincana

Wearing a fine hat, cape, sandals, white cotton pants, they went about

Mamacuna gushto anacota pargatita uma watarinata churajushpa purincana

The women, wearing their fine skirts, sandals, head scarves, they went about

Cunan causaipi rikunchi ñucanchi jipa huaquicuna mishu causaita mishu micunata

mishu shimikaman parlanajun

These days we see how our younger brothers and sisters live like mestizos, eat like mestizos

and are even speaking like them

Runa causita ama chingachishun, runa shimita ama chingachishun, runa kayta Zaupaman apashun

We must not lose our way of life, we must not lose our language, we must bring forward our tradition

Ama saquishun mashicuna, ama cungashun huaquicuna

We must not yield, my friends, we must not forget, brothers and sisters.


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      Last Modified May 30, 2007