Music echoes from Plaza de Armas, the martial tones of a brass band blended with the cacophony of a cumbia dance. Irreverent, the noise penetrates into the cathedral, bouncing along the whitewashed arcs of the vault. Whitewashed, as was the culture that originally inhabited this place.
Every single centre of Spanish power has been built above, or with, pre-existing Inca monuments. As I walk through the aisles of the Cathedral I am forced to admire the conquistadores – for they could’ve taught a thing or two to the American neocons five centuries later – but their chauvinism disgusts me. Inca Roca’s palace became the Archbishop’s digs. Wayna Capac’s palace became the Jesuit’s church. Qurichanka, the Inca’s temple of the sun, sprouted an incongruous hat under the form of the Santo Domingo convent. The Cathedral’s gain has been Saksaywaman’s loss. Their builders now rested in the Cathedral, after writing “the native Americans had no soul, so couldn’t be considered human beings”. In the sacristy I found the oil painting of the author: the first Bishop of Cusco.
A lady hands us a commemorative cockade for the event. A rainbow-coloured ribbon, held close by a simple nail. “Es la bandera inca senor” she says. Above us, next to the Peruvian flag, flies a larger specimen of the small piece of cloth I am holding in my palm. The Inca standard.
The feast is hard to decipher. Half procession, half parade, it’s enriched with the allegoric charge of a carnival and peppered with faith. Groups of men, dressed in costumes – or masques – march in front of a stand where a crowd of locals stands, huddled around the Mayor. He wears a rainbow band across his chest, not one with the red-and-white Peruvian flag.
Masked men strut in orderly lines, pacing gravely, indifferent to the sound of the music or the excited chatter of the MC. Their clothes, their balaclavas, the rowdy succession of colours – white, red, ochre, yellow, pink – the dead baby llamas hung on their shoulders, all must have meanings for the locals. Are they masques idealising particular individuals in the Andean society? Are they the traditional costumes of their villages? They know, we don’t. And perhaps we’re not meant to know.
Everything – the défilé, the statue of Inca Pachacuti standing tall in the square – indicates that, ultimately, the Spaniards failed and that their culture has been rejected by the cusqueños, but it’d be wrong to say so. Christianity is alive, just different from how Vicente de Valverde imagined to be.
Jesus and the Apostles eating cuy at the Last Supper, Mary wearing alpaca wool clothes, Inca motives adorning the crucifix. A culture might’ve arrived and, thanks to horses, war dogs, steel, gunpowder and smallpox subjugated another. But it couldn’t, ultimately, avoid being influenced, and changed, but what was here before.