After enjoying the cultural festivities of the Chicha! party last week, I decided to head over to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for more immersion in Peruvian culture. I visited at around 11 AM, just when the festival opens for the day. Greeted by the welcoming scents of the Peruvian cuisine stands at the entrance of the festival, I eagerly entered the area – and it seems I wasn’t alone. Even right at the festival’s opening, there were many excited visitors spread across the enclosed section of the National Mall: both solitary travelers and large families of tourists wandered with curiosity through the large white tents lined along the perimeters of the space. The informational signs scattered along the grounds give visitors interesting and important background information about Peru and its culture, as well as introduce them to this year’s Folklife. One of these signs deftly and concisely explained Perú: Pachamama:
Peru is one of the world’s most biodiverse nations. Its distinctive cultural regions are not only connected by history but by rivers, roads, and pathways that existed long before the Inka Empire (15th to 16th centuries) and Spanish colonization (16th to 19th centuries). Across its different altitudes and climates, communities exchange commodities and customs, shaping historically rooted but constantly changing lifestyles.
The 2015 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program, Perú: Pachamama, features 12 projects, organizations, and groups whose distinctive traditions highlight creative social, cultural, and economic transformations. Sharing culture from the Andean highlands, Amazon River basin, northern coastal regions, and urban neighborhoods of Lima, the program demonstrates how networks of celebration and community, crops and markets, textiles and crafts, foodways and communications, and music, dance, and art forge the diverse cultural heritage of Peru.
The Pachamama, or Mother Earth, unifies the distinctiveness and diversity of the featured traditions into a national cultural identity. The Q’eswachaka Bridge at the center of the Festival represents connection between Peru’s millennia-old traditions and their new meanings and uses given by today’s cultural communities.
The arrangement of the demonstrations – separating the traditional and the new – encourages visitors to explore the complexities of the nation of Peru and visualize the transformation and growth of its culture.
I decided to first enter the traditional side of the demonstrations. Stepping through one of the two enormous orange and yellow portals, I was received by joyous Peruvian singing and the chattering of inquisitive people. I was immediately struck by the authenticity of the demonstrations – there was a complete absence of artificiality among the Peruvians offering their time and skills. I first followed the musical sounds and found a large crowd surrounding a square, wooden surface lying on top of the grass. This zone simulated La Plaza, a central space found in Latin American towns and cities used for celebrations and festivities. The artists performing at La Plaza when I came across it was a group of Afro-Peruvians presenting their traditional style of song and dance (see my video clip, below). The performance was enthusiastic and lively, brimming with cultural pride. After finishing their piece, the performers moved to a tent dedicated to children’s education and warmly explained their traditions to dozens of small, transfixed faces.
Moving on from La Plaza, I was drawn to a tent labelled Textile Designs. Under the tent, a man dressed in customary Peruvian garb weaved vibrant fibers on a large awana, or loom. To his right was a yarn-dying station in which Peruvian women dipped spun fibers (usually from llamas, alpacas, and sheep) into boiling water combined with colorful spices and herbs. These spices, releasing a piquant aroma, were displayed in hand-crafted clay pots tabled on top of a hand-woven rug made from natural materials, which generated a satisfying crackle when crossed. The artist weaving at his loom was in the process of creating a floor mat; several of his finished pieces, all flawlessly designed and crafted with intricate and colorful patterns, were hung around the tent. Speaking only Spanish, the artist was able to communicate with non-Spanish speakers via a volunteer, with which each tent was equipped, able to translate and explain the history and process behind each demonstration. One visitor asked about the amount of time it took to create a single mat and discovered it took an entire month to finish a piece. I thought it was incredible to experience the artist constructing a work-in-progress and view its final form at the same time, revealing the thought and care that went into this demonstration.
Each tent was equally fascinating and brought new information to share with the community. One space featured an interactive dancer who pulled members from the audience to have fun and immerse themselves in the culture; another exhibited the creation of colorful Peruvian masks and ornate tapestries. I even ran into our friend MONKY, the talented screen printer and poster-maker from Lima (this time equipped with a much larger set-up than he had at the Chicha! party to create more fully-developed and personalized pieces). The modern tents on the opposite side shared modern Peru’s delicious food and energetic singers. The Folklife Festival gives you very well-rounded experience – there’s information about Peruvian art, music, geography, food, drinks, agriculture, etc. from the beginning of human life in the Andean region. This program managed to capture and condense the heart of Peruvian culture and offer it to the DC and larger metropolitan community.
I recommend allotting a significant amount of time to explore the festival – you’ll want to fully experience every stand. Personally, I felt as though I only got a taste of the event, and I was there for a solid hour. By the time I left, the number of people had almost doubled, so it might be a good idea to head over early if you want to avoid crowds. The festival is open during the weeks of June 24th – June 28th and July 1st – July 5th. All of the demonstrations are free, and it’s open daily from 11 AM to 5:30 PM. Something else to note – there is a stage centered between the traditional tents and the modern tents, which holds evening concerts at 7 PM. Check it out while you can!