Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Saint Rose of Lima Holiday

Saint Rose...Isabel Flores y de Oliva was born in Lima on April 20 1586. She felt a spiritual calling early and devoted most of her short life to helping the poor and sick. After her death in 1617 there were reports of on-going miracles associated with her activities. She was canonized in 1671. Every year on August 30th every community in Peru from the coastal desert to the jungle will have some sort of celebration in honor of Saint Rose. All public and many private businesses will be closed, and there will be pageantry and parades. 

The Karl Weiss Alumni Association chose this day to hold their annual parade. Even though the parade lasted over two hours, there were considerably less participants and spectators this year. One reason is that groups that normally would have participated were involved in other activities celebrating the holiday. Traditionally the Karl Weiss parade is held on a Sunday. Why the association officers chose to deviate this year is unknown.

One of the main competitors for spectator attention was the police department. Saint Rose is the patron saint of Peru’s National Police Department and every year police departments across Peru hold impressive ceremonies. This formation extended for nearly three blocks on Balta Avenue South. It included most of Chiclayo’s national police force; military units representing the Army, Navy, Marines and Air force plus nurses from the police hospital. Also taking part in the parade was the K-9 and mounted police.

The downside to being able to watch the police pageantry is that there are very few police patrolling the streets, which probably explains why two fine, upstanding citizens, one on foot and the accomplice in a moto-taxi attempted to relieve Maribel of her purse as she was walking home from the Weiss parade on a usually 'safe' street . She screamed as loud as she could (her throat is still sore today) and fortunately a man driving a mini-van pulled up next to her, opened the passenger door and shouted, “Get in!” She did and they drove away leaving the thieves empty handed, at least for the moment. My thanks to this man for not being afraid to do the right thing.

There was a time a few years ago when better than 50% of Peru’s population lived in poverty; there was no work available and the philosophy “steal or starve” may have been a necessity for some. No more. Conditions have improved considerably but crime hasn’t lessened. Ironically, the vultures stalking the streets today are doing it because in this improved economy many Chiclayanos have a few more coins in their purse or wallet. And it’s easier than working. I wonder if the spirit of Saint Rose would consider working a few ‘miracles’ on these scavengers?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

An Evening with Traditional Clothing

Chiclayo’s cultural center sponsors a wide range of exhibitions throughout the year including crafts, art, customs, and last night a presentation of traditional clothing worn all across Peru. The clothing was modeled in combination with traditional dances from each represented town/region, and there were many of them during the two-hour event. All of the presenters were from the Chiclayo area and did multiple presentations, which means they were not only well acquainted with dances from the various regions, but were also adept at quick costume changes.

This couple began the evening by dancing the Tondero in clothing worn throughout the northern coastal regions.

The clothing this couple is wearing representing the village of Inca Wasi (which in Quechua means ‘house of the Inca’) is worn not only at festivities but also for everyday use.

Despite assurances from Maribel that this guy is wearing traditional clothing from Callejon de Huaylas in the Ancash Region, I had a tough time believing it. I’m thinking 1930s Zoot suiter in the USA or some Bohemian enclave today. Anyway, they’re dancing an up-tempo version of the Huayno.

One of my favorite dances to watch is the Festejo (slave dance) here performed by these people representing the village of Zaña in the Lambayeque Region. Zaña has a large Afro-Peruvian population dating back to the days of slave importation in the early 1500s.

My favorite of the evening was this couple representing the village of Jauja in the Junin Region. They danced a slower version of the Huayno…their movements so graceful, deliberate and sophisticated that the entire audience was held spellbound.

The evening would not have been complete without purely traditional Inca clothing worn here by dancers representing Huancavelica.

The performance finished with a curtain call that was greeted by a standing ovation and a rush of photographers.

Admission to cultural center events is usually free and last night the audience was served finger sandwiches while seated during the performance. What a wonderful way to spend a Wednesday evening in Chiclayo!  

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Pieces Come Together

In a previous post I mentioned that I’d written a first draft of a memoir. And that I had put it on the shelf…there to remain until either I felt the inspiration to begin a rewrite or until someone in the future would someday stumble across and dispose of it. It’s been some time now and I’m still not inclined to start a rewrite, but it has bothered me off and on that my memoir had no title. A book with no title is just not right, even if it’s only a first draft. And it’s untidy. I am a habitual list maker and all my lists have titles…you know…like ‘grocery list’, ‘things to do list’, ‘tasks for today list’, and so on. I usually don’t capitalize the titles and sometimes I feel guilty about that. Anyway, without a title how do you know what the written words are about? A title is what ‘hooks’ potential readers. Yes, I know my memoir will not be read but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s sitting there on a shelf incomplete without a title!

A couple of months ago I was talking with Maribel’s son Brian about my early college days when I remembered a writing assignment we were given in a literature appreciation class. We were told to write a brief story about an early childhood memory, and to write it as if the child was telling the story. Before I left that classroom an image came to me that I knew would be my subject.

As a young boy I didn’t like Sunday afternoons. Sunday afternoons meant two things…chicken for dinner and visiting grandparents. You could smell the aroma of cooked chicken everywhere on the streets, and see families all dressed up in their Sunday clothes getting into the family car to visit relatives. I liked the chicken part, but visiting grandparents was a pain because it stopped our gang from getting together and playing games like ‘kick the can.’ Whoever wasn’t visiting grandparents had to sit around waiting for the other guys to get back home. A whole afternoon was wasted! This is what I chose to write about, and did it in the form a short poem. I wondered if there was any chance of getting a copy of the poem. I knew it had been published in the university's annual literary magazine, but I had forgotten all but a few lines, so I sent an email to the university library; gave them my name, the title and approximate year (1975) and within two hours received a scanned copy of my poem. Immediately after reading it I knew that my memoir had a title........

Chicken Sunday Afternoons

Chicken Sunday afternoons always happen when
            the dumb sun is up about there
an’ the trees an’ houses an’ cement are bright all over
an’ they ain’t doin’ nothin
an’ the dirt in the gutter ain’t doin nothin but eatin fried chicken smell
an’ it don’t wanna be touched.
Baldy’s house ain’t doin nothin either cause Baldy ain’t home
(what’s the big deal about visiting gramma and grampa on Sunday?).
Ed’s parents got company an’ he has to sit there so he can’t come out.
Pinky is home but don’t feel like doin nothin (who cares about him anyway?)
an’ the whole world (which is this block)
Don’t feel like doin nothin.
I wish the dumb sun would
            go down
Cause then Baldy would come home
An’ Ed could come out
An’ we can play kick the can.
I don’t like Chicken Sunday afternoons
cause it’s kinda sad when the whole world (which is this block)
is bright and empty an’ don’t feel like doin nothin.
Night time is better cause ….HEY!... BALDY!... ED!... YOU GUYS

I was surprised at the reception the poem received. The professor liked it and shared it with other teachers and soon I was being congratulated for providing a description and giving a name to what apparently many people had experienced as a kid. “Yeah…chicken Sunday afternoons…that’s what they were” was a comment I heard often. As mentioned the poem was published in the university's annual literary magazine and I was asked to do a reading for a literary group.

Okay, so my memoir had a title, and I typed it onto the cover. It looks like this:

Chicken Sunday Afternoons

A memoir

By Tom Filipowicz

Do you see the problem? There’s a big white space between the words ‘memoir’ and ‘By’. There is no graphic. What kind of a book has no graphic on the cover? Maybe even more so than the title, the graphic is what ‘hooks’ potential readers. Walk through any book store and you’ll see all kinds of cool, grab-your-attention graphics. Mine has a big white space and I couldn’t come up with one single good idea to fill it.

In Chiclayo during the course of the year many institutions such as the Cultural Center, City Hall, banks, hotels and outdoor artisan events sponsor arts and grafts exhibits. At several of these exhibitions I saw paintings on display by an artist named Rubên Saavedra Corbeñas. I don’t know anything about art…I either like something or I don’t and have a difficult time explaining why. I liked what I saw in Rubèn’s work and a question occurred to me. Could he provide the graphic I’m missing…more specifically, could he paint Chicken Sunday Afternoons? Having gotten his phone number from the Chiclayo Cultural Center curator we phoned Rubèn who agreed to meet us for lunch the next day.

During lunch I described to Rubèn an image in my mind of a small boy sitting on the curb in front of his house on a bright Sunday afternoon, patiently waiting for his friends to return. I showed him a photo of the street and my house. Rubèn, who is in his early 20’s asked many questions. What was the boy thinking and feeling, what were his social and economic conditions, what was his life like as he grew and how did he view himself in later life? I responded that the boy was born into a poor family; that he had a tough road to travel and would not have anything given to him along the way, but ultimately carved out a good life for himself; a story not uncommon for many people born in poor conditions in that time period between the end of the Great Depression and the start of World War II. 

Some weeks later Rubèn phoned and invited us to his studio in Tumàn to view what he had done with the painting thus far. I was struck by the divergent subject matter and interpretation of the more than 30 paintings on his studio walls.

And then one recent day my painting was ready. To anyone not familiar with the imagery in the painting it probably would not be worth a second glance. To me it speaks volumes of my early years. It is Chicken Sunday Afternoon, but it’s also my mother sending me to Lindners grocery store with 25 cents to buy sandwich meat. It’s the street where horse drawn wagons delivered milk and ice for our ice box; where we rode our bikes and played games. It’s the street where the dreaded polio quarantine signs would appear on the front doors of houses in the summer, and the house where Eugene; one of our gang died of the disease in 1948. The boy on the curb is me but he’s also Eddie K. and Eddie T., Baldy, Eugene, Pinky, Ray, Danny and others. It’s all the things that each of us took from that neighborhood and from each other as we left our youthful innocence behind us and went our separate ways.

Adding the boy as an old man to the painting was not my idea but I love the concept and now understand why Rubèn asked those probing questions. The boy didn’t often think about his future but did occasionally wonder what life would be like when he grew up. The old man knows what lies down that road and wishes he could cross that street and prepare the boy for both the triumphs and tragedies he’ll face, but of course he can’t do that.

The memoir has a title, and it has a graphic. And I have a painting mounted on the office wall above this computer that, when I pause to look at it, fills me with memories and makes me feel good.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Peruvian Pride

According to reports on television and in the newspapers we are in the grasp of La Niña…we being most of costal Peru. We’ve had no rain in Chiclayo but over the past few months each day has begun cloudy and cool; not at all our usual weather. During mid-day the sun breaks through but the wind has a slight chill to it. In the late afternoon the clouds roll in again from the south. The clouds are dark and ugly. In Wisconsin they would be a sure indicator or an impending storm. Here their only purpose seems to be to obscure our usually red/orange sunset. Palm trees and colorful exotic plants just don’t look the same in this icky weather. The official opening school date for public schools in the north of Peru has been pushed back to next Monday in because many kids are ill from the effects of the unusual weather. The only plus for me is that I’m able to wear my old motorcycle jacket that I rode with for many years and miles in the mid-west. It is one of the few possessions I couldn’t make myself part with. I’m not looking forward to the heat of November through February but neither am I enjoying this visit from La Niña.

The Peruvian girl’s volleyball team recently won fourth place in the FIVB under 18 tournament in Thailand. Natalia Mâlaga is the team’s coach and could probably be elected president of Peru right now. Peruvians have a lot of interest and pride in their sport teams. In fact they display pride in most activities that have a local or national cultural focus. Every Sunday morning in every town in Peru there is a ceremonial parade honoring one or several institutions in the context of the nation. You can see love of country in their eyes and posture as they sing the national anthem, as opposed to the United States where the national anthem often becomes an individual spectacle performed by someone attempting to screech as many notes as possible into a single musical bar.

One of my values is loyalty to and love of my country and I appreciate the often fervent pride I see expressed by Peruvians toward Peru, which started me wondering why Peruvians would be proud of their country. After all, it’s a third world country with over 30% of the population living in poverty and in many ways is primitive by western standards. The more I thought about it the more curious I became and decided there was no better way  to satisfy my curiosity then by simply asking friends, family and acquaintances why they are proud to be Peruvian. The overwhelming initial response was, “Because I was born here.” When asked to be more specific the answers generally fell into three categories, with history being the most often mentioned.

Peruvians are intensely proud of their Inca history. Many of the older folks spoke sadly of the Spanish conquest that imposed by force the acceptance of a different language, religion and customs. A younger woman teacher wiped away tears up as she lamented that young people no longer know about Peru’s heroes who fought for independence and in the Pacific War…equating their names with streets instead of deeds. I found that comment to be a bit puzzling because in many of the schools we’ve visited, walls and shelves are decorated with paintings and craft work with a patriotic theme, including such personages as Miguel Grau and Francisco Bolognesi. Many people spoke with pride that pockets of pre-Spanish Peru still exist in the highlands, where clothing, customs and even the Quechua language have been preserved. There was a time when teaching or even speaking Quechua was prohibited.

Geography was the next most common answer. I was several times asked rhetorically, “Where else can you find costal desert, forested highlands, snow-capped mountains and jungle?”  A fair question and it dovetails with the rich diversity of plants, animals and birds which was the third most common answer to my question. With most of the people I spoke with the conversation stopped there, but with several younger university educated people I pushed a bit farther, pointing out that what I had heard so far was either ancient history or a gift of nature….was there nothing of the present that Peruvians are proud of? This question resulted in a potpourri of answers ranging from Peruvian writers led by Mario Vargas Llosa to Peruvian cooking to the potato (and Pisco Sour) originating in Peru, the Peruvian Paso horse and Peruvian music and the Marinara dance.

No one mentioned the modernization that is taking place in the cities or the increasing number of young people completing high school and college. Perhaps those concepts are not meaningful to them now, but I suspect they will be recognized as another source of pride in the future.