New Roots

The first night I arrived in Riobamba my host brother, Paúl, took me out to a show. He didn’t tell me what kind of show it would be. And honestly even if he had I probably wouldn’t have understood, only smiled and nodded and said something like, “Si” and followed him.

We walked around for about an hour looking for the show, beneath the sepia light of the streetlamps. The neighborhood was near-empty and we traversed its perimeter and all its cobbled veins without luck. Paúl and his friend, Dennis, strolled a few inches ahead of me, speaking in rapid spanish. At one point Paúl turned to me, saying, “somos malos…” and then, in insecure english, “We…are bad?”

Maybe half an hour later we arrived at a park buried in the darkness and walls of eucalyptus trees. An act was already up, a pair of guys in big black hoodies with dreads, rapping and weaving on a raised stage. The crowd looked like something you might see at any underground venue in the United States: gawky guys in black skinny jeans and leather jackets; too-cool-to-dance guys bobbing their heads and lifting and dropping one hand like a broken wing to the beat; young punks maybe 11 or 12 years-old watching from the sidelines; girls with bubblegum blue hair; dreadlocks and patched-up jackets. I sat by one of the fires and watched the crowd shake and tremble, sometimes frantic with moshing, other times still in measured rhythm.

Just a few hours before I had been introduced to Paúl, his parents, Magdalena and Pedro, and his older brother, Julio. We sat down at the dining room table to have our first conversation. Magdalena was wearing traditional Andean clothes: a colorful hair-wrap, a dress and belt, and a white button-down with floral embroiderary around the neck. Pedro was wearing the fedora’s that are popular here; Julio too. Paúl wore a Ramones shirt, jeans and a hoodie, his long hair in a ponytail revealing five dreadlocks falling from the base of his neck. Sitting at that table he looked like he too might have been visiting from a different family. You can tell he’s one of them though, in the little details. He’s inherited his father’s nose and his mother’s hair, her high cheekbones. He can also speak in Quichua, though he can’t write in it and he knows how to prepare Cuy even though he’s a vegetarian. These are the way you might be able to figure out where he’s from, whom he’s grown up with. But his music and his style make him as much of his generation as the other young people I’ve met and because of this, “ellos son malos”.

That’s why Paul began to laugh to himself one day as he walked with me and the other Fellows. He thought it was funny that they wore traditional Andean clothes in public. His friends were ashamed to be seen in the fedoras, embroidered shirts or hair-wraps. But the gringos could wear them. Maybe because it wasn’t a cultural custom they were born into. It was one they could shed when it came time to go home. Or maybe it was because this taste was new to them. They hadn’t rejected it before.

Julio Ortega writes in his short story, ‘Las Papas’, “We prepare a recipe with painstaking detail so that our children will recognize us in a complete history of flavor.” It’s for that exact reason that many parents here continue to teach their children to speak Quichua or prepare Cuy on special occasions or keep their kids in traditional dress for as long as possible. It’s in these miniscule acts and details that we find the history of a people.

Quichua, for instance, is the language of the indigenous people of Latin America. It has existed in the Andean regions of the country since before even the Incas and has been banned on occasions in certain areas. Like the papas in Ortega’s story this first or second language is evidence of the spectrum of experiences that the indigenous peoples here have had. “True to its own internal form, as if it occupied stolen space. The entire history of his people was here, he said to himself, surviving a territory overrun and pillaged several times, growing in marginal spaces, under siege and waiting.”

For the young people of Riobamba change doesn’t seem to represent an abandonment of “the old ways” but an adaptation to the new ones. The meals, stories, and clothes they have inherited from their families are the base of the history they are building for themselves. Paul’s and my generation are changing according to the world they live in now, a world that is increasingly connected and globalized, a world of both Andean flutes and ska music, of fedoras and skinny jeans. They are developing their own history, with its own particular and borrowed flavors.

The only traditions and customs that truly remain, here in Riobamba, in the United States, everywhere, are the development of new ones. The generation that follows this one will too find meaning in the experiences of their parent’s and in turn create their own meaning. Perhaps they will dance to ska behind walls of Eucalyptus, perhaps traditional Quichua songs in a square in the country. Or maybe it will be a dance to a music all their own, in a place only they can know, beneath their feet the ground where others have moved and other roots have grown.