What’s Up in the Andes?

While the coronavirus has prevented us from hosting our tours to Peru and Bolivia this year, we’ve been keeping up on developments in the Sacred Valley with reports from Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez, director and founder of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC) and from our tour leader, Raul Callañaupa. 

The pandemic has brought great hardship to the weaving communities, as it has everywhere. According to Nilda, the biggest problem has been a lack of food. Some households have doubled or tripled in size, as family members laid off from jobs in the cities and college students returned home to their villages. The families were not prepared with enough food for everyone, and without tourism and the income it brings, their only option is to try to raise more crops as quickly as possible. Some didn’t even have enough seeds or money to buy them (a need which is being met by the ATA-funded Seed Bank project).

Children in the communities have also struggled to attend school. The school year begins in March in the Cusco region, and with the COVID lockdown, classes moved online. But many communities don’t have Internet access, and the CTTC staff learned that many children had stopped attending classes. Right now, kids who don’t have Internet access can attend school using their parents’ phones and prepaid phone cards donated by the ATA community through our summer fundraising auction. (We’ll try to keep you posted on this situation, as more phone cards will eventually be needed.)

Children social distancing while standing in line for water in Huacatinco.

For several months, COVID did not appear in the mountain communities and, according to Nilda, there was hope that the virus was somehow inhibited by the dry, high altitude environment. Sadly, as family remembers returned from the cities, the virus came with them. Some community members became ill and some died. Peru has only about 560 intensive care beds in the entire country, so access to intensive COVID care is impossible for most people. 

Facing health and food insecurity, many weavers initially put their looms aside in favor of raising more crops and animals for food. Families have helped each other bring more fields into production through the traditional system of ayni, “one day for me, the other day for you.” But income is still needed for medical care and other necessities. (In the last issue of La Tejedora, one weaver talked about having to use her last match to light a cooking fire.)

During the pandemic, weavers from the Sallac community have received several commissions for pieces that showcase their special ikat dyeing and weaving technique.

Nilda says the pressure on CTTC has been enormous to find new ways to sell textiles. ATA provided short-term help by purchasing products to sell in this summer’s fundraising auction and by ordering items for our Peruvian Holiday Popup Shop. Once limited gathering was permitted, the weaving communities produced large hangings for the CTTC to market to collectors. (Many have already sold, but you can see these gorgeous pieces in La Tejedora.) Meantime, the CTTC staff went to work creating a new online store, which went live early this fall. Not only will the store help the weavers through the pandemic, it will also help them weather future fluctuations in tourism. The CTTC store in Cusco is closed, so the store and museum space are being redesigned, with the help of NGO grants, and the balcony facing the Koricancha temple complex has a new roof to accommodate outdoor meetings and classes.

Two Chinchero weavers displaying pieces they made using the revived Nazca-Paracas looping technique.

Nilda says each CTTC community has had its own challenges. Accha Alta and Santo Tomas are even more isolated by the pandemic, and Accha Alta’s population has swelled with families coming home from work in the larger town of Calca. Accha Alta, Huacatinco, and Patabamba were among the communities that requested seeds for crops. Patabamba is fortunate enough to have an irrigation system—doubly fortunate because the rains came late this planting season. Pitumarca has lost some of its elders, and the Sallac community has lost members, probably to COVID but there is no testing available to say for sure. Thankfully, Acopia had just finished the walls of its new weaving shelter before the lock-down, while construction of Mahuaypampa’s shelter has come to a halt. Weavers in Accha Alta are continuing weaving as they can, keeping social distance at their weaving center. Weavers in Chinchero are using the lockdown time to work on fantastic large-scale pieces in the revived Nazca-Paracas looping technique. Nilda says these pieces are now very close to the historical textiles, exclaiming “It makes my tears come out because I am so happy.” Pitumarca is focusing on scaffold weaving, while Sallac is working on the fine embroidery and knitting they are known for, and they also received a few commissions to make larger pieces in their special ikat technique. 

It’s been a tough time worldwide, and our friends in the Andes have been in our hearts, as we have been in theirs. But there have been silver linings. Nilda says, “We learned a great deal. You have to learn if you are to survive, and these are things you can’t control. But we are taking advantage of these lessons.”

Lead photo: Weavers in Chinchero display a community-created piece that is woven, then embroidered. It’s called rainy season because that’s when the flowers bloom.

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