Friday, January 31, 2014

Stone, sun, snow: a white city

Arequipa is called la ciudad blanca - the white city. The nickname comes primarily from the white sillar from which many of the colonial buildings were constructed. Sillar looks to my prairie eyes like limestone, but is in fact a volcanic rock.

Arequipa is located some distance north of the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world, which extends up from Chile into southern Peru. Flying into the city, one is reminded of photographs of the lunar surface. Although Arequipa sits at 2300 m above sea level, it is located in the valley of the Rio Chili, and is dwarfed by the surrounding mountains. Directly north of the city looms Chachani.

Slightly to the east of Chachani is the volcanic cone of El Misti.

And further east again, often looking small or invisible in the dusty haze, is the long range of Picchu Picchu.

In the summer there is enough rain to keep the sky blue and put snow on the mountains. In the desiccated winter, the valley fills with dust and the mountains sit bare. The sky is a dull ivory over the white city. To the south and west of Arequipa lie smaller mountains and a seemingly interminable wasteland. However, the sea is only a little over 100 kilometres away along a twisting steep highway.

Located between altiplano and ocean, Arequipa has been a crossroads since at least the twelfth century AD. The colonial city of Villa de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora del Valle Hermoso de Arequipa ("The City of the Ascension of Our Lady of the Beautiful Valley of Arequipa") was founded in 1540. Unlike some other cities in Peru, including both Cusco and Lima, Arequipa was not a major centre before conquest. It lay on the southwestern reaches of the empire, and was not a seat of power or contested ground in the war between the Inca and the Spanish. From the time of the colonial city's inception, therefore, it grew into a predominantly Spanish oasis of ranchers, churches, and cloisters, including the famous Monasterio de Santa Catalina, the "city within a city" where the daughters of wealthy Spanish families both here and in the homeland would be sent to live out their days in luxurious piety. Before the days of highway and air travel, the city must have seemed a remote oasis indeed - high in the southern desert, removed from yet serving to link together the sierra and the costa.

Given the city's historic blend of isolation and urbanity, it is no wonder that the Arequipans see themselves as a people apart ... and are often considered by other Peruvians to be dour, fussy, eurocentric, petty intellectual snobs. The Spanish presence and the city's history are thus the secondary reason given for the moniker "the white city."

When I look at old Arequipa - the clothing, the architecture, the cuisine, the environment - it seems rarefied and captivating. There is something in the sunbleached stone, the fine embroidery, the breathtaking mountains, the desert plants and ancient irrigation canals and wooden flutes, that calls me. Shopping malls and Starbucks and concrete and minivans threaten the city's beauty now. But then, the old Arequipa I imagine has probably never truly existed. Many Arequipans lament the modern growth of the city not only because it diminishes its antique beauty, but because it has in their view triggered an influx of poor indigenous people from the highlands.

It is true that this migration has contributed to the growth of shantytowns. Poor people, be they children selling candy through car windows or old men trying to get you to pay 20 cents to be weighed on their battered old scale, appear in increasing numbers despite (or because of) the city's economic growth. And people living in poverty, especially in the city, are certainly associated with socioeconomic ills. Here they are also far more likely to be indigenous than the wealthy are. But rather than see this as an infrastructural problem in need of a remedy, many upper class Peruvians seem to see the indigenous poor as almost a separate species, and an inherently uneducated and impoverished one.

Not a day passes here wherein I am not taken aback at some petty racism, some unthinking disregard for another because they are not of the right colour or class. I can't count the number of times I've been conspiratorially told "they can't be taught," or "they don't have any interest in bettering themselves," or "they're just different from us". And of course it triggers my own prejudice, and engages my own privilege. I find myself quietly condemning those of Spanish descent, so jealously guarding their advantage, while doubtless romanticizing or exoticizing those whose blood is more indigenous, because I think I'm just so damned international and enlightened. And then I try to check my jackass gringa and look past stereotypes, without inadvertently condoning or contributing to racism and classism.

I hope it's getting better and that, with the passage of time and the impressive political awareness and drive of lower class Peruvians, someday the only whiteness Arequipans yearn for is that of the dazzling sillar. And really, the whiteness isn't even the nicest part. Arequipa is transformed in cloud and in twilight. Once the sun is behind the mountains and the whole valley is a smudge of pastels and dust, I am reminded of Paul Simon's words*:
Rainbows in the high desert air
Mountain passes slipping into stone
Hearts and bones

All of these people have this place in their hearts and in their bones. May they find a way to preserve and cherish all that is good about it, without shutting one another out.

*Yes, I know he totally appropriated El Condor Pasa. I recognize the potential irony of including him in this post. Hearts and Bones is still a really pretty song.

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