COVID-19 Arrives in Otavalo
On February 27, 2020, the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Guayaquil, Ecuador, a coastal city eight hours by car from the county (or canton) of Otavalo in the Andean Highlands. On March 13, the Ecuadorian government implemented nationwide mask mandates, travel restrictions, and curfews.
Close to a quarter of those living in the Imbabura province of northern Ecuador self-identify as Kichwa. Patricio Maldonado, a member of the musical group Hatun Kotama and a Cotama resident, assured friends that, for the moment, he and others in the community were okay.
“We have all heard about the pandemic sweeping across other countries,” Patricio wrote at the time. “But we anticipate it will strike Ecuador with the force of heavy rains crossing Mt. Imbabura.” During torrential storms, these rains are known to barrel down the southwestern side of the massive volcano, drenching Otavalo.
On March 16, 2020, Ecuador declared a state of emergency. Everything shut down with less than twenty-four hours’ notice. This initial fifteen-day shutdown lasted two months. “We were all awaiting the spring equinox celebrations of Mushuk Nina (New Fire),” Patricio lamented. “And then the unexpected happened.”
“Restrictions have had a distressing impact on Indigenous communities,” Patricio continued. “Some places were closed off completely and quickly. Nobody was allowed in or out. The military and police took charge of the country’s response, intervening to enforce restrictions like curfews. We’ve seen this in major cities, such as Quito and Guayaquil. However, in Otavalo and small towns, fewer troops were deployed. Instead, temporary military camps were set up in locations like the Valle del Amanecer School in Otavalo.”
Their presence contributed to the tension. In past years, the army had clashed violently with Indigenous nations across Ecuador, for instance during protests against oil extraction, and more so after the recent 2019 national uprisings led by Indigenous communities, students, the working class, and transit employees in response to President Moreno’s economic proposals. As during the 1990s cholera epidemic, feelings of distrust still cloud relationships between Indigenous communities, the mestizo population, and the federal government. In 2021, these tensions and instances of police brutality in response to Inti Raymi celebrations increased.
National and local governments announced pandemic safety protocols for cities and towns, but they offered minimal to no support for Indigenous communities, as is typical in the Otavalan region. Patricio reported that Kichwa communities have worked independently to ensure their collective health and safety, drawing on deep-set cultural practices, and a philosophy of el buen vivir (“good living”) that many Indigenous communities share across the Americas. Many Kichwa communities closed roads to their towns. In adjacent Cotama and La Bolsa, only one roadway remained open. Residents formed teams to monitor entrances, fumigate cars, and sanitize people with disinfectants. Nearby town San Luis de Agualongo in Ilumán announced that cars would only be allowed to leave from the community and return once.
People were anxiously looking ahead to the summer.
“We’ve watched the time for Mushuk Nina pass. So did Llullu Muru [Young Seed, another festival],” Patricio described. “Gatherings, sporting events, and entertainment hosted in Kichwa communities during these festivities never materialized. Even the meetings needed to decide whether or not to cancel them were prohibited! Everything was put on pause, and we’ve just watched the number of cases increase. The novel coronavirus finally reached us.”
Local Communities Take on the Pandemic
“We all hoped that everything would pass by Inti Raymi,” Patricio said.
Also known as Hatun-Punlla, Inti Raymi is the Great Day-Sun Festival that occurs during the June solstice in Otavalo. Patricio’s younger brother Juan José Maldonado Quinchuquí added, “Inti Raymi is the most anticipated time of the year for all of us, because this is when we reconnect and share our lives with family members, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances.” It also coincides with the harvest of principal crops, such as corn and beans.
This year would prove drastically different.
The earliest COVID-19 cases in Imbabura Province were reported in mid- to late March. Throughout April, surrounding areas, such as Cotacachi, also recorded cases. By late May, Maldonado reported that Kichwa Otavalan communities had confirmed their first cases. Patricio explained, “There was an increased sense of fear for everyone, and it caused a controversy that is splitting the community between two opinions about how to celebrate Inti Raymi: some argued that it’s still possible to celebrate at home with family members while taking precautions; others maintained that it’s too dangerous and we shouldn’t gather at all, but next year we could celebrate twice as much.”
With the pandemic, Ecuador was hit with a funds shortage. Mario Conejo of Otavalo and Auki Tituaña of Cotacachi, the first Kichwa mayors of their respective towns, relied on their personal contacts with Cuban doctors to buy necessary medical supplies.
“Across Otavalo and Ecuador, the loss of work from the lockdown was being felt immediately for the majority of people who live day-to-day and in poverty,” Patricio said. “Many went out looking for work or money to buy food, despite the risks. Those who kept their jobs, like essential workers in nearby flower farms, had their hours and salaries reduced.” Cut flowers are a large part of Ecuador’s income from international trade.
Community reminders were broadcast from garbage and gas delivery trucks, which typically play short musical jingles as they drive through town. Their loudspeakers aired announcements urging people to comply with protocols, such as “stay at home, and if you leave, use a mask,” “take care of yourself and your family,” and “wash your hands.” Bilingual announcements in Spanish and Kichwa were heard throughout urban areas. In Indigenous communities like Cotama, Kichwa-language announcements were broadcast outside the households of elected leaders.
Even recently, emergency announcements in Ecuador (e.g., during the cholera epidemic of the 1990s) have been primarily limited to Spanish-language newspaper columns or television and radio announcements. This monolingual approach failed Indigenous citizens who did not speak Spanish. Today, local government offices see greater Indigenous representation. This, and grassroots efforts, have made a difference.
Local radio stations such as Radio Iluman broadcast health warnings in Kichwa, and these were shared through social media. Patricio and his family reported hearing announcements like “wasipi sakirichi” (stay at home), “ama maymampash riychu” (don’t go out [if not necessary]), “llukshinapacha kashpa llukshinki” (only go out if necessary), and “shimita kilparishpa llukshinki” (cover your face [with a mask] when going out). Social media accounts run by Kichwa artists in Ecuador and the Kichwa diaspora contributed inclusive, multilingual artwork tagged with #WasipiSakiri. Other popular hashtags have been #ZapateamosEnCasa, #IntiRaymiSeQuedaEnCasa, and #TeCuidasNosCuidamos.
Between February 27 and June 1, 2020, Ecuador’s total number of confirmed cases ballooned to 39,994, with 3,394 deaths nationwide.
Concerns about Celebrating Inti Raymi
“The year’s Inti Raymi celebrations were a stark contrast to other years,” Patricio explained. “But for many, a year couldn’t go by without dancing and offering thanks to Mother Earth and our cosmos for all that they provided us. It seemed that this was the overall feeling of families who celebrate this time of year.” Even in a global crisis, people were not harboring resentment: “In Kichwa belief systems, we don’t believe that Mother Earth punishes people.”
But there were changes to the celebration. Residents did not travel outside their home communities. Some events like lectures and music lessons moved online.
During Inti Raymi, celebrants typically participate in a ritual bathing ceremony where people submerge themselves in a spring. “Previously, people had become accustomed to celebrating Inti Raymi in other communities, like in Peguche’s waterfall, where people from all over gather for bathing. In 2020, people reacquainted themselves with sacred places in their own communities,” Patricio noted.
This was one of the silver linings of the pandemic, which by July 2020, there were 255 confirmed cases in Otavalo and 65 confirmed cases in neighboring Cotacachi.
The Maldonado family and the traditional flute players of Hatun Kotama conducted solstice ceremonies with close friends after some ceremonies were determined to be less likely to cause the spread of COVID-19.
René Zambrano, president of the Otavalango Museum, participated in the smaller ceremonies led by Hatun Kotama and the Maldonado family, rather than dancing in massive crowds.
“It makes me sad that I can’t go out, but this year that’s necessary,” Zambrano said in a conversation with Patricio in late July 2020. “My family and I carried out the bathing ritual in the Yumpa Pukyu spring in Cotama. We danced at the Maldonado family’s home and one other residence. We brought instruments in order to bless everyone and also stinging nettle leaves for the bath. Then we went home and hung up the castillo [cane lattices with offerings of food and beverages attached] we had made together as we normally do. And while playing music and dancing, we hung it up on the San Pedro Altar at the museum. At home, we danced and drank until the wee hours of the night. On the last day of Inti Raymi, the Maldonado family danced at the museum. As is customary, we greeted them with food and corn beer.”
A large majority of mestizos in Ecuador had disapproved of holding Inti Raymi celebrations, and they took to social media, calling dancers disparaging terms, such as “indolent” and “unconscionable”. Patricio and I also saw calls for indefinitely canceling Inti Raymi, echoing the aftermath of the 1990s cholera epidemic.
“Most people who still chose to dance in public wore face masks and took extra precautions,” Patricio pointed out. “They washed their hands and dishes in between serving people corn beer and food.” He also mentioned a nine-day regimen of sipping small amounts—two to four teaspoons—of 120-proof microbrew for seven days and then resting for two, hoping that fermented beverages would help protect against the coronavirus. Some developed their own home remedies meant to help treat or prevent coronavirus symptoms. Many of these contain a mix of unripe squash, garlic, lime, eucalyptus, ginger, verbena, and other local medicinal plants.
“Life on this earth is unpredictable,” said Juan José Maldonado Quinchuquí, Patricio’s brother, justifying his participation in the celebrations. “We might cease to exist at any time. If we have the opportunity to dance during this important celebration for our people, we have no excuse, and the health crisis is no exception. But we took all possible precautions, respecting in every sense the controlling spirit of this disease.”
Another person who decided to dance in 2020 was Ali Rumi Quilumbango, Patricio’s nephew and a musician who at the time was seventeen years old. He wrote to me on social media to explain why: “This is my tradition despite there being a pandemic, and even though family members told me no. Inti Raymi comes only once a year. I wasn’t worried about catching the virus because the San Juan ayas [spiritual beings] were going to protect us. The most important thing was to take precautions, such as wear masks.” Ali and others made social media posts after July 16 pointing out that no one who danced with them in Cotama fell ill during the two weeks following Inti Raymi celebrations.
The nearby canton of Cotacachi is also well known for its Inti Raymi festivities, especially those from the Calera community. Luis Bonilla is the president of Calera and chose not to dance that year.
“First, as the community’s leader, I cannot tell people to stay at home if I don’t also model this behavior; and secondly, I have a responsibility to my daughters and my family. I couldn’t put myself at risk.”
Bonilla spent the 2020 Inti Raymi focused on his leadership duties. Spanish- and Kichwa-language announcements on Facebook reminded the community that Inti Raymi, a millennia-old celebration, would never die, but with COVID-19 risks, it was safest to wait until 2021. “This year nobody danced in Cotacachi’s main plaza, but there were groups that danced among neighbors, but very late in the evening. There’s one very sad case. A young man who danced tested positive with COVID, and he spread it to his grandfather who lived with him and recently passed away.”
Solstice Festivities Go Online
Not everyone celebrated in person in 2020. Some observations of Inti Raymi shifted to digitally documenting Indigenous perspectives about and the history and meaning of the festival. For example, Otavalo’s municipal government recorded lectures and shared them over social networks. One, held on June 22, 2020, is entitled “Energetic and Spiritual Movement in the Time of Inti Raymi.”
Several organizations offered online music lessons for Inti Raymi, allowing those who wished to stay at home to continue learning about the celebration. These workshops were well received and led by ensembles from Ecuador and the Otavalan diaspora, including the groups Ñanda Mañachi, Yarina, Wiñaypa, and Hatun Kotama. In the case of Hatun Kotama, Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants signed up from Ecuador and other countries.
Members of the Arellano family, originally from Cotama but now living in southern Italy, joined Otavalans in their immediate circle to produce a music video dedicated to their families and friends back home.
Reflections on Weathering the Pandemic
Looking back on the last year and all of the loss across the world is difficult, but now many are focused on the coming months and access to vaccines.
By March 8, 2021, Ecuador was moving into its third round of vaccine shots for phase 1. Though many Cotama residents qualified for phase 1’s “remaining senior citizens” category, most were unable to schedule an appointment. Ecuador has been slowly administering vaccines, primarily Pfizer and Sinovac, but this process has been fraught with issues. Maldonado and his family reported they are eagerly awaiting eligibility and availability.
On March 11, 2021, we gave an online talk for Southern Methodist University. By that time, there had been 8,989 confirmed cases and 271 confirmed deaths in the Imbabura province. Confirmed cases in Otavalo and Cotacachi cantons accounted for one percent of national cases, correlating with the region accounting for one percent of the national population.
Patricio reflected on the concerns we shared while researching the cholera epidemic’s impact on Kichwa Otavalans in the 1990s. We felt particularly uncomfortable knowing that Ecuador had not addressed many of the missteps identified in the previous epidemic’s analyses, especially regarding Indigenous communities. We had hoped that by sharing these insights, we could call people to action.
Patricio emphasized that we should not overlook how strong communities like Cotama have been in times of hardship, that they find ways to support each other and that historically, a strong sense of reciprocity, and un buen vivir for people, animals, the environment, and the cosmos have been central to Otavalan action and agency.
“For Indigenous nations and communities of northern Ecuador, Inti-Raymi is something that we will always have year after year,” Patricio said. “The COVID-19 pandemic that struck in 2020 threatened the festivities that we’ve held for generations, but in spite of this, we continued celebrating Inti Raymi while taking necessary precautions.”
“Runas estamos aquí, y seguiremos aquí,” he finished. “We Indigenous peoples are here, and we will always be here.”
Patricio Maldonado Quinchuquí is Kichwa Otavalan and is from Cotama. Patricio is a musician (transverse Otavalan cane flute and electric bass), a founding member of the Hatun Kotama Cultural Center, and co-producer of Hatun Kotama’s Smithsonian Folkways 2013 release Así Kotama: The Flutes of Otavalo, Ecuador. Patricio is also a founding member and museum guide of Museo Otavalango, a grassroots-led living museum run by a co-op of Kichwa community members from across the region. He has worked as a Kichwa language teacher, interpreter, and translator for more than a decade, and he is currently part of the translation team for the United Bible Society of Ecuador and the revisions of the northern Kichwa Bible. Patricio also works as a topographer for public works projects across Ecuador.
Jessie M. Vallejo is an associate professor of ethnomusicology at Cal Poly Pomona and an active mariachi musician. She identifies as Mexican Italian American; she is fluent in Kichwa and is a comadre of the Maldonado family in Cotama. She first began traveling to Cotama and studying with local musicians in 2010, and she has remained in regular contact since. Jessie has returned to Ecuador and Cotama approximately once a year over the last decade. Patricio Maldonado and members of Hatun Kotama have presented their music and research in collaboration with Jessie at festivals and scholarly events in the United States, Uruguay, and Ecuador. Jessie has performed with Hatun Kotama on violin; translated and interpreted between English, Spanish, and Kichwa for live events; and co-produced their Smithsonian Folkways release.