Su Cumpleaños de las Ovejas

On the night of June 23rd, I celebrated the ovejas’ birthday in the comunidad where I have been living since January.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have been in Cusco since April 2017. During this time,  I have lived and researched with Quechua women and their animals to better understand the work that they perform in photography tourism in the historic center of Cusco.

Women working in photography tourism with their animals. Cusco, Peru. 

For the first seven months of my research, I lived in an apartment in Cusco and walked with various women every day as they offered photograph opportunities  with their animals to tourists. Since January 2018, I have lived in a small comunidad campesina on the outskirts of town in order to better understand community life, how humans and animals live together, and what women and animals do when they are not working in Cusco.

View of Cusco from the comunidad.

When I first moved to the comunidad, Cristiana, the woman with whom I live mentioned that I would have the opportunity to celebrate the ovejas’ birthday in June. In my first few months living in the comunidad, I didn’t really comprehend the sheep’s birthday event. Although Cristiana  explained to me multiple times that there was some sort of celebration with the ovejas on June 23rd, but I could not t really get it until I experienced it.

Cristiana’s family  maintains a herd of about 50 ovejas, seven alpacas, and four goats. All the animals live in a corral an hour’s walk up the mountain from our house, This is where we celebrated su cumpleaños We prepared to make the trip up on foot around 8:00 pm in the evening but were lucky enough to catch a car up the mountain.

Cristiana’s animals in their corral.

When I arrived with the Cristiana and her husband, the kids had already started a fire in the corral and were hanging out with the animals. Huayno music was blasting over the radio, the stars and moon were shining, and neighbors were setting off bottle rockets around us. And it was cold. In the corral, we laid blankets on the ground near the fire, put the two babies with us to sleep, and each took a blanket to keep warm.

The familia warming themselves by the fire. The lights of Cusco are visible from the corral.

Cristiana told me months ago that  the familia usually kills and cooks one of the ovejas for the celebration. This year however, she explained to me that they did not have time and we would be eating chicken instead.

Two other familias joined us in the corral. Huddling by the fire, we peeled potatoes and carrots, prepared mate (a hot drink), and settled in for a night in the corral with the animals.


As the chicken soup cooked over the fire, each owner of an oveja in the herd “blessed” the animals with champagne. To do so, each person poured a small amount of champagne into a cup, spoke a few words under their breath, and threw the champagne on the animals, who scattered into the far corners of the corral each time the champagne hit them.

Cristiana’s son feeding crackers to an oveja.

We spent the rest of the night eating, drinking, and simply being with the animals. I have a hard time with overnighters, no matter how hard I try, so I was in and out of sleep while everyone else drank and talked. By about 5:00 am, the sun had risen and everyone was up and preparing for the animal gifting and ear piercings.

The gifting and ear piercing piece of the celebration is important for creating and maintaining social bonds between and amongst familias. Those who participate in the cumpleaños are gifted an oveja from the herd. Although the animal stays with the herd instead of moving to a new corral, the gifting creates new new social ties between humans and ovejas and bonds humans together.

During this process, an oveja is chosen from the herd and one ear is pierced with a colored string designating to whom it belongs. Cristiana’s 11-year-old son took charge of the ear piercing by chasing and trapping the ovejas and piercing their ears with a needle.

Cristiana’s son holding an oveja while his dad prepares the needle.

As two familias joined us for the cumpleaños, my familia gifted two of their ovejas. After the piercing, Cristiana’s husband held each oveja in his arms as he thanked each familia for joining us for the sumpleaños and welcoming their new social bond.

Cristiana and her son piercing an alpaca’s ear.



The Politics of Quecha

As one learns a language, one learns a new world and with that new world comes a new set of politics.   

I began my doctoral research in Cusco in 2016 with a seven-week intensive Quechua course at Centro Tinku. Now, two years later, I am finishing up my research by participating in the same program. In the past two years, and over the nearly 14 months that I have lived in Cusco since April 2017, the politics of Quechua have come to the fore of my language-learning experience. 

What I mean by the “politics of Quechua” is a series of questions: What “counts” as Quechua?; Who speaks Quechua “correctly”?; And who gets to decide?  

Quechua is spoken by nearly 10 million people across six Latin American countries. Obviously, with such a wide geographic range, there are variations in accent, vocabulary, and extent to which Spanish is integrated with Quechua. 

Here in Cusco, I have heard on a number of occasions that “real” Quechua is spoken in Cusco (I just want to be clear that not everyone holds this idea). This elitism appears to stem from the history of Incan elites sending their children to school in Cusco when Cusco was the capital of the Incas.  

The current elitism of Cusqueño Quechua is perhaps best exemplified by the Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua, or the Highest Academy of the Quechua Language (henceforth AMLQ). The goal of the AMLQ is to standardize Quechua and translate everything, including words and concepts that likely did not exist pre-colonization, from Spanish to Quechua. While this is, in the words of my current Quechua professor, an “admirable” goal, it is not a practical one. The kind of Quechua produced by the AMLQ is not always functional nor is it a form of Quechua spoken by everyday Quechua speakers in and around Cusco.

Here is an example of the AMLQ’s work: I use a Quechua dictionary published by the AMLQ that is titled “Simi Taqe.” Before the publication of this dictionary by the AMLQ, there was no word for “dictionary.” “Simi,” which means “mouth” or “language,” and “taqe,” which is a place where agricultural products are stored, come together to more or less mean “a place where language is stored.” This is an example of a translation that is admirable yet not practical. I should note that the Quechua-speaking family with whom I live uses the Spanish word for dictionary: “diccionario.”

There are a number of debates regarding the Quechua language (such as whether we should speak with words borrowed from Spanish or translate everything and about whether we should use three or five syllables when writing in Quechua). But these debates happen at the level of the academy and the government and hold little importance for everyday speakers of Quechua. However, there are real implications of these debates for everyday Quechua speakers and the regulation of a language can only serve those in power.

Although discrimination toward Quechua speakers is still prevalent, there has been a revival of Quechua language and culture, in part because of the tourism industry, and one can hear Quechua spoken all around Cusco city. However, discrimination has taken on an added layer so that those who do not speak “real” Quechua are considered inferior.

As a researcher from the United States, it is crucial to consider the power relationships that permeate my work. As language is one medium in which power relations play out, I must be attentive to the Quechua that I learn and speak.