Much of my work involves studying (and experiencing) the conflicts that arise between indigenous populations of the Andes and the government, or even the populations of the cities. Surprisingly, although I guess it makes sense, many of the Quechua people’s struggles mirror that of American Indians in the United States–from battles over language rights to battles over education discrimination, poverty, and health care. Quechua communities, like American Indians, have a very distinct set of beliefs about the Earth and medicine that don’t exactly fit with modern medicine. The most relevant example of this is the idea of “hot” and “cold” substances–not in terms of temperature, but in terms of essence. When someone is sick, they must stay away from all “cold” substances–but often hospitals are either unaware or ignore this belief when they treat Quechua patients.
We went on an excursion to a traditional cuy (guinea pig) healer, and I got to see some of the traditional medicine practices up close. To be diagnosed with a cuy, the healer has you strip naked and then rubs the cuy up and down your body, appealing to the Holy Trinity. The cuy is said to absorb your illness. It is then killed and skinned, so that you can inspect each of its body parts, which have become a proxy for yours. Patricia, my professor, is told that she has intestinal parasites and that her stomach hurts. The cuy is then fed to a black dog, since black is the color for absorbing diseases. I ask for a flower healing, since I’m vegetarian, and a mix of tobacco, coca, flower petals, and dirt is rubbed into my scalp, face, and skin. After this the mix is supposed to be taken by a good friend of mine to a crossroads at midnight, prayed over, and then left there as the friend walks backward all the way home.
You can probably see why modern medicine might disrespect Andean tradition. But it is nevertheless very important to their culture, so much so that Quechua people are often afraid to go to hospitals, because of their experience with poor treatment. Not only are their beliefs disrespected, but they are discriminated against and given bad service because of their ethnicity (and likely, in part, due to the correlation between that and poverty). My Center is working to change that by helping communities make educational pamphlets for hospitals and speaking to health care professionals and governmental workers. We also meet with the head of the Ministry of Culture, who is working on exciting new initiatives to put Quechua on all of the street signs. So it’s not all bad–something is moving in the Andes, and I think it may be moving up.