Within the first two weeks of starting work for the Centro de Textiles Tradionales de Cusco (CTTC) my daughter and I were invited to a ceremony in the Sacred Valley of the Incas to bless the Center’s new SUV. CTTC supports over 400 indigenous weavers in 9 small communities, most of which are in remote mountain valleys that are only accessed by four-wheel drive. The ceremony was to be held at the shrine of El Senor de Huanca (“The Lord of Huanca”). The only thing I knew about El Senor de Huanca was that every other taxi in Cusco displayed decals with the words Guiame El Senor de Huanca (Guide me Lord of Huanca) across the top portion of their windshields. What I learned that day was that pilgrims from all over South America visit both the chapel and a painting of Jesus Christ inside a nearby cave, as well as bathe in the two nearby springs that are reputed to have miraculous healing properties.
The story of El Senor de Huanca is somewhat shrouded in mystery, but there are two principal events or “miracles”, around which the story seems to coalesce. The first event was in 1675, when a peasant miner named Diego Quispe from Chincero decided to escape the exploitative environment of the local Vasos mine in the Sacred Valley. While escaping on foot, he broke his journey by spending the night in a cave high on Pachatusan Mountain. During the night Diego was awakened by a brilliant light illuminating the dark cavern and within the light was the image of Jesus Christ. The image, whose body was bloody and beaten, spoke to him and told him he’d been chosen as a messenger and to go back to his village get the local priest and bring him back to the cave. Diego, after leaving a simple silver cross in the cave, went to Chinchero and returned with the priest. He also brought a renowned painter from Cusco who portrayed the likeness related to him by Diego in the cave where image appeared. When news of this event circulated, the cave became a pilgrimage site and a chapel was erected the next year.
The second event was in 1775, when a rich Bolivian miner named Don Pedro Valero became suddenly ill and bedridden in Cochabamba, Bolivia. When no local doctors could cure him, a foreign doctor healed him with a treatment of healing water. Don Pedro offered to pay the doctor but he declined and said that the only payment he would accept is a visit to his home in Huanca. Three years later, knowing only that it was near Cusco, Don Pedro set out to visit the doctor in Huanca but had much difficulty finding him. After a few months of searching, some miners coincidently led him to the same cave where the Jesus Christ image was painted 100 years earlier. Don Pedro was astounded to find that the image painted on the rock in the cave was of the very same doctor that treated him three years earlier.
Unaware of the details of the Huanca story, my daughter and I met my work colleagues at the Textile Center on a Saturday morning to carpool to the Sacred Valley. Along the way we stopped at Oropesa, a town about 20 kilometers from Cusco that is locally famous for its round, sweet bread loaves. We bought a couple bread loaves about a foot and a half in diameter to share at our picnic later that day. Not long after reaching the Sacred Valley we turned left and started to climb the road uphill and then quickly pulled to the side. Impromptu shops lined the narrow sides of the road with what seemed to be miniature toys: cars, trucks, houses, high-rise apartment buildings, boats, even tiny stacks of $100 bills. It was explained to me that these were “aspirational” gifts; if you buy a miniature version of what you desire, you’ll soon receive the real thing. While my colleagues decorated the car with streamers, balloons, flowers and good luck charms, my daughter bought a bag of rice to throw at the SUV-blessing ceremony.
Once we got to the chapel and shrine, we waited for quite a while for the priest to arrive. We walked the grounds and watched pilgrims bathing in the healing waters and we watched a middle-aged couple get married. Once the priest arrived, he quickly went about his work. He greeted each member of our party of 20 people with warmth and charm, then slowly made his way around the car. He sprinkled holy water inside all the doors and lifted the engine hood to carefully bless the car’s most vital area. Once done, he instructed us to suspend an earthenware pitcher of chicha (fermented corn beer) in front of the grill of the car with two ribbons. Someone brought out a hammer and shattered the pitcher and everyone threw some rice and the SUV was now officially blessed.
After the ceremony, we drove to spot in the valley for a picnic and a game of volleyball. I think we all travelled with a bit more confidence thanks to the El Senor de Huanca insurance policy.