|This article originally appeared in
|Holy Week is a bedrock of peace in violent village
Peru town a stronghold of sacred tradition
|By ERIC J. LYMAN
Special to the Chronicle
|AYACUCHO, Peru -- Blood runs deep through the rocky soil around this place. For more than half a millennium, this village high in the
Andes has been the deciding point in some of the most important and deadliest military battles in the region.
But despite its long and often violent history, Ayacucho remains synonymous with the Christian Holy Week observances, which
conclude with Easter today -- the Catholic Church's most important holiday in the most Catholic city in the Andes.
"This city is a place of two great extremes," said Gerard Matón, a political scientist associated with Peru's University of the Pacific.
"Much of the history of Ayacucho is the clash between the two sides."
Most recently, the village has gained unwanted notoriety as the birthplace of the Shining Path, the bloodiest guerrilla movement in
South American history, which took up its armed struggle against the government in 1980 and is responsible for 30,000 deaths.
Before that, Peru lost a huge swath of its southern territory after being defeated near Ayacucho in a massive battle against Chile during
the War of the Pacific in 1883.
And before that, the Battle of Ayacucho was the decisive clash in Peru's war for independence in 1824, a victory that sealed the demise
of Spain's colonial empire in South America.
The history goes back even further: Four centuries before the victory against Spain, the army of the powerful Inca Empire was battled to
a standstill by the warrior Hauri tribe in a valley near what is now Ayacucho.
The Hauri provided the only successful resistance to the Inca advance until the Spanish arrived. And the Incas themselves rose to
power in the late 1300s after winning a key battle against a nomad army in an area just south of present-day Ayacucho.
"It's amazing how history has changed because of the outcome of battles that have taken place around Ayacucho," said Peruvian
author Enrique Montoban. The writer's mother was born in Ayacucho and Montoban has been to about 15 Holy Week celebrations
there. "What is even more amazing is that none of the problems have been able to stop Holy Week, at least not for very long."
Ayacucho's version of the holiday is the best known, most elegant and intricate Holy Week celebration in the Americas.
For a 10-day period concluding on Easter Sunday each year, the celebration attracts thousands of the faithful from Chile, Argentina and
Colombia. Hordes of visitors pour in from the United States, Asia and Europe, as well.
The holiday is so well known that it is said locally that of all the places in the world, God himself chooses to attend Easter Sunday
Mass in Ayacucho.
"The city just transforms itself for Holy Week," explained Andres Pelayo, an Ayacucho-based Franciscan priest. "Preparations for one
Holy Week start virtually as the old one finishes. It's the pride of the whole region."
The holiday is an illustration of the true sense of community.
People so poor that they live in dirt-floored huts, own no change of clothes, eat watered down stews from rusty pots and pool their
resources and labor.
They build giant floats and organize complicated processions that would compare to a New Year's or Thanksgiving Day parade in the
"To the people of the region, it's a matter of faith," said Montoban, the author. "It's how people illustrate their dedication to the church.
They'll take food off the table and go days without sleep to prove how much it means to them."
The best example of that faith may be shown on Good Friday, when a wooden effigy of Jesus is set on a bed of white roses inside an
illuminated wooden and glass coffin.
The effigy is followed through dark streets to each of the community's 33 churches by locals holding candles and singing.
The Christ effigy, which dates to the 1600s, is so realistic that local legend says it was crafted in a single night by two angels posing
as travelers taking shelter in an Ayacucho church.
Most of the daily celebrations during the 10-day festival re-enact some part of the Easter story, from Palm Sunday to the Resurrection.
Christ's return from the dead is dramatized on a float as large as a two-story building that is pushed through town by 340 men.
Problems with the Shining Path have come the closest to snuffing out the Holy Week festivities for good.
Each year starting in 1980, the rebels from the movement gave locals less and less reason to celebrate, planting bombs in local
buildings, stealing cattle and valuables and brutally killing anyone who sought to improve their desperate circumstances.
By the mid-1980s, tens of thousands of frightened locals left the region around Ayacucho for the growing slums of the capital of Lima.
Visitors also stayed away for fear of the rebels and in 1986 -- for the first time since the city was founded in 1524 -- Holy Week passed
in Ayacucho without celebration.
"It had become too dangerous to continue with the festivities," explained the University of the Pacific's Matón. "But the people there
waited and remembered."
That memory was responsible for Holy Week's own resurrection.
In 1992, near the high water mark of the Shining Path's power, a small group of brave locals took to the streets of Ayacucho to resume
That first celebration was meager compared with those of previous years, but it proved the idea hadn't died; it has only grown since
"The rapid rate with which the scope of the activities grew shows how much of the hope of the locals was tied up in what they did
during Holy Week," said Charles Stone, a Lima-based publisher and commentator. "It's really part of the soul of the region."
"The resilience of the spirit of the people in the area is awe-inspiring," said Montoban. "Few people in the world have seen as much
death as the people in that region and yet few people are as eager to take time to celebrate life."
Eric J. Lyman is a free-lance journalist based in Lima.
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|April 10, 1998