It was still very dark outside as I lay on my pallet in the corner of the room. The sapos called incessantly. The ground was damp from early morning rains and that always causes them to be more vocal. I imagined they had gathered together to present me with their chorus. In the wee hours, I could hear the chickens stirring outside even though it was too early for a cock to have crowed.
There was an eeriness in being the only man in the house. I could hear my mother and sisters making sleeping sounds, their muffled breaths and sighs as they turned over were barely audible. I repositioned myself trying to stay calm as my thoughts of the day began to overwhelm the night. I was filled with them. My mother had told me that my birthday was the most important day in my life so far. As young of a man as I was, I recognized that this day and my participation in it meant far more to me than anything I had ever done in my life.
My grandfather had always represented our family in the Inti Raymi celebrations. He had known all dances, all steps and all the cultural ways. Being a strong student of any knowledge passing my way, I had learned them well. My abuelo made the teaching a game and so did my papá. Other boys were invited to join in with the practice but we were young and never really considered actually representing anyone with our newly found dance moves.
But Manuel, my grandfather, had fallen and been killed during the re-tiling of a roof just two months past. It was three days after my sixteenth birthday. Our family was devastated by the loss. Not only were his creased and weather-beaten face and quick smile gone, so was his knowledge about so many things and the money he had brought to our casita. In an effort to provide his family with what they needed, my father had taken work in Quito, far north of our home there in Inga Pirca. His new work and great distance found him absent from the coming day’s celebrations at the archaeological ruins of Inga Pirca, Ecuador.
My father had reassured me that I was one of the best dancers known among the young men of our community. My steps were quick and accurate and I had my heart in the movements, he said. My time was now, my father’s and grandfather’s had passed, I would represent the family in our most sacred, spiritual event of the year.
I had arrived to the ancient ruins of my people in the back of a mixto with five other men. We visited with others who wouldn’t be dancing but were filling us with much instruction and encouragement and some canelazo. My face was getting a little chapped from the hours of windy exposure but we were to begin soon. I ate a quimbolita and sipped strong black coffee as did the other men. In a moment, I was approached by a very old man, Juan Mateo, who was the oldest man in our community. No one knew exactly how old he was but no one could recall ever seeing him dance. He was accompanied by two other elders and he motioned for me to come closer to him as he hobbled up. As I did, he shooed his caretakers away for a moment and took my arm, pulling my ear to his mouth. I could feel his warm breath on my face as he delivered his words, and instruction.
Señor Mateo told me that I would open the dances at the ruins that day and then lead all the other men in the celebrations. I could not speak, my gut was so tight I thought I was going to break into two different pieces. I dared not tell him no or show my fear but it was tangible and he felt its thick, dark presence on me. He pulled my ear to his mouth again and said, “My son, your family and our community awaits your lead. One day, you will be the wisest man among us in this community of people. Now, go. Renew us again with the fierce pride and strength the ancients placed in our bosom. Lead us with your powerful steps. My personal blessing is upon you.”
I don’t know how it was that I was still standing. I had been almost shaking with emotion. His words entered my ear and transformed themselves into a blanket of calm and pride that settled as a mantle about my person. I somehow felt much older and very responsible but quite calm and assured. As I walked to the front of our people to take the dance leader’s role, I noticed a gringo in the crowd. I adjusted my big black sombrero on my head and decided to tighten the leather thongs as the wind tried to steal it away. I took another quick glance at the gringo; we see few light skinned people here. He smiled so big at me I could have put a whole ear of choclo in his mouth. That smile made me feel even better and I returned it with a big one of my own.
But the gringo, who was dressed in solid black like me, had something in his hands. I suddenly realized that it was a camera with a big telephoto lens like photographers use at the national soccer games. The dance master blew a whistle and I stepped forward to begin to lead the dancers. As I began to execute my moves, I stole a final glance at the gringo. He was down low and there was a small red light flashing repeatedly on the front of his super-camera. I smiled with great satisfaction knowing he was recognizing me, recording me and the wonderful history and ways of the Ecuadorian people as I danced into the afternoon.