Fifty years ago, somewhere in the province of Chimborazo, the indigenous world existed in a beguiling state of isolation that no longer saw a way out of its poverty, that had lost its prior impetus to “rise up” against Colonialism’s abuses.
It was as if the worst had already happened. On the one hand, the Conquest was a distant memory. On the other, the enslaving huasipungo system no longer tormented their families. They were free, in their humble existence, although excluded from society.
It was not the romanticized world travel magazines like to envision, nor was it prettied up for tourists with their cameras. Academics were only beginning to understand these groups and their heritage, trying to translate their cultural expressions and insert them in some way into history.
We had some idea of the Otavalo communities up north, which had taken important steps towards the global market, but Chimborazo, back then, was still a black hole. When mountaineer Marco Cruz traveled the long-lost transects of his home province back in the 1960s, he came into contact with these hidden realms, and this became an enormous photographic archive that we would like to share with our readers, illustrating rural markets of those times in Chimborazo.
The market was one of the cultural manifestations that most caught Marco’s attention and, oddly enough, it was also the one that showed the most change over the years. One would think otherwise, that even today they are a kind of living outdoor museum of imperishable traditions. But Marco assures us that “rural markets are no longer what they used to be. Yes, you see some of the traditional clothing, and they are colorful, but politics, the need to adapt to the mestizo world, all these aspects changed things so profoundly that much of what I witnessed has already been lost forever.”
Places and situations such as those presented in these photographs existed far from the historical, economic, and social dynamics that transformed the country over decades into its modern reality. In cities, for example, the money-based commercial system of the European market is a social imposition, where designating permanent, everyday markets ensures that sellers are present each week, waiting to exchange their products for money. Rural villages have also adapted to this system with their “market days”, which function very much in the same way. Marco, however, is depicting something earlier: another world, with other concepts.
“In Chimborazo, between the sixties and eighties, the indigenous tradition was preserved through architecture, clothing, food, and lifestyle, as well as in their philosophical and material expressions. Among these aspects – in the Andean world that I was able to get to know – the markets were only occasional, never permanent or constant, and were held in specific places.”
As they did not occur on a week-to-week basis, an eruption of crowds and color would suddenly surprise a given rural landscape, which very possibly reflects dynamics prior to the arrival of the Incas. These marketplaces would set up when there was enough to sell, in an almost organic manner, and the people, sometimes coming from very far, as if by osmosis, would come into contact at a particular transect amid the mountains.
The constant shortage of significant amounts of currency led to a bartering system. “Every clan brought what it produced and every clan produced something different. I bring my vases and you give me your hay,” explains Marco. “Bartering was common in these market hubs, the main ones being Riobamba, Colta, Salarón, Licto… as well as Guamote, which in many ways is one of the only markets that maintain inklings of the inter-ethnic relations of old.”
Today, many of these markets work within structures built by local governments, imposing the money-based economic system that governs the global market and distancing the indigenous people from their ancestral economies. Little can be done, at this point, to restore it. Society is changing. “It is perhaps the women,” says Marco, “who best preserve tradition. They speak Kichwa, they are keener on wearing traditional clothes, although we must notice that, like everything else, clothing has been subject to appropriation since Colonial times. Like the markets of today, they reflect a similar story of transformation.”
Photographs are courtesy of Marco Cruz. Main photograph depicts a “Friday trimming in Tzalarón”.