Invited to an Originario Party
GUALFIN, ARGENTINA – “Uh oh… That poor girl has Down syndrome,” Elizabeth noticed.
“How do you know?”
“You can see it. It used to be called ‘mongoloidism’ because of the way it distorts the face.”
We had been invited to a birthday party up in the mountains.
Everyone would be there… including relatives who had moved away… and some of the originarios, too.
It was important for us to make an appearance: Friends to all. Enemies to none.
Many of the mountain children rarely – if ever – see a doctor. There had been a nurse assigned to the area.
He came up on foot with a backpack and visited the remote families. But he fell off the edge of a cliff and died, circumstances unknown. Since then, the community health outreach program has reached less far.
We had heard that one of the children had a problem. They didn’t know what was wrong, but the poor little girl was two years old and couldn’t walk.
Now, we knew what it was. Should we say something to the mother? Did she already know?
“Let’s tell the nurses at the clinic in Molinos (about an hour and a half away),” Elizabeth decided. “They should go up and do a proper diagnosis. Maybe they could offer some help. But I don’t think there’s much you can do.”
Old Wise Man
It took us about an hour of climbing over hills and rocks to reach Don Domingo’s puesto, where the party was to be held. Domingo is now the old wise man of the whole farm. At 91, he doesn’t hear very well. But he still gets around, either on foot or on horseback.
His family had invited all the relatives, which is practically everyone on the ranch since they are all related. You never know exactly how the relations work since formal marriages are now rare.
Young women have three, four, or even five children with different men. But the gene pool is small. Often, you can tell who the father is by looking at the children.
At Saturday’s lunch, for example, there were at least four mothers suckling their babies. One of the children – probably about three years old – ran around playing.
When he was hungry, he went over to his mother. She sat on a stool. When he kneeled in front of her, she just raised up her shirt, allowing him to nurse.
We were sitting in the adobe shelter, trying to remember the words to the “Happy Birthday” song in Spanish, when we noticed a familiar noise.
“Sckreech…” It was the sound of tires squealing on pavement.
We were at least three hours from city streets. What was that sound?
“Boom… boom…” The sound of gunshots.
Then we knew. In the corner, four little boys were playing a video game – Grand Theft Auto.
Yes, for better or for worse, popular culture has reached way up into the Andes. The “worse” part is fairly obvious. The young are spending their time playing video games and losing the skills that make life in the high sierra possible.
But there’s a “better” side, too. Could this be the solution to the originario problem? The younger generation – raised on GTA, TV, and welfare payments – would prefer to live in cities, with automobiles and air conditioning.
Why fight with us to preserve a life that is rugged and hard?
When we arrived at the party, all seemed glad to see us – even the originarios. Or at least, they were polite as we exchanged kisses and handshakes. We enjoyed a good meal and cordial conversations.
It was while we were engaged in one of these conversations, with a man who had left the valley 50 years ago to make his home in Córdoba, that we noticed some commotion near the open fire where the meat was being grilled.
Four men, including our foreman, had a young woman in their grip. It looked like they were tossing her up and down, three of them holding her legs and arms while the fourth cradled her head.
We thought it might be some sort of game or ritual.
“No…” explained the man from Córdoba. “It’s Pedro’s [one of our ranch hands] daughter. She’s having a convulsion.”
Raquel has epilepsy. She developed it about 10 years ago. Some years ago, before she left the ranch, we helped her get some medicine. Since then, the episodes had become much rarer. But the medicine, which was expensive, had run out.
The men seemed to know what they were doing. One tended her head, wiping her mouth with a dishrag. The others kept her limbs moving, alternately bending her arms and legs and massaging them.
This went on for 20 or so minutes, and then she was taken into one of the huts to recover.
“She hasn’t had an attack in a long time,” Pedro explained. “We thought she was over it.”
Sacrifice of Fluffy
The animals of the area must want to hide when Easter approaches. Every family kills a cow, a goat, a sheep, or a pig. Sometimes, they kill one of each. Then, the carcasses are hung on trees.
Readers who are squeamish about butchering animals might want to skip the rest of this report. We record what we see without prejudice.
On a tree near the house, for example, the beef awaited the fire.
So did the pork.
Elizabeth explained the scene at the sacrifice of Fluffy, one of the lambs chosen for our Pasqual Feast.
“A whole group of kids… all under the age of 10… went with Marta [our housekeeper/cook] down to the sheep enclosure.
“She grabbed one of lambs and, without hesitating, slit its throat. The kids all thought this was great entertainment. But I don’t think the sheep were amused. They looked at us like murderers. And I felt guilty.
“Marta held the poor animal and drained its blood into a pot. She said she was going to add some flour and make a kind of soup. But I think she meant a pudding.
“The sheep stood there watching while this was going on. Then, Marta put the lamb into a wheelbarrow to take it up to the house, and let the rest of the sheep out. The poor animals were so traumatized, they practically jumped over the gate to escape.
“We don’t see these things anymore in America, so we find them a little shocking. But if you’re going to eat lamb, you have to first kill it,” Elizabeth concluded.