A masked “huacon” dancing the Huaconada de Mito. This traditional dance from Peru was performed as part of the Stampede Prelude Party by Raices del Peru in Calgary, Alberta, Canada on April 21, 2018. © J. Ashley Nixon
Also available in Spanish here
Some might think and say this is just an obscure local dance. The Huaconada is performed in Mito, located 3,286 m high up in the Andes of Peru on just the first three days of January. Mito (Spanish for myth) is a small village of about 1,500 people, 22 km NW of the city of Huancayo in Junín Region.
But factor in its listing by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) and the value and interest starts to rise.
Vulture and culture
The Huaconada de Mito is danced by masked men known as “huacons” who represent the former council of elders in the village. The carved mask worn by each huacon has a strikingly large nose representing the beak of the Andean condor, Vultur gryphus, the huge soaring vulture that was believed by the Incas to be the sun god’s messenger and continues to be seen as a symbol of power and health in many Andean cultures. There are two types of huacons stepping through the village square in Mito. In the middle of the parade are the elders who dance improvised, sometimes acrobatic steps (“escaramuza”) surrounded by the more modern dancers, wearing red, blue, or yellow tunics beneath heavy woven cloaks which they move like the wings of the condor. The huacons carry a whip (“tronador”) to convey their authority. The dance, clothing, and masks are traditionally passed on from father to son. The orchestra that accompanies the dancers includes saxophone, clarinet, violin and Andean harp plus a percussionist playing a “tinya”, a small drum of pre-Columbian origin.
Cultural heritage is often thought of as tangible objects-ancient monuments and artifacts belonging to, in the case of Peru, the Incas or their predecessors such as the Chimu, Moche and the many other cultures that make up the country’s long history of civilization. But it is far more than that, including rituals, artistic performances, traditional knowledge, and crafts. These “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants” were recognized by the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO in 2003.
Intangible Cultural Heritage in Peru
ICH contributes to maintaining cultural diversity, something that Peru with its hugely variable coastal, mountain and jungle environments possesses so splendidly and makes it such an attractive country to explore. Besides the Huaconada de Mito, the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity has ten other examples from Peru, including the Scissors dance (Danza de Tijeras), performed in several communities in the south-central Andes. Also included in the UNESCO list is the traditional system of Corongo’s water judges. This recognizes a system of water management in the district of Corongo in northern Peru that goes back to pre-Inca times. There are other examples of ICH that might be included in the UNESCO list in the future such as the making of reed boats and their use in traditional fishing in Huanchaco, which I featured in an earlier article.
Intangible and Sustainable
The opening text of the UNESCO convention considers “the importance of the intangible cultural heritage as a mainspring of cultural diversity and a guarantee of sustainable development.”
Safeguarding ICH is critical to sustainable development and the implementation of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) for many reasons. Deeper environmental and social understanding and sharing of that acquired, traditional knowledge across generations translates into sustainable food and water systems. ICH can support health and social care, and help to maintain respect (peace) within and across communities. Connections can be made between safeguarding ICH and biodiversity conservation, resilience in dealing with natural disasters, and the provision of local income and decent work, particularly in relation to tourism.
While the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage is officially the responsibility of State Parties to the UNESCO Convention, in reality, this must be a shared responsibility. One where local conditions are good enough to educate young people and encourage them to maintain or recreate practices passed down through the generations; where companies in the tourism industry treat cultural heritage sensitively, without over-commercialization; and where natural resource companies and other economic players plan and conduct their operations without conflict to their healthy survival.
Dance steps keeping cultural heritage alive
As stated by UNESCO, “To be kept alive, intangible cultural heritage must be relevant to the community, continuously recreated and transmitted from one generation to another.” ICH cannot just be conserved or protected as that doesn’t accommodate its creative progression and timely, relevant communication. ICH has to be safeguarded.
The Huaconada de Mito is, on the one hand, just a dance: a series of physical steps played out in a colourful, entertaining performance that just happened to evolve in one, small Peruvian village. But if we see that dance as part of our deeply connected human system, as part of a process of knowledge acquisition and transmission through the generations, we can better appreciate the value that intangible cultural heritage has to offer to all of our lives in all of our communities.
Documentary film: The Mask and More
My latest documentary film The Mask and More: The Huaconada of Mito (66 mins) was featured on national television in Peru in the educational program Aprendo en Casa (Learn at Home) on July 7, 2020. You can see the full documentary film here!
Please visit J. Ashley Nixon Photography for more images about Peru, performance, and sustainability.