Medardo Verastegui Inga, a performer in the Huaconada de Mito in his home in Mito, Peru. © J. Ashley Nixon
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Medardo Verastegui Inga appears in The Mask and More, a short documentary film about the Huaconada de Mito. This dance is performed by wooden-masked men who move ritually around the main plaza of the small city of Mito, Peru during the first four days of January each year. The dance and its associated traditions were recognized by UNESCO in 2010 for their Intrinsic Cultural Heritage.
The following is an extract from a forthcoming book called Beyond the Mask which further explores the people of Mito, their preparation for, and performance of the Huaconada and its social and cultural significance. Beyond the Mask was released as a documentary film at the end of 2019. See the link at the end of this article to see.
Medardo Exaltacion Verastegui Inga’s nickname is “Huaca Casha”. His name translates as “a thorn with big spikes” from Quechua, the traditional language that is spoken across the Andes mountains that are so high you are easily exposed to soroche (altitude sickness) unless you are well-acclimatized. Like other male members of the community of Mito, Peru, he participates in the ancient ritual called the Huaconada on the first four days of every year.
Ritual of the Huaconada
The performance of the Huaconada dance is steeped in long-standing traditions going way back before the Spanish conquest of this part of South America in the 16th century, especially the beautifully carved wooden masks, made by local craftsmen that, once worn, transform the people of the town (“Miteños”) into figures whose authority must be respected, otherwise you are subject to a crack of the whip they carry in their right hand.
Name of the Huacon
Medardo, now in his fifties, has lived his whole life in Mito, apart from a brief spell working in the capital, Lima. He has been dancing the Huaconada for over thirty years. He got his Huacon name when he was about eighteen from his uncle, who Medardo appointed as his godfather during the Corta Rabo, the “short tail” initiation ceremony that brings young Miteños into the dance. “Huaca Cacha is a thorn that turns hard and is difficult to remove”, explained Medardo. “My uncle told me, ‘Ah you’re a little hard boy, I’m putting your name down as Huaca Cacha. You’re already tough and brave.’”
Head to toe
Medardo explained the main elements of his costume, starting with his hat, known as a macora. The hat is quite different for the two types of Huacons, the old ones and the modern ones. “The old Huacon has a hat made of alpaca (felted wool), white alpaca with a rose placed on it, just like it is up there,” he said. Medardo climbed up on a bench to point at an Old Huacon in a series of posters going back many years displayed on his living room wall. “That is the puyllu,” he explained, using the Quechua name for the red rose that mimics the tassel that used to be worn on Inca headdresses.
Medardo actually dances as a Modern Huacon so the macora, made by his daughter, Yamiley is woven from straw, has a fringe of black tassels and multi-coloured rose on the front and a stream of ribbons coming out at the back. Some say the ribbons represent the rainbow flag of Tahuantisuyo (the official flag of Cusco), although archaeological evidence of its symbolic use in the pre-Hispanic Andean world appears not to exist.
Medardo continued to present his costume, putting on multi-coloured sleeves and knee-length socks made by his mother-in-law, and matching shoes (now imported from China). Next came his bright red satin apron, or delantal, and his capa, a heavy cloak, fashioned from the popular “tiger blanket” that adorns many a bed in Peru. The presence of a striped feline character is a surprise to see for a country that has no tigers. It represents the Andean jaguar or puma that signified feelings in the wisdom of the Huacones-the ancient priests and messengers of the Andean gods.
Medardo’s delantal might have been green, blue, or yellow, which in fact was what he chose to dance around the town plaza the following day, in keeping with the hugely popular use of this colour as a good luck charm in Peru at the turn of the year.
The Huacon then revealed his wooden mask. Over the years, Medardo has made his own careta; sometimes out of alder that grows along the banks of the nearby Mantaro River, sometimes from molle, or Peruvian pepper tree, an evergreen member (Schinus molle) of the cashew nut tree family that also grows locally. For this year’s performance, however he was too busy with his agricultural work to make his own mask so had to buy it from one of several craftsmen that make them in Mito. Medardo’s mask had a notably wry smile. We asked him what inspired his selected expression? “I take whatever comes out, what is coming at that moment…” he said. “I have others that are more annoying, smiling more, or more sad. My friends tell me ‘you change your face every year.’”
Authority of the Huacon
We asked about the meaning of the leather whip, made in Mito by the Altamiza family. “The whip creates order in the people. It serves to punish those who have misbehaved,” he explained. Within the established tradition, over the first three days of the year the Huacons can assert some control over people in the community who are considered to be misbehaving in their relationships, or in the management of their families, homes and land. During the dance, illegally parked vehicles were seen to be treated to the whip.
Medardo added that a Huacon might even “give the new mayor a whipping so that he can direct his Municipality well.” Fortunately for Señor Luis Emiliano Enriquez Bergna, who was ceremoniously sworn in as the new Mayor of Mito on New Year’s Day, he was behaving well and talking a lot of sense in his first public speech, thus avoiding any suggestion of punishment by the lash.
Further information about the film The Mask and More
You can find out more about the production and crew of The Mask and More film as well as the My RØDE Reel competition by clicking here.
Appreciation is given to the dancers, musicians and members of the community of Mito, Peru for their cooperation, hospitality and assistance with the production of this film, especially to: Luis Emiliano Enriquez Bergna, Julio Landeo Álvarez, Medardo Verastegui Inga, Yamiley Verastegui Ludeña, and Dulio Gomez Acosta.
See the 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 Communications for more photography, books and films on the Huaconada de Mito and other aspects of life in Peru.