by Allison Peacock
The following biography was created as a tribute to a beloved teacher. It was composed with the help of and from the knowledge of his friends of many years, Laurie Friedler and don Odon Medina Calsin, as well as from direct interviews on a visit to the U.S in 2015.
As a professional communicator, the moment I met don Mariano in person after reading rare transcribed lectures for a year, I knew I wanted to tell his story. There is very little first-hand biographical information on the cherished elders of this earth-honoring tradition because of their lack of a written language. We’ve had to learn bits and pieces from authors, many of whom have repackaged what they’ve learned from these wisdomkeepers to create and market a commercially-sellable commodity. This dilutes the power of the important first hand accounts of these elders. In a few cases, these retellings are downright colonial in expression.
Thankfully through the work of people like Heart Walk Foundation, whose oral history projects began recently in the Hapu and Quico Q’ero villages; ethnomusicologist Holly Wissler, who collected, digitized, and returned 50 years of archives to the Q’ero people in 2010; author Joan Parisi Wilcox, whose book, Masters of the Living Energy, featuring interviews with several paqos is a classic in the field; and filmmakers like Seti Gershberg and Josè Huaman Turpo, we are beginning to hear more first-hand accounts.
It was a joy for me to contribute this small act of ayni for don Mariano for the benefit of his students and compadres outside of his homeland.
(Editors Note: In this article and elsewhere in my writings you’ll see the spelling “Inka” used when referring to the Tawantinsuyu empire, instead of the Castilian spelling of “Inca.” This is due to a shift in spelling practices throughout the South American region in order to preserve native languages and indigenous cultures. The Smithsonian, the Government of Peru, and many others are leading the effort.)
A beloved elder of the Q’ero people of Peru, don Mariano Quispe Flores was born in Q’ollpak’ucho – “sandy corner” in his native Quechua language – around January 15, 1944. The oldest son of Domingo Quispe Perez and Luisa Flores Mendoza, and the grandson of Reymundo Quispe Quispe, don Mariano comes from a long lineage of pampamisayocs, or earth-keeper priests. As a Q’ero, his life story is inseparably connected to his place of birth; therefore, it is impossible to tell his story without an understanding of both his people and where he comes from.
Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian photo
Named for the kero, a sacred cup used by the ancient priests of the Tawantinsuyo empire, known to modern history as the *Inka, the Q’ero call themselves “Children of the Sun.” Until very recently most Q’ero lived high up in the Andes mountains. His ancestral home at Q’ollpak’ucho was located at 15,500 feet above sea level, according to don Mariano, “to be closer to the Star Relatives and to God.”
Like many indigenous people of North and South America, the Q’ero have passed down an oral history across time immemorial that they originate in the stars. The Pleiades, whom they call their Star Relatives, are of great significance to them.
Don Mariano’s two younger sisters, Melchora Quispe Flores and Felipa Quispe Flores were bound to the home traditions like the other women in the community, The women of Q’eros are consummate weavers, their tapestries depicting their culture’s stories within their intricate patterns. Their cloths serve many practical purposes, as well as serving an important storytelling role in a culture with no written language. One of the highlights of don Mariano’s trips to the U.S. are the beautiful textiles he brings from the weavers in his village. Selling these to students provides much needed income for the community.
Growing up, Q’ollpak’ucho was comprised of five other families living together in conditions hostile to human habitation. The village’s evening temperatures average zero degrees year-round. As such, Q’ero communities are completely dependent on each other and on nature. Cultivating both deeply communal values and a divine relationship with *Pachamama is interwoven into all aspects of their lives.
“All in all,” don Mariano says, “it was a simple, poor and happy life.”
Don Mariano’s recollections of his youth are filled with great memories of a loving family. He describes his father Domingo as an engaged father and a great farmer who provided for his family by growing many varieties of potatoes, the only thing that grows in the glacial environment of his home. It was his father who taught him the paqokuna tradition, just as Domingo’s father had taught him. Don Mariano apprenticed with his father from the age of five until the age of 30 when he was formally named a paqo.
He has fond memories of his first trip to the Sacred Valley with his father, around the age of five years old. It was a long, arduous, yet adventurous walk. In those days, it took over 3 days to descend to the lower altitude where they could exchange potatoes for corn, legumes and other foods considered tropical to highland residents. The sense of wonderment and adventure that he felt as a small child is still very much a part of his personality, and one that brings so much happiness to others.
His village of Q’ollpak’uchu is very important to don Mariano. Of great significance is its location near the ancient Inka sanctuary of Quyllur Rit’i, a site of pilgrimage and great importance for him.
“Quyllur” means “Venus star” in the Q’echua language and “rit’i,” means “snow;” hence the name “Quyllur Rit’i” translates as the name “Snow Star” to Quechua speakers. Located in the Willkanuta mountain range, which also includes the revered mountain peak, *Apu Ausangate, Quyllur Rit’i is still highly sacred to the Q’ero and many other Inka descendants. Its location as a sanctuary near the closest point to the Star Relatives, most certainly predates the Inka.
New York Times photo
Quyllur Rit’i was a sacred place of pilgrimage for millennia before Spanish Christians renamed it the Sanctuary of the Lord of Quyllur Rit’i in the 1780’s, assigning it a Catholic mythology. El Senor de Quyllur Rit’i is referred to by locals as Taytacha or Father God. The Q’ero people’s faith on both the snow – symbolic of their beloved stars – and El Senor is unshakable. In keeping with the merging of the indigenous traditions and Christianity, the inhabitants of this region practice a form of religious syncretism whereby the two traditions have merged and co-exist harmoniously.
For the native people, and for thousands of pilgrims from all over the world who come to pay homage to the mountain spirit, the Festival of Quyllur Rit’i on June 15th is a celebration of the The Pleiades. This cluster of stars disappears from view in April and reappears in June, marking Winter Solstice in that hemisphere. This signifies a time of transition from old to new and celebrates the fertility of the upcoming harvest and New Year.
One of the Quyllur Rit’i festival’s most lively features is the constant stream of colorful processions with dancers and musicians. In his youth don Mariano danced at the festivals for many years. His eyes still sparkle at the recollection of these memories of yesteryear. Thus is put into context his love of dance and merriment that is so evident to all who know him.
Marriage and Family
Don Mariano’s devotion to family comes from cultural values held for millennia. As he puts it, “When a Q’ero marries, they are bound to each other for life.”
In fact, there is no word for divorce in his culture! Young people meet each other at one of the many festivals that are such an important part of Q’ero life. When a couple likes each other it leads to cohabitation rather quickly. Their respective families may offer some advice but the decision is up to the couple.
The tradition follows that the woman moves in with the man’s family and they test the relationship. If a child is born and the relationship does not work, the woman returns to her parent’s house where her family takes on the parental rights to her child and the child becomes a sibling to the woman. In that manner, there are no single-mothers. She may then go about trying another relationship.
If however, the relationship works and the couple decide to marry, they will never leave each other until parted by death. Therefore, weddings are very elaborate and involve the entire community who actively partake in the celebration. It is the community who pays for the wedding celebration, after which the couple is awarded a plot of land, or chakra. The event is not to be taken lightly, as all have a stake in the creation of a new family.
It was at one of the many lively Andean festivals that don Mariano married his wife, Rosa K’apa Apaza, also from Q’ollpak’ucho. He lovingly refers to his wife as “Mama Rosa.”
“I married rather late for a male in my community. I was 30,” don Mariano says with a mischievous smile.
A devoted husband to his wife of almost 50 years, it’s endearing for his American friends to see him go shopping for her when he visits the United States.
“And she promptly takes all my earnings’ upon my arrival home,” he beams proudly.
Don Mariano’s eyes get misty when he calls her after he’s been away for a few days, and his voice cracks with emotion when he says good-bye, giving her blessings for her health, strength and *animo. And there is not one meal eaten that don Mariano does not remember his beloved Rosa, as if he wants to impart the nourishment he is receiving unto her.
Santiago Quispe K’apa is don Mariano and Mama Rosa’s only child. Don Mariano’s love for his son Santiago is apparent to all who know him. His son is always on his mind. He also shops for little shoes, T-shirts, and school backpacks for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren on his visits to the U.S. He carefully handpicks one thing for each loved one so that he can carry it back home in his mochila-bundle upon returning to Peru.
Shy by nature, don Mariano’s happy and positive personality and his enormous heart shine through everything he does. He has blossomed into a great wisdom teacher and healer, according to his students. After many decades of service to his community as a pampamisayoc, he was named as a Kurak Akulleq – a title reserved for the most highly esteemed healers and ceremonialists. This was an indication of great respect for his clear spiritual vision and healing gifts.
In his world view it is difficult for don Mariano to grasp the tremendous power he carries. Perhaps the difference between him and his ancestors is that he has broken ground travelling the world over. Yet when introducing himself to students, he says, “I’m just a paqo,” with a twinkle in his eyes, even when pressed. This is the name the Q’eros use for a simple ceremonialist.
Allison Peacock photo
In the paqokuna tradition, Q’ero healers are bound to the animistic or shamanistic, indigenous worldview with rituals and ceremonies that honor the earth. Through their deep connection and ability to discourse with nature they mediate with elemental forces to bring healing to both Pachamama and to people. Core to the Andean spiritual tradition is the concept of ayni or sacred reciprocity. This sacred reciprocity is clearly expressed in all aspects of their lives, as well as ceremonially in the form of the despacho ritual.
In his life and in his work as a pampamisayoc, don Mariano calls on his star ancestors, Creator, and the spiritual strength of his personal apus and Pachamama to sustain him when he is tired and hungry. He also turns to them to keep him, his family, his animals and his chakra safe. He calls on their blessings when he wakes and again when he goes to bed at night. He calls on them when he heals and when he makes a pago, or offering, to his beloved Pachamama for the abundance she bestows upon him. His deep faith has never failed him and it has guided him all his life. Don Mariano says he is a very lucky man.
He never says no to anyone who needs a healing. If he is tired, he goes outside, takes a deep breath and soaks the sun and then goes back to work. His work traveling the world to teach would tire someone half his age. Students are awed by his ability to touch each and every one of them, even in a large workshop, gifting rites, encouragement, and prayers.
When asked which grandchild might follow his footsteps and carry on his tradition as a pampamisayoc and healer, don Mariano says that he still doesn’t know. Things have changed for the Q’ero way of life with many of the younger generations leaving the mountains for work or educational opportunities. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren live far away, so it’s hard to know at this time who will show the signs and answer the call.
He always seems to be thinking about the future but never obsesses about it. In his typical way, he maintains trust of the life-cycle in all things. He remains curious and alert for what is to come, knowing that perhaps the responsibility rests on Santiago, a paqo in his own right, to bring the future of the lineage into discussion.
Traditionally, Andean priests are chosen in one of three ways:
- by being born into a lineage of priest ancestors who then pass on the tradition to a family member who shows the aptitude
- by surviving the “rayo” or lightning-strike, or
- by being chosen by another priest who provides apprenticeship through many years of initiations
After being chosen, a Q’ero paqo then waits to hear, either directly from his guides or through a vision, permission to bring his wisdom to the world. Don Mariano received this call to share his wisdom about 15 years ago, after almost 60 years of living his path.
He lives his paqokuna healing tradition and makes his offerings to Pachamama on a regular basis. This is normal to him and he gets a kick out of the attention that people give him. In his humbleness, he says that he is just chopping wood and carrying water like everybody else. He feels lucky to get to travel the world and teach his ways to others. Yet it is his farming life that keeps him grounded and provides safety and shelter.
When asked about this dual-role that he seems to live, it is obvious that it is not dual to don Mariano:
“Taking care of Pachamama is not about talking about it or making laws. It is a value taught at home,” he says.
What he further implies is that we must simply get on with our lives and live them in the normal way, yet always being mindful of the greater world around us and making the best of what we have.
Hope for the Future
Don Mariano currently lives in the Ocongate District, in the Province of Quispicanchi, only a day’s travel from Cusco. Gone are the days of a many days-long walk to the Valley! With the advent of the Interoceanic Highway the journey is not as arduous as it once was, and there are now buses that stop a few hours away. Ocongate is a rapidly growing city and many Q’eros have moved there looking for a better life.
When at home, don Mariano farms his chakra and grows potatoes, corn, and beans among other things. He talks enthusiastically of his crops and admires the farming of others – even remarking on the corn fields he sees in the United States.
Leaving the high mountains, however, has put the Q’ero traditions in danger of being lost. Many missionaries have moved closer to them in order to convert them to Christianity. Even though abandoning their millennial cultural rites is not required in order to convert, the pressure is immense. Many in the community dislike the traditional practices and offer financial incentives and social pressure to assimilate.
The possibility of the loss of these traditions is grave, perhaps only a few generations away. Likewise, the western hunger for their knowledge has brought corruption, jealousy, the perpetuation of misinformation, and many other inevitable changes and challenges to their way of life.
A loving father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, his greatest concern for the future is his most important legacy: Santiago and the other members of his large family of five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He calls them his “richness in life.”
It is don Mariano’s sincere wish that people continue living the precious path that he’s teaching. He wants us to “keep it balanced.” He wants people to learn it and apply it in their own lives.
“Live what you have learned,” he says.
When asked why he thinks people are so afflicted in the western world, don Mariano is very clear in his response.
“There are so many people here. They are very busy all the time and they are disconnected and suffering, he says. “Then they get sick. Families are very separated.”
“People also do not seem to visit the *apus,” he continues.
Being so cut off from nature and the strength of the nature beings around us is a foreign concept to a Q’ero. It’s also a concern that westerners live so far away from their family members and most are disconnected from their communities and each other.
“Many have lost their values and are confused,” he reiterates.
People follow don Mariano Quispe Flores like he’s the Pied Piper. Wherever he goes, he builds community, brings happiness, opens hearts, and brings peace, health and hope to all whom he touches.
And thus, the world becomes a better place.