Cultural Patrimony: Why Young People Should Care
by Dan Horning | GWU
Chile. If you’ve never been, add it to your bucket list of places to visit before you die. Wrapping up my semester abroad, it has been without a doubt one of the memorable experiences of my short life. From its northern deserts to its southernmost point near Antarctica, from the Andean mountains to the Pacific Ocean, it represents a diversity of environmental landscapes, peoples, cultures, and stories. Nevertheless, Chile, like many places in our world, it at risk of losing crucial pieces of its history, and it’s up to young people to step up and prevent it from being lost forever.
I had the great privilege of spending the month of May studying how the work of a Chilean NGO organization is working to preserve the culture and history of the Aymara people in northern Chile. The Aymara are the second largest indigenous group in Chile, concentrated in the northern altiplano and precordillera of the country. They are a simple people, whose ancient faith and rites are based in nature. Mother earth is called pachamama, from whom all life comes. Their cosmo-vision is based on complementary elements: sun and moon, light and darkness, man and woman.
Since the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s, the Aymara have blended elements of their belief system with elements of western and Catholic traditions to create a beautiful dynamic that is practiced in its people today. The Aymara practice rituals that reflect this fusion. Every year, before the annual planting and harvest, a pawa is preformed to ask permission from the Pachamama to use the earth and to receive its gifts. During the festivals celebrating the patron saint of each mountain town, Aymara songs and dances are preformed. All of this is done while also celebrating Catholic masses for farmers and performing the ceremonies in the outside plaza of the churches.
The Aymara are now at risk of losing all of this. Their simple lifestyle is not appealing to their children. The young people of the mountain villages are leaving to find jobs and schooling in the big cities of northern Chile, often times not returning to their native homes. Most of these towns now only have 30 full time residents. In the big cities, the young people forget about the rituals and customs they grew up with, since they can only make it back home one or two times a year for town festivals.
To add insult to injury, the churches that the Spanish built, dating back to the 1700s, are falling apart. These simple yet majestic buildings made of mud and the hopes of generations of villagers are succumbing to rain, earthquakes, wind and simple age. The townspeople are losing people with the knowledge of how to remake the churches in their barroco andino style. Without a doubt, if the status quo does not change, all this history will die out within the next 50 years. And there’s no getting it back from that point.
Luckily, there is a group of young Chileans dedicated to conserving this history for years to come and helping the Aymara people to rediscover their own roots. La Fundación Altiplano is working to restore 31 of the 90 Andean churches of the region, restoring the walls, bell towers, altar pieces and such of the physical buildings. At the same time, they are helping to preserve the immaterial history of the Aymara. They are helping to develop sustainable tourism for the region and engaging villagers in workshops so that they and the young people do not forget their ancestral dances, music, art skills, and language. Hopefully, the work of this group, most of whom are between ages 24-30, helps to conserve the human story of the Aymaras.
Now, why is their story important? Why should we care about what goes on in a forgotten corner of the world? Well, the Aymaras are the lucky ones, and someone actually cares about conserving their story. In many parts of the world, especially in the United States, cultural patrimony is at risk of being lost forever. The World Monuments Fund puts out an annual list of patrimonial sites that are at greatest risk of being destroyed by globalization, modernity, and too many tourists.
Why should we even care about history? Well, because it’s our story. In these physical places, there is a human story behind them. There are millions of human stories behind them. Each culture is in part defined by its past. Its cultures and traditions aren’t just things for museum display cases. They are things to be lived out and celebrated. Think of our own families, our own lives. Chinese New Year celebrations, St. Patrick’s Day, Día de los Muertos. These are just a few of the cultural celebrations that have a deeper meaning than simply finding beer. The costumes worn by the Chinese, who made them? How did they make them? Why do the Irish celebrate St. Patrick instead of St. Brigid? Why do people in Latin America spend the night in a cemetery bringing presents to their dead relatives?
Rich stories, rich traditions are dying as we speak. Tribes in Africa and Brazil are being driven off their lands by governments and large businesses, ending their lifestyles. Our grandparents are passing away, and with them, recipes for food and sewing. It’s now up to us, the young people, to start recapturing and conserving our material and immaterial history. Don’t just visit a museum — start volunteering there. Learn about local history. Go talk to your grandparents or an elderly neighbor about anything. If they’re anything like my grandparents, they have the coolest stories about life back during the 1940s and 1950s, the stuff you will never find in a history book. Attend a cultural event hosted by a cultural or ethnic group. Go to a parade.
History is only dead if we let it be dead. Memory is lost when we start putting objects behind glass in museums. As the generation that has so much to learn and appreciate from the past, it’s up to us to start conserving cultural patrimony, so that what our children experience is not a dusty museum, but a real, interactive, celebratory, tangible event.Dan Horning is a Philadelphia native and senior at The George Washington University. An International Affairs major concentrating in international development and international economics, Dan has worked on a number of political campaigns and is a self described public policy nerd.