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On the Tucuman trail.

FOR MORE THAN TWO CENTURIES, trains of mules loaded with earthware created by the potters of Santiago del Estero, or weavings and metals from Salta and San Salvador de Jujuy, or even more importantly, cotton, rice, wheat and corn from San Miguel de Tucuman, marched up the Tucuman trail each fall to the mining areas of Upper Peru and further on to Pacific ports from which they would be shipped to Spain. Conversely, each spring gold, silver, Spanish products and news from far away places traveled by mule down the same trail. If there is one creature that merits credit for the development of this part of America, it is the patient, sturdy, offspring of the mare and the jackass, making possible the transportation of goods over the rugged mountain passes at very high altitudes.

All the trails that crisscrossed the Puna (plateau), the Humahuaca canyon and nearby vales existed long before the European learned what riches or dangers lay beyond each magnificent mountain or pristine valley, before Quechua names began to be replaced by Spanish words and before borders were drawn. Aborigines first traced them and later fiercely guarded these inroads into their kingdoms. The main trail was forged by Incas who moved south from Peru and established a fortress in the vicinity of Tucuman. The few who remained behind were able, in time, to build camps and hold in check the raids of nomadic warriors. As they subdued or befriended other tribes, the Incas lived from the fertile land and continued to produce their traditional wares. And after the summer rains, when the Tucuman trail became passable again, they went northward to barter their goods.

The Spanish conquistadors arrived late to the region where Bolivia and Argentina now meet because it was far from the sea ports where in the early sixteenth century they had landed, conquered and founded cities. But these bearded adventurers, who would never relent in their aim to add new territories to the Spanish empire, felt intimidated neither by the unknown nor by the difficult terrain of the Altiplano and the Puna. From the 1550s until the 1590s, prompted by greed and the mandates of their faith, small armies of conquistadors left Upper Peru and proceeded along the road the Incas had trod upon ages before with equally imperious intentions, en route to Jujuy, Salta and Tucuman. The uniformity of physical traits in the whole region convinced the Spaniards that their appetite for gold and silver, which the wealth found in Peru and Potosi merely whetted, could be realized further south in Tucuman. It was not to be so. Nonetheless, in their "visits", men like Francisco de Aguirre (who in the 1550s conceived and fostered the notion that Tucuman was Eldorado), Hernando de Lerma (who founded Salta in 1582), and Francisco de Arganaras (founder of San Salvador de Jujuy) transformed the camps where Incas and other Indian tribes had lived and toiled for generations into towns that still endure. Besides the existence of royal decrees that bound this region to Lima, Upper Peru and Salta and Jujuy shared geographical and cultural similarities. From the highlands of what is now Bolivia, to the south of what is now the Province of Tucuman, and from the mountains of the Andes to the flat and bleak Argentine Chaco, the topography suffered for centuries the same geological penuries that produced uniform natural formations: from west to east there is first the Altiplano with its dry innermost basins; then the Puna, where east flowing streams have cut deep valleys; and then a series of parallel ridges separated by valleys and north-south structural depressions. The whole region also had the same natural vegetation, widely spaced shrubs and some grass spreading southward species found in the Upper Peru highlands. And for centuries herds of llamas and vicunas that fed on scarce forage wandered everywhere revered by kindred weavers who used the wool of these animals to make warm wraps and blankets.

Long live Jujuy/Long live the Puna/Long live my beloved/Long live the multicolored mountains of my quebrada (from a popular love song to Jujuy). Pedro de Zarate was the first conquistador to see the Quebrada de Humahuaca. The ocher canyon, daubed here and there with bright green and then known as the Kings' Canyon, is a narrow gorge, with the Rio Grande of Jujuy at its base. The pride of Jujuy, it is a place of astounding beauty. The width of the canyon varies from one to three kilometers, and it plunges to a depth of 1,500 meters at its southern extreme, and 3,000 at the northern gate. Vegetation grows only where there is water, and springs rushing out of the rocks or down the amber mountains summon forth small green meadows. The canyon is now dotted with quaint villages and planted willow trees, apple and pear orchards, some alfalfa and grass.

Zarate's expedition of 1574, however, was not able to explore the region thoroughly because the Indians had declared war on the intruders. In fact, they had given the same reception to Diego de Almagro in 1535 and to Diego de Rojas in 1542. Inca guides had led these conquistadors from Cuzco down the Tucuman trail to the valley of Jujuy, where they had encountered the Jujuies, Ocloyas and Humahuacas who did not want their land trampled by foreigners. In 1593 another conquistador, Captain Francisco de Arganaras, managed to "safeguard" that part of the trail to Tucuman. As a contemporary account explains, he set out "with many provisions and a carriage; with many horses carrying heaps of things jumbled together and eighteen carretas |oxen carts~ as that valley has never seen until now; and enough cattle--cows and oxen and sheep and goats--and many Indians and yanaconas (Indian bondsmen), and horses intended for the wars and other things needed for warfare . . ." With that train, an army, and the help of God, he hoped to found a city, populate the Valley of Jujuy, and conquer the tribes who had risen against His Majesty. The city he erected between the Rio Grande and the Sivi-Sivi was San Salvador of Jujuy.

In the following years the settlers were harassed constantly by the chieftain Vitilpoco and other Indian warriors, but in the end Arganaras "pacified" the valley. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, San Salvador was an obligatory layover on the route from Tucuman to Potosi or Peru. Its population had increased greatly. As could be expected, eighty-two percent of Jujuy's population was Indian or mixed-blood. There were also a few blacks and mulattoes who were enslaved or worked as servants on the plantations. Only five percent of the town's inhabitants were Spanish or Creole, and they enjoyed lives of power and privilege. Because the mines of the region were poorer than the settlers had expected, the dominant class had by then turned to agriculture and cattle raising and used Indians as peons and herders. The latter tended the 8,000 or more mules that each year trod the Tucuman trail toward Peru to be sold.

When the wars of independence began in 1810 in the Argentine metropolis, Jujuy

became overnight a huge military encampment to guard the northern flank from the Spanish, who were still strongly entrenched in Peru. Constant tumult would reign for several decades, and the caudillo Martin Miguel de Guemes, leader of the Gaucho War in Argentina's northwest, would emerge as a national hero. Also, Buenos Aires happened to have designs upon Upper Peru and vice-versa. Thus, the conflict about borders would not end when the Republic of Bolivia was created in 1825, for by then the caudillos in Upper Peru coveted Salta and Jujuy. It seemed as though the commonalities of geography and race were severely hindering the establishment of a frontier that would separate what had been whole for centuries.

Finally, in the new century, Jujuy knew peace and progress. Throughout the upheavals of history, however, endurance in the face of adversity and pride in their past has reinforced in the mixed-blood Jujenos the feeling that they were sons of Jujuy first, Andean-born second and nationals of Argentina third. Even today the descendants of the Jujuies and the Humahuacas are bonded by a powerful heritage. This became apparent during the recent quadricentennial celebration of the founding of San Salvador. At a joint concert by the world-famous charango (small string instrument) player and native son, Jaime Torres, and the Spanish troubadour Paco Ibanez (which took place the day after the celebrations ended), one fellow gave an impromptu speech to the effect that the centenary only commemorated the colonial presence. Then Torres drew his small body up as erect as possible, held his charango high and let his hands leap among the strings like dancers. As the sound from the instrument filled the hall, there was no doubting the vitality and richness of ancient traditions which have been nurtured by a mystic proclivity, a host of tribulations and amazing geographical beauty.

The city of Salta was also founded as an outpost on the road to Tucuman. The province of the same name suffered bloodshed and political upheavals like Jujuy, and like the neighbor its shape seems to cradle, Salta succeeded in blending indigenous traditions with Spanish usages in almost every aspect of daily life. To this day, Saltenos and Jujenos bear the traits of their Indian ancestors in their features, their leisurely pace, their sorrowful music, their cuisine--corn-based dishes like tamales |meat inside a sticky corn dough, wrapped in cornstalk leaves~, locro and humita |corn stews~--and their distaste for having their land trampled by "foreigners."

But, most important of all, Saltenos share with Jujenos a copious Andean folklore--and an overpowering devotion to the Pachamama, Mother Earth, Goddess of the mountains, owner of the vicunas and the llamas and everything planted or harvested. She lives under the high mountains and often appears with a wild dog behind her, one of her hands holding a snake in the shape of a lasso. The Andes, her imposing temple, dwarfs and mesmerizes the Saltenos. The mountains are always there, hovering in the distance, for the bowl in which lush Salta has been watered and grown abruptly transforms into verdant hills which in turn become Pachamama's awesome ridges. Here is where nature is at its best: mountains come in many shapes and colors. Some geological formations look like debris left by other gods or goddesses--and each mound and each crevasse has a name or a legend to accompany it. Pachama, Holy Earth,/Free me entirely from fatigue/as I climb this little mountain (from a rhyme dedicated to Mother Earth).

If the Saltenos' feeling toward their mountains is one of fascination, they look upon their main city with enchanted eyes. They call it "Salta the Beautiful" and it amply deserves the epithet. A strong Spanish influence is visible in the well-preserved architecture of colonial times found in the center of town. Salta boasts the most beautiful colonial cathedral in Argentina; its Cabildo still has some portions of late eighteenth-century construction, though most of the edifice dates back to its reconstruction between 1780 and 1807; the convent of San Bernardo is from the eighteenth century, and the brightly-painted church of San Francisco, with its tower that until recent times was Salta's tallest structure, mixes elements from both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

With his fine-tempered sword from Toledo pointing the way to Eldorado, the eccentric Francisco de Aguirre followed the Tucuman trail to its very end. After three abortive attempts by others, (in 1550, 1551, and 1552) Aguirre founded a town on the site of the early settlement of Barco. But it did not flourish. Its early period was marked by the enslavement and repression of the Indian population. The founding of the city of San Miguel de Tucuman came to fruition in 1565, thanks to Aguirre's nephew Dicgo de Villarroel. Although the Aconquija mountain and the Rio Dulce yielded no gold, San Miguel would become in the course of two centuries a city of wealth and historic tradition, an important center through which almost all colonial trade passed, and the main outfitting point for people starting northward toward Peru, as well as for those who wished to enter the grassy plains to the southeast. When the colonial period came to an end, this active community had accumulated considerable wealth.

The rise of modern Tucuman occurred in the nineteenth century, when its economy received a boost from a precious emerald element: sugarcane. Although sugar had been cultivated around the city since the late sixteenth century, large plantations began to spread in the 1820s, due largely to the efforts of the priest Jose Eusebio Colombres (his house is now a museum and the centerpiece of San Miguel's enormous 9th of July Park). Physical and economic conditions were favorable, since there was abundant rainfall and the absence of frosts, and Buenos Aires was not far away. This made for the successful planting and marketing of sugarcane both within Argentina and abroad. Since that time, the sugar industry and Tucuman's economy, inexorably linked, have known good times and bad. I am a Tucumano, gentlemen,/Sweet inside and in my manners,/I have a sugary sorrow,/Just to make my sadness sweet (rhyme by Jose Augusto Moreno.)

It was in San Miguel de Tucuman that Argentineans declared their independence from Spain on July 9, 1816 (the colonial building in which the document was signed is now a museum). During national reorganization and until very recently, like the rest of the northwest, this city has had its share of turmoil--especially during the years of the so called "Proceso" (1976-1983) when the military junta persecuted the guerrillas who fought to liberate the nearby forest of Acheral and virtually eliminated the People's Revolutionary Army.

This is a region where flags have often been raised demanding justice, and freedom has always been cherished more than life itself. If the soul of Aguirre ever revisited the Tucuman trail during these past years, he might have seen that what lay at its very end was not gold, nor even the lush wealth and beauty of sugarcane plantations, but a rather more precious commodity: love of freedom. Tucumanos feel very deeply these words written and sung by Atahualpa Yupanqui, perhaps the troubadour and poet they admire most: I have only one defect/And I'll tell you about it/With all my fervor:/I like freedom.

Martha Gil-Montero, a frequent contributor to Americas, has published a biography on Carmen Miranda and is currently working on a novel on the life of Manuela Saenz. Laurence de Looze, a professor at Harvard University, has published numerous scholarly essays on modern American culture.
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Title Annotation:the Northwestern provinces of Argentina
Author:Gil-Montero, Martha; De Looze, Laurence
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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