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From Ayacucho to East Lake Street

The great (and ever-so-humble) Wilbur Quispe is back in town. He's the weaver from Ayacucho, Peru, whose rugs are sold by my friend Melanie at Art Andes. I've seen many rugs in many a market and Wilbur's creations stand out not only for the quality of his materials (he uses hand-spun wool and natural dyes) but for how they're brought together into striking designs, many of which taken from Pre-Colombian weavings and pottery.

After much struggle, Wilbur and Melanie managed to seucre a work visa, so that Wilbur can demonstrate his work on a daily basis here in the currently sweltering north. Melanie says that Wilbur seems happiest when he's working. When he first came to Minnesota (in the middle of winter I recall), not only did he find the dinner parties at the opulent homes of rich white people a little unnerving, but he missed his craft dearly.

This summer, you can find Wilbur doing what he does best at the Minneapolis Farmers' Market, the new Midtown Global Market on East Lake Street (in the beautifully rehabbed Sears building) or at other venues.

Wilbur recently demonstrated his work at a boys' home, where he was able to talk about his troubled youth and how weaving essentially saved him from a life on the streets. It's a remarkable story that includes being orphaned at a young age, working as an indentured servant in the jungle and then losing his family to the Shining Path -- with a happy turn of events just when you think things couldn't get any worse. Melanie's sister Jessica has written an excellent narrative about Wilbur and his hometown of Paccha in A Durable Weave (PDF). If the story moves you, as I expect it will, please click over to the Art Andes website, where you can learn about Comunidad, the charity Melanie set up to help re-establish the vitality of Wilbur's hometown of Paccha. You might even want to make a little donation!

Read A Durable Weave (PDF)

Below: Watch Wilbur working his magic on the loom (via Don's crappy digital camera)

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Roots, andean-style

In a recent piece on NPR, I heard about a study claiming that hispanics assimilate much the same as previous waves of immigrants did: the first generation may not speak English, but by the third and fourth generations, hardly anyone is speaking the mother tongue.

But what happens to the second generation? Sandwiched between their parents' old ways and their children's lack of meaningful connection with the homeland, how do they view themselves? If America is a melting pot (which the study seemed to support), are they the chunks of quickly softening cheese in the fondue? If America is a salad, are they leaves of romaine mixed in with the majority of iceberg?

On the eve of a trip to Peru with my daughter, in which she'll be introduced to the strange and beautiful country her grandmother came from, I've been thinking about identity. And it's no surprise that for many of us sons and daughters of immigrants, identity is a cloudy issue. Where do I belong? Here? There? Do I ever belong anywhere quite fully?

In my case, with an American father and Peruvian mother, I feel mostly lucky to have the inside view on two cultures. But since English is my first language and I use it to make my living, and I live in the states (the northern states, at that), there's no question that I live comfortably in my American skin. But I must admit that I feel a strong pull from what I see as a more vibrant, expressive and live-in-the-moment culture.

So, all that to introduce what seems like it's going to be a compelling documentary that takes on the identity question head on. It's called "Soy Andina" and it follows the stories of two New York women. One is Nelida Silva, a businesswoman who was born and raised in the small Andean town of Llamellin and fulfills her lifelong goal to return and host the town's annual patriotic festival. The other, Cynthia Paniagua, is a Queens-raised, Peruvian-Nuyorican-American dancer (wow, how's that for an identity stew!) who wins a Fullbright grant to study folkloric dance in Peru for a year.

In the film, Cynthia learns just how difficult it is to take on another culture, even if it's already kinda sorta your culture:
"In New York, I was used to being referred to as 'the Peruvian' or 'Puerto Rican girl.' And when I came to Lima, I'm 'la gringa,' the American chick – and I don't identify!"
The trailer focuses more on Cynthia, but I presume that the full-length film will follow through with Nelida's equally interesting story. I'll be eager to find out if, after 18 years in NYC, she can truly go home again.

> View the trailer for Soy Andina. Highly recommended!
> Visit the Soy Andina blog
> Listen to a recent NPR's segment on the film

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