Every Christmas, Peruvians Living in the Andes Settle Their Scores at Fist-Fighting Festivals

As Chris Hedges dis­cov­ered as a bat­tle-hard­ened reporter, war is a force that gives us mean­ing. Whether we sub­li­mate vio­lence in enter­tain­ment, have paid pro­fes­sion­als and state agents do it for us, or car­ry it out our­selves, human beings can­not seem to give up their most ancient vice; “we demo­nize the ene­my,” Hedges wrote, “so that our oppo­nent is no longer human,” and “we view our­selves, our peo­ple, as the embod­i­ment of absolute good­ness…. Each side reduces the oth­er to objects — even­tu­al­ly in the form of corpses.” Each new gen­er­a­tion inher­its old hatreds, and so forth.…

Maybe one way to break cycles of vio­lence is with con­trolled vio­lence — using bare fists to set­tle scores, and walk­ing away with only bruis­es, a lit­tle hurt pride, but no last­ing wounds? That’s the idea behind Takanakuy, an Andean fes­ti­val that takes place each year at Christ­mas in the province of Chumbivil­cas, in the moun­tains of Peru. The region has a police force made up of around three offi­cers, the near­est cour­t­house is “a stom­ach-wreck­ing 10-hour dri­ve through the moun­tains,” notes Vice, who bring us the video above. Poten­tial­ly explo­sive dis­putes nat­u­ral­ly arise, and must be set­tled out­side the law.

Rather than rely on state inter­ven­tion, res­i­dents wait to slug it out on Takanakuy. The name of the fes­ti­val come from Quechua — the region’s indige­nous lan­guage — and means “to hit each oth­er” or, more idiomat­i­cal­ly, “when the blood is boil­ing.” But com­bat­ants have had upwards of twelve months to cool before they step into a ring of cheer­ing spec­ta­tors and go hand-to-hand with an oppo­nent. Fights are also offi­ci­at­ed by ref­er­ees, who do crowd con­trol with short rope whips and call a fight as soon as some­one goes down. Takanakuy is rit­u­al­ized com­bat, not blood­sport. Although tra­di­tion­al­ly dom­i­nat­ed by men, women, and chil­dren also par­tic­i­pate in fights, which usu­al­ly only last a cou­ple min­utes or so.

“Some tra­di­tion­al­ists dis­ap­prove of female par­tic­i­pa­tion in Takanakuy,” writes pho­to­jour­nal­ist Mike Kai Chen at The New York Times, but “an increas­ing num­ber of women in Chumbivil­cas are defy­ing con­ven­tion and step­ping up to fight in front of their com­mu­ni­ty.” Male fight­ers wear boots, flashy leather chaps, and elab­o­rate, hand-sewn masks with taxi­der­mied birds on top. Women wear ele­gant dress­es with fine embroi­dery, and wrap their wrists in col­or­ful embroi­dered cloth. “The ulti­mate aim is to begin the new year in peace. For this rea­son every fight… begins and ends with a hug”… or, at the very least, a hand­shake.

The fes­ti­val also involves much danc­ing, eat­ing, drink­ing, craft sales, and Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions. Suemed­ha Sood at BBC Trav­el com­pares Takanakuy to Sein­feld’s “Fes­tivus,” the alt-win­ter hol­i­day for the air­ing of griev­ances and feats of strength. But it’s no joke. “The fes­ti­val seeks to resolve con­flict, strength­en com­mu­ni­ty bonds and hope­ful­ly, arrive at a greater peace.” Lib­er­tar­i­an econ­o­mists Edwar Escalante and Ray­mond March frame Takanakuy as “a cred­i­ble mech­a­nism of law enforce­ment in an order­ly fash­ion with social accep­tance.” For indige­nous teacher and author and par­tic­i­pant Vic­tor Laime Man­til­la, it’s some­thing more, part of “the fight to reclaim the rights of indige­nous peo­ple.”

“In the cities,” says Man­til­la, “the Chumbivil­cas are still seen as a sav­age cul­ture.” But they have kept the peace amongst them­selves with no need for Peru­vian author­i­ties, fus­ing an indige­nous music called Huaylia with oth­er tra­di­tions that date back even before the Incas. Takanakuy arose as a response to sys­tems of colo­nial oppres­sion. When “jus­tice in Chumbivil­cas was sole­ly admin­is­tered by pow­er­ful peo­ple,” Man­til­la says, “peo­ple from the com­mu­ni­ty always lost their case. What can I do with a jus­tice like that? I’d rather have my own jus­tice in pub­lic.”

See the cos­tumes of the tra­di­tion­al Takanakuy char­ac­ters over at Vice and see Chen’s stun­ning pho­tos of friend­ly fist­fights and Takanakuy fun at The New York Times.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Peru­vian Schol­ar Writes & Defends the First The­sis Writ­ten in Quechua, the Main Lan­guage of the Incan Empire

Peru­vian Singer & Rap­per, Rena­ta Flo­res, Helps Pre­serve Quechua with Viral Hits on YouTube

Speak­ing in Whis­tles: The Whis­tled Lan­guage of Oax­a­ca, Mex­i­co

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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