Recently I spoke with an historian of Quito’s historic district (El Centro) and he gave me some shocking news. Indigenous people are still forbidden to enter La Compañía de Jesús, Quito’s grandest, most opulent church, famous for its ornate golden interior, dating from the early seventeenth century. Built by the Jesuits, one of the earliest orders to arrive in Quito, more than seven tons of gold were used to gild the walls, ceiling and altar. The first time I entered La Compañía it took my breath away. I walked around mesmerized by the gilded gold, elaborately dressed virgins, crying saints, candle-lit corridors and the smell of incense in the air. I sat in one of the pews and imagined wealthy Quiteños doused in rich perfume sitting around me. They have been attending its high mass every Sunday for centuries and indeed, it is the preferred church for weddings among Quito’s elite. When the Spaniards arrived in Quito in 1535, one of the first things they did was to establish “Indian” churches to convert (i.e. conquer) the indigenous population. It was a clearly demarcated system in which the “indios” had their churches while the Spaniards attended their own. In each indigenous parish the Spaniards, (the Jesuits) constructed a church. It’s incredible just how many churches exist in Quito’s historic center. There’s at least one church, if not two, in every neighborhood of El Centro. Not surprisingly, the Spaniards and their descents attended the fancy, more ornate ones, while the very simple structures, bare and marked with just a wooden cross, were reserved for the indigenous. While strolling around the Centro it’s fairly easy to guess which church belongs to which community.
I’m not sure if the segregation of churches has ever existed as a written law in Ecuador. Today it continues to exist as an unspoken social contract. It shouldn’t shock me that indigenous are not allowed into La Compañia, since rampant segregation still exists in every other realm of society. Despite the majority indigenous group, CONAIE’s powerful uprising of the early 1990s, which served as a model for other indigenous groups around Latin America (especially for Bolivia’s uprising a decade later), they still remain on the outskirts of society in many ways. Although powerful political leaders exist in Congress, the majority of indigenous persons still live in abject poverty, especially those who remain in rural villages. In these communities the rates of domestic violence and alcoholism are higher than the national average, as well as the level of basic education.
Obviously this unspoken contract that “indigenous” people are not allowed into La Compañia becomes extremely complicated when no one really knows who is “indigenous” in the first place. When surveys are taken, apparently anywhere between 25%-45% of the population identify as indigenous. These surveys mark individuals who self-identify as indigenous, but in reality, the vast majority of Ecuadorians are a diverse racial mix—most of whom have carried some indigenous blood for centuries. That makes this rule of forbidden entry into the church very complicated. Ecuadorians have a vast range of physical features; some of my friends here, all of the upper class, are completely white, European, while many of the prostitutes with whom I work are Afro-Ecuadorian. The majority of the population is mestizo, a mix of indigenous features and countless other things. Some of my friends “look” very “indigenous” even though their families have lived in Quito for generations. I wonder if they ever get questioned while entering certain churches. It seems like it’s the individuals who continue to wear traditional clothing representative of various indigenous communities who would be targeted for exclusion from La Compañia. Without a doubt, these individuals are indigenous, even though I have friends who if they also wore traditional clothing, would be “mistaken” for being part of an indigenous community. And quite frankly, my friends would be appalled to be mistaken for an “indigenous” person. Without a doubt, race is incredibly complicated to identify/define here.
I had the most fascinating experience last spring when I attended a fancy wedding at La Compañia. It was an exciting opportunity to attend a very Catholic wedding, (high mass), in an extremely traditional church that has existed for centuries. I felt as if I had fallen back in time and enjoyed observing all the Quiteños around me, and listened with astonishment all that the priest said (I’m not Catholic, and it was the first time I had attended a high mass of this type). But I was absolutely floored when during one section of the wedding a series of indigenous persons came down the aisle as part of the ceremony, offering different gifts to the bride and groom as good luck. They offered tokens from “their” culture, like a chicken, special candles, other animals and symbolic objects. Then several communities did traditional “Indian” dances down the aisle. It struck me as so bizarre to suddenly praise and to include the customs of these rejected indigenous communities into a wedding of Quito’s most elite.
As far as I know, my friends in no way include traditional customs or even express any affinity to indigenous customs or their rights in any other part of their life. It was simply a show and now that I know that indigenous are only allowed in the church as performers, I’m left deeply disturbed. They are not allowed to participate as members of the church community as fellow worshipers, but only as objects of entertainment for the rich. And surely the wealthy must feel good about themselves, paying homage to the traditional “Indian” part of their culture. It disturbed me greatly, although no one can help where they are from. I don’t judge my friends who got married, it just shocked my anthropological system like a zap of electricity. I feel even more disturbed knowing that these performers at the wedding are prohibited from entering the church during any other time.