¡Buenos días! We will close out this month’s Peruvian theme with The Llama’s Secret: A Peruvian Legend, written and adapted by Argentina Palacios and illustrated by Charles Reasoner. The book is also available in Spanish.
The author, Palacios, builds the following story: a family in the Peruvian highlands has a llama that they cherish very much. The llama makes their lives much easier, particularly because it is able to transport things necessary for the family’s day to day activities. One day, the llama will not eat, even after the father of the family takes him to various fields of enticing grass. Finally, the llama explains to the father that a great flood is coming, and that they need to walk to the highest mountain with his family in order to escape it. Along the way, the llama tells all of the animals they encounter about the flood. As a result, pairs of animals walk in a line to the top of the mountain. The most stubborn of the animals, the foxes, do not believe the llama’s tale. The disbelieving foxes go leisurely, so slowly that in the end the tips of their tails stay in the water. It is for that reason that foxes have black-tipped tails. While the animals are atop the mountain, and just as the lake nearly reaches them, everything goes dark; they are experiencing a solar eclipse. During this time, the animals are afraid that Inti, the sun, has died. However, the llama assures them that it is only resting in the waters of the great lake, Mamacocha.
In this story, Palacios blends two Peruvian myths/histories. He combines the story of the great flood with the story of the first solar eclipse during Inca times. The story of the great flood, as I have heard it consistently, tells of a llama who warns all of the animals of the coming waters, and the foxes who are incredulous about the llama’s tale and slow to respond, subsequently leading to their tails being dipped in the Mamacocha waters. The story of the first solar eclipse, however, is normally told as its own story. In this story, the sun disappears for five days and is thought to have died.
Both stories are found in common oral histories as well as in the Huarochirí Manuscript, a Quechua-language text dating to the sixteenth century relating Quechua myths, stories and religious beliefs. The indigenous Quechua author is unknown; however, he or she related the stories to the Spanish cleric Francisco de Ávila, who is responsible for its written existence. Francisco de Ávila’s intention with recording these oral histories seems to have been to collect intelligence to use as evidence for attacking American paganism, according to anthropologist Frank Salomon.
Another example of the story of the eclipse can be found in the book we reviewed last week, La muerte del sol y otros cuentos del antiguo Perú, written by María Rostworowski and illustrated by Beatriz Chung. This is a story that has been retold by many others, such as in the famous Belgian comic series, The Adventures of Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun, in 1946. This volume was adapted into a film in 1969, two episodes of a television series in the 1990s, a video game, and a musical stage production in 2001. Despite its apparent popularity, I mention it here with extreme caution: I would take care with the picture it paints of the Inca people, particularly given the year it was produced.
With younger students, this book is great for talking about animals belonging to the Andes. The story introduces significant animals that are a regular part of Andean life, such as the llama, the guanaco, the puma, chinchillas, the condor and the fox. Here is a link for instructions on how to draw an Andean condor, along with fun facts about condors. Here you can find a video of a flying condor, along with the famous Andean song titled, El Condo Pasa.
This book also introduces various Quechua words, which is the name for the language of the people of the Incan Empire and their ancestors (between 8 and 10 million speakers today). The term, “quechua,” is also used to refer directly to the people who are ancestors of the Incas, many of whom speak the Quechua language. Throughout the book most of these words are italicized, but not all of them.
- Quinoa is an ancient grain still consumed today, which is now imported to the United States.
- Ischu is a type of grass found in the Andes that is very hard and prickly to sit on. Llamas and alpacas love to eat it.
- Mamacocha is the word for the ocean, or the enormous Lake Titicaca near Puno, Peru. A couple of weeks ago we wrote a review of Kusikiy, which takes place on Lake Titicaca.
- Inti is the word for the sun.
- The quena is a wooden flute played in the Andes.
- The antara is a panflute, which is played through various tubes that make the sounds of different notes.
Having a conversation about the Quechua language is important when talking about stories, because it is mainly through oral language and stories, along with weaving pictures and symbols, that knowledge continues to be passed down along generations. The Quechua language wasn’t written into text until the Spanish arrived. Even once it appeared in written form, oral story telling continued to play an incredibly important role in Quechua society.
This children’s book can also be used to talk about how certain stories are repeated across different cultures, such as the great flood. In the Huarochirí Manuscript, Francisco de Ávila compares the Peruvian flood to the biblical recounting of Noah’s Ark. For educators who want to explore fables and folk tales across cultures, we suggest looking at the educator’s guide that Katrina wrote to accompany the children’s book, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale, by Duncan Tonatiuh.
Given that we recently experienced a solar eclipse in much of the United States, this story could be fun for students to think about how a solar eclipse would have been without warning; in the past, it was not necessarily common knowledge that a solar eclipse would be coming. It really could feel like the end of the world. How would we react today if we were surprised by a solar eclipse?
On a final note, as I wrap up this book review and also our entire month of children’s books focused on Peru, I want to encourage educators to be cautious when teaching about cultures that are so different from the United States. Especially when working with texts that deal with less-developed countries, it can be easy to romanticize or stereotype. This book, much like the others we’ve reviewed, while beautiful and engaging, could lend itself to over-simplifications about the Peruvian people.
People of the Andes live in many different kinds of environments: rural, urban, semi-urban, high in altitude, and lower altitude. Their geographies and lived experiences vary drastically from place to place. While we might read a story about potato farming in the highlands, we should also acknowledge that there are others who live in Lima – one of the largest cities in the world. To this end, it might be worthwhile to have a conversation with your students (age permitting) about different representations and diversity. Not all families of the Andes are equivalent to the family depicted in this story, and while poverty is a serious issue in Peru, we do not want to paint Peru as nothing but a poverty-stricken country and its people as lacking agency – an easy tendency to do when we draw upon capitalist values from the United States. Far from it, Peru is a country that should be acknowledged for its other characteristics, such as its history of the advanced Inca civilization far predating European experiences; for indigenous people and languages, and their ability to survive and preserve their cultures in the face of colonization; for the cosmopolitan capital city, Lima, whose gastronomical reputation leads the world; and so many other characteristics that defy easy stereotypes.
For local educators who reside in Albuquerque, we invite you to check out our Culture Box of Peru: a set of hands-on materials that can deepen the conversation with your students.
Here are a few resources for teachers considering how to bring Peru into the classroom:
- Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas – a Social Studies curriculum from the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University (Grades 6-9)
- Recreation in Peru: Where You Live Determines What Activities Are Available – a curriculum unit from a 2016 Fulbright-Hayes Program Teacher (Grades 6-8)
- Geography and Culture of the Andes – a lesson plan from Discovery School
Stay tuned for next month, when we’ll rethink the common narratives surrounding Thanksgiving and bring you children’s books that celebrate indigenous people’s experiences and histories.
Images modified from: The Llama’s Secret: A Peruvian Legend pages 19, 20, 21, 23, 25
Map image: Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática (INEI): https://www.inei.gob.pe/estadisticas/censos/