Hispanic Heritage month gives US residents a big dose of Latino culture each fall. But for lucky language students at St. James Catholic School (Grades PreK-8) in Savannah, this exposure to the rich traditions of Latin America is a year-round event thanks to the dedicated efforts of St. James Spanish teacher, Nancy Urcuhuaranga.
Nancy is originally from the seaport city of Callao, Peru and when she moved to the U.S. 15 years ago, she brought her love for that country with her. Throughout the school year, Nancy loads her instructional cart with cultural artifacts in addition to language lesson plans.
Nancy shares an apartment in Brunswick, Georgia with her older brother, Edgar Urcuhuaranga, a businessman, and makes the daily commute to Savannah because she loves her job so much.
This summer, Nancy took a special trip back to her homeland and spent several weeks reconnecting with family members from both her mother's and her father's side of the family. Her maternal relatives live in the Huaros District near Lima while her father's relatives live in the central highlands region of Huancayo, Júnin province.
“For me, it was a bittersweet vacation,” Nancy said. “Cancer took my mother's life very suddenly this past February but her spirit was with me every step of my journey back through the traditions I grew up with in my native country.”
Among the highlights of her visit was a special outdoors feast called the “Pachamanca”- which involved digging a pit in the ground and lining it with large flat stones. A fire in the bottom of the pit heats the stones surrounding a large pot containing guinea pig (a Peruvian delicacy) and an assortment of spices including chincho, marigold, pepper, cumin, and others. On top of this is added another layer of hot stones which cooks an assortment of traditional vegetables like white potatoes , sweet potatoes, corn, broad bean pods and mashua root. The pit is then capped with another layer of hot stones.
“This process is rather complicated and time-consuming, but it is accompanied by much singing and dancing and drinking traditional beverages so no one worries about the passing of time, ” Nancy said. “We recognize this as a tradition that has been handed down for thousands of years from our indigenous ancestors who predate the Incan tradition so it is a very special occasion for us.”
Like many other Latin Americans, Peruvians place a special emphasis on the importance of foods and meals in strengthening family and cultural bonds.
“One of my favorite experiences this summer was the chance to make “humitas” with my cousins,” Nancy said. “We take fresh corn and grind it into a paste using traditional stone tools. Then we add raisins, vanilla, and brown sugar, pat it into flat cakes and bake them in the corn husks. Mmmm... delicious!”
While in Peru. Nancy also made a special journey through difficult mountain terrain (4000 meters above sea level) on an open air train known as the “Macho Train”. The journey from Huancayo to Huancavelica can take as little as 3 hour or as long as 12 hours depending on such vagaries as landslides and track repairs.
“It is said of the Macho train- It leaves when it wants to and arrives when it is able,” Nancy said. "Riding on the train macho I was surrounded by high mountains that give a fantastic panorama. Riding on the Macho train is a unique journey experience in which Peruvians and tourists connect themselves with nature and relax."
Another special part of Nancy's visit was a side trip to San Cristobal Hill in Lima. This 409 meter hill provides a panoramic view of the capital city of Lima and features a huge stone cross at its peak.
“My cousin, Rafael Castro Arcenio, and I walked from the bottom to the top of this very steep hill as an act of reflection and also to pay our respects to our mothers who both died this year,” Nancy said. “At the top, there is a shrine where you can light votive candles in memory of your loved ones.”
Another highlight of Nancy's trip was a visit to the Wari ruins near Huancayo, Peru. The Wari were members of an indigenous group that predated the Incas by some 500 to 700 years. “In addition to ruins of buildings, there is also a special stone waterway with spring waters that emerge from a hidden source in the mountains,” Nancy said. “We are taught to take a drink of these waters and offer our thanks and respect for these waters that have nourished the people and their harvest for so long.”