Singing in Machu Picchu

I took many, many pictures with my MIT LatinX shirt earlier that day and didn’t like them. It turns out what they say is true. Pictures always come out best in the sunset. Machu Picchu, Peru.

In the video at the end of this blog, I express many things.

First, the song that you hear me singing is called “Ojos Azules”, which has lyrics both in Quechua and Spanish. Quechua is the noble language only people of Cusco spoke back in the Incan Empire days, and which is still spoken by many people in the city. Here are the lyrics:

Ojos azules, no llores (Blue eyes, don’t cry)

No llores, ni te enamores (Don’t cry, or fall in love)

Lloraras cuando me vaya (You’ll cry when I’m gone)

Cuando remedio no haya (When I don’t have any other choice)

Tu me juraste quererme (You swore that you loved me)

Quererme toda la vida (That you’d love me all your life)

No han pasado dos, tres (Two, three days have passed)

Tu te alejas y me dejas (And you forget and leave me)

En una copa de vino (In a cup of wine)

Quisiera tomar veneno (I’d like to drink some poison)

Veneno para matarme (Poison to kill myself)

Veneno para olvidarte (Poison to forget you)

Paqarinmi ripuchkani, perlaschallay (Tomorrow I leave, beautiful pearl)

Tuta tuta tutamanta, perlaschallay (At night, at night, at night, beautiful pearl)

Kausaspaycha kutimusaq, perlaschallay (If I live, I’ll come back, beautiful pearl)

Wanuqpaycqa mananacha, perlaschallay (If I don’t, I won’t, beautiful pearl)

Porque alma solo sana (The soul only heals)

Con la musica peruana (With Peruvian music)

This song has a very bittersweet feeling. It talks of a man who leaves his city and the love of his life behind to look for a better place to work, and then comes back only to realize what he thought was a promise of eternal love was actually a lie. The reason why I chose to sing this song wasn’t because it symbolizes my struggle of returning to my native country and painfully realizing that it doesn’t fit the picture that I thought it would, or of the dramatic survival story of the Apolayas fighting their way through America and raising a daughter who would finally return to their origins! No.

I chose it because it is the only song in Quechua I know 🙂 And it seemed only fitting to sing a song in the native language of my ancestors in such a sacred and important place for them. In the end though, the lyrics do fit a lot of my story and feelings, so that’s a plus.

Luisa Torres 2.2
In the city of Machu Picchu, below the mountain.  Those really were some nice earrings. Machu Picchu, Peru.

You may ask: Wait, hold up, Luisa. Are you a singer? What?? And you go to MIT??

The answer is: definitely yes. This is pretty common actually, there are many singers at MIT (secretly the Music Institute of Tuned pianos). Throughout my life, as I learned science and mathy stuffs, I slowly grew a deep love for music through both my middle school violin program and my high school choir. Singing became a deeply personal way for me to express myself and honor other people stories. Because of this, it was an honor for me to be able to sing a song in the language of my ancestors. It’s my way of expressing love and pain and all the feels 🙂

You may also ask, after watching the video: But Luisa. It’s different to sing in the shower than singing while a group of tourists are looking at you and wondering why there is a small, brown girl with a messy bun and a black backpack sitting on the steps of Machu Picchu singing a song in a language they don’t understand? Weren’t you afraid??

Umm, also yes. It’s very different. Although I have performed in many different scenarios, I usually don’t sing in public. I am afraid that my singing might bother other people and might be rude to them in some way. I don’t know, it’s something that I’m still working on. But this time, I didn’t stop. I sat on the cold, rocky steps next to one of the Incan houses, felt the warmth of the sunset in the distance, let the wind ruffle the strands of hair around my face, and sang (albeit quietly) above the sounds of tourists passing by (sorry for all the background noise in the video!!). I was tempted to stop, but in that moment, I didn’t dare to. I knew I was singing to someone important.

Luisa Torres 2.3
Watching the Ollanta Raymni celebration from the top of Ollantaytambo. My pants were so dusty after that. Ollantaytambo, Peru

Also in the video, you can see multiple shots of streets. I included this intentionally. One of the most striking and frustrating things I’ve noticed in Peru is the magnitude of the wealth gap. The difference in quality of infrastructure between a street in Miraflores and a street in Los Olivos is very, very striking (as you can see in the video). Some communities in the city don’t have tubing systems, have houses only made of tin roofs and brick walls, and contain very unsanitary conditions. Some communities can afford to charge 70 soles for a haircut, have their own extensive parks, and boast of cars of all different brands. Yet, even in Mall Chacarilla (one of the nicest malls I’ve visited here), the restrooms don’t provide their own toilet paper.

The plaque from my father’s graduating class (spot Apolaya Atuncar!). He was in college during the start of terrorism. PUCP, Lima

And thus, after trembling through it a little, I finished the song. It was my sign of rebellion—the Spanish words blending in with the tourists comments, the Quechua sometimes being muffled by their footsteps on the concrete steps. But at the end of the day, when everyone leaves Machu Picchu, when the tourists go away and the mountain is left to itself, the culture prevails. The Incan culture, although trampled upon both literally and figuratively many times throughout history, still lasts. Our history, songs, and pride.

And what I love is that through it all—through all the pain that the Incas went through and all the struggle that my immigrant parents fought through and the insecurity and fear and poverty and corruption that Peruvians of all places live through–they are still smiling. In my aunt’s words, “Nunca falta un Peruano y su viveza.” Yes, this viveza, loosely translated to passion, leads to unnecessary car honking while stuck in traffic and angry insults to the cashier when the line is too long—but also, it applies to Peruvians sticking out their struggles with determination and style. And making songs out of their pain. And doing anything they need to survive. And then dancing till 3am and drinking together, honoring each other and all the feelings. That’s beauty.

And amongst the beautiful warm, smile of the sunset, the cool wind dancing around my face and the thousands of trees around me, and the millions of histories racing through my veins—

That’s how it felt to sing at Machu Picchu 🙂

Notes on scenes from the video:

02:26- The flag of the Tahuantinsuyo (the Incan Empire). In Cusco, because July is the month of festivals, these flags are spread all over the city. To my surprise, I initially thought everyone was celebrating Pride month! My aunt was quick to correct me 😦 But in a way, pride in our history is another type of pride.

02:50- A lady sells stuff on the sidewalk, while another man weaves between traffic to offer drivers food. I’ve noticed that homelessness does not have the definition that I’m used to–I actually looked for a homeless shelter and couldn’t find one! This is because in Peruvian society, there is informality regarding housing and jobs. If there is empty land, you can invade it, build yourself a house out of cardboard, and people will mostly respect your space. And then you can go out and juggle a soccer ball at a red light, or rent a car and taxi, or do anything, to get money in return. The fact is, no one will give you money if you don’t give them something in return.

03:09- Ollanta Raymi in Ollantaytambo, Peru. Every year on June 29th, local communities organize a reenactment of the Incan legend Ollanta, the tragedy of a warrior who dared to defy the Incan Empire. My aunt and I stumbled upon this celebration! We had gone that day to visit the ruins, but we ended up hiking to the top of Ollantaytambo and watching the show while sitting on a rock. I also took that opportunity to sing “Ojos Azules” for my aunt while hundreds of people danced below us. It was really beautiful 🙂

3:30- Tarata. My father now tells me that some Peruvians my age look back in history and see “Sendero Luminoso”, the terrorist group that killed countless of people in the early 90s, as a respectable group of people. Yet, Tarata stands as evidence of the pain that was suffered during that time. This street in 1992 exploded after a cochebomba blasted its buildings to ruins, killing many Limenos and scaring the whole country. It became a scar in people’s memories. After being told countless of stories about the terrorism era from my father’s perspective, standing on that street was a step into my history–kind of like visiting Machu Picchu, but more recent.

Luisa Torres Bio PHoto

Luisa Fernanda Apolaya Torres is a member of the class of 2021 studying mechanical engineering and theater. This summer, she is working on developing a digital platform through an internship at the innovation department in Innova Schools, an educational company in Lima, Peru.