Argentine Indians' separate identity

Sixto Vazquez scratched the dust with his foot and from the rubble extracted a broken piece of pottery. ''This could be over 400 years old,'' he said, holding the jagged clay like a relic.

Sixto was standing over 3,500 meters above sea level, some 3,000 kilometers northwest of Buenos Aires, overlooking one of the poorest regions of Argentina. The pottery lay on the sight of Omaguaca, an old Indian fortress town conquered and destroyed by the Spaniards in 1594.

For Sixto, a descendant of the pre-Colombian tribes, the more recent war, fought over a distant group of Atlantic islands, has done little to stir his sense of national identity. As a journalist he writes for Argentine newspapers. But as an ''Omaguaco'' he feels deeply only for his own culture and his own land , even among its ruins.

''What does it matter to us whether Argentina or Britain has won the war - Argentines and Englishmen are white men. They've never done anything for the Indian, and we con't expect anything different now,'' Sixto commented.

In the 17th century, the ''conquistadores'' built a new town in the valley. Today, the town renamed Humahuaca has a population of some 5,000 people, most of them Indians. Like the majority of the towns in the outlying regions of Argentina, Humahuaca contributed young conscripts to the invasion of the Falklands. But this has not brought the ''Omaguacos'' any nearer to the white man's ''national enterprise'' as conceieved by Buenos Aires.

The sense of separateness is immediately apparent to the first-time visitor. There are no slogans in the shop windows proclaiming the justice of the Argentine claim to the Malvinas. The national flag, so prominently on view in the capital city, is displayed only by a few white traders. In Buenos Aires, Argentines debate about the responsibilities for their military defeat, about the weakness of the peso and democracy. But in Humahuaca, the postwar reality is much the same as the prewar April 2 reality.

Local problems are those that exist in any third-world country in spite of the average ''white'' Argentine's boast that his country is the most civilized and developed in South America and that no one goes hungry.

Existence in the province of Jujuy, to which Humahuaca belongs, sharply contrasts with the average national statistics. Infant mortality and illiteracy are nearly three times the level recorded in some of the richer central provinces and similar to the socioeconomic indicators of poorer Andean countries.

The demands of the national economy have uprooted traditional patterns of behavior while giving few benefits in return. By tradition, the Omaguacos are small farmers and craftsmen. But the majority of young men are now absent from the town for most of the year. They provide the cheaply paid seasonal labor in sugar and tobacco plantations, and in the copper and iron mines - some of which are hundreds of miles away from their homes. Other Indians, over the years, have been drawn towards Buenos Aires only to find themselves eking out an existence in the shanty towns of the suburbs.

The Argentine Constitution defines the nation as a federalist state. But regional autonomy and self-sufficiency in northwest Argentina is de jure rather than de facto. In principle, Humahuaca is the responsibility of the provincial governor and the mayors that work under him. The officers, appointed by Buenos Aires, are expected to supervise distribution of funds drawn both from the national treasury and local taxes. In practice the funds that eventually trickle through to towns like Humahuaca are insufficient to meet the needs of the population.

''Buenos Aires doesn't really think about us,'' says Jose Maria Marquez, the local Roman Catholic bishop of Humahuaca. Mr. Marquez recently organized a voluntary health scheme to provide a better service for the Indians who live in Humahuaca and hamlets throughout the surrounding municipality. It's a major challenge. I have only 17 priests covering over 40,000 square kilometers,'' says Marquez.

Humahuaca would probably be a backwoods town were it not for its growing reputation as one of the province's most interesting tourist attractions. After years during which most southern Argentines chose to visit the rest of the world before discovering their own country, more and more are being forced by circumstance (a weak local currency and a deepening recession) to vacation in their backyard.

During the war with Britain few outsiders came to Humahuaca. But since the withdrawal of Argentine troops from the island, the local tourist trade has picked up steam again. Sixto Vazquez spends most of his day showing visiting Argentines around his small private museum. Two impeccably reconstructed rooms demonstrate the ''daily life of the Indian'' from the brewing of coca tea to the worship of a genial-looking devil. ''I want to show that we too have our culture ,'' says Sixto proudly.

The Argentines who enter his museum, react like Americans in Europe, as if they indeed confronting another world. Sixto however is clearly facing a dilemma. On the one hand Humahuaca needs its tourism to survive as a living entity. On the other hand the growing contact with the outside world threatens to undermine the very culture that men like Sixto would like to preserve.

Just a few years ago, the town's main market was the scene of barter by the local inhabitants. Now most traders carry out their transactions on a strict cash basis and not all of it above the counter. Alongside traditional flutes and clay jugs, peep the familiar unstamped cartons of contraband cigarettes and Japanese stereos.

But the most poignant symbol of the times-that-are-a-changing lies in Humahuaca's main square. It is a small picturesque colonial ''plaza'' planted with trees and overlooked by an old church and town hall. There is little else there except for squat little houses and an inconspicuous tourist shop. One part of the square however has been flattened by a bulldozer and replaced with a billboard.

''This will be the site of our bank,'' it proclaims.

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