This special day only comes around once a year. Every August, school grinds to a halt for almost an entire week. There’s at least one parade or concert every evening with well-known bands like Grupo 5 headlining at stadium venues. Bougainvillea flowers can be spotted in every nook and cranny and Peruvian flags of all shapes and sizes hang in the windows and wave in the breeze. The big day comes and the president of Peru himself walks down one of the main streets of town, waving calmly and with a smile even as people shout “¡cierre el congreso!” (Close the congress!), calling out the corrupt nature of Peru’s government. You might think it’s Peru’s day of independence but that’s celebrated on the 28th of July. Then what has Tacneños so worked up? It’s Día de Tacna.
August 28th, 1926 was the official date in which Tacna was reincorporated as Peruvian territory. Before that, the region of Tacna had been under the control of Chile. During the Guerra del Pacifico, or the War of the Pacific, the region of Tacna had been captured by Chilean forces after a devastating defeat in the Battle of Alto de Alianza. Tacneños spent just shy of 50 years under the thumb of these conquerors but that by no means signifies that they were swayed in their identity; they remained loyally Peruvian throughout the years of occupation. Tacna has currently spent less than one hundred years as official Peruvian territory once again and yet I would go so far as to say the patriotism I see in this region is some of the strongest and fiercest in the country.
To an outsider, the influence of military training and deep-rooted memory of battles once fought might seem jarring. It was strange for me at first to see the student escolta march across the patio every Monday morning or to watch most of the high school age students use up their precious physical education hours to perfect the rhythm of their step and the straightness of their legs as the Día de Tacna date loomed. Even more striking to me was when I witnessed third grade primary students reenact the tragic Batalla del Alto de Alianza, where small eight year-olds dressed as Chileans “shot” their classmates dressed as soldiers of Bolivia, Peru, and the women who accompanied them into battle.
As someone who grew up in a rather liberal area of the U.S., I was accustomed to a strong separation between the military might of my country and the playground of my elementary school. I have never marched in my life, have never reenacted a battle, and barely know the names of any skirmishes that were fought across my country’s territory in the last few centuries. To hear Peruvians rant about the treachery and cruelty of Chileans and to have to celebrate each Peruvian general’s birthday with some sort of fan-fair and holiday felt stale and outdated to me. It seemed to me as if Tacna was trapped in a bubble of pride over a violent past, one that had not yielded them any victories.
Perhaps the bitterness of the Chilean-Peruvian conflict has to do with being a victim of defeat. Tacna’s return to Peru was a gift from Chile, not won through conflict. There was no closure for Tacneños, no act that they can claim as a victory achieved through their own efforts. Perhaps this is why Día de Tacna has become such an important day: it allows Tacneños to reclaim their Peruvian identity.
When I first stood on a sidewalk a year ago and witnessed the celebrations for Día de Tacna, tears stung my eyes. Instead of the endless talks of war and military might, I watched the women of Tacna bearing the largest Peruvian flag I had ever seen down the street. Young girls in crisp, white dresses and hatsthrew bougainvillea petals from woven baskets. The president of Peru, Martín Vizcarra, walked among the people, shockingly exposed to the crowds, sending a mix of both love and hate at his nodding head. I looked up, and on each balcony and rooftop there were families waving and looking down at the crowd below. There was so much joy and so much pride in being Peruvian that the pain of wars lost and betrayals born faded into history. I felt my own sense of pride as an inhabitant of this city and witnessed the vibrancy of life in my friends and neighbors.
Now, as I have witnessed my second Día de Tacna, my vision of a Tacna no longer stuck in the past seems more and more possible. I hope that as generations of Tacneños learn and grow that this city continues to celebrate its pride and leave the pain of the past behind, with eyes towards to the future.
Originally published at www.jvcwithcamila.blogspot.com