The end of the Peruvian school year is about this time. Teachers are wrapping up there coursework, preparing documents, and organizing for the next year. Students are coming to school later and later, not wearing their uniforms and getting excited for their vacation. Teachers and students get about 2 months of free time. During that time, some will work but most will play.
The end of the school year is also accompanied by promotions. These are Peruvian graduations. There is one for graduating from primary school, which is like middle school, and another for secondary school, which is like graduating from high school. Lucky for me I was invited to both this year. My host-sister is part of the high school graduation and some extended family are part of the primary school graduation. So I washed my hair and put on ‘nicer’ clothes in order to attend these events with my host family. The two promotions were very much different. However, there were some common themes running through the two that helped me learn a lot about how important these events are.
(1.) Perhaps one of the most obvious cultural components of any sort of promotion is the importance of family ties. If you are related, in any way, to one of the students who are graduating, chances are you are getting invited. Once you are at the promotion, you greet other families, but make sure to sit amongst your own. In each graduation there was a time for family related dancing and photographs. Each family took their time to pose in photos with the honored student or share a dance with them. Members of the family are repeatedly thanked for their support in getting their student this far. In some cases, the support was more loving and obvious, but there was support nonetheless.
(2.) A second important portion of a Peruvian promotion is music. In fact, most of the event is centered around a dance that takes place towards the end. In the case of the secondary school promotion (my host-sister’s), there was a DJ and MC. They played music throughout the promotion and organized the sequence of events. In primary school graduation, there was a live orquestra band. Both graduations also had coordinated dances. Each class had choreographed a dance to be performed for the audience. The younger kids were very formal and almost romantic with there’s. The high school aged kids were definitely more modern and borderline sexual.
Once all he photographs, speeches, gift giving and eating is over, each promotion fired up their dance. In the case of the secondary school dance, the disc ball turned on and the fog machine started blasting. The auditorium quickly became a discoteca. The kids awkwardly made their way onto the dance floor, dragging others to share in the embarrassment. I was perfectly happy watching the hormone-ridden high school dance party unfold, but the flash from my camera blew my cover. I was then dragged onto the dance floor and paired with a student’s mom to dance. I did the best I could for about 10 songs. At that point, I made the excuse that I needed to go to the bathroom and the mom told me her feet hurt.
The primary school dance was much more communitarian. The live band came onto stage and began playing music. Within a matter of minutes the dance floor would be full of people dancing. At this point, I was sitting with the professors. We shared dances and switched partners. At this point, I was feeling much more confident in my dancing abilities. We would dance for 2 or 3 songs at a time before the band took a break. Everyone would then return to their drinking circles until the next round of songs came on. Which leads me to my third important cultural component of Peruvian graduations: beer.
(3.) It was no secret that beer would play a large component of any graduation. In fact, students and families were almost gossiping about the eventual beer consumption. Some were excited while others were a bit more apprehensive. After the formal ceremonies for each graduation was over, the beer vendor began selling beer. Yes, there was a beer vendor at middle school and high school graduations. The line grew quickly. Men and women would approach the window and purchase a box of beer. Each comes with 12 big bottles (24 oz. if my college days don’t mistake me). The boxes of beer then become the center pieces of the family drinking circles. Towers of beer began taking form. I think one family had upwards of 30 boxes. I remember at one point in the night, looking over and only see the eyes and hat of a grandfatherly figure sticking out above his castle of beer. The professors and I had a modest 3 boxes for a group of about 15 people. We sat, shared beer and talked. When the band would play we would stand up to dance. The beer still made its rounds between the dancing pairs. Customarily, men would ask women to dance. But according to a professor a lot has changed and now women also ask men to dance. I experienced both ends of this gender binary. Female professors were asking me to share a dance. I also made sure to ask my host-sister and host-mom to dance with me as well.
The beer drinking did not stop. The drinking circles continued sipping. The orquestra would take breaks to drink also. Bottles could be heard being dropped and broken. Beer even was being thrown about in the crowd. I wish I could say there was no under aged drinking (legal age is 18). Most of the kids were running around and playing while others were dancing. There was hide and go seek and fire crackers. For the most part, they weren’t drinking. But after a few hours, everyone seemed to care less. Some of the students from my school were drinking and dancing. Some were even struggling to maintain control. I ended taking three out of the dance hall to go to the bathroom and get some air. I tried to get them to go home, but they were back dancing before I knew it. I guess that’s not really my place anyway.
In general both of the promotions felt like an opportunity for the community to gather. The kids were completing major stepping stones in their education. For many, they are the first in their family to finish their primary or secondary education. Besides this, it was an opportunity for the families to get out of the house, away from work and into a social setting. They put on their nicer and cleaner clothes, jewellery, their dancing shoes and came with high spirits. Both of the promotions came at the end of the calendar year. Because of this the primary school graduation also felt like a a New Year’s bash. There were so many community members that they were spilling out of the dance hall and into the street.
Both of these experiences were interesting looks into the Peruvian promotion culture. I was happy to be invited and even happier to push through the reluctance of going. These types of events are important for me. They serve not only as learning opportunities but also opportunities for integration. The more time in public and the more time being with my community members (yes, that means drinking some beer also), the better. It’s how I attempt to build confianza (trust). This not only helps me in my work endeavours but also in creating a more authentic and culturally immersive experience.
And now, a lesson in dancing: