Even though the threshing machine was introduced in Chile at the end of the 19th Century, the use of mares to work the wheat is still a strong tradition in our countryside, and it takes place along with several expressions of the peasant culture. It is part of a celebration that goes on during January and February in towns all over the country, and it is a chance not just for visitors to learn about our country’s traditions, but also for the local community to gather around their own history. The Earth recieves the people’s gratitude for its fruits, and the Sun, for making the wheat ears grow.
In a sort of circular farmyard (the "era") mares (or horses, sometimes) start galloping, stepping on the corn’s bundles. Horsemen drive the animals, while the "horqueteros" distribute the wheat. "Vuelta yegua, vuelta trigo, agua pa' los animales y chicha pa' los amigos", ("round goes the the yegua, round goes the corn; water for the animals and chicha for the friends") goes the traditional chant. The Mapuches refer to this same ceremony as nuincahuin, one which starts with the cut of the mature wheat early in the morning and with the help of the whole community. Once cut, comes the "tying", forming the bundles that are taken by carts to the "era", where the celebration takes place.
This has become a big event of our rural traditions, with parties that include folk musicians and singers, handcrafting, typical games and food (such as the "al palo" barbecue, baked potatos, "cazuelas", beans, "charquican", "empanadas" and even seafood when at the coast); all these with wine and "chicha". Liquors such as the mistela and some of our typical bakery are also part of the menu. Some towns organize a "Chilean mass" and horseback ridings as well. The "avienta" or musical celebration may last for hours after the threshing is completed.
Each town will celebrate the same with slight variations, but always based on the original tradition, making the threshing a tourist atrtraction. The most important af all may be the one in Pelluhue, a coastal town of the 7th Region, and which celebrates threshing on the last day of January. There are at least 200 hundred mares and horses, ten folk groups and fifty cueca-dancing couples. In its latest version, 10,000 tourists were there (making the Pelluhue threshing celebration part of the Guinness World Book of Records). In certain places, such as Limache, another central element is the election of the Queen.
A time symbol
Fidel Sepulveda, director of Universidad Catolica’s Aesthetics Institute, threshing is an extraordinary opportunity for combining work and celebration. He remembers the threshings he witnessed during his childhood, when the large Sepulveda family would get together to work on the corn. He says that back then, there could be 30 or 40 threshings in one single summer. He still remembers the people walking down the hills of Cobquecura to take part on the celebrations.
"Theirs was a real joy of sharing. There was a stronger sense of community than now, and the'being’ was more important thean the'having’. All got toghether to celebrate with the Earth, and secure their sustenance for the rest of the year", says Sepulveda.
The threshing needed the work of the whole community; some over the corn, others cooking. The "chupilca" was a must, a drink made of wine and toasted flour, which one had to drink with a spoon, so to enjoy the bottom. It was also an occasion for horsemen to show their skills. Kids could not get into the risky "era". Sepulveda had then to look from the outside, dreaming about being one of those wonderful "huasos".
There was a lunchbreak, which included a first course, a cazuela, an entrée and a dessert a the end. During the afternoon, a singer (cantora) would usually climb over a pile of wheat and so the dancing would start. At night, the celebration kept going, and so it did until dawn. Lots of times, the ending would be signaled with rude quarrels.
These are the images that feed Sepulveda’s thoughts about the meaning of the threshing. It is an occasion in which "I become part of the other, crossing the'other’ to the'we’. It is one of the most noble of traditions; a work that dignifies the peasant and which harms nobody".
For the professor, the "era" symbolizes a cycle and resembles a time wheel. "When the mares go round it is a symbol of time running. The cyle begins with the wheat grain, then comes the bread, then the family enjoyment and common work".
But with time the threshing became more of a work than a celebration. Sepulveda regrets it: "This is one of Chile’s most beautiful traditions, and is now being lost to the wave of individualism that makes us believe that what's most important is what's ours, never looking to the side".