At 12,500 feet above sea level, the chilling waters of Lake Titicaca would not normally be thought of as a “melting pot.”
But Titicaca, known as the highest navigable lake in the world, is no ordinary body of water. It is an avenue of commerce and communication for surrounding areas, as well as a sacred symbol and source of legend. In the lives of the Latter-day Saint Peruvians and Bolivians who live along its shores, it creates a common bond that ties them to each other.
The famous lake covers some 3,250 square miles and forms part of the frontier between modern Peru and Bolivia. It also marks the boundary between the predominantly Aymara-speaking Indians of the southeastern altiplano and the Quechua-speaking Incas from the mountains of Cuzco to the northwest.
According to ancient Incan legends, the first Inca, Manco Capac, and his sister-wife, Mama Oclla, lived on the Island of the Sun in the lake. They were sent by the sun god, Inti, to found the Incan capital in the fertile valley of Cuzco, some two hundred miles away.
The legend is rooted in the dim, unknown history of the past. Only thirteen miles from the southern tip of the lake is the ancient archaeological site of Tiahuanaco, believed by some to have been left by the earliest of the high civilizations of America. Near the western end of the lake lie the ruins of Sillustani, with their huge stone burial towers, called chulpas. And in the lake itself, the mysterious ruins on the islands of Taquile and Amantani are silent reminders of the once-great civilizations in this region.
Life is not easy in the altiplano, the cold, bleak, treeless plateau region around the lake averaging 13,000 feet in altitude. The area is too high for the cultivation of most food crops except potatoes (in hundreds of varieties) and the native quinua and canihuaco, highland grains cultivated in the Andes since pre-Inca times. The lake waters provide additional food, the delicious Titicaca trout.
Commerce is the principal livelihood for the people of Puno, a population center at the western end of the lake. Shops line the narrow streets. Vendors in open markets sell everything from anti-cuchos (pieces of beef heart barbecued over charcoal) and alpaca cloth to plastic zippers. Many of the goods are imported from elsewhere, some from distant lowlands over narrow and precipitous mountain roads. A principal source of livelihood for the people is the alpaca, a relative of the llama, whose soft wool is woven into beautiful sweaters, blankets, and rugs.
There is a raw, natural beauty to the land. The sky seems bluer, the clouds whiter, the wind fresher, and the stars brighter than almost any other inhabited place on earth. But missionary work is not easy in the altiplano, where one can simultaneously freeze on one side and burn on the other as the sun’s rays pierce the rarefied atmosphere of the high plateau without warming the crisp, thin air. The penetrating cold of the dry winter months (May through October) is somewhat modulated in the summer rainy season (November through April), with its slightly longer days and shorter nights. But the rains themselves cause other hazards as the downpour turns streets into rivers of mud and the flatland into a bog.
Despite the uninviting climate, the region draws people of every background, and the seed of faith finds warm, fertile soil. The gospel is beginning to take root and flourish in the hearts of many of these people.
On any given Saturday or Sunday (and occasionally on weekdays too), a group of people gathers at the tip of a low peninsula which juts into the lake on its western end, near Puno. The group may be small or large, with as many as fifty or sixty people dressed mostly in their “Sunday best.” A few are all in white. The group consists of investigators, members, and missionaries from one of the three branches in Puno attending a baptismal service. They come together from many cultures, but they emerge from the waters of the lake as brothers and sisters in the gospel and members of the kingdom of God.
Converts to the Church in the recently organized Puno District represent almost every occupational category—from artisans, bakers, bankers, carpenters, and contractors to merchants, seamen, storekeepers, tailors, and teachers. They belong to several linguistic and ethnic groups. Although most members have had little formal education, their intellectual attainments are impressive and their linguistic skills are remarkable, many of them speak at least three languages—Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara.
The president of the Puno District, Raul Manrique Lozada, a member of the Peruvian Coast Guard assigned to patrol the waters of Lake Titicaca, first heard of the Mormons when he was a young boy living near Arequipa. One day his father punished him for having a Mormon tract in his possession; out of curiosity, he had picked it up at a neighbor’s house. His father immediately destroyed the tract and warned his son to not pay attention to such evil literature.
President Manrique did not hear of the Latter-day Saints again until he was married and had two children. Five years ago, while on vacation, as he was walking along the shore of the lake he saw two tall North American missionaries. He asked them if they happened to be Mormons. When they replied that they were, and asked if he would like to know more about them, he invited them to his home for more information about their “forbidden” religion.
Two months later he agreed to be baptized if the missionaries could prove to him that Joseph Smith actually did have a vision of the Father and Son, and that the Angel Moroni did in fact appear to him. Undaunted, they replied, “Fine,” and proceeded to teach him how to pray. They told him to pray on his knees every day for a week, and promised they would also pray for him. As he prayed, a change came over him and his wife. They lost all desire to criticize and to find fault, and began to feel happier and more tranquil than ever before. President Manrique soon came to know personally that Joseph Smith had indeed been visited by the Father and the Son. A few days later he and his wife were baptized in Lake Titicaca.
His developing testimony received a boost shortly after his baptism when his daughter became critically ill with typhoid fever. Two missionaries gave her a blessing before she went to the hospital. Later that night as she lay in her bed, struggling to survive, Raul Manrique, who had recently received the Melchizedek Priesthood, laid his own hands on her head, blessed his daughter, and promised her she would live. Her quick recovery strengthened her father’s testimony immeasurably.
Brother Miguel Angel Vallenas Frisancho, an accountant at the Banco Internacional and counselor in the district presidency, resisted the missionaries’ message as long as he could. When Elders Elmer Zegarra and Jaime Santillan came to teach him and his wife, he excused himself; he suddenly “had some work to do at the bank.” He got into his automobile (Brother Vallenas is the only member of the Church in Puno to own a car) and drove around town for an hour in order to avoid listening to the missionaries. But, to his surprise, when he returned they were patiently waiting. Three weeks later, he and his family were baptized. They in turn have been responsible for bringing many other fine people of Puno into the Church, including Sister Vallena’s cousin, Inés Cardenas de Mendoza.
Sister Mendoza had studied and prayed diligently about the gospel, despite family opposition. Her final decision came as a direct result of two events: a dream in which she was prompted to be baptized, and an interview with a clergyman who tried to persuade her to reject LDS beliefs. Her inspired responses to all of his comments, plus his inability to answer any of the penetrating questions she put to him, convinced her that the gospel taught by the Latter-day Saint missionaries was true.
Miguel Luque Cutipa has taught two generations of youth in Puno. He is trilingual—fluent in Aymara, Quechua, and Spanish. Many times he has had to teach his pupils Spanish before they could read the textbooks so he could teach them mathematics, physics, and other sciences. Even before he retired from the Colegio del Estado, he was elected president (sub-mayor) of the Barrio 4 de Noviembre (an area of the city of Puno). He still serves in that capacity.
In spite of Miguel Luque’s great ability and reputation as a teacher and civic leader, he was, like many residents of the altiplano, a slave to alcohol. This weakness brought great suffering to him and his family, and contributed to the alcoholism of one of his sons.
The abrupt change in Brother Luque’s attitude and life-style when he embraced the gospel had a profound effect on the rest of his family. His son, Miguel Angel Luque Salas, followed his father in giving up alcohol; soon, he too began receiving the missionary discussions and was eventually baptized, along with his younger brother and sister. Finally, the oldest son, Marcelino Luque Salas, seeing the dramatic change in his father and younger brothers, also listened to the missionaries. He and his wife were baptized just three months after his father and mother joined the Church. Today, Miguel is a member of the district presidency, Marcelino is a leader in the Manco Capac Branch, and Miguel Angel is a priesthood leader. A more faithful and loyal family would be hard to find.
So grows the work of the Lord in this area of Peru and Bolivia, changing lives and fulfilling the promises contained in the Book of Mormon. These brief vignettes could be multiplied many times, telling for example, of Nazario Alvarez Meza, a professional photographer who had been active in an extremist military group in Cuzco. Now Brother Alvarez is active in the Huascar Branch, a law-abiding, contributing member of his community. Or there is Pedro Aurelio Nunez Mamani, a humble teacher and one-time entertainer who, when he was converted, brought all of his close relatives into the Church. He is former president of the Altiplano District.
And there is Pedro Barraza Yucra, captain of the freight ship Inca, which carries cargo on Lake Titicaca between Peru and Bolivia. Citizens of Puno know Inca Cona, of the Titicaca Branch, and his wife; the Conas sell mouth-watering pastries, including their specialty, cookie clusters with orange blossom honey. Bonifacio Apaza has his own tailor shop and teaches sewing to the Relief Society sisters of his branch. And young Sister Norma Nayut Lazo Vallenas, a leader in her high school and president of her class, has made the name Latter-day Saint familiar and respected among many teenagers of Puno.
These remarkable people, and hundreds more like them from the varied cultures surrounding Lake Titicaca, are united through the gospel. They share the distinction of having made their covenants with God in what must be the highest and coldest melting pot in the world.