Jubilantly singing and playing on wood-carved instruments, the guileless, even-natured Otavalans of Ecuador appear in sharp contrast to the Andes' craggy peaks that surround them. As the men sing in their native Quichua, dressed in traditional white trousers and dark ponchos, their long black hair pulled back in loose braids, they radiate a love for their culture, heritage, and religion - to LDS Otavalans, the three are one and the same.
They are, according to Church leaders in South America, some of the purest Lamanite descendants existing. The growing number of converts to the Church in this lush, fertile valley has been seen by many as yet another sign of the continuing of the Book of Mormon's promise to Lehi's seed.
"The prophecies of Lehi and President (Spencer W.) Kimball are being fulfilled," said Pres. Jose Alberto Picuasi Quilachamin of the Ecuador Otavalo Stake. "They promised that our numbers would grow, and they are."
Formed in December 1981, the stake was the first of its kind in South America: not only the first all-indigenous stake on that continent, but the first non-Spanish-speaking stake in all of Latin America as well. Today, 1,800 members live in the town of Otavalo (pop: 20,000), and by the end of the decade, said Pres. Picuasi, "we'd like to have converted every one of our people."
"Our purpose is to bring forth the gospel by sharing," he explained. "Our attitude should be simple so the rest of our people will notice who and what we are."
Although converts are criticized for creating a "division" in the tribe, he said member-missionary work is still going forward and is accomplished by inviting friends to Church activities, dances, and by being an example at school or in the work place. For the full-time missionaries serving in Otavalo, the members' natural willingness to help them spread the gospel is invaluable - often they'll serve as translators during discussions, although most Otavalans also speak Spanish.
"Whenever we have a problem," said Sister Rebecca Hunt of Fredricksburg, Va., a missionary in the Ecuador Quito Mission, "the members will spend days trying to help us; they'll even fast and pray for us. The way they pray, they have a personal communication with their Heavenly Father I've never seen before. They really remind me of the people of Ammon."
Indeed, their way of life probably has changed little from the days of Lehi's time: Otavalans are still mostly agrarians, and subsist mainly on corn, squash, beans and potatoes. Talented artisans, they are well-respected throughout Ecuador and all South America for their beautiful handiwork and shrewd business sense; their delicate, hand-made tapestries are among the most sought-after of any indigenous group in the country.
The women have their traditional dress as do the men, and can always be recognized by their long, dark velvet wrap-around skirts, intricately hand-embroidered white blouses, and rows of golden beads around their necks. Even when traveling to hotter areas of the country, both the men and women retain their native dress - a symbol of their cultural pride.
"Because they've preserved most of their customs, identity, clothing, food and so on over the centuries," said Elder Charles Didier of the First Quorum of the Seventy and president of the South America North Area, "the Otavalans have come out as a special people. They have a real desire to serve the Lord, and have a natural inclination to look to their Father in Heaven from birth."
Their valley is green year-round and densely wooded with eucalyptus and pine trees, and lies nestled between several lakes and the volcanoes of Cotacachi and Imbabura, just 50 miles north of the capital city of Quito. A legend among the Otavalans has it that centuries ago, the Savior came down from Imbabura, taught the people and returned to the mountain, ascending into the clouds. Today, the indigenous people call the volcano Taita Imbabura - Holy Mountain.
"As I'd walk up into the nearby mountains," recalled Elder Robert E. Wells of the First Quorum of the Seventy, who lived in Quito with his family during the late 1960s, before his call as a General Authority, "I really felt that the prophets of old had walked through there. It's very much a blessed an a privileged area."
Elder Wells later returned to Otavalo as a member of the South America North Area presidency in the mid-'80s, and found the valley and its people to be as beautiful as he remembered.
"What stands out the most from my visits there," he said, "is the Otavalans' absolute humility and spirituality. They are a very childlike and meek people, and radiate such joy in the gospel."
Pres. Picuasi's first counselor, Luis Alfonso Fuentes Cotacachi, expressed this joy when he said, "Being indigenous, it's been a real pride to be Mormon. It's a beautiful feeling when I read the Book of Mormon and know that it's the history of my ancestors. We have little education, but with the help of the Spirit, we understand."
Juan Munoz Otavalo, second counselor in the stake presidency, added, "We feel very grateful that our ancestors knew that in these last days we would listen to their words - what they said is now being fulfilled. The Book of Mormon is a great blessing; it teaches many things we will have to overcome, because the challenges our ancestors had are much the same as the ones we face today."
When Elder Spencer W. Kimball dedicated Ecuador for missionary work in October 1965, he quoted from Elder Melvin J. Ballard's dedication of South America 40 years earlier: "The work will go slowly for a time, just as an oak grows slowly from an acorn, but thousands will join the Church here. The day will come when the Lamanites here will get thier chance."
Shortly afater Elder Kimball's dedicatory prayer, the first branch was organized in Otavalo.
"We went up ther and rented a home for the branch house and put two missionaries there," recalled J. Averil jesperson, who in 1965 was presiding over the Andes Mission. "The missionaires converted the family from whom we were renting, and then the people next door, too."
At a district conference some years later, he related, "The children sang `I Am a Child of God' in Quichua, and everyone had tears in their eyes. They were very industrious, very spiritual, and grew in numbers rapidly."
Another time, when President and Sister Kimball came to visit Otavalo, "They wanted to have a meeting with those that lived away from the city. So we went up into the hills and invited the people there; at least 100 investigators came and sat on the banks of a tiny creek, and there we held the meeting," recalled Jesperson who translated for President Kimball. "It was one of those great spiritual meetings with the prophet, and we were overwhelmed by the Spirit. many were baptized afterward."
One of the first Otavalan converts was a man by the name of Rafael Tabango.(see Church News, March 4, 1972.) Although he couldn't read, he nevertheless prayed to know if the Book of Morman was true. in a dream, the prophet moroni read a portion of the book to him, and Tabango knew in his heart that it was true and that he should be baptized. he was later called as the first branch president, first district president, and first stake patriarch.
This innate spirituality and willingness to obediently accept the counsels of the Loard are two qualities which endear the Otavalans to those who know them and have live among them.
"We truly left our hearts there," said Dorothea Shawcroft, whjo served a mission there with her husband, J. Lynn Shawcroft, several years ago. "They are such a humble, family-oriented, talented and intelligent people."
They are also a very musical people, she noted.
"In the evenings when the work is done and the animals are brought home, the men will gather and play these wood instruments, the quena and the charanga," she recalled. "One evening, walking back to our apartmen on a moonlit night, across the air came the melody of `El condor Pasa.' It was beautiful."
It's a traditional piece of the Andes Highlands, passed down by generations, and as these modern-day Lamanites sing it, one thinks of their grandfathers who taught it to them, and of the prophets who long ago walked there.