While visiting Lima, you may occasionally hear people say: “Que Piña!” (Such a pineapple!) The image of a yellow, soft and fresh pineapple will pop on your mind. But after staring around, you will find neither a pineapple nor a fruit vendor. Relax, people may not be referring to a fruit but a person. Some Limeños say Such a pineapple! or What a pineapple! when someone is very unlucky. A proper translation would be how unfortunate! This connotation is part of our slang and you may not find it in the dictionary. Any tourist would wonder: if a pineapple is an exquisite fruit, how did it become associated with bad luck?
The confusion lies in the belief that the Peruvian ‘piña‘ comes from Spanish. It doesn’t; it’s actually a Quechua term. In order to explain it, we must go back five centuries earlier.
The Inca Empire and The Role of Diplomacy
The Incas escalated to greatness with the ascension of Pachacutec. Multiple chronicles hold that the ninth Inca ruler possessed mystical powers. One day, Pachacutec found a crystal rock inside a pond. The sparkling prism contained the Image of Inti, the Sun God, which gave Pachacutec the mission of Imperial expansion. This prism was supposedly a magic mirror, granting Pachacutec immense wisdom and his greatest political gift: to peek into the minds of men. Magical or not, Pachacutec was a restless and demanding ruler. Historians highlighted Pachacutec’s obsession in achieving their sacred destiny: to indoctrinate and, if needed, to enforce the worship of the Inti in the “savage” tribes in their periphery.
Around 1438, Pachacutec’s army defeated the powerful Chankas in northern Apurimac. Afterward, the Inca expansion saw no need for battle. Either the tribes accepted their rule or died by the spear. Pachacutec sent multiple diplomatic missions to most regions. Foreign tribal leaders were invited to lavish festivities offering exquisite food. The leaders were given praise, and the option to marry noble Inca maids. In exchange for their token of friendship, the tribes had to submit to Inca rule.
The Wars of Rebellion, and the Courageous Piñas
Tribal leaders knew it was wiser to accept Inca rule rather than facing a bloody war with Pachacutec. They had heard that Pachacutec deciphered men’s thoughts and anticipated their actions beforehand. The lords had no choice but to submit. Yet, most of them regretted it afterward. The Incas had taken away their best citizens to send them for further colonizing expeditions. Tribal Lords also had to pay a periodical tribute to secure ‘Inca protection’. But what infuriated them the most was that Incas confiscated their most fertile lands.
“The Incas faced a dilemma after gathering the enemy’s survivors. What to do with them? One Inca general suggested: Piñaschay! meaning put them in prison! The prisoners of war were then regarded as Piñas”
Upon hearing such awful accounts, some tribal lords rebelled. These courageous lords and their armies clashed with the Incas. Needless to say, they ended up losing their battles. The Incas faced a dilemma after gathering the enemy’s survivors. What to do with them? One Inca general suggested: Piñaschay! meaning put them in prison! The prisoners of war were then regarded as Piñas.
After releasing them from prison, the Piñas became Imperial slaves. They were condemned to work for the rest of their lives. The bondage imposed on Piñas also extended to their families for various generations. Piñas who formerly had noble lineage were the exclusive property of the Inca. Regardless, Piñas constituted the lowest caste within the Inca stratified system. Other accounts assure that Piñas were sent to work in coca plantations in the jungles. But there is actually no scholarly proof of such assertion.
The little we know from Piñas was collected from ancient Quechua dictionaries.
What we do know is that the perception of bad luck has still prevailed. To become a ‘pineapple’ is the worst thing that may happen to a Peruvian. What it is quite paradoxical is that piñas were the bravest warriors among ancient Peruvians. Piñas were willing to lay down their lives to be set free. So, it is an irony that the bad connotation prevailed.
Today, Peruvians call each other Que Piña! pretty regularly. Many prefer using this expression instead of the more formal ‘bad luck’. Others believe that Piñas may spread their ill luck, and stay away from them. But Peruvians often use this term among friends, and in a joyful spirit. So, if you ever hear a Peruvian say Que Piña!, ask him/her if they know the origin of the phrase.
If not, share the story. Having said this, we hope that you never become a Pineapple!𝔖