Indigenous language endures in Peru despite centuries of discrimination

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CCARHUACC LICAPA, Peru—Leila Ccaico slowly walked to the front of her classroom in a rural village in the Andes. Reluctantly, she faced her classmates, obeyed her teacher’s orders, and began to sing softly in Quechua.

This is the first year that the sixth-grade student is taking reading and writing lessons in the Indigenous language she learned from her parents, a language that has survived despite centuries of laws and discrimination that have discouraged its use.

The halt in efforts to revive and promote the language gained attention in August when the newly appointed Peruvian prime minister surprised the nation by delivering a Quechua speech to Congress for the first time in Peruvian history.

The Spanish translation was not available, which angered politicians who could not understand the speech, a fact that illustrated Quechua’s status as a second-class language in the South American country.

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But the incident also raised hope among Quechua speakers that Peru’s new government, led by a rural schoolteacher from an indigenous region, will give their language more visibility and increase funding for bilingual education. in villages where children are often reluctant to speak the ancient language.

“I feel strange speaking Quechua; it’s embarrassing, ”said Leila, 11, whose name sounds like“ Hai-Ko ”in English.

Speaking in Spanish, she said that children who speak Quechua in her school are bullied and added that parents in her village do not want children to learn the language because they think it is wrong. will not help the children when they move to the city to work.

Leila Ccaico, whose parents are alpaca breeders, said she stopped speaking Quechua fluently when she was 6 years old. .

This is a situation commonly encountered by Quechua speakers in South America, although the language is used by around 10 million people in the region, mainly in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, all of whom have made it an official language. over the past decades.

Five hundred years ago, Quechua was the lingua franca of the Inca Empire, which stretched from what is now southern Colombia to central Chile.

But the language’s status began to wane after the Spanish conquest of Peru. Although the Spanish authorities initially tolerated Quechua, they banned it following an indigenous rebellion in 1781.

In 1975, a nationalist military government made Quechua an official language in Peru, along with Spanish. But legal recognition has not prevented discrimination against Quechua speakers, who mostly come from poor and rural areas.

During the conflict between the Peruvian government and the Shining Path guerrilla group in the 1980s and 1990s, some indigenous peoples were tortured by the military and accused of being collaborators with the rebels simply for speaking Quechua, a found a truth commission.

Thousands of Quechua-speaking women participated in forced sterilization campaigns in Peru under the government of Alberto Fujimori from 1990 to 2000 and were denied medical care in their mother tongue.

“We have suffered for 500 years. We walked slowly through hills and snow-capped peaks to get here to Congress and make our voices heard, ”Prime Minister Guido Bellido said during his Quechua speech on August 26.

Mr Bellido, a native speaker of Quechua who is also fluent in Spanish, was attending his confirmation hearing after being appointed prime minister by Pedro Castillo, the country’s newly elected president.

Three minutes after starting, Mr. Bellido was ordered to stop his speech by Congress President Maria Alva, who told him to “translate immediately” what he had said. Translators were not available despite the official status of Quechua.

Leila Ccaico, 11, plays with one of her family’s alpacas on her family’s land in Licapa, Peru on Thursday, September 2, 2021. Ccaico, whose parents are alpaca herders, said that she had stopped speaking Quechua fluently at the age of six when she was told by older sister to stop because passers-by were making fun of them. (AP Photo / Franklin Briceno)

“It is time for a change. It is time for all the inhabitants of our country to see each other as equals, without discrimination,” Bellido told the chamber in Quechua.

Later, as lawmakers debated his appointment, he took out – seemingly casually – a small bag of coca leaves, soaked his mask and began to chew on a few. The practice is common among indigenous peoples of the Andes who use the herb as a tonic, but never before seen in legislative chambers.

Leila Ccaico’s mother, Maribel Licapa, said she watched the speech and agreed with the PM that more needs to be done to accommodate non-Spanish speakers.

Ms Licapa said she was prohibited from speaking her mother tongue when working on a plantation on the Peruvian coast and as a cleaner in the homes of wealthy families closer to her village. “You have to speak Spanish. I don’t understand, ”one employer told him.

“For 500 years, Spanish has been imposed in a way that reflects the racist and classist values ​​of Peruvian society,” said Carmen Cazorla, an anthropologist who teaches Quechua at the Catholic University of Peru. “This society underestimates those who speak indigenous languages ​​and some even suspect that the speakers of these languages ​​are using them to offend others,” Ms. Cazorla said.

Ms. Cazorla runs a bilingual project at Leila Ccaico’s school, where children learn to gather medicinal plants and write down their Quechua names. Leila said it was the first time she had heard positive comments about Quechua at school.

“Our teacher told us that Quechua is a very good language, and that we have to speak it as well as we speak Spanish because otherwise it will disappear,” said Leila.

Despite the difficulties encountered by Quechua, it has made progress. The Peruvian public television channel has been broadcasting a daily news program in Quechua since 2016, and dozens of folk groups produce videos in the indigenous language. Some rock groups have also experimented with songs in Quechua.

Currently, more than 1.2 million children are receiving bilingual education in Spanish and indigenous languages ​​across Peru – a nation of around 32 million people – and the new Minister of Education Juan Cadillo said that the government aims to increase the number of bilingual teachers in public schools from 54,000 to around 60,000 next year.

Leila’s school started teaching Quechua for the first time in April, when bilingual teacher Alicia Cisneros moved to the village.

Ms. Cisneros, 50, comes to class wearing a brown bowler hat with a red flower – a style common among indigenous women in the area – to show her pride in her heritage.

The teacher said she was asked to take her hat off at banks, a restaurant, a university in the Peruvian capital and the education ministry. “I resisted and did not take it off,” she said. “There are times when you will be trampled on because of your origin. But you have to have guts and resist. (PA)


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