Sweeping South America: indigenous pride

Andean languages are making a comeback as long discriminated-against cultures push for acceptance.

By , Staff writer

Hilaria Supa stands out in Lima in her brightly hued ancestral clothes and long braids. But she is even more of an iconoclast in the Peruvian legislature, where the congresswoman insists on speaking in her native Quechua.

In doing so, Ms. Supa says, she hopes to create a new era of inclusion for the indigenous who have long been discriminated against in Peru.

"When we speak in Quechua they say it's rude because they don't understand us," she says. "But my hope is that the language will someday be appreciated; it will be difficult, but not impossible."

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Across the Andes, similar efforts – some controversial – are bringing new recognition to indigenous culture. In Bolivia, the government hopes to nearly double the number of native language programs in classrooms by next year. In Peru, foreigners and locals alike are enrolling in extracurricular courses. Internationally, the renaissance is getting a boost as well: this past summer Google launched a new page in Quechua and Microsoft unveiled Quechua translations of Windows.

It coincides with the indigenous rights movement that has swept across Latin America – contributing to the presidential win of Evo Morales in Bolivia, the competitive run of Ollanta Humala in Peru, and the recently announced presidential bid of Rigoberta Menchu in Guatemala. Each has given a nod to indigenous culture and language in classrooms and the halls of government.

"At a grassroots level, indigenous groups are trying to revitalize their identity, their language, culture, and their ideas," says Serafín Coronel-Molina, a linguist at Princeton University in New Jersey, and native Quechua speaker.

There are an estimated 10 to 13 million Quechua speakers in South America, most of them in Peru and Bolivia. Bolivia has an estimated 1.5 million Aymara speakers. Andean languages also flourish in Ecuador as well as parts of Colombia and Argentina.

But for years, native languages were seen as a sign of inferiority. Miriam Cayetano, who teaches Quechua at San Andres University in La Paz, Bolivia, says parents used to forbid their children to speak their mother tongue. "Before parents thought their children would be undervalued [and discriminated against]," she says.

Now enrollment in classes teaching indigenous tongues is rising in universities and private institutions. Concepción Quisbert, a student of Aymara at San Andres University, joins some 250 students enrolled in either Aymara or Quechua. On a recent day, students pulled out their Aymara dictionaries, while their professor holds up erasers and pencils. The students are learning to say words like 'phuyu,' which means 'pen'. The room is packed.

"I understand Aymara because I spoke it with my parents, but never learned how to write it," says Ms. Quisbert. "I want to know my culture, and my country."

Most in Bolivia cite the rise of President Morales, an Aymara Indian and the nation's first indigenous president, for a boost in native languages.

But in Peru enthusiasm is also on the rise. On a recent evening in Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca empire, a group of students enrolled in intermediary Quechua at the Center of Regional Andean Studies Bartolome de las Casas practice communicating. They are anthropologists, teachers in rural areas, and university students studying for careers such as medicine.

Sonia Louiza grew up speaking Quechua but gave it up when she began elementary school. "I was embarrassed, and thought speaking it was something horrible," she says. She enrolled in an intermediate class to recapture what she lost. "It helps me to know who I am."

Linguists, ethnologists, and anthropologists have long been interested in Andean languages, but technology has brought it to the mainstream. Not only have Google and Microsoft jumped into the game, so have smaller players, particularly in Quechua. "There are a growing number of websites. There are electronic dictionaries. There are stories, literature, games, everything," says Mr. Coronel-Molina. "It's to promote a new kind of literacy in the 21 st century."

But while many embrace native languages, others resist their roots. Amparo Garcia, the director for Spanish and Quechua programs at Acupari Language School in Cusco , says that most of her Quechua students are foreigners. "There is a certain resistance to Quechua among some Peruvians," she says. "Even if they know Quechua, sometimes when they are addressed in it they answer in Spanish, or English."

That is why Supa has made it one of her battle cries. Seventeen percent of Peru's residents speak Quechua as a first language. In her home Huallaccocha, outside Cusco, residents address one another in Quechua on the streets and in local stores. Some don't speak Spanish at all.

But it is a different story along the coast, where most of the political and economic power lies. In July, Supa made headlines when she swore her oath of office not on the Bible but in the name of Incan deities. She is also working on a law to introduce indigenous language education to public schools. "If we don't have an identity, then the rest won't value us," Supa says.

"The town is so proud of her," says Carlos Huaman, Supa's cousin and a farmer in Huallaccocha, where homes are made with mud and straw, and the streets turn into mud slicks in the rainy season. "She can help the indigenous."

Not everyone has celebrated giving more space to indigenous culture. Last year in Bolivia, plans to replace Roman Catholic education in public schools with a course that would place more emphasis on indigenous faith, as well as to require that all schools teach native languages, was scrapped after citizens balked – despite the fact that well over half of the population speaks a native language, according to the national census.

But the Bolivian Education Ministry is pushing to nearly double its native language programs to some 5,000 schools. Currently 2,830 have such programs, up from 540 in 1990. "Learning our culture helps us de-colonize mentally," says Adrian Montalvo, who helps plan the native languages program in the Education Ministry.

The goal is to have all functionaries at the national level adept at at least one native language, too. Where many in the younger generations focus on foreign languages for social mobility and work opportunities, Ms. Cayetano, says many students are enrolling in native languages today for the very same reasons.

"They are starting to revalue their languages," says Cayetano, whose department offers classes to functionaries in the municipal government of La Paz. "They are going to need it in the future."

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