Sweeping South America: indigenous pride
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.