Pilar Revolledo is 30 years old and is a resident physician at a public hospital in a poor neighborhood in Lima. On a weekend shift, an 86-year-old Quechua-speaking patient, about to be operated on, did not understand terms such as amputation, anesthesia, intravenously. He didn’t calm down when the nurses told him “sis sis” (“no, no”, in Quechua). “Loves macunchkichu” (“don’t be afraid”), asked the surgeon, and the woman replied “añay, mama” (“thank you mom”).
Revolledo is part of the generation of millennials which, for the linguist Carlos Molina Vital, became “the engine of a rebirth of Quechua in Peru: the generations of children or grandchildren of migrants who lived with greater economic or political stability than their predecessors and were able to reflect on their origins”. “I learned Quechua with the nurses at my Serums”, says the surgeon about the mandatory rural service that doctors have to fulfill if they want to work in a public hospital. Hers was in the community of San Antonio de Chuca, in Caylloma, department of Arequipa.
Revolledo says that he also took a Quechua course while studying Medicine at the National University San Agustín, in Arequipa. “Even before the current situation, I always considered it necessary to embrace our roots and who we are”, he adds. The doctor refers to the debate on the use of Quechua in Congress. In his first speech to the plenary, Prime Minister Guido Bellido gave a two-minute Quechua salute, while some deputies interrupted him with shouts. The president of the Congress, Maricarmen Alva, asked him to speak in Spanish, because he was not being understood. Bellido responded in his mother tongue that, according to Article 48 of the Constitution, Spanish and Quechua are official languages in Peru. The prime minister grew up a peasant in Cusco’s Livitaca district, and his mother does not speak Spanish.
Back in Congress last Friday, before the Cabinet’s nomination vote, Bellido clarified that he used his mother tongue “not for the purpose of denying anyone, but to integrate all the inhabitants of Peru, especially the so-called original peoples” . He explained that he wanted to use the language his mother taught as a child “in honor of many Peruvians who died without understanding a word of what was said here.” However, opposition congressmen, opinion makers and media personalities question the prime minister for using Quechua as a form of “provocation” and “division among Peruvians”.
Journalist and writer Sonaly Tuesta, who has been traveling the country for two decades documenting customs and rituals outside the capital, points out that nearly four million people (14% of the population) speak Quechua in Peru. “We are in another scenario: not only the Congress, but also the media must be prepared every time a person speaks in Quechua; an interpreter becomes a representative of the people who are listening, and it is not an offense [usar o idioma]”, comments Tuesta. She points out that, in addition to the prime minister, “there is a good group of young people who have greater awareness”, such as Solischa, a name used on the internet by a peasant woman and anthropologist who was inspired by a young musician who diffused Quechua on social networks, who died. in 2018, to promote their culture and their mother tongue on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
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languages and rights
Linguist Carlos Molina Vital explains that Quechua is a family or group of languages related to each other by historical origin, as in the cases of Arabic and Chinese. “In some cases, some varieties of these families are not mutually intelligible: for example, the ones spoken in Junín don’t get along with Quechua from the Puno or Cusco regions, but they get along perfectly with a Bolivian Quechua speaker,” says Molina , language instructor at the University of Illinois and co-founder of the Quechua Education and Innovation Initiative (QINTI).
For Molina, the 1969 agrarian reform, which marked the end of the latifundium regime, marked the moment when Quechua-speaking peasants became free, and then migrated to the cities. “But they didn’t transmit Quechua to their children or grandchildren. Then, since 1980, a large number of Quechua-speaking populations moved from Ayacucho and Huancavelica due to the internal armed conflict, and this reinforced that the language was not used openly in their homes.”
“The generation of millennials has maintained the Quechua presence for the past 15 years, starting with actress Magaly Solier and singers Renata Flores and Liberato Kani. This is the young population that is spreading it in urban environments, that has grown between the two worlds, the young speakers who learned Quechua as a second language, because they lived with their grandparents or with their parents”, describes the university professor. Molina estimates that this original language is 5,000 years old.
Linguist Luis Andrade Ciudad points out that Quechua, like the 47 languages originating in Peru, has traditionally been relegated to everyday, intimate and family communication, being excluded from public spaces, but that could change. “We imagine a fixed relationship between languages and their areas of usual use: that is why it is disconcerting to listen to Quechua at the opening of a speech at the Congress. However, we have already witnessed similar initiatives; for example, in the accidental inauguration of congresswoman María Sumire before a disconcerted congressional chair, in 2006 [que recusou o juramento feito em quéchua]. Impasses of this type could be avoided with translation and interpretation systems. There is a project in this regard that was recently presented at the current Congress, and it would be very useful to build a state apparatus sensitive to the country’s intercultural character”, analyzes the professor at the Catholic University of Peru.
Andrade notes that, although the Census does not record the number of Peruvians bilingual in Quechua and Spanish, it is assumed that the vast majority are, although bilingualism encompasses a domain of Spanish that ranges from the most rudimentary to the most fluent.
“Quechua speakers who are located closer to the first pole could interact much better with the State as an interlocutor if it communicated in Quechua. And in addition to the advantages of intercomprehension, being assisted by the State in the original language is a right, recognized both by the Constitution and by the norms associated with the original languages, which protect the linguistic rights of its speakers”, says the specialist in Andean linguistics and sociolinguistics.
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