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Photo by Benjamin Swift, Andes & Amazon Semester.

Thoughts from a Quechua Student

A defining aspect of Andes and Amazon is that all homestay families are of Quechua descent. Quechua, though originally the name of a small tribe near Cuzco, Perú, which the Incans has conquered, was mistaken by Spanish conquistadores as the name of the Incan language, really called Runa Simi, the language of people. The word “Quechua” now not only represents the indigenous language spoken in Bolivia, Perú, Ecuador, Colombia, and parts of Argentina and Chile, but the group of people who speak it. Though all families also speak Castellano, in part because of the now mandatory schooling in Spanish for their children, the confusion that comes with a sudden switch to Quechua in conversation or a mezcla of it and Spanish is a common experience among Dragons students. In the country with the highest indigenous population in South America at roughly 50% indigenous and 35% mestizo, this allows for a unique look at Bolivian identity.

Though I don´t pretend to be an expert on anything Bolivian, something I’ve learned a lot about from my host family is the generational differences that exist within Quechua communities. At a recent traditional engagement, or passing of the hand, ceremony for my host sister and her boyfriend, all of the parents, aunts, and uncles gave long, somber speeches in a mix of Quechua and Spanish to the novios with advice for their marriage. One tío remarked, “You are a new generation, a professional generation,” and spoke of their responsibilities to set an example for their cousins and find career success. I thought of my cholita mother (I’ve stopped using the word “host” at this point), who was so proud to see her oldest daughter graduate from university, but who, though she speaks it daily with her husband and two daughters, told me it made her sad that her two young sons could not speak Quechua. I recalled my sister telling me that her mother had grown up six hours into the countryside from their current suburb, and had helped raise all of her younger siblings after her mother´s death when she was twelve, with no time to finish school. I also thought of her in-laws, the parents of my host dad, who only speak Quechua, and the stark contrast between them and my city clothes-wearing, cell phone-brandishing, university-attending host siblings. It struck me that the measure of success for their families, the means of doing “better” than one´s parents, was to essentially become more “mestizo” and less indigenous. In Bolivia, race is quantified by not by actual percentage of indigenous descendants, but by native language spoken, so a person who speaks solely Spanish, wears city clothes, and lives in the city is mestizo even if both of their parents are indigenous. One of our guest speakers, Omar Alarcón, remarked in his documentary, during which he returns to his grandmother´s pueblo in el campo, that he believed his mother didn’t teach him Quechua because it was associated with the indigenous and the poor.

I talked to my Quechua teacher and ISP mentor, who for the past few weeks has dealt with my horrendous pronunciations and utter confusion over learning a language that, predating romance languages, has no similarities to anything I´ve learned before, other than when it´s mixed with Spanish. I asked him if, with the loss of it through generations and its growing mix with Spanish, Quechua would eventually cease to exist. He told me it was a possibility, and that teachers like him, who are part of a small group of people who formally studied Quechua in university and either become teachers, translators, or historians, are trying to keep it alive. He told me that the writing and teaching of Quechua had only been standardized one or two years ago, and it was only recently that some government positions instated learning Quechua as a requirement.

My interactions with Quechua people have made me think a lot about why I chose to learn Quechua for my ISP. After all, I have yet to hold a substantial conversation in it and I only have one class left, and I may never use it again after leaving South America. Adding six hours of language study, taught in Spanish, a language I´m also still learning, plus memorization based homework to my week when I could be doing something like cooking or weaving seemed pretty grim at first. But being able to understand just a little bit of my family´s Quechua, to learn the difficulty of a language so many people are still keeping alive, to compare it to English and Spanish linguistically and start to comprehend how it works, and to spend time with my Quechua teacher, who juggles daytime and nighttime teaching jobs and a 3rd job just to do something he´s passionate about it, make me confident in my ISP decision.