Quechua and Aymara in Peru

Some Americans are under the impression that there are vast regions, in Peru, where Spanish is not spoken. Where indigenous languages reign supreme. From what I’ve seen, this is not the case.
While in Cusco, in the heart of the so-called Quechua speaking region, what I saw was a dying language. Only the older people speak it on a regular basis. My queries confirmed that they generally make little or no attempt to teach it to the younger generation. When I asked a street vendor if he spoke Quechua, he replied “yes” and agreed to speak some in front of my camera. What I got was a mixture of maybe 70% Spanish and 30% Quechua. I may post it on YouTube and let viewers decide. A young lady, who works at the hostel I stayed at, invited myself and another man to her home for lunch. She knew I might buy an alpaca sweater from her (I did). She told me that she understands some Quechua; her parents used it mainly to keep secrets from her, much as older Jewish immigrants used Yiddish for subjects they didn’t want their kids to understand. Her older brother did speak it, but he admitted that he makes no effort to teach it to his own daughter. Getting the father to speak Quechua for my camera was like pulling teeth. He simply could not fathom why I would want him to do so if I didn’t understand it. I asked him if he enjoys American music and he said “yes.” I asked him how he could possibly appreciate it if he couldn’t understand the words. In the end, he acquiesced.
When I brought up the obvious fact that such a generational disconnect means their language, an important part of their heritage, was dying, I got the standard answer: Out in the country, everybody speaks it – even children. You’ll get the same answer everywhere a language is disappearing. As a matter of fact, I was out in the country (somewhere in the Sacred Valley) shortly thereafter. A young girl, dressed in traditional garb, stood with her sheep in order to get money from tourists. I asked her if she spoke Quechua and she replied “no.”
While in Mollendo, a teenage boy approached me and asked where I was from. Then he asked which languages I spoke and told me he speaks Spanish and Quechua. So young speakers are out there and there is still some hope for Quechua. Several indigenous languages, included Quechua and Aymara, are considered official languages in Peru. Officially, the government is concerned about their preservation. It recognizes them as important parts of Peruvian heritage. Toward this end, they are taught in schools. But experience has shown that teaching a language in schools will not save it from extinction. Look at Gaelic in Ireland. They teach it in schools there – but how many Irish actually speak it? My guess is that teaching it in schools can be counterproductive; it makes kids look at it as more of a burden than a treasure. If the government were serious about protecting Quechua, the children would be actually taught in it, not just about it. Street signs would have Quechua alongside Spanish. Sort of like they do in Wales with Welch.
Some Peruvian parents give their children Quechua names. Some musicians sing in Quechua. I bought a couple of cds that consist of such songs. But all you hear on the radio is Spanish. I’m sure they have programs in native languages, but you have to know how to find them and they don’t seem to be very popular.
I was going to visit Puno, where Aymara is supposedly widely spoken. Illness prevented me from doing so. But I did hear Aymara spoken while on the bus from Tacna to Arica, Chile. Some middle-aged women were speaking it right beside me. I get the impression that quite a few people still speak it here in the far south, probably due to the relative isolation.
There are many small villages in the Amazon jungle outside Iquitos. I stayed in one called Mishana. I also passed through a couple more. Each time I asked the locals if they spoke any language other than Spanish. The answer was along the lines of: “We’re mestizos here and we speak only Spanish. To hear native languages, you must travel very far out.” It was interesting that even the local guides did not know this; they’d never even bothered to ask.
I met a young Chilean man at my hostel here in Tacna. He’s an anthropologist who specializes in indigenous cultures. He tells me there’s an upsurge in native identity, and that young people are more interested in their roots. That’s all fine and good – except that human sacrifice has continued to be a problem in one or two places, and the authorities had to arrest a shaman. Can indigenous peoples maintain their identities in a positive way? Should they even try? I think they should. If they don’t, they’ll default to “brown nigger” status and become just another blight upon humanity. But ultimately the choice is their’s.

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8 Responses to Quechua and Aymara in Peru

  1. Nyk says:

    Any problems with altitude sickness? I had serious problems with it at about 3600 m in Tibet, it was horrible not being able to breathe properly.

  2. Yarilo says:

    It’s great at least the younger generations are taking an active interest in their cultural roots (you know, as long as they leave the more barbaric stuff like human sacrifice behind). I just wish more Europeans (and those of European descent in other parts of the world) would do the same.

    • Nyk says:

      Europe is fine to a degree (esp. Eastern Europe followed by Southern Europe), it’s the US I’m worried about. The American people, as a result of America being founded as a melting pot of immigrants united not by ethnicity but by a desire for prosperity, don’t really believe they have an identity of their own. In order to preserve something, you must first recognize its existence. This comes much easier for Europeans.

  3. BKF says:

    OT, but if by chance you run into some old cumbia cds, buy them. There is this musical style in Peru called Chicha Cumbia, and it is really interesting. When I traveled in Peru and Bolivia the bus drivers would always blast it.

  4. Elisa Stone Leahy says:

    The loss of Quechua and other aspects of Andean culture is definitely a reality in Peru, as with many indigenous cultures around the world. It’s the topic of a documentary I’ll be filming outside of Cusco starting this summer called The Last Bridge Master. Check it out: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1826552601/the-last-bridge-master

  5. ottorock says:

    I was sent here by a friend who knows me well. For a little context I’m a gringo, married to an Aymara woman from Puno. We live in South Peru and have two daughters.
    First up, the Sacred Valley may be many things (including beautiful), but “out in the country” it most definitely is not. Go to Tambopata and you’ll be in more Quechua than Spanish territory already, then head out and hit the small villages around there and you may as well be in China, for all the use your Spanish will be to you.
    As for Aymara, yes there are large areas of Puno region Peru, particularly between Puno city and the border with Bolivia, where Aymara is the norm and Spanish is secondary (my wife has an aunt that doesn’t speak Spanish). Then in Bolivia as you move towards La Paz Aymara gets patchy again, then out the other side (particularly towards Oruro) it’s once again the predominate language.
    For what it’s worth, my wife doesn’t speak Aymara well but she does understand it well. That’s because her family moved to Puno city from the countryside when she was very young (under 1 year) and in “the big city” it was frowned upon to speak Aymara, as it had a stigma of yokel about it. That stigma has now changed and there’s a prouder identity about Aymara in the South (e.g. my sister in learn went to night school to (re)learn it and is now an Aymara teacher in one of the local universities).
    As for the mixing of Quechua and Spanish you mention, that almost certainly bothers you more than any Quechua speaker.

    • jewamongyou says:

      Thanks very much for the detailed information. It’s always encouraging to me to when people make the effort to maintain the harmless parts of their heritage.

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