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.