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Quechua Teachers in Ancash July 13, 2011

Posted by Joshua Shapero in Individual Fellowship, Peru.
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During the time I am spending in Ancash, in the central Andes of Peru, I have been conducting field interviews and recordings focused on the Quechua language, primarily in the town of Huaripampa. The town, officially a centro poblado, is located roughly 45 minutes from the urban center of Huaraz. It is in the district of Olleros, located at the end of the same road that branches off from the main highway, directly above the town of Olleros itself. In the past years, Quechua has been taught at the primary level (grades 1-6) at the local school, Academia José Carlos Mariátegui. It is safe to say that all the parents in the town speak Quechua, and the vast majority of these are bilingual in Spanish.

Field Trip to Qitsqay Hirka

A few classes made a trip one day to a nearby hill to make an offering to the Pachamama and have a picnic.

Of the grandparents’ generation, I believe that a large number of the women are monolingual, while most of the men are bilingual. A contribution to the community’s bilingualism, I suspect, is the influence of those who migrated temporarily to Lima after the devastating earthquake of 1970. I asked a friend’s aunt about this. Her response included frequent switches from Quechua to Spanish. She told me that when the earthquake struck, she was sitting in the door of her house cradling her newborn baby. Suddenly rocks started to fall from the roof. She compared it to a pachamanca (earth oven made of clods in a freshly harvested field) and the way that the clods collapse as the oven is closed. After the earthquake she moved to Lima for seven years. All but one of her children remained in Lima. With the children, she told me, usually she speaks Spanish.

This seems to be the trend in Huaripampa: children, and especially adolescents, prefer to speak Spanish. Quechua is associated with poverty and working in the fields, while Spanish is associated with moving to Huaraz to study a profession, earning cash, and becoming modern citizens. This is precisely what the school teachers who teach Quechua in rural communities tell me they are trying to fight. The children, they tell me, understand Quechua. When you speak to them in Quechua, they become more confident. Sometimes they even begin to open up about the culture that they share with their parents and grandparents in their homes, recounting mythic explanations of atmospheric phenomenon or hilarious stories about the fox and the condor. At the same time they begin to explain their feelings when they speak in Quechua. A professor who teaches in a rural community near Carhuaz, Vilma Orellano Mallqui, asked the students in Quechua why they didn’t wear hats when the sun was shining so brightly. A young boy responded that only poor people wear hats.

Despite the presence of such internalized discrimination against rural practices, most prominently the Quechua language itself, a group of dedicated school teachers is determined to teach students in their native language at least a few hours a week. I have seen now that these teachers devote many hours outside of work to prepare activities for students as well as to pursue further education themselves in order to learn how to tackle the problem. The two teachers I have gotten to know best are both currently working on master’s degrees in bilingual intercultural education (BIE). At the same time they have their own families, they teach every day in communities up to one hour from their homes, sometimes in two different communities each day. On top of this, they are involved in political activities, volunteer organizations, and work part time for NGOs in the area. Finally, in many cases they themselves come from distant communities where they have social and family obligations which occasionally call them away. And yet, with all this work, they are actively pursuing more opportunities to contribute to the maintenance of traditional practices and knowledge and the Quechua language.

It is not easy work for them. On several occasions, I have seen parents approach Quechua teachers, asking why their children are asking them to tell them stories in Quechua so that they can write them down and bring them to school. Quechua is not a written language, they say. Better they learn to write Spanish, or English. What good is writing in Quechua going to do for them. And in fact, after searching through bookstores in Huaraz, I have found very few texts in Quechua, and those in the more prestigious southern dialects of Quechua, very different from what is spoken in the nearby regions. But I have seen teachers respond very patiently to such challenges. Through dialogs with parents, one teacher told me, an individual must convince the entire community, family by family, that teaching Quechua is good for their children. But at the moment, Quechua education, where it exists at all, stops at 6th grade. Just at the moment when children become most sensitive to social judgments, they lose the only institutional incentive to retain their native language.

I am honored and humbled to meet these professors. One thing I take away from the experience, apart from my research on Quechua, is that there is a great need for more academic training in Peru, and I am sure in many other places in the world that face similar situations. I have met many people who aspire to learn, investigate, and develop local intellectual authority, but there is little opportunity for them to study fields such as anthropology and linguistics that will allow them to develop research on their own communities. Such local perspectives would provide an important dimension to the field of anthropology.

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