Cusco, Quechua, and the Incan Myth

Prior to my arrival in Peru, I spent seven weeks as part of an informal independent study in order to gather background information on my project.   This initial research allowed me to explore various facets of the issue at hand, such as Quechua linguistics, language and power dynamics, the Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua, and the Peruvian nation’s often self-contradictory relationship with its Incan heritage and the present indigenous, Quechua-speaking population.  After spending more than two weeks in Peru thus far, it has become apparent that “Peru” is equated in the national imaginary with the glory of the Incan Empire; that Cusco, as the former seat of this empire, represents the preservation and incarnation of “Peruvianness”; and that Quechua, as the so-called “language of the Incas”, is strategically appropriated to lend a sense of authenticity to a nationalist, regionalist, and class-based project of identity construction.  Streets named after Incan rulers, signs in Spanish and Quechua, corporations such as Inca Kola and InkaFarma, murals and statues suggesting a historical continuity between the Incan past and the present, actors in Incan dress guarding major landmarks, etc. – all of these things point to an acute awareness of the past and a deliberate reconstruction of this past as a means of resolving identity conflicts in a heterogeneous society.  Even in Lima, most tourist shops sell products with the names of Cusco and Machu Picchu emblazoned across them alongside products bearing the name of Peru, clearly juxtaposing the idea of the nation with that of one particular element of Peruvian history and society which by no means provides an accurate representation of the more subaltern populations in Peru.  As Alberto Flores Galindo states in In Search of an Inca, “the idea of an unchanging, harmonious, and homogeneous Andean person…reflects an invented or desired history, wishful thinking, not the reality of a fragmented world” (5).    Therefore, the myth of Incan inheritance serves to cloak rather than clarify diverse identities and is little more than a culturally constructed narrative of national identity.

So where, exactly, does Quechua fit into all of this?  As much of my research will discuss, the association between an elite variation of Quechua and the glorious Incan past to which the modern-day Peruvian nation lays claim revolves around issues of regional and class difference.   The Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua, established in 1953, is charged with the regulation of the Quechua language, the establishment of unified linguistic standards for Quechua speakers, and the creation of official dictionaries and grammars.  Unfortunately, this institution promotes Cusqueño Quechua above all other variations and employs an elitist discourse surrounding claims to an Incan heritage that excludes the contemporary Quechua-speaking indigenous populations from its project.  Juan Antonio Manya A., the first president of the AMLQ, spoke of a “Quechua Imperial” that was spoken by the Incas and that is inextricably linked to the city of Cusco (49); furthermore, the introduction to the AMLQ’s Diccionario claims that Cusco was the “vital center of the expansion and diffusion of this beautiful mother language” and that “the Quechua language…is an indelible sign of our cultural identity which we still conserve” (ix-x, translated).  These claims, rather than being rooted in historical fact, are mere reconstructions and appropriations of the past; in fact, what is now known as Cusco Quechua was adopted by the Incan empire (based in Cusco) from a different region of the empire as the language of administration (Godenzzi 55).  The AMLQ also conforms to European paradigms in its establishment of “linguistic” standards, both duplicating the notion of a language academy and utilizing a five-vowel system similar to that of Spanish despite the fact that several linguists agree on a three-vowel system for the transcription of Quechua.  Indeed, my Quechua language instruction has employed this system, and upon receiving the lyrics to a Quechua song utilizing the three-vowel system our instructor clarified with a “we spell ‘urqu’ (mountain) as ‘orqo.’”  This appropriation of Quechua is the property of the lettered class and has little to nothing to do with the people (largely rural campesinos who face prejudice and racial discrimination from the Spanish-speaking urban population) who actively speak Quechua today; as Coronel-Molina states, the promotion of qhapaq simi (the language of the nobles) over runasimi (the language of the people) results in the characterization of runasimi as “the language of the common people, those whose linguistic skills the Academy wants to correct, perfect, purify; in other words, it is a less-than-perfect Quechua, flawed, common, and subpar” (329).  The incorporation of Quechua into a project of national identity construction is therefore based on regional and socioeconomic dynamics as well as convenient myth rather than historical fact.

Shortly I will be working out the details on interviews with two people in Cusco: the director of the regional branch of the Ministerio de Cultura and a former president of the Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua.  Both of these people should be able to provide me with a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the AMLQ and the ways in which the regional government of Cusco perceives its relationship with the Incan past and with the Quechua language in its historical and contemporary contexts.  I will also continue my Quechua language instruction and visits to museums and cultural heritage sites in order to deepen my understanding of the issue at hand.