Quechua in Cusco v. Quechua in the Highlands: Glorified Histories and Harsh Realities

Over the past week in Cusco, I have been able to explore more intensely the opposite ends of the spectrum encompassed in my project: the glorified image of the native Inca and the harsh reality of the indigenous, Quechua-speaking Andean of the present day.  Last week in my Quechua course, we watched a documentary called Waqaspa Kusikushayku (Happily We Cry), which centered on the Andean community of Q’eros.  The documentary highlighted the cultural practices of the Q’eros (music, agriculture, religion, etc.), but also subtly noted the neglect shown toward indigenous communities in Peru today.  This particular community, which can only be reached by a six-hour journey on foot, has no access to satisfactory education or health services, and many younger members expressed a desire to move to Cusco, where economic opportunities are greater.  It was also noted that while all young people know the Quechua songs of the community, many have absorbed the sense of shame that seems to be attached to speaking Quechua in a modern-day context and refuse to sing their traditional songs.  This attitude seems to have permeated Andean society; many members of the older generation who speak fluent Quechua and now live in Cusco or other cities simply never taught their children, who are now largely monolingual Spanish speakers.  An apparent contradiction, if you consider the extent to which the Quechua language has permeated the city’s surfaces, but it simply serves to demonstrate that that which is associated with the Incas is valued and included in representations of the Peruvian nation, whereas that which is associated with the present-day indigenous population is marginalized and excluded from these definitions. 

Along similar lines, I also visited a small museum in Cusco last week called Irq’i Yachay (The Wisdom of Children), a museum run by a non-profit organization featuring the art of Andean children (amazingly, the name of the museum uses the three-vowel system, as “irq’i” is spelled as “erqe” in the five-vowel system we use in my Quechua course).  Over the course of 49 trips to isolated Andean communities, this organization brought art supplies to indigenous children and organized lessons in geometry, anatomy, and similar areas based on artistic expression.  The museum, however, also features narratives about indigenous rights and the reality of daily life in these communities.  Perhaps the most striking was a comparison of schools in Cusco and “schools” in the highland communities; those in Cusco correspond to what we would traditionally think of as a school, whereas those in the mountains were small, run-down, dirty, and occasionally half-destroyed with rotting wooden desks inside.  When I asked, my Quechua professor (whom I may interview at some point due to her firsthand experience living and teaching in indigenous communities) told me that if any form of formal education exists in these communities, it typically consists of three grade levels and may or may not be taught by someone who adequately speaks Quechua.  For this reason, many people advocate intercultural, bilingual education, which would both elevate the status of Quechua on an official level and allow all members of Peruvian society to enjoy equal opportunities, as they certainly do not under present circumstances. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, yesterday I visited the former home of mestizo writer Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, which has been converted into a museum (Museo Histórico Regional Casa Garcilaso) run by the Cusco regional branch of the Ministerio de Cultura.  This was one of the most enlightening moments of my stay in Peru thus far, simply because the Incan myth begins with Inca Garcilaso’s Comentarios reales de los incas (Royal Commentaries of the Incas).  In this work, Inca Garcilaso defends the Incan nobility and presents a grandiose version of Incan history in an attempt to defend his double origin as the son of a Spanish soldier and an Incan princess.  The story of the Incas told in Cusco today is drawn almost entirely from the Comentarios reales, despite the fact that archaeological, anthropological, and historical analysis contradicts much of Inca Garcilaso’s chronicle (little more than an ideological construction).  For this reason, “reading” the museum was fascinating; one begins in a room with one cabinet of pre-Incan artifacts, followed by several large displays of Incan artifacts.  Later comes a room of sixteenth-century Cusqueño art, which typically combines European and indigenous artistic motifs (for example, Christ is often depicted with the rays of the sun behind his head, recalling Incan sun worship).  The kitchen of the house features information about foods and drinks traditionally associated with Peru (cuy, chicha, etc.), and the sign describing pisco sour (a popular Peruvian mixed drink) featured the definition of pisqo given in the dictionary published by none other than the Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua.  Finally comes a room dedicated to Inca Garcilaso, his works, and his legacy, including a picture on the 10,000 Nuevo Sol bill.  For me, a place like this is where everything comes together – an officially endorsed version of history based on the grandeur of the Incas and suggesting a historical continuity with this civilization, along with the discourse of an elitist organization that claims to preserve this grandeur with their particular version of the Quechua language, even at the expense of those who actually speak the language. 

I have secured an interview with the regional director of the Ministerio de Cultura in Cusco for next Monday, which should provide insight into how Quechua is handled by the regional government as well as how Incan sites and artifacts play into the city’s self-presentation.  I will also be attending the Inti Raymi festival next week, which is an excellent example of the ways in which this city thrives on the idea of an Incan past in the present.  In the meantime, I continue to take my Quechua courses and visit sites of interest in Cusco in the hopes of gaining greater understanding of the various factors at play in my subject of study.