Quechua and Representations of Indigenous Culture in Peruvian National Identity: Final Post

After a considerable delay due to changes in the Ministerio de Cultura with the advent of a new presidency, I have finally received e-mail responses from my remaining interviewees and can safely post the findings of my summer research without fear of excluding significant aspects of it!  Since my last post, I have secured and conducted e-mail interviews with Rodolfo Cerrón-Palomino (a Peruvian linguist who has contributed significantly to the study of Quechua, and whose research I have consulted frequently over the course of my investigation) and with Fernando Hermoza, the current president of the Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua (an organization central to my project, responsible for regulating the use of the Quechua language in Peru).  These two interviews balance one another nicely, as the first represents a more factual, academically based interpretation of Quechua, whereas the second represents a mythologized and idealized interpretation of Quechua within the framework of a national identity project.   Cerrón-Palomino answered my questions from a strictly linguistic point of view, discounting the idea that Quechua originated in Cuzco and discrediting much of the rhetoric surrounding the AMLQ’s appropriation of Quechua; Hermoza, on the other hand, stated that “the Quechua language today signifies and represents the expression and cultural identity of Peruvians, the only live and vibrant ancestral legacy that runs in the veins of all the inheritors of the millennial Inka culture” (translated).  He also supported the Academia’s policies and their attempts to ensure the “purity, rescue, defense and diffusion of the Language” (translated) in its written and spoken forms.  Both of these interviews will therefore be highly useful in my attempt to separate fact from fiction in the tightly wound Peruvian national narrative.

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Lima

After leaving Cusco, I spent my final week in Peru in Lima to do some final research for my project.  This mostly consisted of visits to libraries, museums and archaeological sites as well as communication with the contacts I wished to interview while in Lima.  A prominent Quechua linguist, Rodolfo Cerron-Palomino, was out of the country while I was in Lima, but luckily I have been able to secure an e-mail interview with him in the coming weeks.  Furthermore, my original contact in the Ministerio de Cultura has changed jobs since the last time I spoke with him, so I now have the contact information for his replacement and am awaiting confirmation for an e-mail interview with her as well. 

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Final Week in Cusco

I spent my final week in Cusco finishing my Quechua course and doing last-minute fieldwork and research before my departure for Lima.  Last Monday, I made a trip to the Dirección Regional de Cultura in Cusco to interview Juan Julio García Rivas, the director.  I asked him to offer his personal opinions and knowledge on a variety of issues related to my project, such as the meaning of Quechua in Peru today, the agenda of the Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua, and issues of writing and translation.  His responses contained an interesting mix of fantasy and wisdom; while he did describe Quechua as “one of the few cultural and material manifestations that remains of our pre-Hispanic past” (translated), he also expressed a need to equalize Quechua and Spanish in Peruvian society and eliminate the double standard that designates Quechua in certain instances as a symbol of Incan glory and in other instances as a marker of racial and socioeconomic inferiority.  He also denounced the preoccupation with the writing of Quechua as a “Western problem” and advocated the revalorization of Quechua as a viable, living language that provides benefit to the speaker rather than the language of remote Andean communities.  It was a useful interview for the insight it provided on official stances on Quechua and the various factors at play in modern-day Cusco and its relationship with the Quechua language.

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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. 

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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.

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