Intro: The Role of Quechua and Representations of Indigenous Culture in the Formation of Peruvian National Identity

The purpose of this project is to examine appropriations of the Quechua language as a symbol of the Incan past in modern-day Cusco, Peru and their contributions to the establishment of indigenous and Peruvian national identities, specifically in terms of the implications of education, language politics, and media in the promotion and/or marginalization of indigenous culture in Peruvian society.  Quechua (an oral indigenous language that was the official language of the Inca empire), despite its status as one of the official languages of Peru, exists with Spanish in a relationship known as diglossia, an unequal power relationship in which one language retains a sense of social prestige over another despite their apparent coexistence.  As such, efforts to legitimize Quechua (for example, through its systematic regulation and the protection of the “pure Incan” variation by the Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua and the translation of works originating in the dominant culture, such as Don Quixote and the Bible, into a written form of Quechua) have become fraught with contradictions and are inextricably linked to questions of interpretation and authenticity.  For instance, who possesses the authority to “claim” Quechua and establish standards of linguistic purity and authenticity?  Is the transcription of an exclusively oral language such as Quechua a necessary act of preservation or an act of violence in its assumption of culturally specific notions of language?  Does the translation of major works into written Quechua serve to endow it with academic and social power and hence elevate its status, or does it instead recirculate domination by endorsing non-indigenous cultural production?  How are these issues related to the deliberate selection or disregard of certain aspects of indigenous culture in the construction of national identity (related to Cecilia Méndez’s discussion of “Incas sí, indios no”, which claims that the Incan past is glorified and incorporated into national identity, whereas associations with the present indigenous population are severed and marginalized)? 

In an attempt to resolve these questions, I will study Quechua and Peruvian society for a duration of six weeks in Cusco (the former seat of the Inca empire) and conduct interviews with past and present members of the Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua.  I will conclude my research with a week in Lima to conduct further interviews with linguists and officials from the Ministerio de Cultura and to collect information regarding governmental policy on Quechua in Peru.  Ideally, this research will allow for an understanding of Quechua as a site of the struggle to interpret history and culture and forge a particular identity based on a common indigenous, Inca past, as well as the role of Quechua and various issues of interpretation surrounding it in the Peruvian nation-building process.

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  1. Katherine, this project sounds really interesting! I’m excited to read your blog this summer. What are you majoring in? My guess is linguistics or anthropology (maybe both?). Will it be necessary for you to learn some Quechua in order to carry out your research?

  2. klbrown01 says:

    Hi, Meg. Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you’re interested in the project. I’m actually a Hispanic Studies major, but I’ve definitely been reading a lot of anthropology- and linguistics-related articles in preparation for my trip. I will be taking an intensive Quechua course in Cusco, which I’m very excited about, and it should be incredibly helpful for my project! Thanks again, and I hope you continue to read!

  3. Michael Cammarata says:

    Your project sounds great! I haven’t gotten to your other posts yet but I’ll be taking a look shortly. What got you interested in Quechua?
    I’m also a hispanic studies student (though a minor) and have read a bit about Quechua in Peru through “The Hold Life Has” by Catherine Allen for a Native Cultures of Latin America class with Prof Fisher. (Where you in the class, by chance? That’d be embarrassing if I didn’t realize!) Forgive me if this is old news to you, but she lived with the Sonqo people for years and speaks Quechua very well. I particularly liked the afterword to the book, entitled “No Somos Indios Ahora” where she details the community’s transformation from Indios (and their strong Incan culture) to Misti and the accompanying changes in language. Maybe you could contact her?
    Anyways, good luck with the research. I’d love to go to Cusco someday. I hope everything goes well.
    Un saludo,

  4. klbrown01 says:

    Thanks for your comment! I wasn’t in that class, but it definitely sounds interesting and I may contact Professor Fisher. Thanks for the lead!
    I had read a little bit about Quechua for a Spanish project in high school, and I am endlessly fascinated by language and the ways it figures into culture and power relationships. My interests in Hispanic Studies tend largely toward the era of the conquest and pre-Hispanic civilizations, so when I started learning more about the Incas (most specifically through Inca Garcilaso’s Comentarios reales) and the role that their image continues to play in modern Peruvian society I decided I would love to pursue it further. After a bit more research, I discovered this fascinating paradox in terms of Quechua, in that it is simultaneously a symbol of power and glory and a symbol of poverty and “backwardness”. To me, it is an excellent study of the ways in which modern nations deliberately select and exclude certain elements or portray specific characteristics in different lights in order to construct various senses of identity.
    I do hope you get the chance to go to Cusco one day; it’s an incredible city.
    Thanks again for your comment, and good luck with your research as well!