A Fight for Quechua in Cuzco

A handful of people gathered in Cuzco’s Kusipata (Regocijo Plaza), in front of its Municipality, to protest a culture and society that rejects the native language of Cuzco’s majority. No named group behind them, they came together through social media, particularly Facebook in outrage at the recent statements by Cuzco’s then Gerente (manager) of Culture in the Municipality, Martín Romero that “Quechua is a cancer” and a language that keeps people from performing abstract thought.

Given as part of an address to Cuzco’s Third National Encounter on Culture on August 10, 2013, the speech led to severe criticism of Romero’s stance in the event and later, especially in social media. Romero held that his remarks were taken from context, since he was referring to Quechua Fundamentalists. Nevertheless, he resigned his position at the head of the Municipal Office of Culture.

Runasimi, commonly called in Spanish Quechua is one of the native languages of Peru, as well as the language claimed for the inca Empire. it was also a major language of government in Colonial times, and today has legal status as an official language in Peru.

Protest Posters Hanging in Regocijo Plaza
Protest Posters Hanging in Regocijo Plaza

In Cuzco, according to INEI, the National Statistical Institute, Quechua was estimated to be the language learned in childhood of 54.5% of the population of the Department of Cuzco, while Spanish is the childhood language of 45%. Runasimi is the majority language and, if you listen, you will hear it spoken all over the city, even though there is a social preference among many people for Spanish.

If nothing else, Romero brought attention to the politics of language in a city whose mayor, Luís Flores is known to address the public in the language of the Incas and be a strong proponent for attention to Cuzco’s Inca heritage. Nevertheless, many people disagree and argue about the place of Runasimi in the city and in the daily lives of people.

Many young people, even if they come from homes where there parents speak Quechua, do not wish to speak the language. They think of it as a stigmatized dead end. At the same time, many other people think of Runasimi as the language of Cuzco and a language of great importance. Some Cuzco youths who do not speak Quechua have been called “gringo cusqueños”, or Gringo Cuzcoans.

In fact the demonstrators present this morning said they had been denied the right to learn their mother language. They did not know Quechua even though their las names were in the historic language of Cuzco.

A journalist at the demonstration today tried to school the demonstrators by insisting they respond to the internal politics of language and culture in the municipality, while the demonstrators insisted they were not trying to respond directly to the politics, but were responding to a “structure” of their society that denies Quechua and stigmatizes it.

Hanging The Posters for the Demonstration Today
Hanging The Posters for the Demonstration Today

They noted they had not known each other prior to Romero’s statement. They had met on Facebook, where they organized a page to have him removed from his position. Once he had resigned they posed the Question of what else they could do and, as a social movement with no formal organization or heads, they wanted to make a statement that the ordinary people needed to have a voice and be able to speak about their society. Not every thing is representative politics.

Yet the journalist, from the Television program Cusco en Portada, insisted on trying to bring the demonstrators into a political process, in which journalists themselves play a role of power. She claimed the old media were the ones who had forced the resignation of Romero in their reporting. While appearing to interview the demonstrators, she was trying to train them and push them in the direction of her set notions of the political process, while the demonstrators were arguing for a different model of politics of popular voice and mass movements without representative leaders.

A firestorm over Romero’s remarks continues in the national and local press, and it also continues in social media where people feel empowered to speak on events without having official authority. The struggle between social media and old media will continue, as will that over whether to say ¿cómo estás? or “Allinllachu” in interaction after interaction. There, in Cuzco’s streets and homes the battle for Runasimi will be fought and won, or lost.

Romero may have been driven from office, but he expressed a common thought that devalues Quechua as backward and anti. That idea is expressed constantly when people make choices as to which language to speak or to teach their children. In Cuzco’s streets and homes the battle for Runasimi will be fought and won, or lost.

Video of the journalist for Cusco en Portada lecturing the demonstrators. I am sure this will not appear in her report.

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