If you only speak English, Cuzco can be a wonderful experience. People are very gracious and go out of their way to understand you and make your stay pleasant. But the experience can be very different if you are Peruvian but only speak the indigenous language, Quechua.
Not long ago, almost everyone in the city grew up speaking Quechua and that language is still important in official ceremonies as a symbol of the city and its Imperial past. Contemporary Quechua speakers often have a harsh experience in the city if they do not know the Spanish that has taken over during the last three or four decades.
The issue is not simply about language, since many if not most Cusqueños are still bilingual, whether actively or passively so. It is also about class. The people who are monolingual tend to recently have come from the countryside and to be overwhelmingly female and poor.
I have heard of a woman who was ill and waiting at the hospital for care while the staff ignored her pleas for help, claiming they could not understand her.
Recently the Spanish daily, El País, published an article on the millions of Latin Americans like this lady who are ignored and discriminated against in their own country because they do not speak Spanish.
The article by Julio César Casma of Lima points out that in Latin America indigenous people suffer an infant mortality rate that is 3.5 times that of the non-indigenous population and their life expectancy tends to be 30 years less than that of other people in the same country.
In Peru, Casma writes that of all the people without access to health care, 60% tend to speak Quechua.
But the discrimination does not only appear when people present themselves in clinics and hospitals, it happens in the work place, the schools and on the streets. Monolingual
Quechua speaking children are stigmatized and often bullied in school yards across Peru.
As a result many people internalize shame around this marvelous and beautiful language and decide not to speak it, and especially not to pass it on to their children.
While this is particularly the case in the migrant megalopolis of Lima on the coast, it is also true in formerly Quechua speaking cities, such as Cuzco.
As a result, a generation of youth is being raised without the language and, though once spoken by some fifteen million people, it is now vulnerable to loss. It would be a tragedy to lose this great and amazing language which is a repository of so much wisdom and beauty.
It is also a human tragedy every day when speakers of this tongue are discriminated against on the streets and in the offices, schools, and clinics of their home country.