If you want to see a smile big as a morning on the face of people from Cusco just play for them a scene from the Mexican comedy, El Chavo del Ocho, dubbed into Quechua. In a simple struggle over a sandwich an entire world is opened.
El Chavo, though from Mexico, has been widely played and replayed throughout Latin America. Despite its very Mexican slang and characters it has become iconic throughout the region. Everyone has grown up with it.
To hear the characters give each other grief in the mother tongue of Cusco is to bring surprise and immediate joy, even to the faces and hearts of those who say they do not speak Quechua.
Seemingly forever, Quechua was banished from TV programming and indigenous people from rural communities or simply from the highlands played as simpletons and dupes. In conjunction with the power of Spanish in every governmental and most business institutions, the migration of people to Spanish-heavy areas, such as Lima, or increasingly the city of Cusco, and actual prejudice against the language has led to a generation of young people, especially young men, abandoning the language.
Still, no one from Cusco is more than a generation or two away from Quechua and the language still fills the air of markets and streets. it is also used in official public greetings and speeches by city officials in the Plaza de Armas.
Recently, the language is gaining more and more attention for government work and the provision of government services. Peru has trained a cadre of official translators into Indigenous languages, such a Quechua but also the diversity of lowland languages. The language is increasingly valid for the provision of government services such as civil registries, where births, marriages, and deaths must be taken down, and in some instances—such as in the nearby departments of Ayacucho and Puno, for court proceedings and judicial sentences.
The idea of inclusion has come to mean provision of government to people in the language they speak, due in part to international treaties to which Peru is a signatory.
Though there is strong resistance to Quechua still, the language is coming out of the shadows and is blooming like that big smile on people’s faces. One example came from the recent presidential elections where Veronika Mendoza who ran as the candidate of the Frente Amplio and made an impressive showing showed off her Quechua to strategic effect. Indeed, her final video recorded entirely in Quechua flowed like a wildfire through the highlands leading people to say “She is one of us” and that showed in the vote.
Here use of the language left non-Quechua speakers in some dust and caused Keiko Fujimori to try out some rough Aymara (a language form the Altiplano and the second most spoken indigenous tongue in Peru) though it also did not impress and may have even cost her votes. Politicians who do not speak this other language of Peru may now be on notice.
Earlier this year, it was announced that the Spanish classic Don Quixote had been translated into Quechua as had the Little Prince. Along with the Chavo, a scene from the Lion King and one from the Ice Age have also been dubbed into this very important and wide spoken language. Furthermore, memes are appearing in Quechua, like that questioning Pokémon. The translations have been the work of a number of translators and institutions, including international ones and is having an impact.
However, it is far too early to declare victory in the struggle for Quechua. A week ago, The Institute of Legal Defense and Aporvidha presented a lawsuit demanding that the regional government of Cusco comply with laws and provide translators throughout rural Cusco so that Quechua speakers can receive access to health care from medical professionals who speak Spanish and whose training is in that language.
Paul Casafranca, the executive director of the aforementioned institute said the law requires “regional government should somehow facilitate things so that people can communicate in their own language.” This runs against generations of Hispanicization and will require substantial effort as well as a change of attitudes. The time has come for Quechua to reclaim a strong place in formal, Cusco society.