With Heart, the Axis of Andean Being

Sometimes simple things hit you with resonance. They stand out, demanding attention from the flow of ordinary language and conversation. They appear far more interesting and telling than their ordinariness would suggest.

One such shouted at me when I watched the new daily news program in Quechua. Though it may have just been that day, the journalists said they came to everyone with their hearts, their sonqo.

In the buildup to the program, while explaining why news in Runasimi, the people’s language, was necessary, the broadcasters went beyond language in their justification. They said they were going to broadcast within the worldview, the cosmovision, of Quechua speakers.

They drew a line between Spanish language radio / TV and Quechua language by suggesting the two speak to and from different values, different ways of being, and different understandings of the world. In other words, the news is not just a recitation of events, the President did such and so or the congress led by the Fujimori band responded in this way or that way. In Quechua it stems from ways of being that are not the same as the Spanish mechanical, individualistic citing.

There is a lot here, including the degree to which the Peruvian state is a machine of Spanish ways and values that will run roughshod over the ways of the Runa, the people, even when spoken in Quechua.

Presenting themselves with heart does mark a difference. Sonqo is more than the heart of English or even Spanish, as powerful as that organ and image is. Following Peruvian scholar Jorge Burneo, we can say it is seen in Quechua to be at the “center of the human body,” an axis of being and doing. It includes what we think of as “heart, mind, memory, and brain”.

Sharing a Glass of Chicha Drink (Photo: Wayra)
Sharing a Glass of Chicha Drink with heart  (Photo: Wayra)

It seems to me to include being part of other people and with other people. It suggests ayni, not simply the reciprocity of Western economistic models, but being for and with others.

In Cusco, I do not think this value stays only in Quechua. It infuses local Spanish such that meanings are not exactly the same as they are in the Royal Spanish Academy’s Dictionary. That wondrous book defines corazón, the Spanish word for heart, as the organ, but also that which animates, or the energy of being animate, of having courage and worth. It also defines it as feelings, and calls the heart the center of something or of the person.

This set of meanings gives us much to think about. While we will not spend much time with Spanish, think of how different this set is from the negative English word sentimentality, which takes the Latin word for feelings and makes it empty and excessive. English, as a result, recognizes feelings but distrusts them, while Spanish puts them forward as at the center.

Let us return to Cusco. You will often hear people speak of food being made “de corazón” in Spanish, that is to say with heart.  People will often tell you that is why the food is good, it is made with heart. If it is made with anger or bad feeling it will not be as good and indeed may be dangerous. The one is a joining with others while the other is a pulling back.

It strikes me that this is more than the Spanish in that it is the fullness of being and concern for others, the engagement in relationship with others as primary. Yes, it is feeling, and it is more, being.

Indeed, making and giving food, even for pay, is at the heart of existence and so serves as an idea of what sonqo is, a deep give and take with other people that includes giving and taking sustenance. It is not just the making and serving of food. Its eating also manifests sonqo.

The journalists of Ñoqanchik seized a word that is indeed key to understanding a difference between the Spanish and the Quechua worlds of Peru. Sonqo is not just the center–that which animates–nor feelings, since those can be individualist and self-absorbed. Rather it is a center that animates in that it is engaged in interaction with other people–give and take as well as take and give.

Sonqo, stands out for me as more than just a word, or a strategy for situating a news program. It is a central value that to me stands for much of what I see and feel in Cusco, whether in Quechua or in Spanish even though that Iberian tongue and culture stands always poised to split apart into corazón what in Quechua is joined as sonqo.



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