The Politics of Quechua: student research in Cusco, Peru

During the summer of 2011, Hispanic Studies major Katherine Brown (’13) travelled to Peru to study the political uses of Quechua in the construction of national, regional, and class-based identities in present-day Peru. Under the auspices of the Christian-Ewell Scholarship granted by the Charles Center, Katie spent seven weeks in Cusco and Lima studying Quechua and doing research, while she attended the festivals of Inti Raymi, Corpus Christi, and Qoyllur Rit’i, and visited the house where the famous mestizo chronicler Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616) was born.

Katie describes her project as follows:

Plaza de armas [Main Square], Cusco, Peru“This summer I had the opportunity to travel to Peru with a Charles Center grant to conduct a seven-week research project. This investigation focused on appropriations of Quechua, a South American indigenous language with 8-12 million speakers, in processes of identity construction in contemporary Peru. After an independent study last spring, six weeks of Quechua courses and interviews in Cuzco, and a week of bibliographical research in Lima, I decided to concentrate my analysis on the Quechua-Spanish dictionary prepared by the Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua (High Academy of the Quechua Language), an institution charged with regulating the Quechua language and promoting its usage in Peru. As Quechua has remained in a subordinate position to Spanish since the conquest and is now stigmatized as “rural peasant speech,” this effort would presumably be a positive development; however, the AMLQ relies on an ideological discourse in its dictionary that incorporates “imperial Quechua”, an elite dialect of Quechua associated with the Incan empire, into national identity while excluding the contemporary indigenous speaker of Quechua from the definition of the nation.

“By claiming that Quechua is a symbol of the glorious Incan past and a vital link between the modern nation and that past, and that the city of Cuzco represents the authentic origin of the Incan empire and of a “pure” variety of Quechua, the AMLQ seeks to justify its political claims in the present. It uses the dictionary to present the middle-class mestizo elite of Cuzco as an alternate body of power in the contemporary nation-state, challenging the authority of Lima as the capital city and site of cultural and economic prestige. Furthermore, its claim that it inherits and protects this elite variety of Quechua, despite glaring linguistic errors and misapplication of linguistic principles, allows it to regulate and “correct” the speech of millions of Quechua speakers throughout Peru, whose language is viewed by the Academia as imperfect and subaltern. These claims point to a definition of the nation according to a deliberately constructed history that values Quechua’s associations with the glories of the pre-Hispanic past, while it disdains Quechua’s associations with the modern-day speakers of Peru’s rural Andean regions. Therefore, the AMLQ’s dictionary becomes a political tool, a forum in which the Cuzco elite seeks to promote its own interests and endow itself with authority and power within the context of the modern Peruvian nation-state.

“I would like to thank those who made this project possible: the Charles Center and Mr. Bruce Christian for their generous support and funding of this research; Rodolfo Cerrón-Palomino (Professor of Linguistics, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Lima), Juan Julio García Rivas (director of the regional branch of the Ministry of Culture in Cuzco) and Fernando Hermoza Gutierrez (current president of the Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua) for their participation in interviews and contribution of their expertise to this project; and Professor Jorge Terukina for serving as my advisor and for providing constant guidance and support at every step of this investigation.

While in Peru, Katie documented her research process in the following blog: She delivered a formal presentation of her findings at the Monroe Lunch Series in November 2011.

Katie is currently working on a research project on Nahuatl-language religious theatrical pieces crafted and performed in 16th-century Mexico as ideological tools for the domination of the indigenous population. This project emerged from a Freshman Seminar on “Imagining the Early Modern Hapsburg Empire,” and she presented a preliminary draft of her findings at The Third Undergraduate Symposium in Medieval and Renaissance Studies at W&M (March 2011). Katie is also training with Prof. LuAnn Homza (History) in early modern Spanish paleography in preparation for archival research to be carried out in Pamplona (Spain) in January, 2012

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