Have you ever felt excluded for speaking your own language in another country? Imagine if that happened in your homeland.
Millions of Latin Americans --especially those of indigenous descent-- who speak a language other than Spanish or Portuguese face this linguistic exclusion every day. This exclusion extends to other areas of life, including those of employment, health, education, and of course, in the social sphere.
From Mexico to Argentina, inequality is most evident among racial minorities: 50% of the region’s poor are Afro-descendants, and in the Latin American indigenous population, the infant mortality rate is 3.5 times higher than that of the non-indigenous population. Life expectancy among the indigenous population can be up to 30 years less, according to social development research studies.
Peru is a particular cause for concern. For example, of the total Peruvians without access to health services, 60% speak Quechua, the ancestral language of the Inca. Discrimination is so blatant that many Quechua speakers -13% of the Peruvian population, according to the 2007 Census- decide not to teach their descendants the language for fear they will be rejected or mocked.
“As a child, I learned that Quechua was not something good. My mother would say that she was not going to speak it in Lima and my father didn’t teach me out of vanity, since he would not accept being called a serrano under any circumstances and at that time discrimination was very difficult for migrants,” says José Cavero Torres, a merchant from the Andean region of Apurimac, who now works in Lima.
He says that although most of his family knows the language, neither he nor his cousins learned to speak or write it. “When we arrived in Lima, social pressure, discrimination and the ignorance of those who knew the language worked against those of us who wanted to know more about Quechua,” he says.
There was such shame associated with speaking Quechua that UNESCO declared it a vulnerable language. In some areas of the country, it is even an endangered language, despite being one of Peru’s official languages.
Some efforts underway to recover this language
Demetrio Túpac Yupanqui, director of Yachay Wasi Academy, is currently reviewing his Quechua translation of one of the world’s most translated books after the Bible: Don Quixote. For Túpac Yupanqui, Quechua is a language that has “a superior capacity to express human thought; it has words that do not exist in other languages to express feelings and actions.”
The language is also spoken in Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina and Chile, but Peru has the largest population of Quechua speakers, with over three million, who live mainly in the Andes and in conditions of poverty and extreme poverty.