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FEATURE STORY

Discriminated against for speaking their own language

April 16, 2014

Lauriana Cjuiro Paucar communicates in Quechua. Cusco, Peru.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Millions of Latin Americans lack health, employment or education services because they do not speak Spanish but instead one of the hundreds of indigenous languages of the region.

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.

Open Quotes

Ethnic minorities are receiving little or no benefit from the regional growth of recent years. Latin American countries should focus on developing policies that specifically target indigenous populations and that take into account their points of view and aspirations. Close Quotes

Germán Freire
World Bank social development specialist

Minorities without a voice

Even though over 70 million people have escaped from poverty, the Latin American region continues to have the highest level of inequality in the world: In 2010, eight of the 10 countries with the highest rates of inequality were located in the region, according to the World Bank.

Cases such as that of Brazil, where the wealthiest 10% of the population concentrates more than 50% of all income, are a reflection that the recent economic growth occurring in the region is not associated with the equitable distribution of wealth.

 “Ethnic minorities are receiving little or no benefit from the regional growth of recent years. Latin American countries should focus on developing policies that specifically target indigenous populations and that take into account their points of view and aspirations,” says Germán Freire, World Bank social development specialist.

According to experts, supporting minorities is essential for promoting social inclusion, which helps countries address issues ranging from demographic mobility –flows of people that go to the cities in search of better opportunities – to the impact of food prices and economic volatility.