Keeping Quechua Alive

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“Siete oficios y catorce necesidades” (seven trades and fourteen needs). That’s how Odi Gonzales, a poet from Cuzco now living in New York City, describes his busy and multi-skilled life. Yes, Gonzales is a great writer, an expert in Quechua language (he teaches Quechua at New York University) and a creative poet. But he also been an engineer at a cement factory, a volunteer at a non-governmental organization, an interpreter, a translator, a political and social activist, a researcher… en fin! Do I need to tell you more?

Well, Odi Gonzales podria, facilmente, ser el gran hombre que aspiramos ser. Sounds too cliché? This month, Odi will be publishing his book Valle Sagrado: Almas en Pena, a collection of poems that compiles the epitaphs of the individuals that put together la vida a lo cuzqueño. With an objective but ironic tone, Gonzales resurrects the protagonists of the legends that surround him, bringing them back from their graves. Characters from the writer’s life in Peru, as well as all the historical happenings he experienced, are engraved in these poems. I had the chance to talk to him about battling Starbucks in Cuzco, why learning Quechua is relevant today,  and how his book is the beginning of a saga. Where are you from?

Odi Gonzales: I am from Valle Sagrado, Peru, an area that belongs to the Quechua culture and where Quechua is still spoken in a significant way. Valle Sagrado is, as its name describes, a sacred place. A small place full of myths, traditions, legends.

ЯE: Why did you leave your country?

OG: I came to work at the University of Maryland, where I also got my master’s and my Ph.D. in literature. I think my Quechua got better here because I teach it, so I had to systematize and order my knowledge of the language. When I worked at the Smithsonian in Washington for example, I had access to first-hand material, which allowed me to come closer to my culture. I always try to go back to Peru at least once a year, if not twice. I went back after I finished my Ph.D. in 2006, and stayed there until earlier this year. Now I’m back, and  working as a Quechua language and culture professor.

ЯE: Why do you think it’s important for people from other countries to learn about Quechua language and culture?

For a Latin American person, like you for example, motives could be purely sentimental. There is a mother tongue that is still spoken and what a better way to find your roots? I could tell the same thing to a Bolivian or Peruvian student. Things change a little bit when we talk about a U.S. or European student. They probably need to learn Quechua for their studies, anthropology maybe, connected to the Andean world. Whatever the discipline is, history, sociology, if it is connected to the study of the Andes, Quechua has to be included as a language and culture.

On the other hand, studying a language is attractive not necessarily because it’s a language that is walking towards extinction, but because it belongs to a great culture. This was an extraordinary culture based on values, communal world, a philosophy and a cosmology of life that has a lot to do with the preservation of nature and other issues that in modern times seem impossible to achieve. Today as a society, we go against the current, destroying our habitats and planet. We need to go back to these cultures to rescue these values. Man is able to live with nature without destroying it.

ЯE: What is the message about your own culture that you are trying to promote here in the United States?

OG: Quechua culture is very developed, from literature to astronomy to agriculture. Their sewers and watering systems defy gravity, directing water upwards by using the force of water and channeling it where it’s needed. The same occurs with the arts, it’s all innovative and, textiles, it’s a whole other world. There is so much knowledge.

ЯE: And what do you think about this knowledge today? Do you think it has survived colonization and globalization?

OG: It still exists but now, it’s blended with other cultural material. Knowledge is preserved, the ancestral traditions and values still exist but they now share a space with the imports from the Western, modern world.

ЯE: Tell us about your book. What is it about?

OG: Well, this Thursday, November 20, I will present, with my great friend, Fredy Roncalla (author of Escritos Mitimaes: Hacia Una Poética Andina Postmoderna), the second version of my book Valle Sagrado : Almas en Pena. Both books won the National Poetry Prize in 1992. It’s a re-edition I first launched in Cuba, about 3 months ago, then in Lima, and now in New York. Valle Sagrado is a book that tries to recreate the life testimonies of diverse characters from a small town where there is a priest, a drunk, the most beautiful woman, among others. They are all epitaphs; they talk from their graves and relive the memory of their lives, but now without fear of death, or God. By using their own language, they try to reconstruct their days. It also tries to reconstruct some ceremonial rituals like the honoring of land, the reading of coca leafs by shamans, etc. It recreated my own experience of the Andean world.

ЯE: Is it written in Spanish?

OG: Yes, its written in Spanish, but it does contain many words in Quechua, and the universe it deals with is Quechua.

ЯE: In relation to your other books, is it a continuation of your previous work?

OG: It is the beginning of my life as a poet. These are books written 15, 16 years ago. It’s the universe of Valle Sagrado, where I was born, written in poetry. This is where I started, my roots. From here I evolved, always within the Andean world towards different themes and subjects. This book is the beginning of a saga.

ЯE: Do you have a specific audience you try to get to?

OG: No, I write to be read by a Chinese man or a man from Cuzco. The great challenge is to be able to get to everyone, because we are all humans, no matter where we come from. We live the same fears. Facing death, we are all alone and unprotected. I try to depict human beings as they are, here or in China, but starting off of course, from a specific place. I come from Peru, and that is my main reference point, but that doesn’t alienate me from issues and problems occurring in other areas of the world. I sing for humanity.

ЯE: A letter written by you was published on the Internet and many Peruvian newspapers, about the case of Starbucks in Cuzco. Could you tell us more about it?

OG: Café Ayllu is a legendary place in Cuzco where intellectuals went to drink the best hot chocolate and eat the best maize bread. It is a very traditional place; one of those places that turn a country into sui generis. Peru has many of these places, like any other country. Café Ayllu is administered by a family of mestizos from Cuzco, like you and I, who put a lot of effort to pay rent to the priests. The Café is located in Plaza de Armas, right on the center, next to the Cathedral, and belongs to the archbishop. In the midst of this modern explosion and massive consumption, a transnational company, Starbucks, le hechó el ojo. Starbucks is offering to pay three times the rent offered by the owner of Ayllu. Now the priests are forcing them to close down the place to rent it to Starbucks.

I know this is a matter of private property. One can rent one’s property to whomever one wants. But I must admit I find some type of rejection of our own culture and values in this case. This is a traditional place, and we are also talking about priests who should protect these traditions. I just wrote a very educated letter, presenting my point of view and asking them to keep the place. I am sure sooner or later someone from my own country will talk back to me and reject me for living here. They will tell me I have no right to talk because I came here. In many ways, living in the United States is a stigma. But living here does not exclude me from my country’s problems; I am not less Peruvian than anyone living there.

I have received many letters supporting what I wrote. The priests are in their right. But I just ask: do priests really need that much money to give up and destroy a place that has survived in Peru for 40 years? For me, Ayllu is a special place because it’s where I met many important artists and writers. I used to stand by the window, and they would tell me, “that’s filmmaker Luis Figueroa,” or poet Raúl Grosso. It was amazing seeing so many important and relevant people having a coffee there.

ЯE: Do you practice any religion?

OG: I became a Buddhist about five years ago, during a period when I was in the limbo. I was once a Catholic, and as a kid I even helped priests. Then I was a Marxist; I went through many stages. In my time, being a teenager and not being a Marxist meant not being a teenager. Now I am a Buddhist. I had read a lot and lived many aspects of Andean life. I think Quechuas were great Buddhist, predicating the idea that we are one with nature and if we destroy it we destroy ourselves, and, of course, the harmony of doing good.

I pray every night and morning. I remember my dead father, talk to him and ask for his protection, and ask for my loved ones to have a good day. I have learned that problems are an opportunity given by life to learn and face situations. This has helped me survive my life and survive myself.

ЯE: Finally, how would you define a cosmopolatino?

OG: Cosmopolatino? Why don’t you use a better, more beautiful word? I guess its directed to migrants, people that come from Latin America to this great cosmopolitan center.