College Students From Around the U.S. Are Gathering to Celebrate Quechua Language & Culture

Renata Flores, the Peruvian teen who went viral for her YouTube song covers in Quechua.

Quechua – the most widely spoken indigenous language in the Americas – has been taught in the United States since at least the 1960s. But back then, the approach to learning Quechua was strictly scholastic and utilitarian: “It was taught to anthropology/archaeology students who needed to do fieldwork in the Andes,” says Américo Mendoza-Mori, a University of Pennsylvania Quechua professor. “Quechua was perceived more as a communication tool than a living cultural heritage spoken by 6-8 million people.”

At UPenn, Mendoza-Mori is working toward exploring the language beyond its academic value. On November 14, the Quechua Initiative at Penn, which Mendoza-Mori started, will host an indigenous language gathering for people across the country; it will include a mix of activities, such as lectures, games, and songs. Originally, the event was limited to students from NYU, Penn and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, but there was so much positive response that Mendoza-Mori opened it to people across the United States. An anticipated 50 people will arrive ready for discussion and to play bingo in Quechua.

Director Augusto Tamayo will be leading a discussion, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Professor Clodoaldo Soto-Ruiz will be honored for his 25-year career teaching Quechua in the U.S.

“Academia still needs to recognize the work of people like him, especially when a lot of educated people still tell us, sometimes in a condescending way, that Quechua might be nice and may be interesting but not worth enough to spend a [lifetime] on,” Mendoza-Mori said. “Indigenous languages deserve respect, because this is not just about the language itself, it’s actually about culture and people.”

The narrative is changing, just as it has for other languages. Now, Mendoza-Mori notes, it’s impossible to get a job in Latin American studies without speaking Spanish, but this wasn’t always the case. When Hiram Bingham went to Machu Picchu in 1911, he wasn’t fluent in the language.

Now with young people like Renata Flores, a Peruvian teen who became Internet famous after singing a cover of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” in Quechua, and futbolista Claudio Pizarro tweeting in the language, there is definitely more visibility for the indigenous language. It’s not a new phenomenon, but social media has been able to amplify Quechua’s reach and alter the narrative and perceptions surrounding it. “Quechua is only for old people?” Mendoza-Mori said. “YouTube and Facebook [views] definitely [don’t] agree with that statement.”

This statement also doesn’t ring true for Mendoza-Mori, who learned Quechua when he was an undergraduate student in Peru. His mother is from Tarapoto in the Peruvian Amazon, and though they don’t speak Quechua there, she encouraged him to learn the language.

Now, he is part of the small, passionate group of Quechua enthusiasts at Penn, where it’s still not widely known that Quechua classes are offered at the school. With events like Saturday’s meetup, as well as things like a Quechua spoken word night, the group is building a space for Quechua lovers.