This Quechua Professor Wants to Dispel the Myth That Indigenous Languages Are a Thing of the Past

After years of studying Quechua, Américo Mendoza Mori moved to Cusco to fully immerse himself in the language. And while he enrolled in a course and worked with a tutor, he couldn’t find anyone willing to speak the language with him outside of the classroom. “By then, I already knew a lot of grammar but spoke very little,” he told us. “I couldn’t really improve my Quechua skills because many people in Cusco didn’t want to speak with me. Due to the stigmatization of the language, people would deny they knew Quechua.”

It wasn’t until he moved to a more remote area near Ausangate Mountain that he started using Quechua regularly. He volunteered at a public elementary school, where he only spoke in the language.

Fast forward a few years and Mendoza Mori found himself in New York City discussing the contributions of indigenous groups in urban societies at the United Nations. To commemorate the ninth anniversary of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, the UN held a series of events last week. The document – which countries like the United States and Canada first rejected – recognizes indigenous peoples’ knowledge and existence. It’s a necessary conversation, especially as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe – as well as other indigenous groups – fight for the right to clean water.

The Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People also talks about language, and that’s where Mendoza Mori comes in. Américo started the Quechua Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. Even though Quechua’s the most widely spoken indigenous language in the Americas, there’s a prevailing misconception that it’s a thing of the past. At the press conference, he discussed the language’s place in our society, as well as the importance of Quechua in scholastic spaces. We spoke with Mendoza Mori about his participation in the UN press conference and how indigenous languages are essential in our current immigration landscape.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why is the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People so important, especially when it comes to language?

Having indigenous languages at universities is a way to say: we are here, we have a value. This message goes to everyone, including the indigenous languages speakers whom for a long time were told that their languages shouldn’t exist. Language is linked to culture and knowledge. By building up language prestige – in this case with Quechua – we are also making a statement: This language has a value; therefore, their people do, too.

Events like this give indigenous languages a very necessary platform. But how do we dispel the myth that indigenous languages are a thing of the past?

This year at the United Nations, we actually spoke about how indigenous peoples contribute to urban societies. Indigenous peoples’ relation with mother earth wasn’t taken seriously until we found out that climate change and global warming is real. Their commitment to protect our planet happens thanks to their ancestral knowledge of the land. We need to recognize this as indigenous people’s knowledge, instead of myths or stories. The western society was wrong about the use the natural resources. Therefore, we need to give [indigenous groups] the credit they deserve.

“Nobody questions the cultural value of English, Spanish or French.”

Our current immigration court system is proof that indigenous languages are not a thing of the past. The influx of Central American refugees has brought more Quiché and Mam speakers to the US, but there’s a shortage of Mayan-language interpreters. What can the government do to make the process easier for speakers of indigenous languages?

This is very true. In Philadelphia, I know one person who speaks Maya Quiché, and the couple times I was wrongly asked about Quiché, I provided his contact info. We should have a better procedure. This shouldn’t happen.

In the meantime, some type of collaboration between Central American countries and the US government could help to bring interpreters. But for the long run, more academic programs should exist: Every year, the US State Department, under the Fulbright program, invites language fellows to spend one year at universities across the US. They offer many languages. However, none of them are indigenous languages of the Americas. How about having a Quiché fellow in the Los Angeles area? This would have a very concrete and positive impact, and also offers visibility to these cultures.

In the 60s, the approach to learning Quechua was strictly scholastic and utilitarian. How has this changed in recent years?

Nobody questions the cultural value of English, Spanish or French. It is clear for us that there’s a (contemporary) cultural value of these languages. With Quechua, and other indigenous cultures, people might hesitate.

Some universities in the Andean Region and the United States are trying to change the narrative: They are giving Quechua and other languages a more suitable space. San Marcos University in Lima, the oldest university in South America, created a special professorship for Quechua five years ago. At UPenn, besides the classes, we organize cultural nights, academic conferences, Quechua students gatherings. We are aware that by being at an Ivy League institution, people are looking at what we are doing. At this platform, we are raising questions regarding the importance of incorporating indigenous languages into the Latin American studies curricula, while at the same time trying to respect and honor Andean culture.

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What’s the best way for someone who wants to learn Quechua to get started in the United States?

For college students: ask your advisor which Native-American languages are offered, sometimes they are hard to find among other courses. When classes are not available, some universities offer the possibility to look for a language partner you can meet in person or via Skype. Most of the times, they are free of charge!

For those who want to taste a bite of Quechua, you can download the free smartphone app, Quechua. This November in Philadelphia we are hosting the second edition of the Quechua Student Alliance Meeting. (Editor’s note: It’s open to everyone.) This is also a great and fun opportunity to approach to Quechua for the very first time.