From the Inca Empire to the Empire State: This Director Traces the Journey of the Quechua Language

Christine Mladic Janney is the director of Living Quechua, a short documentary centered on New York’s Peruvian community. Premiering at the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the city’s American Museum of Natural History, the film follows Elva Ambía Rebatta as she seeks to preserve and promote Quechua languages in the United States. Quechua faces major challenges to its survival in the form of discrimination and the dominance of languages such as English and Spanish. We sat down Mladic Janney to talk about her film and the role of indigenous languages in modern society.

Could you tell us about your background?

My interest in Quechua and the Andes was inspired by my family adopting two siblings from Peru when I was a young child. My understanding of the world as my family, friends, and neighborhood needed to change to account for the presence of a new brother and sister from a different family – a different country – and, eventually, to account for the incredibly complex personal and historical circumstances that made such an arrangement occur. I had many more questions than answers, which is what led me to spend a large amount of time in South America and to eventually pursue graduate studies on such issues. As I’ve studied Quechua at NYU over the years, I’ve also been involved with outreach projects and activities, allowing me to meet many people in NYC and around the world who have an interest in or relationship of some kind to Quechua and the Andes.

Why did you decide to make this film?

Quechua languages, like others around the world, have an incredibly complex history, and different meanings and values have become attached to the languages over time. Unfortunately, Quechua languages have been and are still often perceived as lesser languages by those in positions of political, economic, and social power in Peru. At the same time, millions of people still speak Quechua languages with great enthusiasm and pride.

I wanted to make this film to show some of the ways this complex situation is negotiated by people living in NYC. There are many people in the tri-state area who speak Quechua/Kichwa languages, and their experiences are by no means homogenous. By focusing on one woman’s story – that of Elva Ambía Rebatta – I aimed to open a space for dialogue and communication about concerns related to the politics of language use, whether Quechua or other minority languages.

How’s your Quechua?

My only language as a child was English. I learned Spanish through study and living abroad, and began studying Quechua at NYU with Prof. Odi Gonzales in 2008. I’ve also studied Quechua in Cusco, Peru. My comprehension skills are relatively high, although the ability to produce the language quickly in real-time conversation is still a challenge. I’m trying, though, and I plan to continue studying and using the language.

How did you meet Elva Ambía Rebatta?

I met Elva while working at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at NYU, where there is a vibrant language program and outreach committee. She approached me after one of the events I helped plan and asked if I would like to visit her home for a Quechua conversation hour. I was absolutely delighted, and we began to meet regularly to speak in Quechua, drink tea, and eat the delicious Peruvian food she would cook for us. She introduced me to a friend, Naomi Sturm, and the three of us decided to start the New York Quechua Initiative in order to pursue some of Elva’s outreach ideas. Our close relationship helped make the film what it is.

The film says Quechua is officially recognized by the UN as an endangered language. What exactly are the dangers it faces?

As the UN explains on its website, a language is “endangered” if it meets certain criteria. These include whether the language is passed on from generation to generation; changes in how or where the language is used; the accessibility of educational and literacy materials; whether speakers feel negatively toward their own language; the amount and quality of language documentation; and governmental and institutional attitudes and policies. When considering these specific criteria, there is ample reason to qualify Quechua languages as “endangered.”

Using this qualification can be a benefit to the language and its speakers by challenging the discriminatory governmental policies or by seeking support for the development of language education materials. At the same time, we should use such terminology with caution, as it can also cause problems. Despite the fact that there are cases where parents would rather their children not learn Quechua, there are many instances in which Quechua-speaking parents do pass the language on to their children.

There are also situations in which a person does not have the means to speak to their child in Quechua, perhaps due to an intense work schedule or the very real struggle of day-to-day life. Qualifying a language as “endangered” sometimes places blame on present-day speakers rather than those in positions of political, economic, and social power and the impact of historical processes in producing the very complicated and charged situation in which Quechua speakers now find themselves. These are some of the issues I wanted to raise through the film: issues that have no easy resolution, but which stand to benefit from increased dialogue, communication, and hopefully, informed action.

What can be done to protect indigenous languages?

One of the biggest challenges Quechua speakers face is the negative stigma associated with Quechua languages, a product of long-standing discriminatory policies and actions. Many indigenous languages face such obstacles, especially in postcolonial contexts, where a dominant language became equated with political, economic, and social power, while indigenous languages were associated with being powerless. Discrimination against Quechua speakers occurs not only in Peru, but also in the U.S. and other countries. Feelings of past discrimination can also affect speakers and their ability or willingness to participate in actively-speaking communities.

At the same time, there are many Quechua speakers who will not tolerate discrimination and are pursuing initiatives that promote the continued use of these languages while explicitly addressing discrimination. An example of this is the new Kichwa radio program Kichwa Hatari that airs every Friday evening and is produced in the Bronx, New York. Elva’s own project, the New York Quechua Initiative, produces events with music and Quechua language instruction (as we see in Living Quechua), and a range of other activities that aim to counter negative stigma with positive celebration. Supporting such projects helps promote indigenous or minority languages in the U.S.

There are also exciting Andean-based projects, such as the Runacinema Film Collective, a group of Kichwa-speaking filmmakers. Collaborative projects help strengthen communities of speakers, such as the Rimasun Quechua language podcast program hosted at CLACS at NYU, and our own Living Quechua documentary. These are just a few examples of initiatives that promote and celebrate Quechua languages.

Have you visited any communities where Quechua is the predominant language?

In Peru, I visited several communities where the majority of inhabitants spoke only Quechua. I stayed with families who graciously tolerated my stumbling communicative efforts. I learned a great deal from these experiences, and am grateful to the families who were so patient and instructive.

The film centers on Peruvians living in New York. Do you think that communities living abroad are more likely to preserve languages as a means of identifying with their roots?

From what I’ve seen in the Peruvian community in NYC, a person’s relationship to Quechua depends on various factors, so it’s difficult to make generalizations about their attitudes toward Quechua language preservation. There have been many times, however, when I have seen that Peruvians and people of Andean heritage are motivated to speak Quechua when surrounded by a community of like-minded people who share a positive attitude toward the languages. Community gatherings focused on the shared use and celebration of Quechua languages are valuable for promoting language use and strengthening communities.

How can people in the U.S. learn about or study Quechua?

There are a growing number of resources for learning Quechua. For those interested in university courses, NYU has a Quechua program, as do several other universities. In January 2014, an instructional book and DVD were published that would be a great resource for self-study. There are also many online resources for learning Quechua, as well as the new weekly Kichwa radio program Kichwa Hatari. For those in NYC, there are events put on by the Runasimi Outreach Committee at NYU and the New York Quechua Initiative.

Once you’ve mastered Quechua, what other language would you like to learn?

Well, I think it will be a while before I master Quechua, as it’s a complicated language… but perhaps Aymara?

Living Quechua is playing at the San Francisco Latino Film Festival on September 24, 2015 as part of Shorts Program 2 at 7 p.m.