CCARHUACC LICAPA – Leila Ccaico walked slowly to the front of her class in a rural village in the Andes. Reluctantly, she faced her classmates, obeyed her teacher’s orders and started to sing softly in Quechua.
This is the first year that the sixth grader has been taking reading and writing lessons in the Indigenous language she learned from her parents, one that has survived despite centuries of laws and discrimination that discouraged its use.
Halting efforts to revive and promote the language hit the spotlight last month when Peru’s newly appointed prime minister surprised the nation by delivering a speech in Quechua to Congress for the first time in Peru’s history.
Translation into Spanish was unavailable, angering politicians who couldn’t understand the speech — a fact that illustrated Quechua’s status as a second-class language in the South American country.
But the incident also raised hopes among Quechua speakers that Peru’s new government, led by a rural schoolteacher from an Indigenous region, will give their language more visibility and increase funding for bilingual education in villages where children are often reluctant to speak the ancient tongue.
“I feel strange speaking Quechua; it(s embarrassing” said 11-year-old Ccaico, whose name is pronounced something like “Hai-Ko” in English.
Talking in Spanish, she said that children who speak Quechua at her school get bullied, and added that parents in her village don’t want children to learn the tongue because they think it will not help children when they move to the cities for work.
Ccaico, whose parents are alpaca herders, said she stopped speaking Quechua fluently at the age of 6. She said she she was visiting a city and started to speak in Quechua, but her older sister told her to stop because passersby would make fun of them.
It’s a situation commonly faced by Quechua speakers in South America, even though the language is used by an estimated 10 million people in the region — largely in Peru,. Ecuador and Bolivia, all of which have made it an official language in recent decades.
Five hundred years ago, Quechua was the lingua franca of the Inca Empire, which stretched from what is now southern Colombia to central Chile.
But the language’s status began to decline following the Spanish conquest of Peru. Though Spanish authorities initially tolerated Quechua, they banned it following an Indigenous rebellion in 1781.
In 1975, a nationalist military government turned Quechua into an official language in Peru, along with Spanish. But legal recognition did not stop discrimination against Quechua speakers, who come mostly from poor and rural areas.
During the conflict between Peru’s government and the Shining Path guerrilla group in the 1980s and 1990s, some Indigenous people were tortured by the military and accused of being rebel collaborators merely for speaking Quechua, a truth commission found.
Thousands of Quechua speaking women were enrolled in forced sterilization campaigns in Peru during the 1990-2000 government of Alberto Fujimori and were denied medical attention in their native language.
“We have suffered for 500 years. We walked slowly through hills and snowy peaks to arrive here in Congress, and have our voice heard” Prime Minister Guido Bellido said during his Quechua language speech on Aug 26.
Bellido, a native Quechua speaker who is also fluent in Spanish, was attending his confirmation hearing after being named prime minister by Pedro Castillo, the nation’s newly elected president.
Three minutes after starting, Bellido was ordered to stop his speech by congressional president Maria Alva, who told him to “immediately translate” what he had said. Translators were not available despite Quechua's official status.
“It’s time to change. It’s time for all of our country’s residents to look at each other as equals, without discrimination” Bellido told the chamber in Quechua.
Later, as the lawmakers debated his nomination, he — seemingly casually — pulled out a small bag of coca leaves, dipped his facemask and began to chew a few. The practice is common among Indigenous people across the Andes who use the herb as a tonic — but previously unheard of in the legislative chambers.
Leila Ccaico’s mother, Maribel Licapa said she watched the speech and agreed with the prime minister that more needs to be done to accommodate non-Spanish speakers.
Licapa said that she was barred from speaking her native language when she worked at a plantation on Peru's coast and as a cleaner in the homes of wealthy families closer to her village. “You have to speak in Spanish. I don't understand,” one employer told her.
“For 500 years Spanish has been imposed in a way that reflects the racist and classist values of Peruvian society” said Carmen Cazorla, an anthropologist who teaches Quechua at the Catholic University of Peru. “This society underappreciates those who speak Indigenous languages and some even suspect that speakers of these languages are using them to offend others” Cazorla said.
Cazorla is directing a bilingual project at Leila Ccaico’s school, where children are taught to collect medicinal plants and jot down their Quechua names. Leila said that it was the first time that she had heard positive comments about Quechua at school.
“Our teacher told us that Quechua was a very good language, and that we should speak it as well as we speak Spanish because otherwise it will disappear” Ccaico said.
Despite the difficulties Quechua faces, it has made advances. Peru’s government-owned television channel has broadcast a daily news show in Quechua since 2016, and dozens of folkloric bands are producing videos in the Indigenous tongue. Some rock bands have also experimented with songs in Quechua.
Currently, more than 1.2 million children receive bilingual education in Spanish and Indigenous languages across Peru — a nation of about 32 million people — and new Education Minister Juan Cadillo says the government aims to increase the number of bilingual teachers in public schools from 54,000 to around 60,000 next year.
Ccaico’s school began to teach Quechua for the first time in April, when bilingual teacher Alicia Cisneros was transferred to the village.
Cisneros, 50, comes to class wearing a brown bowler hat with a red flower — a style common among Indigenous women in the region — to show pride in her heritage.
The teacher said that she’s been asked to take the hat off at banks, at a restaurant, at a university in Peru’s capital and at the Ministry of Education. “I resisted and did not take it off” she said. “There are moments when you will be trampled on because of your origin. But you need to have guts and resist.”