I have been way too busy to blog for some time; having left off just when things got exciting (around the time I embarked on the field portion of the research, in other words, my residence in a rural Quechua-speaking community.)
My two weeks in the countryside were intense and deeply tied to previous trips to the same area and to similar communities in Perú. It was particularly exciting this time to be working without partners from the city, finding myself face to face with the daily labors of old and new friends who spend their time cultivating and preparing food for themselves and for their sheep, goats, chickens, pigs, horses and cows. (Notice: no originally Andean animals in current cultivation in this region.)
I observed the results of rapid changes: in 2000 there was running tap water outside these homes but no outhouse or electricity. Now there are solar panels offering dim electric light and cellphone charges. Some homes have outhouses, though not the one I was staying at. But a big change this year is that almost every house in the community now sports a tin chimney and a more efficient square clay oven. This helps reduce the amount of wood burned and smoke inhaled on a daily basis.
During my first week in the countryside I traveled with children and a handful of parents and teachers from the school to a ten-school reunion that lasted two days. In fact, my travel was in a jam-packed open livestock truck hired by parents from the next town, and there were eighty persons plus their bundles crammed in for the two-hour drive across the mountains to San José de Paredón.
The event included soccer contests, an evening dance contest with tremendously complex costumes, and a schoolwork contest in which work was on display. It was a sort of dream-come-true for me to have children, parents, and teachers from ten local communities all in one place for two days. I could never have visited all the communities in the short time available to me, but in this context I was treated as an insider (or special, honored guest) by the community that was hosting me and I had the ability to photograph, tape, meet, and ask lots of questions in a context that is outside the everyday rhythm and yet very much inside the Andean tradition of inter-community encounters and festivals.
There is enough to write about concerning those two weeks to fill many, many pages. But instead, I will add some pictures here and tell about an encounter with someone here back in the city of Cochabamba.
One of the reasons I am here is to document an endangered language – but why is a language with over ten-million speakers endangered? The answer might be seen on a personal level multiplied many, many times in communities, towns and cities around the Andes.
First of all, there is no sixth grade being offered in the community of Qullakamani this year, because nearly all of the parents of sixth graders have decided to move their children to the nearest town (Tarabuco) to continue their education in the larger school there. This means, for many families, that children are living in town with scant or no adult supervision while parents remain on the farm during the week. Basic cleanliness and meal preparation is left in the hands of kids between the ages of ten and fifteen, many of whom seem anxious to get on with their lives and move to even bigger cities where their older siblings have found a way into the money economy. I won’t even begin to tell you some of the trouble these kids are getting into, starting with basic cleanliness and moving on to getting exploited in semi-legal activities. It may seem minor that in the towns, Quechua is used less and less, while Spanish is the power language.
But the moment that brought me to tears today was a conversation with a grown, professional man, native Quechua speaker, raised to adulthood by his parents, who holds an important job in the city involving Quechua. This man told me that he chose to teach his children Spanish before Quechua, because even today he has trouble distinguishing between the vowel sounds of Spanish (Quechua has fewer phonemic distinctions among vowels) and this makes him constantly insecure.
Another person, the head of a team of Bible translators working on a revised version of the Judeo-Christian scriptures for Bolivia, talked about the practical issues and choices facing his team. Since there is very little literature in Quechua, the Bible is an important source for literacy campaigns and in fact constitutes the first and only writing in an indigenous language that many of its speakers will ever see. As such, the Bolivian Bible Society used to supply a great deal of materials for national literacy programs, but these are currently being rejected, supposedly by the speakers of indigenous languages themselves. The head of the religious literacy program declined free materials in these languages because he said the speakers preferred to learn to read in Spanish; reading in their own language is “humiliating.” I heard this third hand from the Quechua-speaking Bible translator; I have heard it second hand from rural teachers; the story I have heard first hand from parents is: teach us and our children the language that will give them the most prestige and opportunities.
Why the tears?
As friends and family have pointed out, these are choices and losses made by many Europeans and others just a generation or two ago. Abandon what is perceived as ‘old country’ and adopt what is perceived as sophisticated. Learn the language that will keep food on your table.
The tears are for the loss to humankind of the rich, intimate knowledge of the earth encoded in the language and rituals of subsistence farmers.
The tears are for the next generation, who might not learn how to weave, but will know how to push buttons.
But let’s not end with tears. There are people across the spectrum who see the value of the Quechua language and the knowledge it embodies, and I am fortunate to work with them. Some of them will be coming north with me in just a couple of weeks.