Endangered Skirts

Andean fashion show

People ask what I’m doing here, and I say “I’m here to work on Quechua.” The reactions are interesting and say a lot about the status of this language. A lot of people laugh or just say some version of “Why would anyone want to do that?” But many say things like “My grandmother used to wear a pollera (traditional skirt). I tried to speak Quechua with her but didn’t keep it up.Wearing traditional clothing has become synonymous with speaking an indigenous language. And when people start wearing Western clothing, they are often making a break with the past.

So – how endangered is the pollera – and what difference does it make to leave all of that behind? And is the pollera pure? Or is it already a mix of Spanish and Quechua – like the languages here in the Andes?

You can take a look for yourself at UNESCO’s interactive atlas of the world’s languages in danger. Plug in your favorite language and discover its status. Or you can ask any ten year old whether they speak Quechua at home. If they speak it at home, is it only with the grandparents? Only the mother, or also with the father? Only at home, but not at school? Only at school, but not in public meetings?

You can bet you’re in trouble if even the most passionate advocates of a language have given up on creating native language curriculum materials for formal education settings – and that is what has happened to Quechua here. If foreign linguists and tourists are the most enthusiastic learners of a language, you can bet it is settling into its grave.

I saw just one woman wearing a pollera at the Lima airport, with thousands of people bustling around. And in Cochabamba, I’ve seen lots of women in traditional dress, but few men.

What gets lost when a language dies? When this particular language dies?

We know that all individuals die and take with them their particular experience and character. When languages die there is often a loss of a particular group’s observations and interaction with their local environment. Are we depressed yet?

Not necessarily…because we are still alive, and so are big parts of many languages. It is not too late to wake up and appreciate, celebrate, enjoy what we have now. You can even revive a language that has gone to sleep – if the experience of the Wampanoag people of Massachusetts can be held up as an example. It will take some love and determination. Check out the great film “We Still Live Here” from the Boston Public Library (Roxbury Community College has a copy!)

Let’s get going with it. I’m going back to the Universidad Mayor San Simon tomorrow, to the ProEIBAndes.

p.s. You might wonder why I have conflated two languages and styles of dress in this article; women from Cochabamba tend to speak Quechua and those from La Paz, more Aymara; the women in the fashion show are from La Paz. All of them wear polleras of different styles. Aymara is even more endangered than Quechua. I have a very soft spot in my heart for Aymara as it was the first language of my Bolivian host grandfather. I have conflated it all here for the sake of simplicity – but of course the distinctions are much more interesting.

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