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Sacred Valley

I’ve been taking a break from work this week and following the course of the Vilcanota River  through the Sacred valley of the Incas.  We started in the market town of  Pisac    and wandered through the amazing terraced  landscape where the townspeople’s ancestors perfected the art of cultivation at different altitudes. The next day we were on to Urubamba and then Ollantaytambo. Today we hiked to the Inti Punku (Sun Gate) and then descended to spectacular Machu Picchu – if you haven’t seen it, put it on your itinerary!

All of these places display an extraordinary dialogue between humans and nature. Where does the mountain end and the stonework begin?

Against linguistic extractivism

Rufino Chuquimamani2

Rufino Chuquimamani – Quechua expert and author, invited comentarista at Monday’s talk

I’ve found myself declaring lately that I am trying to practice an alternative to linguistic extractivism – but what does that mean? I think I coined the term.

According to, extractivism is

“A term of growing use in Latin America academia and social movements to describe economic activities that remove of large amounts of a nation’s natural commons for sale on the world market …”

I personally associate extractivism with the explosion of mining activities that endanger vulnerable communities in the Andes. Resources are taken out of communities in one direction, leaving waste products behind and moving the good stuff for consumption elsewhere. Similarly, linguists and anthropologists are notorious for conducting work that enriches their academic careers but never finds its way back to communities of origin.

An alternative practice is more like traditional agriculture, which is cyclical rather than linear. In this practice, communities themselves take care to return what they have taken from the earth back to where it is needed, with value added.

There are parallels in the practice of linguistic research among indigenous communities. We have a choice to make — are we simply going to mine these communities for what they have to offer linguistic science? Or are we going to take our place as honorary members of the communities when invited, returning results in ways that enrich their identities and allow for more dynamic teaching and use of the native languages?

It has been such a joy and privilege to spend the past six weeks in a phase of returning results. Taking the time to return results offers a break from the pressure off data collection so I can listen more carefully and simply observe what the needs are locally. There will be time soon enough to resume fieldwork, but it’s really enjoyable to see the results savored by people for whom they make a difference.

That was my experience on Sunday and Monday here as I gave talks to teachers and language rights activists in Cusco. There are currently very few viable university connections between local linguists and educators, and the organizations that are carrying out teacher preparation are up to their eyeballs in work. So I hired a pair of private consultants to help me put on two events here. One took place at the Asociación Pukllasunchis, a hub of intercultural education that mostly serves elites in the city but also runs a terrific radio program in the countryside. The other was at a museum run by the Ministry of Culture.

People actually got excited about grammar at these talks! They got excited because they saw for themselves what a complex and intricate mental system their local children have mastered by the time they get to school. Now they’re begging me to come back and offer the talk again in April to the team that helps plan Quechua language teaching content. Glad to see this work come off the bookshelf and into a useful place.

Hosts in Cbba

For a few weeks in February, I rented a room from the Arnez family who live just 6 blocks from the University. It was so pleasant to walk to work in the morning, and to eat Tanya’s home-cooked meals at night! I found this family through an organization called Sustainable Bolivia. Very kind folks  – the grandfather, Esteban, runs a small storefront at the house and his son, also Esteban, drives a large bus to and from their original hometown of Punata, where Quechua is spoken. Tanya tells me that she and her father-in-law speak Quechua ‘but not the pure kind’ – a typical refrain of people from Cochabamba who are aware that their language is heavily mixed with Spanish.

Altiplano diaries

Bolivia is home to ‘el altiplano’, the high plain, sometimes known as the table top of the world. It extends for many miles from Southern Peru to Southern Bolivia at an average altitude of 13000 feet above sea level. I’m writing this as I sit in the airport at an altitude of 13353 feet. Travelers and athletes from lower altitudes often need oxygen at this altitude; digestion and metabolism is also slower. I have usually managed by drinking mate de coca or coca leaf tea in what used to be a very small, pink airport building. Today I am sitting in a brand new modern building and haven’t stopped in for tea yet. Having spent the last month in a valley at 8400 feet above sea level, I am slightly better acclimatized, but I do feel a little dizzy.

I’m sure my kids remember the graphic lesson in what happens to fluids when transitioning from one extreme altitude to another: a bottle of soda bulged and overflowed at the high altitude, and practically imploded when returning to sea level. Hmmm, this is what happens at the cellular level too, which is why some people get a massive headache and have heart palpitations at high altitudes. Tea time!


I will never forget seeing a flock of iridescent orange-pink flamingos at dusk on the banks of a dark slate colored Lake Poopo. That was on a train ride across the altiplano in 1976. At that time, a group of people called the Uru-Chipaya lived around the lake and survived primarily by fishing. The name of their language is also related to the name of the nearby mining town of Oruro.

Some time in the 1990s, a consortium of Bolivians and foreign multinationals built a gas pipeline that runs the length of the altiplano, transporting natural gas. Around the turn of the millennium, an oil spill poisoned the lake, and now I hear it has dried up entirely – recent news reports confirm this, although the article attached here shows the return of some flamingos after rain fell in January.

A couple of young women who just started at ProEIB Andes, Delicia and Jhandira, conducted an ethnographic study in nearby communities, trying to discover the fate of the Uru-Chipaya people and their language. They reported that the language is no longer being spoken except by the elderly, and that people who left the Lake region have begun speaking Quechua and Spanish instead. A handful of skinny books including sociolinguistic studies and collections of Uru-Chipaya songs and stories is on display at the ProEIB Andes.IMG_0403[1]

Lights, camera, action.

Last week was my chance to work closely with the 30 new grad students. My favorite evening was Wednesday  as it was totally hands on. I gave each small group of students some kind of recording device, blank media, power source, tripod or alternative mount, an equipment checklist, a consent form, a questionaire and a comic strip. First, they had to figure out how to make their devices work and optimize them for voice recording according to the latest language documentation standards. Then, they set about asking one of their members for permission to record, gathering biographical information and eliciting a story from the comic strip. Finally, each group turned everything off and gave it back with a brief report on their session.

The most popular accessory by far was the one pictured here called the Action Pod. There was endless speculation about its uses… go figure. Click to see Action Pod

A few reactions to the week´s activities – (translated from Spanish)

“At first our group thought using the (zoom h2n audio) recorder was too complex, but upon reading the manual we found we could manage it easily”

“I learned that we need to take ethics into account when gathering and publishing data”

“What I really want to know is, how do you revive an endangered language?”

“As native speakers we need to know how to document our languages in order to conserve and spread their use.”

“I wish we could have learned more about how to create databases, this is a gap in my preparation.”

“Come visit my homeland, you are always welcome.”



Sue in Suwanaku (click for stillshot)

Grad students celebrated International Mother Language Day yesterday with theater, dance, poetry and song – and cast me as the protective mother in a video of a traditional Andean courtship ritual called Suwanaku in which a young man comes to steal a woman away from her family.

The most enjoyable aspect of the day`s events was hearing everyone speak more than just a few words in their native languages. Truly beautiful – Mapudungun, Weenhayek, Aymara, Quechua, Bésiro, Yuracaré, Náhuatl, Zoque, Tojolabal, Chinanteco, Purépecha, Nasa, Ashanika – revealing the hidden identities of people who had spent the past couple of weeks together speaking Spanish.

Getting down to work

For wonderful images, see I do not have a good internet connection to upload photos at this time.

(¡Manos a la obra!)

I’m well aware that my blog has not reflected my work activities at all yet. Reading it, you might think that I am exclusively here visiting friends, but that is the tip of the iceberg. For the past two weeks I’ve been working intensively at the ProEIBAndes (graduate program in Intercultural Bilingual Education) at the Universidad Mayor San Simón in Cochabamba.

Why have I delayed blogging about it? – Two reasons: blogging requires thinking in English and explaining experiences to an outside audience. As I plunge into these activities, I am thinking less and less in English and even less thinking from an outside perspective. I have been invited to participate as an insider, and I have given that my full attention.

I am honored to be treated as visiting faculty at the ProEIB. I have been given a desk and computer, a voice at meetings, a role as mentor and guest speaker, and my work is being incorporated into the curriculum. I’ve already participated in intense debates over aspects of the proposed doctoral program and about the use of in-house vs. internationally accepted formatting for citation within student work. The content of these conversations goes to the heart of positioning this program and maintaining its identity as a unique place in the Americas where indigenous people come to build an academic identity without sacrificing their cultural and linguistic values.

This past Monday, 30 new master’s students came together to introduce themselves to each other and to the program. Many wore traditional dress, played instruments, showed slides and videos of significant activities within their home communities in Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Mexico. The students bring an impressive array of life experience. Some are recent college graduates, but most have already worked extensively as educators, interpreters, advocates, census takers, activists, spiritual guides, policy makers. There are two strands of study within the program: Intercultural Bilingual Eduaction (EIB) and Sociolinguistics.

The faculty also offers a wealth of experience. Three have been part of the program since its inception 18 years ago. Two are native speakers and accomplished linguists of Quechua and Aymara. Several have backgrounds in the social sciences, and are graduates of the program themselves; several have spoken and published internationally in their areas, although publishing is emphasized much less in the Andes than it is in the States. It is a joy and a pleasure to have lunch and conversation with these folks on a daily basis, and to read and discuss each other’s work.

For three days last week, students engaged in a process of writing their autobiographies. Yesterday I listened for several hours as each student commented on this process and what it brought to light for them. Many emotions were expressed by both men and women: rage and indignation over discrimination and violence they have experienced as native peoples in colonized/conquered terrain; indignation, humiliation, sadness. There was also laughter, pride, defiance and a sense of incredible wealth. It is this wealth of knowledge, of intuition, of heart, that is already growing within the group by being shared.

On Monday it will be my turn to speak. Students will have introductory classes in the morning with Professor Pedro Plaza on the topic of research in the social sciences. They’ll complete readings and a first stab at fieldwork in the afternoons. From 5-6:30 they’ll come to hear me speak.

Here are my topics:

Monday – an introduction to ethical relationships among researchers and rural communities

Tuesday – video and audio recording techniques for language documentation

Wednesday – research design and interviewing techniques, with hands on application (students record interviews in small groups!)

Thursday- data management, archiving and community access for the purpose of language revitalization

All of this is merely part of the preparation for the master’s program to begin.

Let the good times roll!

Nuestro mercado (guest post)

Buenos días hoy día escribo soy Maria Jolie tengo 8 años y les voy a contar como son las vendedoras aquí en Quillacollo.

Las vendedoras aquí en Quillacollo tienen sus aguayos y allí ponen sus productos que venden. Hoy compramos habas, locoto y durazno, higo también compramos pollo, mote y quesillo, frijoles. Alla en la estación hay chicos que venden libros en la estación como la Alborada y otros libros mas. Hay chicos o jóvenes que venden ropa usada de los Estados Unidos. En los Estados Unidos es muy diferente el mercado con el de los aquí de Cochabamba porque en los Estados Unidos es muy limpio y hay hartas personas que te enseñan donde ponen lo que estas buscando o los que te dan el cambio.

Our Orchard (Guest post)

IMG_20160213_142050[1]Today I woke up in Quillacollo, where I am visiting Maria del Carmen Bolivar and her mother Ruth, and her kids Samiy (age 13) and Maria Jolie (age 8). They will be by guest bloggers today and will tell you a few things about the orchard behind their house. First, I should say that when I came to Quillacollo in 1976 I rode standing in the back of a truck packed in with other teenagers coming to see the parade for the Virgin de Urqupiña. Nowadays, the tiny town of Quillacollo has been swallowed by the growing city of Cochabamba. Samiy and Maria speak Spanish, Quechua and English, having spent three years in Michigan while their Dad taught Quechua at U Mich Ann Arbor.

So, without further ado – here’s Samiy!!!!!!!!!! Good Morning everyone, I am Samiy and I am pleased to be writing in this website! I have been living in Quillacollo in my grandparent’s house for about 1 year. There are fruits that you may not know about that only bloom in Bolivia and South America. One of these “exotic” fruits that grow in our orchard is the Pacay, or the Ice cream Bean which is a yummy, sweet fruit. Another one of these fruits is the Quince, which is “membrillo” (mem-bree-yo) in Spanish. The Quinces are used for sweet, sort of sour drinks, and have a sort of furry coating. They are like apples, and come in green or yellow. We also have a dog named Iron, who I call Baby in English, and “Chiqui” (Cheek-ee), which means little in Spanish. Hey, guess what, we just ate Phisara (Pee-sa-ra) which is a food that contains Quinua (kee-nooa), Cebolla Verde, (Green Onion), Haba (Lima Beans), and Cebolla (Onion), and Quesillo (Ke-see-yo), which is farmer’s or fresh cheese.

Hi I  am Maria Jolie and I am going to talk about what we do in  our orchard. We like to sing and like to scream words. We like to do it because it’s the only place we can sing and do the things  we want. Also  we have many spaces to make a little house for a play house because I don’t have a play  house and you even can run and do alot of exercises. Once my uncle brought a real dog but I thought it was a teddy bear that was fake but it was a real dog and the habbit of my dog Iron he likes to play  he’s a playful dog he likes to eat alot of his cookies and his bones with chicken and meat.

(Associated photos are on my facebook page today-couldn’t transfer)





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.