An Interview with Miryam Yataco

by Bill Weinberg, Indian Country Today Media Network

Miryam Yataco—educator, language rights advocate and an expert in intercultural bilingual education—has been involved in crafting language recovery efforts for the Indigenous Parliamentary Group in the Peruvian Congress, and as a consultant to Peru's Vice-Ministry of Intercultural Affairs. The daughter of a Quechua-speaking mother originally from the Áncash region and a Spanish-speaking father of Quechua background from Ica region, she grew up in Lima, where her experiences with language discrimination shaped her life's work. She currently divides her time between Peru and New York. ICTMN spoke with her at her apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Do you want to say a little about how your interest in language rights developed?
I grew up in Lima in the 1960s, the daughter of two migrant parents. One was from the south coast, and my mom was from a Quechua-speaking area. I grew up in a bilingual household where the family policy was to hide anything to do with the language of my mom, with Quechua. My mom spoke Spanish, but her Spanish was obviously non-standard. My first memory as a young girl was helping my mother with her Spanish. So I began to be a language teacher at a very young age.
It was clear to me that one of our languages was the standard, and the other we weren't supposed to speak outside of the house. It is like we were killing that language little by little. Later, as I became a teenager, my mother's Spanish became very good and she denied that she spoke Quechua at all.
My dad didn't speak any indigenous language, although he was indigenous. He tried to prevent me from being exposed to Quechua at all, although it was impossible because all my interactions with my mother and her relatives were  enriched with words from this other language.
My dad didn't want me to speak Quechua, but he wanted me to speak English, so I went to a bilingual British school, which was very high-class. And there were lots of issues there with me coming from a migrant family—both my parents were not from Lima. A lot of my classmates were the children of diplomats. In the beginning it was difficult for me. I found that English was a language that I liked a lot, but I began to see how internationally it was more important than Spanish, just as Spanish was more important than Quechua within Peru.
Yes, we are doing this interview here in New York, in the United States, where Spanish is a marginalized and excluded language…
Yes, so-called minority. That's what sociolinguistics explains so well. In this country, Spanish was not first represented by immigrants, but by the Mexican-Americans, who were already there and were made part of the United States by forces outside their control. And that is true of the Puerto Ricans too. Later it became associated with immigrants—with the dish-washers and the "illegals," you know. Even now, it is an asymmetrical relationship, with English on top of Spanish.
Yet Spanish is on top of indigenous languages in Latin America, and also on top of several other languages within the actual territory of Spain—the contentious relationship between so-called castellano Spanish and, for instance, Catalan, or so-called Basque, which is now properly called Euskadi. So, the role of a language changes depending on the social context.
Can you explain what is meant by "sociolinguistics"?
Sociolinguistics looks at the relationship between language and society. It also looks at the relationship, for example, of language and social conflict. Many have been interested in the legacy of colonization, whether it is the Spanish and Portuguese in South America or the British in India and Africa. Often there is this official story that the original languages have all been destroyed, but languages have interesting ways of maintaining themselves. In India, they have hundreds of languages. The British imposed English, but it’s now considered just one more Indian language. It is considered a "bridge language"—a lingua franca. If there was to be one official language for all of India, there would be conflict over whether it should be Hindi or Tamil or any other Indian language. But if you use English, you are not using anyone's native language. In this local context, English then becomes a neutral language. And it is not English as it is spoken in the UK—it is an Indian English.
And to make it more complicated, in pre-Columbian times, Quechua was the dominant language in the Andes, the lingua franca of the Inca empire…
Well, there have been a lot hypotheses, but the latest holds that Quechua originated in the southern part of Lima, on the coast of Peru. Or in Chincha, further south on the coast. And the Incas knew that Quechua, or Runasimi as they called it, was already spreading into the central part of Peru. And the latest from the anthropologists is that that Incas acquired it as a lingua franca. But they still maintained their own original language, which became the "secret language," used as their own internal code, which was probably more closely related to Aymara.
Aymara and Quechua are themselves related….
Yes, of course, Aymara came before, and Quechua developed afterwards. And Quechua actually became the general language of the Incas, which is different from a lingua franca. But there were these other languages: Quingnam, which was spoken on the coast; and Mochica, Culle, Jakaru. So, unlike a lingua franca, which is usually a foreign language imposed in a geographical area, Quechua became a common language among others in an area where it already existed. When the Incas came in they basically said, "You can still keep your language, but you're going to have to learn Quechua."
Yet these other languages that you mention on the Peruvian coast did not survive…
The only one that really survives is Jakaru, which is what we call an "island language": it is spoken in the high part of Lima region, but it is surrounded by the southern dialect of Quechua. And linguistically speaking, it is not related to Quechua at all. It is possible that there are people still speaking some Culle. The last native speaker of Mochica was recorded to have died in 1910. But the language can still be seen in the toponimia—the place names—and in the surnames throughout Chiclayo and Lambayeque and Trujillo and the north. And the names of plants and herbs. Even now, the language has a presence there. There is even talk of a movement to revitalize Mochica.
Are there enough surviving fragments for that to be possible?
Yes, I think so. Now, some of these reconstructions may not be exactly the same way they were originally spoken; we can never tell. So anyway, it depends who you talk to if you are trying to identify how many languages we have in Peru. But certainly Quechua is the biggest. It is one of the strongest indigenous languages in the world—spoken, officially, by 13 million in six countries, according to UNESCO. Including Brazil, because there are some areas of Brazil inhabited by Andean peoples who fled into the Amazon.
And there is a Quechua renaissance underway, even with Quechua-language magazines appearing…
Well, I am not one of the big advocates of Quechua as a written language. That's not my thing. [Chuckles] It is traditionally what is called an "oral language." But even that is a distortion. There are languages which do not use the forms associated with written culture, but they have other ways—what we call "multiple literacies." The way they transmit, fix and store knowledge is different from the what we consider to be "literacy," which is usually associated with schooling. The Quechua language has been able to survive through community activities and celebrations, song and dance associated with the harvest and other annual cycles. The ritual memorization of songs is linked to movement, and the body becomes a repository of knowledge. I always say that every time a community stops performing its traditional dance, it is like you are burning a hundred libraries.
It is a different sensitivity, and many of the bilingual programs that have been in place in Peru since the '60s and '70s—the main reason why many of them have been a disaster is that the idea was to bring Quechua or Asháninka or any other language into the school. Yes, the indigenous languages need to be brought to the schools, but it cannot be just replicating the way they teach Spanish—teaching students to read and write in Quechua, using textbooks. It is a form completely alien to the culture. You can do that with a bilingual Spanish -English program, because those are both languages with a long tradition of written culture, and using basically the same alphabet. With Quechua it is different.
Now, think about people in India, who have to learn how to use the Devanagari writing system for most of the languages in the country—for Hindi, for Nepalese, for Bengali. Then Tamil has its own script, Urdu uses the Perso-Arabic script. So Spanish-English bilinguality is much simpler. And Quechua-Spanish is truly different—first on the level of sound. Quechua is very glottal, especially the dialect from Huancayo. Spanish emphasizes much more the vowels.
And even in the bilingual programs, there is always this sense that the student needs to excel at Spanish, and needs to be better in Spanish than in Quechua.
Most bilingual programs are transitional—the student comes in speaking a mother language and comes out speaking the dominant language. This is especially true for English-Spanish programs in the US, where there are all these eco-linguistic forces telling you, "Spanish is the language of the illegals, bla bla bla." And in Peru, Quechua was seen in a similar way—not even a language, but a throat disease.
Do you want to tell us about your work with Dr. Joshua Fishman?
Starting in 1999, I worked as his assistant at New York University. Dr. Fishman is the father of sociolinguistics, especially in the US. He brought the fields of sociology and linguistics together for the first time, at City University of New York. I worked with him in his course "Language and Ethnic Identity" at NYU.  I helped instruct from his book Reversing Language Shift.  He adores Yiddish, and has been one of the most important people defending that language. But he taught me to love all languages, and to avoid an essentialist approach that sees a particular language as "evil." All languages have the potential to turn violent, of being horrendous; or to be sensible and sweet. So I work for all languages that are affected by homogenization.
I've worked with Quechua, because that was the language of my mother, and I saw her suffer tremendously. Peru and the Andean region have to come to terms with the large population—Peruvian citizens, Bolivian citizens, Ecuadoran citizens, Colombian citizens—whose native language is not Spanish. This has to be acknowledged as part of the diversity and richness of South America. And until then there will always be injustice.
In the 1820s, all these countries supposedly became independent from Spain. But they became independent only in the political sense. In the cultural sense, they adopted Spanish—completely. In contrast, in India, when they kicked out the British, they kept their native languages. English became just one more Indian language. That didn't happen in Latin America—even though we have 6 million Aymara speakers, 13 million Quechua speakers. And that is just officially. Unofficially, we have so much more. The speakers resisted and resisted and resisted. Sometimes through what we call "encapsulation"—meaning they avoided contact with the outside world, or with the version of Westernization that the Peruvian state was imposing.
There are many nations within Peru. But when you say this, you face all these accusations: "You are trying to divide us," or "You hate Spanish." I don't hate Spanish! And now I think it is finally sinking in: that these are languages. These are not the howls of animals, these are not throat diseases. These people look at reality in a different way, and sometimes they laugh at Spanish-speaking people—because Spanish-speaking people don't understand them, but most of these Quechua-speakers or Asháninka-speakers have had to also learn Spanish to survive. So they are bilingual, and the Spanish-speakers are not.
Do you want to talk about the efforts over the past two generations of the Peruvian government to move towards bilingual and multicultural education?
You have to start by acknowledging the incredible contribution of Juan Velasco Alvarado [president, 1968-75], which is completely unique. I understand that many people in the field of anthropology are very upset with him because of the agrarian reform…
Why were they upset?
They didn't like the agrarian reform. Peru was owned by thirteen families, and he took the land from the land-owners, the hacendados, and redistributed it as cooperatives. I followed all this on TV when I was growing up. I don't say this as an academic, I am a product of those changes. And I say this with a lot of pride.
But why did anthropologists object to the agrarian reform?
Because it created a lot of chaos. A lot of the land that was provided to the campesinos—well, they didn't know how to handle it. They had always worked under the hacendados. So there were a lot of problems in the rural areas, for many years. But many native communities regained their land.
And they say that Velasco came to power in a military coup. But I love him.  I think about people like my nanny when I was a little girl. She had never seen a telephone before; when the phone rang, she got scared. I taught her how to answer the phone, and showed her that it wasn't dangerous. And then, she got to explain to me what was on TV. Because Velasco issued a decree that said that TV was not going to be showing The Monkees and the Partridge Family and Bewitched. And it was replaced with traditional dancers and story-telling. It was called "folklore," a term I don't agree with….
Why don't you agree with it?
Because it is art. What, all these people in the museums produce "art," but the indigenous people produce "folklore"? Come on!
So when we were watching the Inkarri ceremony in Cuzco, I would ask my nanny, Tomasa, "What is that?" And she would explain to me. She knew these things from her own land, from Quispicanchis, in Cuzco. It was the beginning of an exchange between us. She would teach me songs in Quechua, and I would teach her songs in English.
A popular slogan on TV at that time was "Campesino, el patrón ya no comerá más de tu pobreza." "Peasant, the land-owner will not go on eating of your poverty." The news announcer had to say good-bye in Quechua—pajarin kama. And all the high-class people at my school were making fun of this: "Animals! Look at that stupidity!" And they would laugh and laugh, and I would suffer like hell—because I had my nanny, and I had my mom… So I told myself that when I grew up, I would not allow this kind of mentality to go unchallenged.
And I think what has happened since then, is that those of us who grew up in the Velasco era have taken the country in our hands.
What do you see as the turning point?
I think the fact that two Quechua-speaking congresswomen were elected in 2006 was very significant—María Sumire and Hilaria Supa. Both from Cuzco. There had been others before them, but they were the first who openly and strongly identified that way. There was an Aymara-speaker who was elected in 2001, who also did something very important. Paulina Arpasi was her name, and she oversaw creation of the first language map of Peru, and she put language preservation and revitalization on the national agenda. But there was a lot of resistance and ridicule of her project. I think 2006 is when the change really started.
I worked with both of them. I went to Peru and helped develop the diplomado [certificate program] on bilingual education, and I brought in Fernand de Varennes, the most important expert in language rights in the world. He is a Canadian who has experience around the world, helping to develop language policies in South Africa and several other countries. And we gave a presentation before Congress, and put the language issue in Peru on the top of the table. I think that was the first time people really said that people have the right to speak their own language in the country.
And then we went to Cuzco, and worked with the Hatuñan program, which is working to develop bilingual education. We held a meeting in a theater in Cuzco, and it was full, full, full—and everyone there spoke Quechua.
And a new law was passed as a fruit of these efforts…
Yes, in 2010. The Law for the Preservation and Use of Original Languages of Peru. The law was wonderful. The main thing in the law for me is in section A66, in the preamble. It states that Peru has to recognize all of its indigenous languages—not just Quechua, not just Aymara, all of them. Including all of the ones in the Amazon area. They must be recognized as an oral, immaterial patrimony of the country. Therefore, the state has the obligation to create institutional environments, socially and educationally speaking, to preserve them, maintain them and revitalize them. That was very clearly stated in the legislation.
Out of that law came a study of all the languages of Peru that we knew about, although there could be more. We just couldn’t find the speakers. There could also be the possibility that some languages are sleeping, and they could come back to life. It recognized the right of people to be able to speak their own language not only in their own locale but all over the national territory.
This was an advance over the law that was decreed by Velasco, which said that indigenous languages were official in the territory where they are spoken.
Another important thing about this legislation is that it recognized language rights as a human right. But after it was approved unanimously by Congress in June, it went to the president to be signed—and it slept in President Alan García's office for one year. And they changed it. One of the things that got me really furious is that they changed the name of the map from "Languages of Peru" to the "Ethno-linguistic Map of Peru." We were concerned with how many languages were being preserved by native speakers—period. So subtle things were changed that we did not agree with. And this diluted version was then approved again by Congress, by insistencia [special committee] in July 2011, and officially renamed the "Law for Regulating the Use, Preservation, Development, Recovery, Promotion and Dissemination of Original Languages of Peru." But it was still a very important step.
But the most amazing thing has been from the bottom up. Bands are playing rock in Quechua, rap in Quechua. There is an initiative for public signs to be in Quechua—something completely new. The Velasco-era people have matured, the young people have come up with a different consciousness.
How does this tie in with the Prior Consultation Law passed in 2012?
On the basis of the language map, the Vice-Ministry for Interculturality was supposed to assemble a group of interpreters to help with the negotiations over mineral extraction and so on mandated by the Consultation Law. Translators are necessary, because many of the native speakers are monolingual, especially in the area of the Amazon. Now, the Cañari people were having a fight over a mineral project. And Cañari Quechua was included in the list of languages. But the fact that a Cañari Quechua translator was being trained by the vice-ministry meant that there was going to be prior consultation with them over the mineral project. And that’s when the government…said, "No, there are no indigenous languages in the Sierra."
The basis for this is that under Velasco, the indigenous peoples in the Sierra were designated as campesinos—peasants. Only the Amazonian peoples were considered "indigenous."
And as I understand it, this controversy resulted in the resignation of  Dr.  Ivan Lanegra from the  vice-ministry of intercultural affairs…. To me, it is important to point out how language plays a role in all these things. How language is bound to people’s identities and in many ways how it defines who you are.
What do you feel is the most important message of your work?
Language is more important to people’s lives than states sometimes want to acknowledge. And homogenization is a very dangerous force, worldwide. We now have 6,000 to 7,000 languages, and in the next decade we are going to lose three to four thousand. Even rock in Quechua and all this is not going to get Quechua off the endangered list. Even with 13 million speakers, Quechua remains an endangered language. There are areas in Peru where Quechua is thriving, but also areas where Quechua is almost dead. As well as areas of Argentina, Bolivia. We still have this phenomenon of languages killing other languages—which has been the role of both Spanish and English in different parts of the world. I hope that 100 years from now in Peru, people are not going to be saying, "Quechua was once spoken in this country, and now it's almost a dead language."
But there are situations, like that of Hebrew and Catalan and Euskadi, where people took control of revitalizing the language, and now the language is established. And indigenous languages should not be forced to become written languages. Because when you defend the language, you are also defending the cognition of the language. A language is not just a communication device, it is not just speech. It is how you look at reality, how you understand reality and digest it. And that is something nobody can talk about but the native speakers.


A shorter version of this story first appeared Sept. 18 on Indian Country Today Media Network.

Photo of Miryam Yataco (left), with lawmaker Hilaria Supa (center) and Bolivian activist Luz Jiménez (right) in Cuzco. Courtesy of Miryam Yataco.


Pueblos indígenas del Perú
Viceministry of Intercultural Affairs

From our Daily Report:

Peru: high court rules for indigenous rights
World War 4 Report, Aug. 19, 2013

Global language die-back accelerates
World War 4 Report, Sept. 23, 2007

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Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Oct. 21, 2013