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 under the Ministry of Culture. 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. Indian Country Today Media Network 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. It is like we were killing that language little by little.
My dad didn’t want me to speak Quechua, but he wanted me to speak English, so I went to a bilingual British school. 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.
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 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.
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 Jorge Velasco Alvarado [president, 1968-75], which is completely unique. 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.
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. I worked with both of them. I went to Peru and helped develop the diplomado [certificate program] on bilingual education.
And a new law was passed as a fruit of these efforts…
Yes, the Law for the Preservation and Use of Original Languages of Peru. The law was wonderful. 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 immaterial patrimony of the country. Therefore, the state has the obligation to create institutional environments to preserve and revitalize them.
Out of that law came a study of all the languages of Peru that we knew about, although there could be more. 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.
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 languages, and in the next century 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, and Bolivia. 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. And that is something nobody can talk about but the native speakers.