Peruvian Divas: On Language

Tue, September 19, 2006

Lately I’ve been working on a documentary about child sexual abuse and sex offenders. In making it, I’ve been doing backbends to avoid using language and content that is hysterical, shrill and fear-based (the hallmark syntax of much of the sex crime coverage). Language, after all, is power - and it’s worth a fight to get it right. As somebody-important-whose name-I cannot-recall said: “Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it.”

So it was with great pleasure, while at the peak buzz moment of my 2nd cup of coffee one recent morning, that I heard about the two Peruvian congresswomen - Maria Sumire and Hilaria Supa - who held a press conference to announce they would only speak their indigenous Quechua language in the plenary sessions of the Peruvian Congress. No mas Espanol. Citing both legal and moral authority, and ongoing discrimination against Peru’s indigenous peoples, they delivered their press conference - in Quechua.
The image of blank-faced journalists was priceless.

Eventually, one of the journalists spoke up and translated for all the others… and you could hear the dominoes of change begin to cascade. (We look forward to meeting Peruvian divas like Sumire and Supa on our Diva Tour to Peru in May.) Their story reminds me of when Hinewehi Mohi, a Moari pop singer who we met for our New Zealand show “Stropping Sheilas & Mana Wahines,” stood up at the country’s big rugby match and - to many Kiwi’s shock and horror- sang the National Anthem in her native Maori.  After months of considerable flap died down, her action created permanent positive change…now at all pro rugby games (New Zealand’s most nationalistic, macho venue) the anthem is sung in English and Maori.

A upane kaupane whiti te ra! Hi!!!

(One upward step! Another upward step!...the sun shines!)

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I was fascinated to read about Sumire and Supa’s statement and subsequent actions at the Peruvian press conference, and began thinking about language’s place in the history of heterogeneous, post-Columbian Peru.  One of the many speculations about the origin of the word “Peru” involves a story in which one of the Spaniards traveling with Pizarro asked one of the Incas he encountered what land they were in.  The Inca replied, “peru”, not even knowing what the Spaniard had asked; the Quechua word for the Inca empire, “Tawantinsuyu” or “the place of four parts”, never even entered the conversation.  Modern Peru, then, as the story tells, was essentially founded on linguistic confusion, a bilingual tug of war for authority, understanding, and power, which the Spanish, as evidenced by the dependence on Spanish in Peru’s congress, came to dominate.  How appropriate that this same struggle for language is the vehicle through which native Peruvians are currently asserting their power.  Sumire and Supa are not only proving a crucial political point about the rights and recognition of Peru’s indigenous population, but they are doing it using an old, time-tested method.

by Julia Bonnheim on Tue, September 19, 2006 at 7:11 pm PDT

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