Rescuing Quechua Roots in Corona One Dance at a Time

Mónica Patricia Avilés, founder of the Ecuadorian indigenous dance group Ñukanchi Llakta Wawakuna (Children of Our Land), with her daughter. (Photo provided to El Diario)

Mónica Patricia Avilés, founder of the Ecuadorean indigenous dance group Ñukanchi Llakta Wawakuna (Children of Our Land), with her daughter. (Photo provided to El Diario)

Inside a makeshift dance studio in Corona, Queens, 16 girls of Latino descent wearing long skirts move to the rhythm of traditional music, as their teacher instructs them in Quechua or Kichwa, the ancient language of the Inca.

Mónica Patricia Avilés, a 34-year-old teacher at Children of our Land, or Ñukanchik Llakta Wawakuna, has turned the transmission of Ecuador’s indigenous culture into a program to fight discrimination and a workshop to deal with the issues faced by the local Latino community.

Avilés is a short, slender woman with long black hair who, feeling rejected at her private school for her indigenous origin and seeing no future for herself, left Ecuador at 15.

When she arrived in the United States, the teenager reunited with her father, with whom she lived until she graduated with a degree in computer science from LaGuardia Community College. Living with him, she continued to feel that she could not be herself because she had to adapt to U.S. culture.

“I would say ‘achachay’ and ‘arrarray,’ words in Kichwa, and my dad would say: ‘You can’t say that here. You have to say: It’s cold, or it’s hot,’” said Avilés, adding that he also used to tell her to pull her hair up. “I didn’t want to stop being who I was.”

When she had her first child, Avilés noticed that most kids born in the United States were losing their Ecuadorean culture. That inspired her to found a folk dance group free of charge at IMI Corona (Immigrant Movement International). She financed the troupe’s traditional costumes by holding performances outside one of her students’ backyard.

“I was interested in creating a workshop to teach these dances myself and use dance as a bridge to make children speak more Spanish and also learn Kichwa,” said Avilés. “So I incorporated the language and, aside from preserving it, we are strengthening identity.”

The dance group started four years ago with just three girls but, today, it has 16 members, including two boys. Two of the girls now assist Avilés with the dances and the workshops she offers, which center on the community’s problems. “We know that there is a lot of sexism and a lot of discrimination,” said Viviana Ástrid Peralta, 19, one of the first three girls in the Avilés’ group.

“With the kids, we are now focusing more on their growth, using art to educate them and to build self-esteem, to make them love their own body.”

A better connection

Another participant, Joanna Guillén, 18, also donates her time to teach the girls. She became a member of the group when she was 12. Guillén was born in the United States and says that being part of Ñukanchik Llakta Wawakuna helped her connect with the country of her parents.

“I started to have so much interest that I begged my parents to let me go to Mexico to visit the Mayan ruins,” said Guillén. “That inspired me to learn more about the culture, and it was an unforgettable experience.”

The goal of the founder of Ñukanchik Llakta Wawakuna is that the girls she is teaching today grow up to continue educating others about Ecuador’s indigenous culture.

“I have told them: ‘You are the seeds I want to leave before I die,’” said Avilés, and interrupted the interview to see off one of the girls. “‘I want you to feel free.’ That’s what I tell them!”

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