Preserving the Language of the Andes in NY

Elva Jimenez dances the night away (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY)

Elva Jimenez (just left of center) heads up the New York Quechua Initiative. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY)

Elva Jimenez’s mission to save her mother tongue began in her local library. Rooting around the shelves of the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza, she could manage to find only one tiny Quechua phrasebook amidst the massive collection of books.

Nearly a decade later and with New York City’s libraries now listing over 100 Quechua books and music CDs throughout the city, the thought of that day still infuriates her. She pounds her fists on the kitchen table and shakes her head.

“They had every other language on display, but nothing in Quechua,” she said incredulously. “Why not Quechua?”

In New York, the Amerindian language of Quechua is spoken by a small group of predominantly Peruvian and Bolivian immigrants. Since that library search years ago, Jimenez, 73, has joined forces with a group of New York University students studying Quechua, a handful of native Quechua speakers, heritage speakers and Quechua enthusiasts to form the small but dedicated group, the New York Quechua Initiative.

The organization is one of just a handful of endangered language groups that have mobilized in the city, fighting to protect and preserve vulnerable languages facing extinction not just in New York City, but in the world. Offering language classes, conversation and culture nights, and using Quechua music, Jimenez and her group hope to raise awareness for their language and get younger generations interested in learning Quechua with the bold hope of staving off its demise.

Things from Quechua night

Native Quechua speaker Roberto Alarco (center) is teaching his 7-year-old daughter Sheila the language. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY)

“In Peru, Spanish is just so dominant and with everybody moving into the big cities, I think Quechua is disappearing faster than anyone could have imagined,” Juliette Blevins, linguist and director of CUNY’s Endangered Language Initiative, said.

Although Quechua is known to have between 810 million speakers along the Andes, Blevins said that the rate of transmission to younger generations is so low that linguists consider it endangered.

“The numbers don’t mean anything,” she said. “You could have a million speakers and if more than half are over the 40 that’s a pretty sure sign [the language is] endangered.”

Andres Jimenez, Elva's son, thinks that sites like Youtube are helping to preserve Quechua langauge and culture. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY)

Andrés Jimenez, Elva’s son (left on stage), is the frontman for the band Inkarayku. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY)

Urbanization and globalization threaten languages not just in the Andes, but around the world. Linguists agree that of the world’s 6,000 or so languages, half of those are considered endangered and will disappear in the next century. That’s a rate of about one language dying about every month.

“Our languages reflect all the diversity of our cultures, our knowledge, our knowledge about the environment, the constellations, about every aspect of the world,” Blevins said. “You really have no idea what you’re losing when you lose any language. That knowledge is impossible to calculate.”

The New York Quechua Initiative estimates that there are between just 8,000 and 10,000 Quechua speakers in the city, concentrated in neighborhoods with strong Peruvian and Bolivian populations like Jackson Heights, Corona, Elmhurst and Woodside in Queens.

OTherthings from night

Micaela Jimenez (just left of center) is Jimenez’s granddaughter and a proud Quechua learner. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY)

The organization’s bimonthly celebrations of Quechua at Terraza 7 in Jackson Heights draw a wide array of participants young and old, from New Yorkers with Andean heritage to those simply intrigued by the region’s language and culture.

Listen to Gwynne Hogan of Voices of NY as she covers that event here:

At Terraza 7, Jimenez is blissfully in her element. She scoops her homemade maiz pelado, a fermented corn dish, offering it to guests in generous spoonfuls. Later she flashes an irresistible grin, as she invites younger suitors to dance. When she’s not shuffling her feet to the beat, she’s up on stage serenading the crowd with lilting Quechua vocals.

The night’s main attraction is the Quechua music, performed by the band Inkarayku. Jimenez’s son Andrés leads the group. The richly textured tunes weave together pan flutes, charango, the bombo, guitars and soaring vocals.

Odi Gonzales is a Quechua professor at NYU’s Center for Caribbean and Latin American Studies. He explained how music helps draw the community together.

“It’s an extraordinary way to express our customs, our dreams, and obviously to make us feel proud, in a city that is almost the exact opposite of the Andean world,” he said.

Linguists agree that music is a powerful tool that can help speakers of endangered languages protect their tongues.

Daniel Kaufman is the director of the Endangered Language Alliance, a linguistic organization that focuses on threatened language populations in New York City. One of the organization’s most recent projects is to invite endangered language speakers to perform in their native tongues.

“These languages, they’re basically only whispered on the street because people are afraid that [others] will hear them,” he said. “Here in New York, you’re blasting it through a microphone on stage,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine, but it’s a very powerful transformation.”

At Terraza 7, the crowd pulses, a line of dancers snakes about the room, hands clap, feet stomp, and Quechua speakers chant out the lyrics.

Jimenez is a kinetic ball of exuberance, dragging nervous wallflowers from their safe perches down to the dance floor.

“I want to make these Quechua-speaking people proud about their language, about their heritage, about who they are,” she said.

Elva Jimenez

“We have to speak our language because that’s our native language, that’s the language our parents spoke,” Jimenez said. (Photo Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY).

To learn more about New York Quechua’s upcoming events, visit the webpage. The next Quechua celebration at Terraza 7 is scheduled for April 19. For more information about Inkarayku, visit the band’s Facebook page.

Gwynne Hogan is a multimedia reporter for Voices of NY and a student at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter.

2 Comments

  1. Martin Edwin Andersen says:

    Now available on http://Scribd.com , “Coca, cocaine and the health and security of indigenous peoples in the Andes …” @ http://goo.gl/ywJfVE

  2. Pingback: CUNY Graduate School of Journalism » Clips of the Week

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