Not too long ago, I went to a Quechua evening class at New York University in New York City. As I mentioned before, my Quinde ancestors were descendants of the Tawantinsuyu empire, also known as the Inca Empire. From my research, my ancestors might have lived in central Andean Ecuador. Even though my direct relatives do not speak the language or practice the culture, I have a strong inclination to learn the native tongue and re-claim the culture all together.
In general, Ecuadorians with Native or mixed-Native heritage spoke Kichwa and Spanish between the late 70s and early 90s. According to my mother’s generation, Ecuadorian schools emphasized Kichwa tradition to instill Native pride in Ecuadorian youth. They learned to sing Kichwa songs, dance Sanjuanitos, and celebrate Pachamama and Inti Raymi. Nowadays, due to globalization, Ecuadorian schools shifted their attention from Native education to international education. Ecuadorians in my generation learn some to no Kichwa, which is a present danger in losing our Native language. The only people keeping the tradition alive are the Native communities.
My Wankavilka Comunero culture, native tongue, and traditions were wiped out as a consequence of Spanish colonization. We merged our Native belief-system with Catholicism, preserve our oral tradition, teach youth to make Native ceramics, jars, arts & crafts, Paja de Toquilla hats, and weave Wankavilka Comunero ponchos, tapestries, and clothing.
The only tradition my family was able to preserve was the dance of Sanjuanito, an Ecuadorian Native folklore dance celebrated during Inti Raymi. My mother taught me the dance when I was eight years old.
“This is the dance of my country,” she said. “In Ecuador, when I was a little girl, I danced El Sanjuanito in my school. We wore these colorful dresses and braided our hair just like the Natabuela Indians in Imbabura.”
First, she had me listen to the hypnotic rhythm of the drums, violins, and panpipes. Then, I heard voices in the background but I did not recognize the language.
“It’s Kichwa, mi hijo, ” my mother said. “The Indians still speak the language of their ancestors, the ones who ruled the Inca Empire before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores.”
“Do you know it?” I asked.
“No, son. We are from the coast. The Inca did not conquer us,” she explained. “We come from a different group of Native people.”
In that hour, she taught me how to kneel on the floor and clap, how to gently wave the handkerchief in the air, how to move my feet in two and three-steps, and how to whistle during the round dance.
Years later, my aunt married an Ecuadorian man from Loja, an Indo-mestizo city in the Andes Mountains. His family danced El Sanjuanito in birthday parties, first communions, and weddings. I will never forget the exciting feeling of dancing in a circle with a crowd of people who stomped the floor, whistled like birds, and clapped to the rhythm of the drums.
“Que viva la Sierra,” we would shout in unison. “Que viva!”
All of a sudden, we stopped dancing El Sanjuanito in 2002. Some of my relatives returned back to Ecuador and others moved outside of New York City.
However, ever since then, I made it a priority to stick with this one Kichwa tradition for years. I even performed in many cultural shows in Middlebury College. My friends and I spent a few hours every night making the dresses for El Sanjuanito and rehearsing hours to perfect the steps. I think we were the first Ecuadorian Native dance group in snow white Middlebury, Vermont. The audience loved it.
During this time, I was learning Quechua from a couple of friends in Vermont. Then, I discovered NYU’s initiative in teaching Quechua at nights and open to the public. The first few lessons covered the basic topics: pronouns, grammar, verbs, and body parts. We even played “Simon Says” in Quechua at NYU.
The best part about this experience is teaching the language to my family. My sister gets excited when we spend a couple of times every week reviewing the lessons. I created an activity where she had to name the body parts in Quechua and we also played “Simon Says.” My mother and I, on the other hand, talk a lot about La Pachamama and Tayta Diosito. She learned a few words from me and a lot more from the Ecuadorian telenovela, Rosita la Taxista.
When I shared the good news with my family in Ecuador, my cousins told me they wished they could learn the language. My cousins encourage me to learn it – so one day I can teach them when I go back to Ecuador. But I just found out the Quechua I’m learning in NYU is not the same Kichwa we used to learn in Ecuador.