The Wankavilka president attends a CONAICE meeting (Confederación de Nacionalidades y pueblos indígenas de la Costa Ecuatoriana) – an Indigenous political group aiming to protect the rights of Indigenous people in the Ecuadorian coast. The presidents start their meeting with an opening ceremony. Each of them introduce him or herself in their native language. As they take turns speaking in Awapi, Chachi, Tsa’fiqui, and Siapedee, the Wankavilka president bows his head in shame. He feels a knot in his stomach. His fingers tremble.
Finally, it’s his turn. He proudly stands up and states his name, his ancestral clan, and his Wankavilka nation in Spanish.
“And you call yourself Indigenous?” says the Chachi president, sucking his teeth.
“You may not know this, but I’m more Indio than what you think,” replies the Wankavilka president.
“Chachi, stop!” exclaims the Tsa’chila president. “Who are you to consider someone else Indigenous when your nation gave up their traditional clothing centuries ago?”
The Chachi, Tsa’chila, and Wankavilka presidents took a few minutes to cool down. Then, they resume the meeting with the rest of the presidents and tackle important issues in the agenda.
For years, I spent hours in the library researching the native language of the Wankavilka people. I was upset when I found nothing, but I kept telling myself: There has to be somebody who knows our language.
Last year, I read a list of possibilities: Puruwa, Atallán, and Aymara-Kichwa. But scholars and anthropologists conclude that the original language of the Wankavilka people is untraceable. Gone. Lost in the past.
Language is identity. Period.
Every language has words, sentences, and phrases that only a network of people with a common background can only understand. Language is as old as history. It captures stories in proverbs and rhymes. It’s onomatopoeia to the sound of its surroundings. The whish and whoosh of the rivers and the peeoh peeoh of the baby chickens.
My language is lost forever in colonial history. It stays in the past with our traditional clothing, dances, and belief system. It remains a sacred mystery to me and to my Wankavilka brothers and sisters.
But what does that mean for the rest of the 200,000 of us who survived the colonial impact and maintained our ethnic identity, our land, our government, and our shamanism? What does that mean for the Wankavilka president who faces backlash from Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people because they think he’s a fake Indigenous? What does that mean for me when I identify as Indigenous in North America and get funny looks from other people?
A few months ago, someone told me, “Language evolves with the people. It takes a new form over time.”
The Spanish we speak is not the same Spanish others speak in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Spain. The words we use are not the same words other used in other Indigenous communities. “Santy, this time read between the lines,” she said. “The language still exists. Don’t lose hope.”
For a couple of months, I spent a good chunk of time researching online, interviewing relatives, and attending linguistic panel discussions. Soon, I discovered that my language was not completely gone. In the 1600s, my ancestors made a strategic decision to hide their culture and traditions in order to guarantee the survival of the people. Camouflaging was their way of resistance. They adopted Spanish as their new language, wore pants, shirts, and dresses as their new clothing, and converted to Catholicism as their new religion. The end goal was to fool the Spanish into thinking their willingness to assimilate into Spanish society while simultaneously preserving their ethnicity, stories, and ancestral lands.
Our ancestors wore ponchos at night. They combined their Wankavilka ceremonies with Catholic rituals. They incorporated words like chanduy, engabao, guayal, tin-tin, puna, colonche, yagual, tomala, baidal, sumpe, mogote, etc. in their everyday life. They re-ordered the Spanish syntax in the Wankavilka dialect. They spoke in Amorfinos, too, which means they tell our stories in rhymes.
Even though I speak Spanish today, I at least know I’m speaking the Wankavilka-Spanish dialect. I used their words, expressed myself in their proverbs, sang to their chawi when I needed guidance, and wrote poetic rhymes in my storytelling. The identity was there all along. I just didn’t know it then.
And this is the reason it’s important to know your origins, your language, and your Indigenous culture. It forms a part of who you are today and who came before you in the past.