Growing up in the mountains of southern Peru, Marisol Necochea learned early on that being native is seen as inferior — and speaking Quechua is a sure sign of that.
Quechua, or Runa Simi — "language of the people" — is an indigenous language spoken throughout the Andean region of South America. Today, Quechua is still spoken by about 8 million people, primarily in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Some say Quechua was born from the musical sounds of nature: thunder, running water, wind and bird calls.
The central Andes has been identified by linguists as a “hot spot” for language endangerment. However, the region also shows linguistically resilient areas, where indigenous peoples have maintained their languages and their cultures despite colonial attempts to eradicate them.
Although indigenous people still make up between 46 and 62 percent of the population in Peru and Bolivia, speakers of the ancient language of the Inca Empire are still discriminated against.
Because of the social stigma, many parents no longer teach their children indigenous languages out of a fear of discrimination and a desire to assimilate.
This is what happened to Marisol Necochea, who was born in the 1970s in the region of Apurímac, which means “where the gods speak." Her parents — a farmer and a shopkeeper — spoke Spanish and Quechua, but didn’t allow Necochea or her 10 siblings to learn Quechua.
“When we were children, they didn’t want us to learn Quechua,” Necochea said, speaking to me in Spanish. “They didn’t want us to speak Quechua. They always told us, in many moments, don’t speak Quechua because you’re going to confuse your Spanish.”
Even in school, the children were physically punished if they were caught speaking the language. But against the wishes of her parents and teachers, Necochea learned the language from the elders in her small town.
“We learned Quechua from the grandparents in our town who came to help my mother. They spoke more Quechua than Spanish,” Necochea said, talking about the elder Peruvian women who helped take care of her and her siblings. “And they weren’t my actual grandparents, but we thought they were our grandparents because we loved them like they were and they loved us as well.”
Necochea moved to the Bay Area 17 years ago to join family members. She worked as a Spanish tutor and saleswoman until five years ago, when she became the Quechua language professor at Stanford University.
The language that opened this door for her is incredibly rich, Necochea said. It allows her to communicate certain feelings she can't express in Spanish or English, and it has a specific tense to talk about dreams and altered states.
“Thank God I learned Quechua. It’s because of that that I am now at Stanford teaching students of this generation, and it makes me incredibly happy to do that," she says.
Now, Necochea's parents visit every few years, and she openly speaks Quechua with them. They feel proud that their daughter is a professor at one of the most prestigious universities in the United States.
When Necochea and her parents say farewell to each other after these visits, they exchange a common Quechua send-off:
“Tupananchiskama. Hasta nuestro próximo encuentro. See you next time.”