In this episode, I sat down with Elva Ambia, founder of The Quechua Collective of New York, to talk about her mission to keep Quechua thriving.
The Discovering Language Podcast features candid conversations with members of underrepresented language communities. Every month, guests bring us along on the journey to keeping their language and culture alive through teaching, music, science, and so much more.
In this episode, I sat down with Elva Ambia, founder of The Quechua Collective of New York, to talk about her mission to keep Quechua thriving.
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LeDonna: Hey everybody. This is LeDonna and welcome back to the Discovering Language Podcast. This month we will be discovering Quechua, a language spoken in the Andes region of South America. I was fortunate enough to get in touch with Elva over last summer. And she invited me into her home and she sat down and had dinner. And we just talked about her upbringing with Quechua, the work that she's doing with her organization, and just how she's keeping it alive through all her efforts.
Elva: The first language originally was Quechua in Peru. Then the Spaniards came and conquered so they imposed Spanish as a main language. And they keep on conquering more and more indigenous people. The Spanish prohibited for them to talk Quechua also. But some other people in Spain and in Spain leadership did learn Quechua. They wrote books about it also. One of them was Garcilaso de la Vega.
My thing is, Quechua is not extinguished. It's not extinguished. At this point it's still alive, very well alive. But if we do not promote, if we do not do events like we're doing. And in Peru they will not, they will not work towards maintaining Quechua as a main language. I mean...we could really-- Because our generation, for instance, I'm a third generation in my family. Right? Okay my first generation they were all Quechua speakers. First generation Quechua speakers. Second generation, still Quechua speakers. However, move to Lima, capital city. There then our children no longer speak Quechua because the main language there is Spanish.
I love this language. It's just something that it's in me. From all my relatives, my sisters do speak, my brothers do speak. Some of them, not all of them. And I do want for everybody to learn this language. So we organize, we set up this organization with that purpose of continuing promoting and preserving the Quechua language. So now we're functioning very well so far. We're not a gigantic organization but we are an organization that we made ourselves a name for. Like, we've been in newspapers, magazines, and we have done workshops. And we had our festivals here and there.
We are really doing [it]; we have a school now. Our school is teaching -- we just finished our third semester. And in this school we're teaching Quechua to people who are interested like yourself. Or who are curious. Or who want to travel to Peru and be in the Andes. And who are also interested are archeologists, anthropologists. Please like that. Linguists of course, some linguists they love to learn languages. You are a linguist.
L: Aspiring, Yes. I love –
E: Well that's great! I'm really happy that you are.
L: I remember one of the things you said in one of your interviews was that Quechua kind of comes from nature. Like the sounds and things like that? So could you elaborate on that? Because I found that to be a really interesting statement.
E: See I think not only Quechua was originated like that but many other languages, indigenous languages, probably were formed by the sounds of nature. How the animals, for instance, make their own sounds. How the river...the sound 'shhhh' sound, the 'ch-AH' sounds, like the lightning, the thunder. So that's why the language was born using those sounds. And we also, for the written part, adapted to the Spanish alphabet. So it's not-- the Spanish alphabet is applied to Quechua.
L: So Quechua didn't have a written form before--
E: Not written language in itself. If they had, nobody ever discovered it and nobody really... I think it was a language, written language. But they did not actually taught to everybody. So they, we lost it. Because if you see tapestry, I think in the tapestry the Andean people weaved. I think there are words but it's kind of hieroglyphical. That is, signs like symbols. Things like that. So, nobody was able to really discover what those mean. Those signs meant. So, they applied the Spanish alphabet so it's easier of course to speak it.
L: I was curious, was it difficult to find a Quechua community here in New York? I mean, I know there's an estimation of how many Quechua speakers are here, but in forming the organization and hoping that people will come and support were you worried that maybe there wouldn't be...were you maybe worried about reaching the community to come support?
E: See, the concentration of Andean people are not exactly in one place. Like, there is a community of Quechua speakers in New Jersey, and queens. Even sunset park but not that many, but there are. A lot of people live in New Jersey. Different areas of New Jersey. Like Paterson.
L: And is there a specific reason for New Jersey being kind of a Quechua speaking hub?
E: Actually I don't know. But I could assume maybe because New Jersey is more country. kind of. It's not city all over. So some people, Andean people do like to live in areas like that.
L: Less urban more nature-y .
E: My personal goal is to create as many teachers as I can to teach Quechua. So right now I have two who are very much advanced students. So with them I could already make conversations and stuff like that. Eventually they will be teaching. So next year I think they will be teaching more than me, maybe. So far right now they are my assistants. Because I'm the only, you know, native speaker. But they are advanced and they travel and stuff like that.
L: How different is Quechua from English?
E: It is very different, however, the sounds of the words--the words that we sound in Quechua are very much similar to the sounds in English. especially the 'w,' like the 'hoW.' Everybody says that the person who speaks English could learn easier to speak it. The oral language is easier for the English speaker.
L: Because the sounds are so similar.
E: Because of the sounds that are little similar.
L: What about the grammar? I happen to love grammar.
E: The grammar is totally different.
L: Totally different?
E: Very different. Because the grammar is based on adding suffixes to the word, the root word. Like let's say...if I say...let's take the word. Which word would you like to know? For you it's easy. In English you can tell me 'what does this mean in Quechua.'
L: Okay. What does cup mean in Quechua?
E: A cup. 'Tupu' maybe but that's not a good example. I want a--
L: Like a verb?
E: --kind of a verb. a verb.
L: Okay. Read.
E: Okay. Read will be Ñawinchay. Ñawinchay is like, use your eyes to say something. So if I want you to read something I will say ñawinchay. Let's say to...rimay. Rimay is to speak. That's the verb to speak. Ok. So rimay is the root word. Right? So rimani means 'I speak.'
E: Rimanki--see I'm adding, rimani, -anki, riman. I'm adding the 'n' for her. All the verbs is like that. And some adjectives and some nouns also, you can do that.
L: So like, I know tenses can be like future tense and past tense. That can be hard in a lot of languages.
E: Not really in Quechua it's not that. You still have the root word. You use just the past and the future. Like rimay right? Ñuqa rimani that would be present tense. Rimani. But to say "yesterday" you say "Qayna [...] rimarani. Rimar is still same, ani, then you add that, rimarani.
L: Ok. So they're just like building blocks.
E: And if I will say Paqarin, tomorrow. Paqarin rimasaq. You see that's not gonna change. Rimasaq. Tususaq. Ñawinchasaq. Uyarisaq.
L: Oh that's not hard at all.
E: No, you just have to memorize that. It's not, I mean, English is much more complicated--
L: Yes it is.
E: --than Quechua in that sense. No it's not that difficult really. If you really are willing to learn. But I will recommend for you to learn Spanish. It will be easier. I mean, I'm not saying it's difficult to learn if you don't know Spanish. But, you know, it will be easier. It will help.
L: So, are there a lot of Quechua words in Spanish? Or vice versa?
E: Nowadays there are many things, like for instance one example is the telephone, then the computer, you cannot have translation for that.
E: Teléfonoymi. My telephone. Teléfonoymi. Mi, mi, mi. That suffix that you add makes it Quechua. Yeah. Carro, for example, in Spanish is a vehicle right? Carro. So in Quechua carroymin. Carroyqim. You see? So you just keep on adding the suffixes to the words. No matter if it's, you know, new word or…I mean, of course words that do not exist in Quechua, it's like these modern words. Even English words.
E: Yeah. Microwave. You can, you know, adapt it. But this is new. They did not have that word in Quechua.
L: So when the Spanish came over and conquered everything, did they absorb any Quechua into Spanish?
E: Those, yeah. Because they wanted the Spanish to be the only language. Because the Spanish were the rulers. You know, and the rest of the Andean people were conquered. So they want to impose. But there was so much resistance that they actually did not forget their Quechua. Their language.
L: So was it kind of a, not really a creole. You know how some people speak Spaniglish?
L: So they know English but they speak--
E: But that's what happened. Quechua, Quechuañol. We call it like that because the Spanish is becoming Quechua. It's mixed.
L: It's mixed up. That is so cool.
E: Yeah. So it's really not so difficult. But you know, it depends of how much you want to put in.
L: Yeah, how dedicated you are to actually learning.
E: Exactly. That's why people who come to us are people who really want to. And it's good, you know? And some of them are Hispanic heritage. Some of them are just curious and they want to travel. That is very good, really good, so. Yeah, and the best way to learn is by using songs.
L: That was going to be my next question because that's one of my favorite ways to practice my language is with music.
E: I do teach songs in the class. We do have that. As a matter of fact we are having, I think that you are not going to be here anymore right?
L: Probably not, I'll be gone Tuesday.
E: On the 23rd is when we're having our picnic in the Prospect Park.
L: Gonna have to come back. I was thinking about that. Everything is happening while I'm gone.
E: --you can come back
L: Because I saw on the site all of the different events that you guys do.
E: So we usually combine right? One time, like this event on the Prospect Park is going to be a free event. Where we're going to socialize and introduce the language in different ways with games and stuff like that. And other events are more like combined, entertainment plus. And we charge for that. Because [it’s] the only way that we can fundraise to maintain to give more programs.
E: So that's what we've been doing. Yearly we do actually Raymi Andinos that would be whenever we can. Actually we had stopped doing that for a whole year. We are looking for a way to go back and do that. We have Quechua retreat where we spend a lot of time doing workshops to teach different things. Like to teach the language through games.
Like, you know how to you learn the parts of the body by singing and by dancing. By the numbers, how do you learn the numbers is by playing bingo. We call it Sumaq bingo. Things like that.
And there's other games, matching, concentration, go fish kind of games like that. So, we have things like that that we do. It's nice. So far, we've been very successful. I don't expect hundreds and hundreds of people to come to events but at least it's, what, thirty? Forty people.
L: That's a good size.
E: --coming to events. It's a good size. So maybe you can move to Brooklyn. To New York.
L: I thought about it. Maybe I...I love Chicago so much though. Do you think if you had immigrated, maybe to another city, you would have been able to do what you're doing now?
E: It depends on the city. I mean New York is the right place to be for me. Because I found everything here.
L: So it's kind of like, New York was THE right place to-
E: Yeah. If you want to go to the Bronx you just take the train and go there. You want to go to Patterson you just take the train and it takes you anywhere.
L: And do you think that made it easier for you to be able to form this organization and put on events like that, because you're in a space where--
E: Yeah. Yeah. This is very much center. So people come from New Jersey. People come from Queens. People come from Sunset Park. From Manhattan. And, you know, it's good because there are ways to get here. People don't always have to drive. They take the train. That is very accessible. Trains are very accessible. Weekends are not so accessible because they have problems because they are fixing this, fixing that so.
L: Yeah I saw.
E: It's always a problem but.
L: I saw that they have a little board with all of the things that they're going to be fixing on all the trains. I was like "What? Oh my goodness."
E: You just have to know.
L: Do you ever plan to maybe visit Peru with some of your students who do want to be teachers? Maybe to help--
E: Eventually we might but right now they are going to Peru whenever they want to by themselves. Yeah. One of the students who is actually more advanced than the others. He is the one that goes every year. He just came back last-- I mean he was there last month. So he came back so he's...to do things. So we're gonna work on a--we're gonna create a book. A workbook.
L: For people who are studying Quechua?
E: For people who are studying Quechua. We're gonna work on that while the rest of them are going away.
L: So, as I understand it there's still this stigmatization of Quechua in Peru.
E: In the cities.
L: In the cities, in the bigger cities.
E: But in the rural areas people still speak Quechua freely. However, they are mixing it up more and more with Spanish. But in the city people are very much resistant to speak so I'm hoping eventually that it's going to be a movement to force the government of Peru to sort of make it mandatory for all schools to teach Quechua from Kindergarten too.
That's one of my big goals. I'm just hoping that maybe in this coming year we can do something about it. Force the governments to do something about it, you know? If they would teach...that's the only way that we can really preserve the language. If all schools will teach Quechua from the very beginning. Throughout the college. All grades through college.
L: Kind of like your, you know, you have English class.
E: Yes, yes. Exactly the same thing. Why teach English and not Quechua? Come on.
L: That's your heritage. Why not teach your heritage?
E: Yeah. It's our language. It's our way of communicating. Why take it away? That's one of my biggest goals here in working with Quechua so. I think we're branching out. We're getting to know more and more people so eventually that's what we're gonna...to see, you know. Maybe a petition, you know? Worldwide petition.
L: To the Peruvian government?
E: To the Peruvian government. Bolivia has no problem because Bolivia is teaching this.
L: Oh really?
E: Oh yeah. Yeah, Bolivia they don't feel ashamed of speaking Quechua anywhere. The president speaks Quechua. Ecuador. There are whole communities who speak Kichwa. It's not Quechua it's Kichwa. It's a little different-
L: Is that like a dialect of?
E: Yeah. It's sort of like a dialect of Quechua. But it's, you know. They're doing something also but not the government. Not to that level. In the cities they don't want to speak Quechua, or Kichwa. In the cities in Lima, eventually I know it's gonna happen. So these are the goals that we have.
L: That's an amazing goal to have. It's very, I mean, it's important not for you to just know that but especially nowadays to pass that sense of community and culture on to the next generation.
L: You don't want to lose that.
E: If we don't pass it on then, you know, we're stuck. We don't move ahead.
L: You can't move forward if you don't know where you come from.
L: I find it interesting that they wouldn't wanna promote that.
E: Because that's what capitalism does.
L: That's true.
E: Everything is geared to make money, make money, make money, make money. You don't need Quechua to make money. You know? That's how it is.
L: It's really funny.
E: It's like here. I mean you don't need Spanish if you're not gonna make money. So, there are people, you know. Ever since we started doing this. Somehow, they might have known about us, that they are coming. And they are more and more. There are some people who wrote us letters and stuff like that from Peru.
L: Oh wow.
E: I don't know. Maybe they found out from us like you did.
L: Yeah, just do a Google search.
E: Yeah Google. You google it you find it.
L: Thank you so much for listening to the first full episode of the Discovering Language Podcast where we discovered Quechua. There will be show notes with links to all of Elva's information all the organization’s information as well as informational links on some of the things that were mentioned in the episode. Hint for next month: we will be traveling to Africa. See you guys next time.
Born in Peru, Elva immigrated to the United States as a teenager in order to find work and help provide for her family. Though Quechua is her mother tongue, living in the US forced her to rely more heavily on her Spanish and English. Longing to keep her native Quechua alive, she formed the Quechua Collective of New York. Her love of Quechua and pride in her Andean heritage is evident in the work she's done in supporting the Quechua-speaking community. In addition to organizing various cultural events, the Quechua Collective of New York also offers Quechua language classes.
Elva is the subject of the short documentary film Living Quechua. She's also the author of Qoricha, a trilingual [Quechua/Spanish/English] picture book, and is currently working on its sequel.
You can keep up with news about her Organization Quechua Collective of New York on Facebook and Instagram!