A PhD Student Made History By Writing Her Entire Thesis In An Indigenous Peruvian Language
Scholars at Lima’s San Marcos university say it’s the first time a student has written and defended a thesis entirely in a native language. Roxana Quispe Collantes made history when she verbally defended and wrote her thesis in Quechua, a language of the Incas. While Quechua is spoken by 8 million people in the Andes with half of them in Peru, it speaks volumes that this hasn’t happened before at the 468-year-old university, the oldest in the Americas.
Quispe Collantes studied Peruvian and Latin American literature with a focus on poetry written in Quechua. The United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages program has Peru a part of a global campaign to revive 2,680 indigenous languages at risk of going extinct. Peru is home to 21 of those languages.
Roxana Quispe Collantes brings Inca culture to her doctoral candidacy.
Quispe Collantes began her presentation with a traditional Inca thanksgiving ceremony. She presented her thesis “Yawar Para” (or blood rain) by using coca leaves and chicha, a corn-based alcoholic beverage in the ritual.
For seven years, the student studied Andrés Alencastre Gutiérrez, a poet who wrote in Quechua, and used the pen name Kilku Warak’aq. For her thesis, she analyzed his mixture of Andrean traditions and Catholicism.
“I’ve always wanted to study in Quechua, in my original language,” she told the Observer.
Quispe Collantes traveled to highland communities in the Canas to confirm the definitions of words in the Collao dialect of Quechua used in the Cusco region.
“I needed to travel to the high provinces of Canas to achieve this translation and the meaning of toponyms that I couldn’t find anywhere,” she said. “I asked my parents, my grandparents and teachers, and [it didn’t prove fruitful].”
Quechua entering the academic discourse can help preserve it.
“Quechua doesn’t lack the vocabulary for an academic language. Today many people mix the language with Spanish,” she said. “I hope my example will help to revalue the language again and encourage young people, especially women, to follow my path. It’s very important that we keep on rescuing our original language.”
Her doctoral adviser Gonzo Espino told The Guardian he believes Quispe Collantes’ thesis was a symbolic gesture.
“[The language] represented the most humble people in this part of the world: the Andeans, who were once called ‘Indians’. Their language and culture has been vindicated,” he said.
It should go without saying but the doctoral candidate received top marks on her project.
Quechua is the most widely spoken indigenous language in South America.
The oldest written records of Quechua were in 1560 in Grammatica o arte de la lengua general de los indios de los reynos del Perú by Domingo de Santo, a missionary who learned and wrote the language. Before the expansion of the Inca Empire, Quechua spread across the central Andes. The language took a different shape in the Cusco region where it was influenced by neighboring languages like Aymara. Thus, today there is a wide range of dialects of Quechua as it evolved in different areas.
In the 16th century, the Inca Empire designated Quechua as their official language following the Spanish conquest of Peru. Many missionaries and members of the Catholic Church learned Quechua so that they could evangelize Indigenous folks.
Quispe Collantes grew up speaking the language with her parents and grandparents in the Acomayo district of Cusco. Quechua today is often mixed with Spanish and she hopes that “Yawar Para” will inspire others to revisit the original form.
Peru takes Quechua to the mainstream.
Under the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages campaign, this year, Peru began the official registration of names in its 48 indigenous languages.
The U.N. launched its initiative to preserve indigenous languages in 2019 after the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues determined that, “40 percent of the estimated 6,700 languages spoken around the world were in danger of disappearing. The fact that most of these are indigenous languages puts the cultures and knowledge systems to which they belong at risk.”
According to the Guardian, for years, Peruvian registrars refused to recognize indigenous names on public records. They would then force indigenous people to register Hispanic or English-sounding names on government forms while keeping their real names at home.
“Many registrars tended not to register indigenous names, so parents felt the name they had chosen wasn’t valued,” said Danny Santa María, assistant manager of academic research at Reniec. “We want to promote the use of indigenous names and recognize the proper way to write them on birth certificates and ID documents.”
In 2016, Peru began airings its first news broadcast in Quechua and other native languages, ushering into the mainstream.
“My greatest wish is for Quechua to become a necessity once again. Only by speaking it can we revive it,” Quispe Collantes said.