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Peru’s Native Language Still Spoken

May 15, 1999

LIMA, Peru (AP) _ Peru’s Amazon Indian languages may be in danger of extinction, but street vendor Teofilo Quispe speaks an ancient tongue that is the language of millions in this Andean nation.

``Si, senor, Quechua is the language of my people,″ Quispe says as he weighs potatoes for a customer at his sidewalk stall.

Quechua, the vox populi of the Inca empire, is still widely heard almost 500 years after the arrival of the Spaniards. It is spoken by a third of Peru’s 23 million people and by 5 million people in neighboring Ecuador and Bolivia.

``I’m optimistic about its future,″ says Juan Carlos Godennzi, the government’s director of bilingual education, noting more people speak Quechua today than when the Spanish arrived, due to population growth.

Quechua-speaking highlanders who migrated to Lima over the last 30 years have helped to balloon the capital’s population from 1.8 million to 7 million.

Their poetic language has put an Andean stamp on Lima, a city founded on the Pacific coast by Spanish conquistadors as their center of power in South America. Quechua filters through the shouts of peddlers at street markets. It drifts out of shacks in poor barrios in the melancholy tones of the traditional ``huayno″ music of the highlands.

Outside the major market towns in the central and southern Andes, Quechua is often the only language heard. But like other Indian languages, it is under pressure as Peru modernizes.

Younger people and migrants to the cities often try to conceal their Indian roots to be able to advance in a modern society. The European-descended elite scorns Quechua speakers as ignorant and socially inferior.

``The parents speak Quechua, but they try to talk in Spanish in front of their children so they won’t learn Quechua,″ says school teacher Isabel Rojas.

The school where Rojas teaches includes Quechua lessons as a way of building students’ pride. But she says parents often object to their children learning the language.

``It is of little use,″ says Edolia Salcedo, a street peddler who migrated to Lima 15 years ago speaking only Quechua but now is fluent in Spanish.

``You can use it only in the little, far-away towns where everybody speaks Quechua,″ Salcedo says. ``It won’t earn you any money.″

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