This summer, Amy E. Chalán Vacacela ’24 opened the course catalog and clicked straight to the Ethnicity, Migration, Rights offerings. When EMR 151: “Quechua, Indigenous language revitalization and Global Indigeneity” popped up, she recalls, “It was so perfect.”
Chalán is Kichwa from the Saraguro tribe in Ecuador. She is one of nearly 10 million people around the world who speak a dialect of Quechua, the Indigenous language group of the Andes Mountains in South America. Diasporic Quechua-speaking communities like Chalán’s in New York are growing rapidly across the United States. Though Quechua is not as critically endangered as other Indigenous languages, its native speaker base has declined, in part because many associate the language — once spoken in the Inca Empire — with the past.
Professor Américo Mendoza-Mori, a Peruvian scholar of Indigenous language and culture, designed EMR 151 to address that misconception. The course studies contemporary Indigenous issues, from climate change and sovereignty to the complexities of Indigenous identity and its intersections with Latinidad. Although students only learn elementary Quechua, the course examines language as a tool to access Indigenous cultures, traditions of knowledge, and expressions of self.
“The incorporation of philosophies and definitions in Indigenous languages into academia or into global conversations can help make more visible [Indigenous] contributions or those perspectives,” Mendoza-Mori says.
For example, EMR 151 recently discussed the Quechua term sumak kawsay. “It has been a philosophical term to propose, let’s say, harmony with the environment through collaboration,” Mendoza-Mori says. “In the contemporary world, that perspective helps us reflect on, for example, other traditions that put more emphasis on the individual.”
To enrich the study of these terms and epistemologies, Mendoza-Mori invited Quechua guest speakers, including Nely Huayta, a Quecha linguist; Soledad Secca, a TikTok creator; and Diego Tituaña, a Kichwa diplomat who formerly represented Ecuador in the United Nations. Contrary to the course’s title, which suggests Quechua’s decline, these guests serve as testimony to the current vitality of the global Quechua community.
By incorporating diverse Quechua voices into the course, Mendoza-Mori is also addressing a controversy around the use of the term “revitalization” to describe Indigenous language studies.
Revitalization “has been the scholarly term to refer to initiatives that are trying to make sure that endangered languages don’t die, or that they actually expand,” he says. But from the beginning of the course, Mendoza-Mori and his students have discussed why the term may not accurately portray this class.
“I chose this name because that’s what people might associate with these processes — they go to the term ‘language revitalization,’” Mendoza-Mori says. “At the same time, what do we do with that term in the case of Quechua? Quechua has 10 million speakers. The language is already alive.”
Not only does the idea of “language revitalization” often misrepresent the state of Indigenous languages, it misplaces the responsibility of teaching them in the hands of universities, according to professor Davíd Carrasco.
“The only people who can ‘revitalize’ a language would be the native language speakers themselves, who know the language in its depths and length,” Carrasco, a historian at the Divinity School and director of the Moses Mesoamerican Archive and Research Project, wrote in an email. “Harvard is not going to ‘revitalize’ indigenous languages but rather study, learn, and perhaps provide some resources to study and learn.”
According to Mendoza-Mori, scholars of Indigenous languages are pushing to use the term “language reclamation” instead. “Language reclamation acknowledges that this process is more of a larger effort by a community to claim its right to speak a language and to set associated goals in response to its community’s needs,” he says.
Rebecca Mendoza Nunziato, an Xicana graduate student at the Divinity School, has herself worked to incorporate Indigenous language into academic spaces under Carrasco’s guidance. In 2021, she co-founded the Mesoamerican Cultural Table to study Nahuatl, a Uto-Aztecan Mexican Indigenous language, with other Indigenous students and interested community members.
But language study is only a step toward acknowledging the colonial legacy that has kept Indigenous studies from its rightful place in academia, says Mendoza-Mori; once established at universities, the curricula must empower Indigenous communities in “more concrete terms” of “liberation.”
Mendoza Nunziato is looking to expand the Mesoamerican Cultural Table, a shift she says requires reframing ideas of knowledge, self, and community from Western to Indigenous knowledge systems.
“By learning not only grammar, but even individual words or phrases, we gained access to a completely different way of being and becoming,” Mendoza Nunziato says. The members of the Mesoamerican Cultural Table also learn through ceremony, art, and food. ”
To Mendoza Nunziato, classrooms like Mendoza-Mori’s put learning into practice. She visited one of his classes as a guest speaker, and recalls, “it felt like home.”
“Those spaces don’t happen on accident,” she says. “The University can continue to invest in that because the student body is changing, and the things we want to learn and how we want to learn them [are] changing.”
When Chalán first arrived at Harvard as a freshman, she took math and science classes toward a degree in biomedical engineering but quickly realized that her passion lay in ethnic studies. She now studies Indigeneity as a Social Studies concentrator.
Although Mendoza-Mori’s course will not count toward her concentration, she still describes it as “another step of this really impactful journey.”
“It’s just been able to really inform my sense of self and affirm that I am Indigenous, and I’ve not always felt that way,” she says. “It’s not always been easy to feel proud of being Indigenous.”
But expanded course offerings are only the beginning of building inclusivity for Indigenous students at Harvard; according to Chalán, the university must build “a decolonial and safe space” that equally values Indigenous knowledge systems.
Mendoza Nunziato agrees that Indigenous inclusion goes far beyond a syllabus. “We need to have people at the table,” she says, in order to “see beyond the scarcity that we’re taught to experience as marginalized people.”
Ultimately, Mendoza-Mori views these efforts to expand Indigenous language and cultural studies as an opportunity to shift power from Western spaces in American higher education.
“Institutions are accepting more diverse student bodies because the population is changing,” he says. “But at the same time, institutions should let themselves be transformed by that.”
Correction: October 7, 2022:
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Rebecca Mendoza Nunziato co-founded the Mesoamerican Cultural Table in 2020. In fact, she co-founded the group in 2021.
— Magazine writer Jade Lozada can be reached at email@example.com.