Thriving program makes Penn a Quechua language hub

With nearly 8 million speakers throughout the Andes, Quechua is the most spoken indigenous language in the Americas. In the world, that number rises, making it as prevalent as Swedish or Hebrew. Yet, it’s unrecognizable to most people, and even declared by UNESCO as an endangered language.

“It’s not about the speakers, it’s about the prestige of the language and the prestige of its speakers,” explains Américo Mendoza-Mori, who runs Penn’s Quechua Initiative. “For a while, what the speakers said, thought, or did was considered second-class knowledge, or not as important actions in world history.”

Although the Quechua language has been overlooked for hundreds of years, it is now enjoying a revival with the help of specific governmental policies and student interest across the world. The Penn Language Center has offered Quechua since 2014, and is the only Ivy League university to do so in such a capacity.

Gleeson Ryan, who is studying both business and international studies at Penn, says it’s a privilege for students that the University offers Quechua.

“It’s just so unusual for people to be able to learn this,” she says. “It's so rare for colleges to offer, but it’s so important, too. Indigenous peoples have more traditional knowledge that’s not usually understood, but it should be. Learning to understand a new culture and people is a life skill that everyone needs, as opposed to just a career skill.”

Quechua at Penn is about much more than just learning the language, too. As the Penn Language Center’s sole Quechua professor, Mendoza-Mori makes sure to incorporate Andean culture studies into the classroom. Also, two separate Quechua student groups have evolved, which Mendoza-Mori oversees, catering to both undergraduates and graduate students. The groups host on-campus workshops, events, and conferences, such as the Thinking Andean Studies Conference slated to take place in February.

One upcoming Quechua event is taking place Sunday, Nov. 13, at 2 p.m., at the Penn Museum. As part of the Museum’s Second Sunday Culture Films series and the Penn Humanities Forum on Translation, a documentary and short Quechua drama will be screened. Mendoza-Mori will give a related talk following the films.

The thriving program is putting Penn on the map as a Quechua language hub, too. A few months ago, Mendoza-Mori was invited to speak about his work at Penn at the United Nations in New York for the commemoration of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples. 

“This year, the commemoration’s theme was about indigenous cultures collaborating in urban societies,” Mendoza-Mori says. “That’s an important issue to consider, as more and more Quechua speakers are [living] in New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.”

Looking ahead, Mendoza-Mori is hoping to engage the Philadelphia community more with Quechua.

“We’re already planning events that are similar to the ones we do on campus, but just offer them at a community center or church in the city,” Mendoza-Mori says. “It’s taking time, though, because we want to ensure that we do it in a respectful way. We’re being as transparent as possible with the community, so everyone feels comfortable.”

Nancy Hornberger, professor in the Educational Linguistics Division of the Graduate School of Education at Penn, has spent decades studying Indigenous language revitalization. Hornberger, who’s worked at Penn for 30 years, says it’s the students who made the Quechua program possible. 

“There has been interest in Quechua for a long time here,” she says. “The sustained interest and particular movers and shakers, especially the initiative and persistence of my student Frances Kvietok Dueñas coinciding with the recruitment of Américo, brought it to life and are making it succeed.”