Weeklong focus on indigenous languages

About 50 people gathered together some in indigenous clothing.
Américo Mendoza-Mori (second row, fourth from left), founder of The Quechua Program at Penn, organized Indigenous Language Week at Penn. 

Studying and preserving indigenous languages is critical to cultural identity, history, and memory, especially since many are disappearing, says Américo Mendoza–Mori, who came to Penn four years ago to start the Quechua Language Program

As part of the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, Mendoza–Mori and other campus groups have organized the Indigenous Languages Week Celebration at Penn, free public events Saturday through Thursday featuring Penn faculty and students, as well as experts, writers, musicians, and others who will travel to campus for the celebration. 

“The goal is to think about how indigenous languages are relevant today, and how they are alive and how students can get involved to reclaim their own identities, or be a conscientious ally for indigenous people today,” says Mendoza–Mori, who teaches classes about Quechua, the indigenous language in many parts of South America, including his native Peru. 

The six days of events, supported by a grant from the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation Foundation, will promote indigenous language use in the Americas through an academic symposium, literary nights, film screenings, roundtables, visits to the Penn Museum, and the opportunity for people to record the language of their ancestors.   

Those languages and cultures include Quechua and also Zapotec, Navajo, Lambee, and other languages of the Americas, some of which are extinct. 

“We want to highlight today’s relevance of these different languages,” Mendoza–Mori says. “It is a way to join the global celebration.”

An academic symposium, Indigenous Languages Today, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Oct. 26 will feature panel discussions in various locations on campus. The keynote speaker will be Diego Tituaña, a Kichwa diplomat of the Ecuadorian Foreign Service who has served at the country’s United Nations permanent mission since 2014. An Andean music concert by Kuyayky will follow at 5 p.m. at Irvine Auditorium. 

Several events will be held at Kelly Writers House during the week, including sessions on Monday and Tuesday afternoons to “speak the language of your grandmother” in the recording studio. The goal, Mendoza-Mori says, is for people in the Penn community to read or speak an ancestral language, or share a word or expression related to a memory in that language, in an effort to record as many as possible, especially those indigenous to the Americas. 

Quechua classes will be held at the Penn Museum, Andean textiles and clothing on Monday and khipus and numbers on Tuesday afternoons. 

Other events at Writers House include Quechua writers Pablo Landeo-Muñoz, winner of Peru’s National Literature Prize, and Irma Alvarez-Coscco, a Smithsonian Institution Fellow, in a reading and conversation on Oct. 29, and an informal lunch with Landeo-Muñoz on Oct. 31, moderated by Penn doctoral student Marco Avilés (Quechua-Peruvian). “It is the first time he is visiting the United States,” Mendoza-Mori says. “We are excited to have him here. It is a big highlight of the week.”

A lunch roundtable at Writers House, “What does it mean to reclaim a language?” featuring Stephanie Mach (Diné/Navajo), a Penn doctoral student in anthropology on staff at the Penn Museum, and Janice Llamoca (Quechua), producer of NPR’s “Latino USA” is on Oct. 30. The moderator will be junior Connor Beard (Lumbee Tribe) of New York City, co-chair of the Natives at Penn student group. That evening will feature and a Zapotec film festival and Nahuatl poetry. 

“Many native students feel challenges that they are ‘not native enough’ because they don’t speak the language of their ancestors,” Mendoza-Mori says. “However, many Native American groups cannot speak their own language, as some no longer exist. The conversation will also cover that aspect.”