Quechua Radio in the Peruvian Andes

In 2013 I wrote the following article for CHIRAPAQ (Center for Indigenous Peruvian Culture) and CLACS at NYU (Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies), as part of field research for my thesis about Quechua Radio.

Part I  was published on the Chirapaq website, Part II  on the  CLACS at NYU site.
The entire article is below.

The focus of my thesis is on Quechua language, culture and media. During winter break last January, I went to Lima and met with CHIRAPAQ headquarters, an NGO in Peru that supports indigenous culture.

One of their oldest projects is “Sapinchikmanta,” which means “From our roots” in Quechua. This project trains people in Ayacucho and other parts of Andes to produce radio shows in the Quechua language along with Spanish.

I decided to start my field work by attended the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. I followed and attended presentations on community radio from Guatemala, and met people who identify themselves as indigenous from different parts of Latin America.

In mid-June I arrived in Huamanga, the capital of Ayacucho where I began my work by meeting the staff of CHIRAPAQ at their office in this city.

They introduced me to three stations in the region. I was surprised to learn that that these stations only broadcast one hour a week. I read that that there used to be five stations, which broadcast more frequently. During the next two weeks, I visited each station. First in Huamanga, then onto Huanta and Wilcashuaman, about two hours away in rural areas with a distinct climate and history. I did interviews (in Quechua) with the producers and listeners.

In Huanta, I gladly discovered that these programs were run mostly by enthusiastic youth volunteers. The youngest was a recent graduate from high school. They were very excited about my visit. Most of the members gathered together, and we had a good time getting to know each other. I talked with them about the Quechua program at NYU, which was very good news for all of them!

However, I also met in Huanta a very interesting independent Quechua radio host, in that business since the 1970’s. Huanta was one of the places badly affected by the Shining Path in the 1980’s. Among other things, he mentioned that that he was almost hired to guide the eight journalists who were sadly killed in the town of Uchuraccay in the highlands of Huanta. He told me he thought that if had guided the journalists, they wouldn’t have killed him, because he was well known throughout the region for his popular quechua radio show.

I was especially impressed by the wonderful group of producers in Huanta, how enthusiastic, well-organized and open they were with me, and the pride they have for their Quechua language and roots. One night I observed a show they did in Spanish and Quechua. Interestingly, when they presented the show in Spanish, their expressions were rigid and serious. But when they switched to Quechua, their expressions changed, even the tone of their voices. When they took phone calls from the public in Quechua, the whole group was enthusiastic.

This kind of experience made me think that, for Quechua speakers, it is through Quechua language and music that they can be most expressive and free with their feelings and thoughts; it is the most important part of the identity. And that is the reason why Quechua radio is still an important part of life in Andean towns, even if there are fewer stations than before.

After my experience in the wonderful and proud town of Huanta, I packed my bags and continued by bus to Wilcashuaman, a town in the highlands where the names of each town were in Quechua. For my next blog entry, I will share my experience there.

Part II

In Part 1, I shared my experiences with Quechua radio in Huanta, Ayacucho. I continued my research by traveling to Vilcashuaman, a tiny, cold town high up in the puna, 11,350 feet above sea level.

When the bus reached a mountain peak, the radio picked up a strong signal from Vilcashuaman’s main station, even though we were still three hours away. The station played huaynos. Occasionally, the announcers shared news from the municipalidad and del Estado, in both Spanish and Quechua. We passed Condorcocha (condor lake). When the bus stopped to pick up passengers, I heard playful comments in Quechua like pipas tanqay mamayta — can somebody help push the mamita wearing many skirts] through the door?”

Monolingual Quechua speakers, Plaza of Vilcashuaman
Finally we arrived into town. There was an amazing plaza constructed by the Incas after they conquered their longtime enemy, the Chankas. The plaza was full of senior citizens dressed in beautiful traditional clothing. I began to talk with them, mostly the ladies. They came from small villages throughout the region, traveling by foot or combi, to pick up their pensions from the local office of Banco Nacion, the state bank. They were beneficiaries of Pensión 65, a program started by the State in 2012 to provide monthly benefits (125 soles or $45) to seniors in poor rural areas.
Most of the seniors were monolingual Quechua speakers. At first, we had some difficulty understanding each other because of the variation of Quechua. I introduced myself as someone originally from Ancash, in the north-central Andes. I asked them about their radio habits. Most told me they listened to radio stations from their own villages. Every little village had their own station. I asked them if the stations aired in Quechua or Spanish. They looked at me like I was crazy and replied (in Quechua): “Quechua, of course — why would I listen to Spanish radio if I don’t understand it?!”

It was obvious that local Quechua radio was very important to them. They told me that radio was their main source for local news, especially news about their pensions and other State programs. Of course they also listened to traditional huanyo music that is so important in the Andes. One woman told me: “If the music is sad, I cry. If the music is happy, I smile.”

Most of the seniors I spoke with were polite, but after a few questions, they seemed to lose interest or become more guarded. I imagine they were thinking, “why was this stranger with the funny Quechua accent asking me questions about radio and Quechua?” This experience reminded me how important it is to spend time with a new community to build trust. I cannot expect people to answer all my questions immediately, when they don’t even know me.

Natalia Romaní, teacher and radio host for Radio Vilcashuaman
I wanted to visit all three of the local stations in the main town. I woke up at 4:00 am because Quechua radio programs begin very early for their audiences, who typically rise before dawn to work in their fields. I walked through empty streets (except for a few workers sweeping) and up the surrounding hills where the stations were located, under a full moon and stars. One station was run by the municipalid (Radio Municipalidad.) The other two stations were more informal, operating without licenses. One station (Radio Vilcashuaman) was run by a teacher from her house. The third station (Radio La Victoria) also hosted a weekly one-hour program produced by Chirapaq, the organization with whom I began this field work.

After my stay in Vilcashuaman, I returned by bus down to Huamanga, the capital of Ayacucho. I met again with representatives from Chirapaq. and visited their radio program Sapichikmanta (“from our roots”), which airs every Saturday at 5:00 am on the independent radio station Radio Quispillaqta. Most of the show that day was devoted to commentary about the rights of indigenous communicators.

I also learned something new, that Chirapaq was organizing later in July the first encuentro in Lima for indigenous radio producers from Peru: Taller Internacional: Política de la palabra: Communicación y Agenda Indígena. I decided to return to Lima to attend the encuentro.

The three-day encuentro was lead by indigenous leaders from Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico, and an indigenous leader from the Peruvian Amazon. In total about 30 indigenous communicators attended, most from Ayacucho. On the final day, the participants agreed to form a network to stay in touch and share ideas. I was most impressed with a group of young people from the Amazonian region of Pucallpa (“red earth” in Quechua). One was the grandchild of an important Shipibo chief I met in 2005 when I was working in the Ucayali region. They were worried about losing the local language, and wanted to do something with radio to help. Once again, I was glad to meet young people with projects to help preserve their local culture and language.


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