The writer Marco Avilés (Abancay, 1978) says that he began to study Quechua during the pandemic to surprise his grandmother as soon as she could travel to Lima. In a country like Peru, being born in the mountains and migrating to the city always implied more than one abandonment. His family was one of thousands who left the mountains between the eighties and nineties to find a refuge from guerrilla violence on the outskirts of Lima. In the capital, his father abandoned his mother tongue, and between stigma and pain he made sure that his children never learned it.
“In Peru, the linguistic wall that separates our families is not understood as the tragedy that it is. Every home with a history of displacement or migration has an open wound that we do not know how to name ”, writes Avilés in the epilogue of the new edition of Where do we cholos come from (Seix Barral, 2016), a book that caused an editorial earthquake due to the playful and rabid description of the disconnection between the city and the periphery in his country. The writer’s grandmother, Angélica Bustos, died of coronavirus at the age of 98 last March. He received the news from the United States, where he has lived for seven years and is now studying for a doctorate in literature at the University of Pennsylvania. From there, Pedro Castillo, the left-wing rural teacher who this week completed 100 days in power, also experienced the arrival to the presidency of Pedro Castillo. His cartography of Peru ignored in the cities returns to bookstores at a historic moment for the country, but Avilés asks if, now that he will never be able to speak to his grandmother without intermediaries, he will be able to speak Quechua with his own grandchildren.
Language, he tells in an interview with EL PAÍS, is a point in his search for indigenous identity in a country where multiculturalism and racism coexist in combustion. Former director of the mythical magazine Black Label, Avilés spent a decade touring the margins of Peru. From the markets of Iquitos, where Amazon fishermen sell exotic fish the size of sharks, to the arid towns of the highlands where women lead local assemblies and play soccer barefoot, Avilés draws a Peru with which, he says, travelers They have only done two things: romanticize their folklore or condemn their violence.
Question. Which of the two travelers are you describing?
Answer. My whole family, for generations, has lived in the Andes. We arrived in Lima at the time of the war, when people left their villages and took refuge in the city. I never felt Lima, I think I’m not from there. When I started traveling I took it as a reconnection with that side of my family. All my travels, before writing, were to look for those places that my parents, my uncles, my grandparents, described in their stories. Going back to Los Andes was looking for this indigenous history, Chola, on a return trip.
P. What does that word mean, cholo, in Peru?
R. It has always been used to call the mestizo who lives in the city, the indigenous who leaves the rural world. It is a word that the elites have shaped. In the XXI century, with the new social movements, there is a vindication of the cholo that lives with the use it has always had: as an insult, as a weapon. There is a vindication that occurs in a specific area of the Peruvian dungeon. If I use it to designate me, you cannot insult me with that word, but indigenous people are still hurt saying cholo: fucking cholo.
P. What happens to the indigenous languages in that transit?
R. My grandmothers only spoke Quechua. I approached, received their caresses, but I could never understand what they were saying. My parents and uncles did not want to teach us that language. The same happened in hundreds of thousands of homes. A father does not want his children to be made fun of at school for speaking the language and prefers not to teach them. This war against the indigenous, which occurs in Peru and throughout Latin America, also begins at home by killing the language. Over time I forced myself to learn, right now I am in that process.
P. Do you think it is something that is changing?
R. The indigenous population in the censuses was reduced from 60% to 30%, something that in this country is seen as progress. Is it progress? It seems to be a genocide that we do not know how to name. Deindigenization occurs due to the mythology of miscegenation, which is one of the great narratives of our region. I think there is a discussion today about this structural problem. More and more young people are asking themselves: “Why do I call myself mestizo, if everyone in my family is indigenous? Do I assume it for a simple move? I don’t know if the statistics are going to vary and more mixed-race people are going to claim their identity, but that questioning is positive.
P. Did that happen to you in your youth?
R. I grew up in the late nineties, and this was not talked about. For much of my life I assumed I was mestizo almost for default. In recent years I began to question that narrative: if my grandmothers were indigenous and my parents were also, what kind of magic has happened to me to make me a mestizo? The indigenous is something that is killed at home and within oneself. By assuming myself as a mestizo, I am saying: “here the indigenous dies”, and that is something terrible.
P. Why is Peru identified as an Andean country if more than half of its territory is jungle?
R. It is a consequence of colonial history. The colony was settled in the Andes and on the coast, it did not penetrate the Amazon as the republic would. This continued with the colonization in that area, in the case of Peru, in a process of occupation and extraction that is repeated in all our countries. Neither assumes that problematic side of how republics have behaved with indigenous nations. The behavior of our current countries is, at times, much more brutal than that of the colonies. We love celebrating diversity as a kind of assembly of Star Wars, but that in representativeness, in institutions, does not exist.
P. And it does not end well, as when former Minister Guido Bellido spoke in Quechua in Congress …
R. For the president of Congress to tell a minister who is speaking in Quechua: “hurry up because I don’t understand” is brutal because it is not new. A congressman friend once handed me the debate diary and pointed out the moment when a congressman spoke in Quechua and the transcription only said “he spoke in the native language.” This gives you an idea of the relationship of the indigenous with the republic, that we have become accustomed to blaming the colony for things we do right now.
P. Can Pedro Castillo do something about it?
R. There is a far right that insists on removing him because many people see him as someone who should not be there. It is this rural professor, a left-wing trade unionist, who lands there as a Martian, a cholo who arrives as a usurper. After 200 years of republic, I believe that the State still does not know what to do with someone like him who arrives there.
P. What was the worst of the electoral process following it from the outside?
R. Castillo arrived and many people said “they are going to expropriate my house, my cell phone, my dog.” The media saw that it was someone who did not suit them and took Keiko Fujimori’s side. As a company you can be in favor of a candidate, but you cannot stop doing journalism. I was sorry for that breakup caused by the fake news. Many people took fraud theories as true because those same media are untouchable institutions. You had Vargas Llosa, a figure who is still important in Peru, saying that Fujimori embodied democracy, that he had no proof but that he knew there was fraud, that Castillo was the apocalypse. It is a very fragile moment that we have not yet emerged from, and its impact on my friends and my family scares me very much.
P. What did that choice mean to you?
R. It was complex because Castillo appeared as a surprise and his party was not prepared to govern. But he was also the one who managed to keep Fujimori from coming to power, something that would have been terrible for the country’s self-esteem. How do you bring the daughter of the dictator who stole and killed to power? Castillo, like Obama at the time, was inspiring for certain sectors, because what is indigenous in Peru is something that is crushed, minimized. But it is complex, because it generates a certain illusion, although I think it is making a series of mistakes that also receive unfair criticism. If someone who does not belong to that environment comes to power, logically they do not have the means or the structure to govern. Would it be better for someone from the elite to come and rule with his technocratic friends turning the country into a company? I think it is necessary to raise a certain patience that the extreme right is not going to have. We are living a super screwed up moment and I think Castillo will not last five years … he is only going for three months.
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