Indigenous Languages on the Airwaves

Posted by Ximena Málaga Sabogal, PhD student in Anthropology at NYU

Norma interviews professor Equicio Paxi in Radio Onda Azul

It is 3 am and, if I am to believe my cellphone, it is also -9°C in Puno, Peru. Even if there was heating in the place where I am staying (and there is none) I would probably still be cold. But my excitement compensates the weather as I am heading once again to Radio Onda Azul (ROA) for its “Quechua Rimayninchik” weekday program. Andean music, plenty of jokes, calls from communities far away, but also reflections on the state of indigenous peoples nowadays: all of these and more come together from 3 to 5 am. Chaska and Norma, two women in their early 30s, are in charge of facilitating these exchanges and making sure that the conversation keeps flowing.

In its almost sixty years of existence, ROA had promoted the use of Quechua and Aymara languages on the airwaves from the beginning. At first it was a pragmatic measure: most of ROA’s listeners did not understand Spanish or had very limited knowledge of it. Since ROA had an educational purpose and worked with teaching materials sent from Lima – in Spanish, of course – it was the radio hosts’ (and teachers’) responsibility to make the content available to the listeners. In this linguistic scenario, bringing the content to the Puneño listeners meant translating it to Quechua and Aymara.

Although now the use of indigenous languages in Puneño radio is a consciously intended political choice, the need for translation has remained unchanged after all these years. Every morning, Norma and Chaska comment the news of the day, news that are available in Spanish only. Chaska has a talent for simultaneous translation that has been developed out of necessity: with the news piece in Spanish in front of her eyes, she reads it out loud in Quechua, while Norma interjects with comments. After years of working in  radio, they care about transmitting the general meaning and do not want to lose their time on debating every single translation possibility. This has not been the case with all Quechua radio hosts in ROA’s history, though.

Blaz had worked in ROA for fifteen years. As many others, he started very young. He would do small tasks, from carrying cables to translating one-sentence-jingles to Quechua. When, after years of volunteering around, he was offered the role of radio host of the Quechua program, he could not believe his luck. He not only became a popular public figure in Puno through this role, he also found his true calling: teaching and researching Quechua, and thinking of new ways to transmit content that has become so highly untranslatable that others do not even try. A few years ago, he prepared a Quechua manual that included translations of words that, until now, have been used in Spanish even by Quechua speakers. How do you say “flag” or “Ministry of Culture” in Quechua, without using Spanish words? Others, for example the Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua, have tried to do it, but failed because of the lack of popular consultation and validation of their translations. In his radio work, Blaz – and other Quechua ROA workers – used the influence that his voice had to consult and validate new translations. Today, Norma and Chaska are using some of these words in their everyday life, while ROA’s listeners start incorporating them too.

The influence that such a long-running program can have in the region and people’s actual lives will never cease to amaze me. As an anthropologist and historian, ROA represents a fascinating challenge. Although other radios in Puno and the Peruvian Andes use indigenous languages, ROA’s history of involvement with Liberation Theology and a committed catholic Church, regional and national politics, and the everyday power plays of linguistic choice on the airwaves, put ROA apart. In my PhD research, I will continue to follow ROA’s history and everyday practice to shed light on the connections between radio, politics, and language in the Peruvian Altiplano.

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