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Peru: Life of the Quechua

Up in the Andes, daily existence is a struggle for young people

By Lisa Poliak | null , null

Eleven thousand feet high in Peru’s Andes Mountains sit the villages of Chumpe (CHOOM-pee) and Poques (POKE-es). People here live much as their ancestors did, simply and close to nature. But for young people in this remote region of South America, the future can be uncertain.

Luis Quispe Illa, 14, is one of those young people. Until recently, Luis attended the Chumpe Poques elementary school, which sits between the two villages. Many of that school’s students must walk long distances over mountain roads in freezing temperatures to get there. But Luis’s trip to the nearest high school, in Lamay, is even longer. “I have to walk three hours” from the village of Chumpe, Luis told JS.

Like everyone in his village, Luis comes from a campesino (peasant farmer) family. In addition to his studies and the six-hour round-trip trek each day, Luis works hard to help his family survive. “I help my dad on the [farm]. I put the sheep and cows to pasture,” Luis said.

“In my community, it is very cold,” he added. “It hails, and it’s foggy. I wear a poncho in the cold.”

Inescapable Poverty

Luis and his family are Quechua (KECH-wuh), an indigenous (native) people of the Andes. The Quechua occupy an area that stretches from Ecuador to Bolivia. They were an important part of Andean civilization long before the Inca conquered them in the 15th century. The Quechua language even survived conquest by the Spanish, about 500 years ago.

But in these mountains, poverty is inescapable. To find work, young Quechua must leave home. Cusco (KOOS-koh), the nearest major city, is about four hours away by car in good weather. More often, the roads are washed out, making the trip slow and hazardous. When they finally get to Cusco, the Quechua face discrimination by the majority mestizo (mixed Spanish and indigenous) population.

Brian Bauer is a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. According to Bauer, the -Spanish-speaking mestizos look down on the Quechua because of their darker skin, Indian features, language, and traditional clothing.

“There’s tremendous unemployment in Cusco already,” Bauer told JS. “[Young Quechua] go to the city seeking a better life, but it’s hard to get.”

Wanted: A High School

Zulma Quispe, 13, lives in Poques. Since graduating from the Chumpe Poques School, she spends her days cooking and washing clothes for her father and brother. Zulma wants to go to the high school in Lamay, but can’t just now. She would need room and board in Lamay, but “there is no money,” Zulma told JS.

“The Peruvian government is desperately poor,” Bauer said. “They do not have the resources to cover the tremendous demand for education.” Even in existing schools, basic necessities such as textbooks and desks are in short supply. At the Chumpe Poques School, bathrooms are just now being constructed, after 86 years.

The people of the mountain communities want their own high school. However, “there is no money to build a high school, no money to pay a high-school teacher,” said Jessica Florez. Florez is a teacher and the principal of the Chumpe Poques School.

Florez often goes months without being paid. Her mother, Matilde (mah-TEEL-day), was also a dedicated teacher, Florez said. Matilde often lived apart from her family so she could teach children in remote mountain communities. Florez now does the same, seeing her own daughter only on weekends and holidays.
The need for education among the Quechua is crucial, Florez told JS. “Many students don’t go past grade school. They forget how to read and write.”

An Ancient Culture

The people of Andean mountain communities depend on the strength of an ancient culture. The concept of ayni (EYE-nee) is central to the traditional Quechua way of life. It can be defined as “Today I help you, tomorrow you help me.”

“People couldn’t farm and survive in this harsh climate without ayni,” said Carol Cumes. Cumes is the founder of the Willka T’ika Children’s Fund, which assists children in remote Andean communities.

The Quechua and other Andean people practice a traditional spirituality that worships the Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Apukuna (mountain and nature spirits). Many Quechua have also incorporated Christian beliefs into their traditions, and identify themselves as Catholic. Shamans (priests and healers) freely mix Biblical figures with the nature spirits.

A Way Out of Poverty?

Are strong traditions enough to hold young people in their native villages? Like other indigenous people all over the world, the Quechua are struggling with that question.

“It’s almost impossible to work your way out of poverty,” Bauer said of the Andean communities. “These people want exactly what we want out of life. They want good jobs, education, health care.” For now, it is hard to say whether Zulma and Luis will be able to find those things in their homes—or far away.

Think About It

1. What concept helps the Quechua survive in their difficult environment?

2. If you had grown up in a Quechua village, would you stay there or leave to find work? Explain.

 



TEEN DIARY, A REPORT FROM PERU

No Money for School

By Zulma Yolanda Momani Quispe

I live in the community of Poques. I finished [elementary] school and I want to continue studying, but there is no [high school] in my village. The school is far away, in Lamay.

I live with my father and my brother. I cook and wash clothes. We eat what my father grows: potato, chuño [freeze-dried potato], corn, lisas [a small type of tuber], carrots, onions, lettuce. Our house is made of rock, mud, and straw. We have a pig.

I am sad because this year I am not going to school. There is no money. You have to pay for a room [in Lamay], food, [and] clothes. Next year, I hope to return to my studies.

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