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Teaching indigenous philosophy and culture

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Dr. Esther Balboa is an internationally known Quechua intellectual from Bolivia who, along with being a psychologist, activist and former vice minister of education, is an educator and presenter focusing on themes of indigenous culture and contemporary issues. Balboa was in Washington, D.C. in May to speak to the Jach’a Uru Organization (made up of indigenous Bolivians living in the U.S.). She speaks here about the survival of indigenous languages and culture, as well as her background and present activities.

Indian Country Today: Please tell us a little about your background. What was your community like? What was the education system like?

Esther Balboa: My mother was Quechua and my father Aymara. They raised me in the town of Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) near La Paz, Bolivia until I was 8 years old. This town bordered Lake Titicaca, the lake that sits at the highest altitude of the world. Later, I was raised by my maternal grandmother in the city of Cochabamba.

My education was basically the same as what all country kids received – in the family, learning all of the daily tasks such as cooking, weaving and feeding the chickens and rabbits. I attended school in the city. There in the city I lived as all rural migrants live in a city. In our house only the language of my grandmother was spoken, Quechua, and in school I learned to speak, read and write in Spanish.

In a tiny house in a marginal neighborhood we continued to raise chickens and rabbits, not only to feed ourselves but for selling in the market. My grandma was a midwife and together with me (I became an assistant as I could speak Spanish) we helped many women bring their children into this world.

When my grandma died I was 12 years old and I took over the raising of my three younger siblings. I did this yes, but I never stopped going to school. I made it to university and I studied psychology; then I specialized in ethno-linguistics and homeopathy. In 1999 I received my doctorate in human and biological sciences in Germany.

ICT: Could you describe your experience with languages?

EB: The first language I learned was Aymara, not only from my father but from the social environment around Lake Titicaca, Tiwanaku and Patacamaya in the central high plains region of Bolivia. I also learned Quechua which was the language of my mother and grandmother.

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During the various cycles of my development, I was always tri-lingual (Aymara, Quechua, Spanish). During my doctoral studies there was an emphasis on the study of the variety of Quechua dialects that they speak in Cusco (Peru), which was the home of the Incas who came to my region of Kollasuyu. We of the valleys and the high plains speak Qosqo-Khechua. There are 16 Quechua dialects spoken in South America, making it one of the most important Native idioms in America.

ICT: How many people in Bolivia speak indigenous languages? How many speak Spanish?

EB: According to the 2002 census there are 36 living Native languages and 64 percent of the approximately nine million Bolivians speak an indigenous language. The most widely spoken languages are Quechua, Aymara and Guarani.

With the exception of some Native peoples that have no contact with the regular marketplaces, we Bolivians speak Spanish as a second language. In third and fourth generation migrants Spanish is the first language and the indigenous one is the second.

ICT: What were your careers as teacher, administrator and vice minister of education like?

EB: First of all, knowing Spanish was key; it was the tool that allowed me to become more conscious of my own native Quechua-Aymara origins. Through use of this foreign language I was able to communicate with all of my Native brothers and sisters and also with foreign people. I was a university professor of Quechua and also the president of the Quechua Academy of Cochabamba. From both environments I developed an Andean perspective on different fields, such as medical, psychotherapeutic, political, ethnic, cuisine and religious.

When I was the vice minister of education I placed great attention on indigenous education. We achieved different things for various Native peoples, however, from my point of view indigenous education must be heterogeneous, and in accordance with the different traditions in the different ecosystems. From there, one must not abandon instruction (which is not the same as education) in Spanish and towards a good understanding of Western culture.

I have supported the creation and operation of secondary-level education with a Quechua-Aymara base. For instance, in Cochabamba there is the AYNI PACHA College which, from an Andean perspective, imparts technical and humanist education to young migrants originally from indigenous communities.