Race and Indigenous Language Rights in Peru

Quechuan woman carries goods on her back with a child walking beside her. They are on a mountain

On 27 August 2021, in his maiden speech to the Peruvian Congress, Guido Bellido, Prime Minister of Peru, was heckled by his fellow politicians, and reprimanded by the President of Congress for giving an extended welcome in Quechua and Aimara. Quechua is the language of the Quechuan people, the largest Indigenous group in Peru. Aimara is the second largest Indigenous group. Bellido is Quechuan. He was elected as the Cusco representative for Congress on 29 July 2021. Cusco is a Quechuan-majority region, where citizens have a legal right to Quechuan language services, and public servants must speak at least basic Quechua. As a public servant and Indigenous person elected to serve Cusco, Bellido had a legislated right to speak Quechuan.

Quechua and Aimara are both official national languages of the Republic of Peru, alongside Castellano (Español, or Spanish spoken in South America). Quechua has an ongoing influence on the evolution of Castellano in Peru. This includes every day words, grammar, conventions used for the third person, and regional variations of speech.1

Indigenous languages are the original mode of verbal communication in Peru. The events in Congress reflect the pervasive impact of race on politics and all other aspects of society.

To explore the functions of race in Peru, I begin with an examination of Bellido’s speech as a case study of race. I’ll then explore the history of race and language in Peru, before discussing why racial inequality persists despite the development of Constitutional right to language and ethnic (cultural) autonomy. I then deep dive into a racial profile of Quechuan people, using data from the most recent Census.

Plain language summary

  • Discrimination. The case study of Prime Minister Bellido is an example of racial discrimination. Quechua was once used as a common language to help with trade. People who used Quechua could keep their own language and culture. The Spanish invasion in 1532 removed this social order. It relied on violence to establish dominance. It also used Castellano to increase power. The Spanish punished Indigenous people who refused to assimilate
  • Stratification. The Spanish introduced new racial categories. This helped white people and Castellano speakers stay at the top. They justified inequality by stigmatising Indigenous people and other groups. These racial categories are still used today
  • Policies. The Spanish were unable to master Quechua. They banned Quechua and established schools that only teach Castellano. This legacy still impacts Indigenous people. They don’t have the same education and opportunities as others
  • Cooperation. We are taught to accept racial inequality. Mestizo people are “mixed” from Indigenous and white people, but they are seen as inferior to white people. Mestizos still helped the colonisers to oppress Indigenous people. Peru maintained racial discrimination, even though Indigenous people were central to winning Independence
  • Slippery system. Elites allow racial categories to change so they can maintain control. The Spanish could not reduce the significance of Indigenous languages. The ruling class eventually started using Quechua to claim a link to the Incas. This made it easier to justify land theft. Indigenous people are still disadvantaged in their own regions
  • Adaption. Following independence, Peruvian elites continued to use race, under the guise of nationalism. Indigenous people are told they must speak Castellano, even when they get into government
  • Resistance. From the 1970s, Peruvian governments began changing language rights. Little progress was made, due to bad planning and poor investment. New laws do not guarantee racial equality. This only happens with broader social change
  • Language: The Census counted 31 million people in Peru. The biggest languages are Castellano (87%), Quechuan (14%), and Aimara (1.7%)
  • Literacy: One in four Quechuan people in rural areas can’t read or write (24%). Castellanos have lower rates of illiteracy (12.5%). They are doing better than Indigenous people in rural areas
  • Education: Indigenous people face discrimination in education. In some regions, 22% of Aimara have not gone to primary school, compared to 3% of Castellanos. Castellanos are three times more likely to go to university than Indigenous people
  • Race: Mestizos are the biggest racial group in Peru. They make up over 60% of the population. Quechuan people are the second biggest race (22%).  Blancos are the third biggest race (6%)
  • Racial inequality: Quechuan people have high rates of illiteracy. They are three times less likely to go to primary school than mestizos. Indigenous women are almost three times less likely to go to school than mestizas and blancas
  • Change: The Census shows why it’s important that Bellido spoke about racial discrimination in Congress, and that he did it in Quechua and Aimara. We need to understand how race and language impact inequality.

Constitutional right to bilingualism

In the clip below, Prime Minister Bellido speaks in Quechua and Aimara, addressing the Congress President and Vice President, the Head of Congress, and Members, calling them his sisters and brothers. He then addresses the current celebrations of the bicentennial of the Peruvian Republic. He notes that social policy is exclusionary, as it’s solely delivered in Spanish. He notes that he embodies the fight for rights for the Indigenous people, who have expressly elected him to represent their voice. And so, he speaks in Quechuan:

“Brothers across all districts, communities, regions and every corner of Peru. Today, after 200 years of bicentennial life in the Republic, we [Quechuans] are still here. For 500 years we have suffered” [this is a reference to Spanish colonisation in 1531]. We [Quechuans] are progressing slowly, through the hills and mountains. We have arrived in Congress with the purpose of having our voices heard from this place” [My emphasis]

– Guido Bellido

Bellido then addresses the social and political struggles of Indigenous people in Peru, who are forced to interact in Spanish, rather than their first language. He notes the struggle of bilingualism is bound with disadvantage, as it means Indigenous people cannot access adequate political representation, or engage in civic life fully, because politicians fail to learn Quechuan.

The President of Congress interrupts Bellido, saying that he’s a national representative, and from now on he must speak Castellano. Bellido repeats the key points of his speech in Castellano, but the heckling continues.

“…I’ve come here in the name of our community, who struggles to speak in only one language. With our own brothers and sisters, we speak beautifully; we don’t need to argue or fight. We [Quechuans] also speak in Spanish. Sisters and Brothers, in Article 48 of the Constitution, it says ‘We can speak in both Quechua and Spanish.'” [My emphasis]

– Guido Bellido

Later, Jorge Montoya, Member of Congress, speaks to journalists, saying: “The official language of Peru is Castellano, Spanish. There’s a Quechuan translator. He [Bellido] should have spoken in Spanish and had it translated. He did it the wrong way round.”

This racist logic illustrates how institutional racism functions to concentrate power for dominant groups. Bellido is elected to Congress to represent Cusco, and he spoke in the language of his constituents. The President of Congress argued that he is a “representative of the people” and should therefore have spoken in Castellano. This reinforces non-Indigenous Peruvians as the core citizens, thereby placing Quechuans and other Indigenous Peruvians as second class. “The people” do not understand Quechua, and so people who speak Quechua should be forced to speak Castellano. This serves Bellido’s original point, that Quechuans do not have the same political rights.

Montoya similarly argues that Castellano should be the primary language used in Congress. In this view, a Quechuan speaker (Bellido), who has been elected to represent Quechuan interests, should speak in a language foreign to his people, and instead have his words translated back to his region.

Bellido’s speech appealed to Quechuans’ constitutional right to speak their language – he did this in Castellano. Still, his fellow politicians shouted him down.

As we will soon see, this is not the first time Congress has exploded after an Indigenous politician addressed racial inequality in Quechuan.

Race, language and racism

Race is a social system of oppression. It creates social categoriesthat position some groups as superior over others, conferring greater rights, resources and access to dominant groups.2 Politics and other social institutions keep racial categories in place through laws, systems, and other processes. As the case study of Bellido shows, language translation is positioned as a tool to be controlled by the state. In a moment, we’ll see how the discourse used in Congress replicates historical patterns where the law has limited the use of Quechua.

Politicians would prefer to hear a Quechuan person address language inequality in Castellano, where they have the advantage of linguistic mastery. If they can hear a Quechuan person assert language rights in Castellano, they can refute their claims in Castellano. An elected official addressing his political equals in Quechuan—a language that the state has fought actively to eradicate—is met with howls because it inverts the racial power structure.

Bellido uses a conciliatory appeal: he addresses Congress as “my sisters and brothers” and he also speaks about Quechuan people in the same way. Here, he appeals to their shared nationhood, putting their humanity on equal footing (we are all Peruvian), before pointing out that Quechuans’ journey to Congress has been paved by inequity. Despite Bellido’s familial approach, the members of Congress react with dissent. Even as Bellido translates his words, and physically holds up the Constitution, he is explosively told that his political participation is conditional on him speaking Castellano. Congress refuses to acknowledge his words because he spoke to them first in Quechua. This is, in fact, unconstitutional. The fact that Congress denies Bellido basic language rights enshrined in law—legislation that Congress is set up to uphold—is an indictment of the state of race relations in Peru.

This political interaction illustrates how language is used to maintain a racial hierarchy, and echoes many instances of historical resistance, where Quechuan people have refused to engage their oppressors in Castellano.

History of language and racial domination

Peru has always been a multilingual, multi-ethnic nation, even before Spanish colonisation.3(p185) Inca spirituality says that the first Incans descend from Manco Cápac (Manqu Qhapaq in Quechua, or “the royal founder”).

Manco Cápac painting from the 18th Century. He is painted in a Christian religious style. He holds a golden staff. He wears a high golden crown and golden cape. He is pointing to the sun
Manco Cápac

Textbox 1: Creation of the Incan Empire

Archaeological evidence shows complex agricultural settlement in the Andes began as early as 400 BCE. Two Andean civilisations pre-date the Incan Empire. First, the Tiwanaku Polity (300–1100 BCE) was based along Lake Titicaca, which stretches across the Southeast border of Peru and Bolivia. Second, the Wari Empire (also known as Huari, 600–1100 BCE), and was based near the city of Ayacucho, in the central South of Peru. Pre-Incan state formation expanded from 1000-1400 BCE, with the dominance of the Ayarmaca, Pinagua, and Mohina groups (a time when the Aimara were politically dominant in the region).4(p811) Incan imperial expansion began in 1438 BCE, under the Emperor Manco Cápac.

Manco Cápac was a real person, born in Cusco in the 12th Century. In one Incan myth, Manco Cápac was the son of the creator of all life, Viracocha (Wiracocha). Manco Cápac, his sister and wife Mama Ocllo, and his six other siblings emerged from windows in a cave in a sacred hill, and they travelled across the Cusco valley, uniting Andean tribes.5(pp39-47) In another myth, Manco Cápac was the son of the sun god, Inti (son of Viracocha), and moon goddess, Mama Killa.6(p267) Inti sent his son and daughter (Mama Ocllo) to earth, emerging from the sacred lake Titicaca, and they walked to Cusco.4(p811),7(pp3-6)

Under Manco Cápac’s leadership, the Incan Empire expanded through conquest and strategic intermarriage alliances between groups.8(p331) People retained distinct ethnicities, related to their ayllu, a kinship system based on groups of unrelated families who lived on the same block of land.8(p334) Ayllu function as a local council; making collective decisions, participating in spiritual worship, sharing education, and resolving disputes. Many groups also held multiple ethnic identities, related to kinship ties to other groups, region, or language.8(pp328-329) Neutral territories were used for rituals and to exchange goods and services.8(pp329-330) High migration meant that the Incan Empire was already adept at managing a highly ethnically diverse population before colonisation.8(p332)

1400-1531: Multilingualism and the Incan Empire

The map shows the majority of Quechuan speakers live along the western coast of Peru. Other live in the central and eastern parts of Ecuador, the south-west of Bolivia, and central Argentina
Map of Quechuan sub-groups

From 1400-1531 BCE, Quechua was established as the runa simi (“lengua de gente,” or the language of the people), or the “general language” / “lingua franca” during the Incan Empire to bridge multilingual cooperation across groups.3(p173),9(p166),10(p14) However, multiple variations of Quechua evolved over time, and it was treated as one of many languages that flourished across the Incan Empire.

Textbox 2: Quechua classification

There are two broad classifications of Quechua with multiple subgroups:

  1. Quechua I11 or Quechua B12 that originates from the central sierra (mountains) and Northern central parts of Peru
  2. Quechua II11 or Quechua A12 expanded from Northern Peru, Southwestern Colombia, Ecuador, as well as Southern Peru, Bolivia and North-western Argentina

1532-1780: Colonisation by Spain

In 1532 CE, Spanish conquistadors invaded Peru. One year later, they killed off the last Incan Emperor, Atahualpa. In 1533, the Spanish forcibly established Castellano as the new official state language.3(p173) Along with violent dispossession, Castellano was one of the ways in which the racial order was imposed and maintained, with Spanish colonisers at the top, and Indigenous people at the bottom.

Language as a political tool was used to justify genocide. Antonio de Nebrija, who wrote Gramatica de la Lengua Castellana, the first book to document the grammatical rules of Castellano, wrote that:

“Language was always the companion of empire.”13(p293)

– Antonio de Nebrija

The Spanish murdered at least two-thirds of the Indigenous population in central and southern Peru. There were 280,000 Incans before Spanish invasion, and this declined 93,331 Indigenous people in 1683.14(p45) Other estimates say Indigenous population declined at a rate of 58:1.14(p42)

Policy decisions since invasion, and into the present day, actively oppress Quechuan and other Indigenous languages.  

Race and social control

Spanish colonisers imposed race as a system of stratification. That is, a way to distinguish different groups who are forced to serve the ruling class, and to justify unequal distribution of goods and services. The Spanish ignored existing ethnic groupings, including the functions of the ayllu and the authority of the Incan Emperor. Race is premised on the idea that one group is morally superior to all others. This justifies genocide and land dispossession. Census and government records show that conquistadors used phenotype (biological markers) to categorise populations, including skin colour and the unscientific classification of blood quantums.8(p334)

Official records by the Spanish Royal representative Visitor-General Jose Antonio de Areche (1784), the Lima Census (1790), the Viceroyalty Census (1795) and other historical documents show that the Spanish classified people into 21 racial categories.8(p339) Broadly, these can be re-categorised into six major racial groups that are familiar today. This is summarised in the table below. For a history, see Appendix 1.

Table 1: Summary of racial categories in Peru


Spanish colonial rule (1532-1820)Post-Independence (1821-today)
WhiteEspañolesElitesBlacosPeruviansMostly urban-dwelling, middle class, and upper class
MixedCriolloLandownersDoes not exist (blended into whites)
MixedMestizoWorking classMestizoPeruvianMostly urban-dwelling, middle class
MigrantsTusan (Chinese), Nikkei (Japanese), and othersWorking classAsiáticaTusan, Nikkei, and others, as well as PeruvianMostly urban-dwelling, middle to upper class
BlackAfro-PeruvianLower class (originally slaves)AfrodescendienteAfro-PeruvianMostly rural-dwelling, lower class
IndigenousQuechua, Aimara, and othersLower class (originally slaves, dispossessed)IndigenousQuechuan, Aimara, and others, as well as PeruvianMostly urban-dwelling, lower class
Sources: Cahill (1994); Instituto Nacional de Estadistica e Informatica (2020: 214).

Race and language

The Spanish colonisers strategically allowed Quechua to continue after invasion, because Indigenous people were used as slave labour. Through rape and forced intermarriage, Mestizo (“mixed”) people rose above Indigenous people, and acted as translators between Indigenous and Spanish invaders.13(p294).

From the 1570s, religious elite feared losing control of doctrine. Spain ordered priests to learn Quechua, to convert Indigenous people to Christianity. To make this easier, they enforced one dialect (Inca Koine) and further simplified this language.13(p295) Race underpins this decision: the Spanish colonisers erroneously believed that language unifies people. This is a flawed idea that we see to the present day in Peru, Australia, and elsewhere. Regardless, that is not the original purpose of Quechuan language; the Incas introduced Quechua as a common way to facilitate trade and collaboration, not to homogenise cultural groups.

Paradoxically, language facilitates cultural memory.13(p297) Quechuan people speaking Quechuan meant they continued to remember their life before colonialism, and their traditions. The Spanish came to believe that Quechua impeded religious expansion. Specifically, because they saw the language was too simplistic to convey Catholic beliefs. This is another example of race, which positions a complex, ancient language as being inferior, when, in fact, the Spanish failed to effectively translate ideas into the local language.

1781-1971 Language ban

Painting of Tupac Amaru. He is a Quechuan man with Brown skin. He wears a large gold medallion of the sun god Inti, and a traditional dress with modern shoes
Túpac Amaru II (1738-1782) led a rebellion by Indigenous and mestizo farmers, against the Bourbon administration from Spain. He was married to Micaela Bastidas

In the 17th Century, a new ruling class (Criollo) began to claim Incan heritage, and adopted Quechuan titles, dress, and language. Again, race rears its head: to further exploit the forced labour of Indigenous people, the colonisers establish authority, by laying “authentic” claim to land, people and resources. Elites created poetry and other writing in Quechua, Latin and Castellano, to stage a Renaissance.13(p299) Here is another example of race: to erase violent dispossession, colonisers use language and the arts to romanticise colonisation.

At the same time, Quechuan plays and literature were also used to covertly flame the fire of revolution.

From 1730 to 1780, Quechuan people led 37 rebellions. This eventuated in the 1781 political ban of Quechuan language from theatre and literature.13(p300)

In 1792, the Bourbon administration in Spain adopted eradication policies, managed through the establishment of local schools., and penalties for those who don’t attend.13(p300) Education was a means to establish Castellano dominance, and dilute Quechuan influence. Formal education operates through race: to eradicate cultural traditions. Local landowners did not support this move. Castellano was the way they legitimised land theft. Spanish scribes documented land “sales” in Castellano, and land “auctions” were held in Castellano so that Indigenous people could not understand and voice objection.13(p301) Jesuit priests taught Castellano, which allowed some Indigenous people to contest their rights in writing.

Even in 1821, following the Peruvian independence from Spain, Castellano retained its dominance into the early 1970s.

By setting up social institutions exclusively in Castellano, economic and political participation depend on “integration into the national society”13(p292) The language of colonisation masks genocide and dispossession through a discourse “civilisation” (through the institution of religion), and in modern times, through a discourse of “assimilation” and “development” (through the institution of politics).c.f. 13(p303)

Following the official language ban, Quechuan speakers were forbidden to speak their own languages, especially at schools. Quechuan people continued to resist and maintain their language at home, and they protested these laws.

See below for the diversity of Quechuan culture in the early 1900s, captured by renowned Quechuan photographer, Martín Chambi.

  • Quechuan man next to his bike. A Christian building in the background
  • Matadora - a Spanish woman is dressed as a matador. She holds her cloak in the air
  • Quechuan man, woman, and child holding traditional walking sticks
  • Quechuan workers in the field appear to be supervised by a Spanish landowner
  • Hundreds of Quechuan men stand close together
  • Quechuan man weaves
  • Quechuan man plays the siku
  • Mestiza women are dressed in modern 1920s riding gear. Two are sitting and laying on the ground. Another woman stands next to two horses
  • A Quechuan man stands to the side of the Hyana Picchu mountains
  • A blurry photo of three Quechuan people in a snowy mountain. A large cross is in the far background
  • Two dozen mestizo people pose for a photo dressed in costumes. One is dressed as a skeleton
  • A family from Cusco from 1927. They are dressed in modern suits of the time from Spain
  • Quechuan family drink "chicha" (a sweet drink) and play "sapo" (a coin toss game)
  • A mestizo priest stands in between three Quechuan men
  • In shadow, a man is hearding his llama
  • Quechuan men are erecting a large cross for teh "Fiesta de la cruz" (Festival of the cross)
  • Dozens of Quechuan villagers stand in front of a colonial building
  • Mestiza women wearing modern bathers from the 1920s
  • Machu Picchu
  • The photographer, Martin Chambi holds a portrait. He is a Quechuan man dressed in a modern suit in the early 1900s
  • Quechuan men stand on top of a cliff, with huge mountains in the back
  • A bridal party wearing Spanish clothing in the 1920s- 1930s
  • Quechuan people steer a boat
  • Cusco valley with mist across the background
  • Cusco streets in the 190ss
  • Quechuan man has a large jar strapped to his back. He is smiling
  • City of Cusco in the 1900s
  • Quechuan male sports team. One of them holds a futbal
  • Quechuan family sit for a portrait
  • Quechuan women dressed in sports uniform from early 1920s. One of them holds a futbal
  • Quechuan musician simultaneously plays the siku - pan pipes - and a drum
  • Car in Cusco, early 1900s
  • Quechuan woman pretends to play a broom like a guitar
  • Quechuan band dressed in traditional clothing from the 1900s
  • Quechuan man rides a bike in the 1900s
  • Quechuan family sit on a mound of rocks
  • Quechuan muscians from early 1900s, dressed in fancy clothes

1972-1992: Bilingualism and constitutional reform

In 1972, under the military presidency of General Juan Velasco Alvarado (President 1968–1975), the ban was officially lifted.

In 1975, Quechua was officially recognised as a national language. At the tail end of his dictatorship, President Alvarado issued a decree that recognised:

  1. Quechua and Spanish are the official languages of the Republic
  2. From 1976, the Quechuan language was to be compulsory at all educational levels  
  3. From 1977, court cases and legal proceedings would be held in Quechuan if this is the primary language of parties involved
  4. The Ministry of Education and other agencies would need to prepare dictionaries and other official documents in Quechuan
  5. Any legal provisions that conflict with the new laws were revoked.3(pp182-183)

Despite this decree, government planning failed to implement these laws effectively. The decree was poorly coordinated, dictionaries lacked key words, local experts were not consulted, and teaching staff lacked proper training.3(p184) Subsequent government breakdown meant the plan was not enforced.

In 1979, the next government, led by President Alan Garcia, implemented a new Constitution. Article 83 recognised Quechua and Aimara as languages “of official use in the zones and according to the law,” and Article 35 declared a right to bilingual education for Quechuan communities.9(p167) Unfortunately, poor planning continued to weaken progress.

1993-2006: Language rights

The 1992 self-coup staged by President Alberto Fujimori led to the establishment of the 1993 Constitution.15 Three articles established language rights:

  1. Article 2.19: the right to an ethnic and cultural identity, the State’s duty in protecting this diversity, and the right to use one’s own mother tongue and an interpreter when interacting with any public authority
  2. Article 48: Quechua, Aimara, and other Indigenous languages are recognised as official languages alongside Castellano, in regions where these communities are predominant
  3. Article 17: the state should promote bilingual and intercultural education.9(p168)

The way in which race functions is that even when civic rights are progressing, this does not guarantee racial justice. Legislative and Constitutional changes are meant to protect racial equality, but as we see in Peru and other places, equality under the law does not mean laws are enforced as fairly.

2007-present: Individual rights

Drawing of Micaela Bastidas. She has long black braided hair. She looks determined
Micaela Bastidas (1744-1781) leader of a rebellion against the Spanish. She was married to Túpac Amaru

From 2001 to 2006, four Indigenous politicians were elected to Congress, which continued to spark language right debates. In 2006, Hilaria Supa and María Sumire both chose to take their inauguration oath in Quechua. The President of Congress asked Sumire three times to repeat her statement in. In the video below, politicians shout that she hasn’t taken her oath because she only did it in Quechua (“Peru first!”) She is called back to take the oath, and she speaks again in Quechua:

“I’m going to work for my people, which is Cusco, and for all the lands, and for Túpac Amaru.” [Túpac Amaru was the last Incan monarch who was executed by the Spanish following a great battle in 1572]

– María Sumire

As the representative for Cusco, Sumire argued this was an act of aggression against her rights as a Quechua-speaker.9(p171)

When Supa was elected President of the Congress Education Commission, another politician resigned from her role in the Commission in protest. Additionally, a national newspaper called Supa an “ignorant peasant woman” (“peasant” in this case is a racist slur), and the paper published Supa’s handwritten Castellano notes, pointing out grammatical errors.9(p172) Sumira is highly educated; she was a lawyer before being elected to Congress.

Even though this happened 26 years after the official recognition of Quechua as an official, and 13 years after Constitutional reform, it’s clear how language is used to maintain the racial order, even for elected officials who are Quechuan. We see echoes of the same racist pushback happening again in 2021 with Bellido.

María Sumire takes Peruvian Congress oath in Quechua

In 2007, Sumire led new legislation to implement Article 48 from the Constitution: Law 29735 introduces individual rights on the use, preservation, growth, recuperation, and diffusion of Indigenous languages.9(p173) A public information campaign promoted the new laws (“Speak your language, it’s your right). The law facilitates regulated access to an interpreter when accessing social services, new public service hiring laws, and targeted bilingual education policies.

Cusco, Ayacucho, and other Indigenous regions funded not-for-profits to improve language services, schools were mandated to teach Quechua and other local Indigenous languages, and courts and other public services also incorporated bilingual processes.9(p174)

In Cusco, Quechua is an official regional language, meaning that public servants must speak at least basic Quechua. It has one of the largest budgets and governance structures, due to high revenue from tourism, allowing the region to invest in Quechuan language autonomy.9(p176)

Infographic of Quechuan language rights in Peru. From 1400 to the present day: multiculturalism in 1400s, Colonialism from 1532, language ban from 1781, bilingualism from 1972, language rights from 1993, and individual rights from 2007
Download this as a PDF

Despite this regional progress, racial inequality and conflict persist nationally.

In 2009, 33 Indigenous activists were killed by police during protests in Bagua, which led to renewed non-Indigenous public interest in language rights.9(p16)

Speaking “proper” Castellano continues to be a marker of race, ethnicity and class.9(p167) Conversely, social stigmatisation of Indigenous people continues.

Census data show how race and language are used to disadvantage Quechuan people.

Quechuan speakers today

The Cusco flag has seven coloured stripes: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, blue, and purple
Cusco flag

In the most recent national Census from 2017, 5.2 million people are Quechuan (22.3%).16(p219)

Cuzo is Peru’s seventh most populated region. Over 1.2 million people live in Cusco (4.1% national population). Cusco’s population today is 2.5 times the size since the first Census in 1940.16(p21) While Quechuan people make up 9.7% of urban dwellers nationally, they represent 30.3% of regional Peru.16(p199)

More than half of people in Cusco have grown up speaking Quechuan since infancy (55.2%).16(pp202-204) Given its sacred place amongst Quechuan people, and as Peru’s primary tourism region, political representation of Quechuan locals is vital.

Textbox 3: Language profile of Peru                                                                                            

The Census captured 31.2 million people who are aged over 12 years.

  • 22.2 million people (82.6%) who are five years or older exclusively speak Castellano. For everybody else, bilingualism is common
  • 3.7 million people (13.9%) speak Quechuan.16(p197) This is a 14.5% increase since the previous Census in 2007, as more Quechuan people are learning their mother language.
  • 444,389 people speak Aimara (1.7%); they descendants of Indigenous people from the Andes in the Northeast of Peru
  • 210,017 people speak other Indigenous languages (0.8%)
  • 83,981 people speak other languages (0.3%); they are typically people of migrant background who have lived in Peru for many generations, especially Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian) and Tusan (Chinese-Peruvian)
  • 48,910 people primarily speak a foreign language
  • 24,624 people are deaf and hard of hearing, and a further 447 people exclusively speak in Peruvian sign language since birth.16(pp197, 214)

Language, literacy, and education

Peru has a national illiteracy rate of 5.8% (1.3 million people). However, while only 3.5% of Castellano speakers are illiterate, 16.5% of Quechuans cannot read or write. Illiteracy rates are also high among Aimara (16.5%), other Indigenous language speakers (12.3%). Illiteracy rates are astronomical among people who are deaf and not verbal (79.5%) and Peruvian sign language speakers (61.8%). In comparison, only 0.8% of migrants are illiterate.

Illiteracy is further compounded by class: 17% of rural Peruvians are illiterate, compared with 3.2% of urban Peruvians. The rate of illiteracy is twice as high for rural Quechuan speakers (24.4%) than Castellano population (12.5%).16(p207)

When Bellido evokes the language struggles of his sisters and brothers in the hills and mountains, he is referencing the racial, linguistic and class divide between rural Quechuans and predominantly urban-dwelling Castellano speakers.

Across Peru, women are far less likely to be educated beyond primary school. Educational disadvantage is even more pronounced for Indigenous people. One in 5 people who speak Ashaninka have no level of formal education (22.3% or 10,039 people), followed by 14.6% of Quechuan speakers (475,664 people), 13.4% other Indigenous languages (11,194 people – primarily Shipibo-Konibo people who live in the Ucayali River in the Amazon, and Aimara speakers). In comparison, 3.1% of Castellano speakers have no formal education.16(p209)

Nationally, Castellano speakers are almost three times more likely to complete post-school qualifications (38.3%) compared to people who speak other languages (14.6%).16(p211) In Cusco, 15.4% of people who speak another language complete post-school qualifications; this is 40.6 percentage points lower than Castellano speakers (56%).

In a region highly stratified by race and class, Castellano speakers are therefore faring far better in Cusco than the national average. Quechuans don’t have the same advantage, even though they are the biggest group in the region.

Roxana Quispe Collantes is the first person to write and defend a PhD in Quechua

Race and ethnicity

Peru is stratified across race and class. The Peruvian Census asks about ethnicity, not race; however, the ethnic categories of Peru are a mixture of race and culture. For example, 60.2% of people describe themselves as mestizo (“mixed race”). This is a racial category.16(p214) They primarily speak Castellano and make up two-thirds of all Peruvians living in urban regions (63.9%).16(pp215-216) At the same time, regions with the highest proportion of mestizo people (75% to 80%) are closer to the Andes and Amazon (San Martin, Cajamarca, Loreto, Piura, La Libertad, and Ucayali).16(p218)

The next largest cohort are Quechua people (22.3%), who predominantly live in rural regions.16(pp215-216) The biggest concentration of Quechuan people (75% to 84%) are in Apurímac, Ayacucho, Huancavelica, and Cusco.16(p219) They are marginalised, along with other Indigenous Peruvians.

The third largest racial group are Blanco (white) (5.9%). This is a racial category. Blanco people make up no more than 10% of any single region. The biggest concentrations are in La Libertad (10.5%), Tumbes (9%) and Lambayeque (9.0%).16(p220) White people are numerically a minority, but at the national level, they hold power in key institutions, including politics, education, and media.

A significant minority of Peruvians self-identify as Afrodescendiente (“Afro descendants” or Afro-Peruvians); they make up 3.6% of the population. This is a racial category. Afrodescendiente make up no more than 11% of any region. The highest concentration live in Tumbes (11.5%), Piura (8.9%) and Lambayeque (8.4%).16(p221) They are socially disenfranchised, and lack access to political and economic power.

Other racial groups are represented in the table below.

Table 1: Ethnicity in the 2017 Peruvian Census

Self-described ethnicityN=%
Afrodescendiente (Afro-descendant)828,8413.6
Aimara (Indigenous)548,2922.4
Nativo o indígena de la amazonía (Native or Indigenous from Amazonia)79,2660.3
Asháninka (Indigenous)55,4890.2
Parte de otro pueblo indígena u originario (Other Indigenous)49,8380.2
Awajún (Indigenous)37,6900.2
Shipibo Kobino (Indigenous)25,2220.1
Nikkei (Japanese)22,5340.1
Tusan (Chinese)14,3070.1
Otro (Other)254,8921.1
No sabe/ no responde (Don’t know/ no response)771,0263.3
Source: Instituto Nacional de Estadistica e Informatica 2020: 214.

Race, literacy, and education

Nationally, Quechuan people have one third the rate of illiteracy than Mestizo people (3.9% vs 10.9%).16(p224) White people are slightly worse off (4.2%), but they have higher rates than Afrodescendiente people (6%). Yet illiteracy rates are twice as pronounced in rural regions: Mestizo (13.8%), Blanco (14.8%) and Afrodescendiente (16.7%) have similar rates of illiteracy, while Quechuan people have almost twice the rate of illiteracy as Mestizo people (21.4%).

Looking at people who have no formal education, Mestizos (3.4%), Blancos (3.5) and Afrodescendiente people (4.9%) have similar rates that are lower than the national average (5%).16(p226) However, Quechua people have three times the rate of no education as Mestizo people (9.5%). Aimara people also fare poorly (8.4%).

Quechuan women (14.4%) and Aimara women (13%) are much worse off than Metizas and Blancas (4.8% each) when it comes to no education.16(p226)

One in five people in Peru have a university qualification (19.7%). More than one-fifth of Blanco people (22.8%) and Mestizo people (21.9%) are university-educated, while Quechuan people (14.8%) and Aimara (13.8%) are less likely to be university-educated.16(p226) Conversely, more than half of all Nikkei (48%) and Tusan people (52.6%) are university-educated.16(p227)

Language, work, and health

Castellano speakers make up 81.1% of people of working age, and Quechuan speakers make up the second largest proportion, at 1.9%.16(p270)

Quechuan speakers have higher than average health insurance (75% compared to 72.8% for Castellano speakers), and much higher than Aimara 60.5%, but lower than for Shawi/Chayahuita 90.8% and other Indigenous speakers.16(p211)

In terms of ethnicity, Aimara people have the lowest health cover (60.3%) and Nikkei have the highest (80.1%). Indigenous Amazonian people, Shipibo/ Konibo, Ashaninka and other Indigenous groups have the highest rate of health insurance (over 75%), followed by Tusan (74.5%), Mestizo (73.6%), Blanco (73.5%), Quechua (72.8%) and Afrodescendientes (72.8%).16(p229)

Access to health cover is important, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that access to healthcare was not enough when infrastructure is lacking. Only 60% of Indigenous communities in Peru have access to basic sanitation at home.17(p17) While the Peruvian Government does not publish race or ethnicity data on COVID-19 infections, 51 Indigenous communities collectively suffered 15,017 infections by October 2020, with a mortality rate much higher than the general population (2.6% vs 1.5%).18(p94)

Gabina Funegra, Quechuan-Australian PhD student, has made a film called “Mother Tongue”


Race is used by the ruling class to create social stratification and maintain power. The ruling class divides people into groups, so they are placed at the top of the hierarchy, and others are at the bottom. At the time of colonisation, it was the Spanish nobility and Christian elites who ruled. The state gave them authority to enforce laws decreed by Spanish royalty, they stole Indigenous land, and they ran businesses that profited from slave labour. Criollos (“mixed” landowners) also had power that came with land ownership. Migrants were called on to supply labour when slavery was abolished, but they faced discrimination. Mestizos were inferior, as they were working class. Afrodescendientes and Indigenous people were placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Today, mestizos and blancos in urban areas are doing better most other groups in Peru. Nevertheless, mestizos in regional Peru are significantly disadvantaged than their urban counterparts. The country faces ongoing economic and social turbulence as a direct consequence of colonisation. Additionally, there are serious environmental challenges that are correlated to the exploitation of Indigenous land. Even still, race logic prevails, so Indigenous knowledge is denigrated, even though it can improve national outcomes. In the most famous uprisings that led to the Peruvian independence, it was Indigenous people who galvanised mestizos and Afrodescedientes to revolt against their shared oppression. Race and class divisions today continue to undermine similar progress against neo-colonial systems.

Race categories are legitimised and maintained through language policies. Like the history of colonisation, the case study of Minister Bellido illustrates how Castellano is used to maintain the status quo. Bellido is one of only a small number of Indigenous politicians to be elected to Congress. This is emblematic of the ongoing national divide on race and language diversity.

Invasion, genocide, slavery, and other forms of political oppression have been justified by language policies. While the Incan Empire used Quechua as a common language to facilitate political and economic cooperation, the Spanish conquistadors used Quechua to control the Indigenous population. At first, the Spanish ruling class and Christian churches attempted to learn Quechua to monitor their imposed religion. Later, Castellano education was mandated to eradicate language, to stop rebellion and increase religious conversion.

Race perpetuates oppression through social cooperation. Race creates the promise of social mobility, even when the benefit will be minimal. A case in point is the creation of the mestizo category. In a sense, Peruvians have always been “mixed” because the Incan Empire was expansive and consolidated many groups, who maintained their ethnic and linguistic autonomy. Under the Spanish, the mestizo category was elevated above Indigenous and Afrodescendiente people, but they were inferior to criollos (“mixed” landowners) and the blancos in power (the Spanish ruling class). Spanish colonisers initially relied on mestizo translators to profit from Indigenous slavery but continued to place them in subordinate roles. Rather than reject the racial system, mestizos accepted this because it meant that they were slightly less worse off.

Race is a slippery system that imposes mutable requirements. Race is a social construct created to exert political power, and because it is invented, the content of racial categories is always changing with the times. Dominant groups (the Spanish colonisers) dictate who is undesirable, but they will shift definitions to maintain control. The Spanish could not master Quechua and other Indigenous languages, so they initially mobilised priests to learn the local languages. Indigenous people continued to defy subjugation and resisted religious conversion. The racial system then attempted to nullify the ongoing significance of Indigenous languages. The coloniser nobility used Quechua to claim rightful lineage to Incan authority, so they could justify land theft. They took a language they believed was inferior and absorbed it to reinforce Spanish superiority. Later, as rebellion continued, they banned Quechua. The language that the Spanish ruling class now claimed gave them rightful claim to Incan resources was too powerful to incorporate into the racial system, so they sought to extinguish it. The Spanish saw that language kept cultural pride alive, and this incited political revolt. Indigenous languages were seen as an impediment to the aim of colonisation: cultural erasure, to facilitate exploitation and profit from Indigenous lands.

Race adapts to new conditions. Once free from Spanish colonisation in 1821, the racial system continued to dictate life following the Peruvian independence. The ruling classes who benefited under Spanish rule created a new discourse of nationalism. Castellano remained dominant, and racial and class divisions created in 1532 have been fixed for another 200 years. The role of language in racial domination is clear, when terms that did not exist prior to colonisation (blanco, mestizo, Afrodescendiente) are so firmly entrenched that they are not only measured in the Census, but they are also correlated with socioeconomic status. Peruvian nationalism is racialised: we hear it in the outrage of politicians who yell “Peru first” and “you represent the people” when Quechua politicians speak in language in Congress.

Race is resistant to material change. Even as laws change, and some overt signs of racism become unpalatable, the racial system reproduces itself, in a new guise of “progress.” This is because racial categories are embedded in multiple social institutions. Since the 1970s, various Peruvian governments have changed the Constitution to address language rights. Until recently, little material investment was made to implement progress. It is not enough to mandate bilingualism to eradicate linguistic and racial discrimination; the education system must be properly funded, what is taught in schools must change, teachers’ attitudes and training must change, school policies need to be audited, and so on.

Cusco and other Indigenous majority regions have made the greatest strides. By implementing new laws alongside other institutional changes, Indigenous people in some regions can access social services in their own languages. Nevertheless, Indigenous people still have the poorest outcomes in these regions where they are concentrated, because the rest of Peru refuses to give up the racial system which permeates all aspects of social life.

Legal rights are important, but without enforcement and investment, they do little to change the economic conditions and political power of racial minorities. This is spectacularly demonstrated when Congress shouts down a solitary Quechuan over a two-minute speech on racial equality.

Nevertheless, Quechuan and other Indigenous leaders, educators and activists persevere with instigating change, as they have done every day, for over 489 years.

Appendix 1: A simplified list of racial categories in Peru

  • Españoles (Spanish): white elites. Isabella of Portugal and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V were in power when Spain invaded Peru in 1532. The Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro led the invasion and executed the reigning Sapa Inca (Incan Emperor) Atahualpa. Conquistadors were initially established as Governors of stolen Peruvian territories. In 1542, the Viceroyalty of Peru took over as political administrators who served Spain. Peru-born Españoles retained power after Independence. Today, their descendants are known as blancos (“whites”). They are the third biggest group, and make up less than 6% of the Peruvian population.16(p214) Despite being numerically a minority, as a group, they retain socio-political power
  • Criollo (“creole”): mixed race landowners. They were Castellano-speaking people who had mixed Spanish and Indigenous or Afrodescendiente ancestry, but who typically occupied a higher social status. While criollo was used synonymously to refer to “mixed” and “Spanish” people, their race was closer to white.8(pp342-343) After Independence, they rose to prominent policy roles.13(p294) They owned property, had key roles in commerce, and could be conferred Spanish royal titles.13(p298) Criollos often exploited their knowledge of Castellano to trick Indigenous people during land “sales.”13(p301) However some Criollos used their wealth to support Indigenous arts.13(p299) Some Criollos participated in rebellions that led to Independence. Today, this term is not used as a racial category and is not counted in the Census, however, the term still refers to Limeño culture (derived from Lima, the capital city of Peru). Criollo influence is still seen in national culture, especially in cuisine, dance and music
  • Mestizo (“mixed race”): working class. This category includes people who are the children of Spanish and Indigenous people.8(p339) They had little political, social, linguistic, or cultural connection to Indigenous cultures. They spoke Castellano and wore Spanish clothing.8(p335) They were often poor and worked on farms.8(pp337, 345) Today, they are the biggest group in Peru, comprising 60% of the population.16(p214) They are overwhelmingly middle-class and hold positions of power in Government and other institutions
  • Migrants: working class. The Spanish government categorised “Chinese” people from the late 1780s. The abolishment of slavery in Peru in 1821 left the Spanish with a labour shortage. Chinese (now known as “Tusan”), Japanese (“Nikkei”), and Italian migrants were attracted to migrate to Peru to work on sugar and cotton plantations and in mining.19(p242) They were free but faced discrimination. These groups had a strong impact on national culture, especially cuisine, economy, and politics. Today, Tusan and Nikkei each comprise 0.1% of the Peruvian population.16(p214) After many generations, they retain distinct cultural ties to their ancestral homelands, while also having strong Peruvian identities. Asian-Peruvians generally have high rates of education and more upwardly mobile than other groups, but many still face racism. New groups of migrants include Venezuelans, who also face discrimination
  • Afrodescendiente (Afro-descendants): lower class. They are the descendants of slaves forcefully brought to Peru in the 16th Century, from the Caribbean and Brazil. The Viceroyalty census classified them as Black. They made distinctions between enslaved and freed Afrodescendientes, while other government records also made distinctions between Afrodescendienties who were mixed with other groups.8(p340) These racial categories are now considered racist and not used in official records. Afrodecendientes led many rebellions against the Spanish. They have an enduring influence on national culture, especially cuisine and music. Today, they are the fourth biggest group in Peru, and make up 3.6% of the population. Afro-Peruvians experience racial discrimination, and hold few positions of power.20
  • Indigenous, lower class. Indigenous people were murdered, dispossessed, and were enslaved when the Spanish invaded Peru. The Viceroyalty classified those who survived as “Indians,” a term that is now seen as racist, but is still used perojatively.8(p345) The Spanish ignored existing ethnic identities, and instead made racial distinctions based on blood quantum, a classification imported from Spain. They also classified originales (originals) versus forastero (outsiders).8(p366) The children of Indigenous and mestizo people were classified as “peasants” and under other derogatory racial categories.8(p338) Indigenous people who were allowed to own land still had to pay land taxes.8(pp366-367) Indigenous people mounted many rebellions. They also formally petitioned the Spanish for their land rights as early as the 1700s.8(p330) Today, there are 51 Indigenous groups in Peru. Quechuans make up almost one quarter of the national population (22.3%), and they are the third-biggest group in Peru. Aimara are the fifth biggest group in Peru (2.4%).16(p214)


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