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Keeping indigenous languages alive at UMaine


On Monday, Nov. 5, “UMaine Unido,” a Rising Tide professorship initiative to highlight Latino accomplishments, held their first event in Hill Auditorium at the University of Maine. The event hosted Américo Mendoza-Mori, a respected Latinx academic and a professor of Spanish and Quechua at the University of Pennsylvania, to discuss the importance of supporting and teaching indigenous languages in colleges and universities.

The evening was hosted by Carlos Villacorta, an assistant professor of Spanish at The University of Maine. The goal of “UMaine Unido” is to increase awareness and respect for the contributions of Latinxs, both immigrants and those born in America, on campus and across the nation. The series was established by professor Villacorta and Dan Sandweiss, a professor of anthropology, quaternary and climate studies.

“While working to better integrate Latinx and mainstream communities at the university, the project also intends to build a greater sense of identity and support among UMaine Latinxs, an underserved minority on our campus,” said Villacorta.

In his presentation, entitled “Supporting Indigenous Languages: The Case of Quechua,” Mendoza-Mori gave a history of Quechua and a defense of its value in modern academia. Despite having nearly eight million speakers and being the most widely spoken Indigenous language of the Americas, UNESCO, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and other organizations recognize Quechua as an endangered language. Quechua speakers span across the globe, the largest populations living in Bolivia and Ecuador, and appearing in Spain and Italy.

“Valuing Quechua also means valuing the indigenous people who speak it and the knowledge they have built through centuries,” said Villacorta. “It is important to remember that the population of Quechua speakers is declining, which is why the United Nations now considers it an endangered language. By keeping it alive we are preserving its people and hundreds of years of knowledge that we usually do not take into consideration.”

Mendoza-Mori believes that one of the keys to keeping Quechua alive is through millennials reclamation of their heritage, and the assertion of students to have courses and classes made available to them. Since 2014, Mendoza-Mori has been working to keep the history of Quechua alive at University of Pennsylvania by teaching courses, but also creating cultural policies which have been featured at major institutions such as the United Nations and in the media.

“He is one of the only five professors teaching Quechua in the United States and we consider his approach and contribution to indigenous languages and cultures a model to follow. His insight on this particular topic enlightens our way of understanding and learning about other cultures and languages,” said Villacorta.

One audience member opened up a compelling dialogue asking how the Penobscot people could use the preservation of Quechua as a model for the preservation of Eastern Abenaki. As there are no fluent speakers and all they know of the language has been obtained through a compiled dictionary, the challenge is a little greater, but not hopeless.

Mendoza-Mori then gave a short lesson in Quechua, which he called a “shock lesson,” that included 10 minutes of Mendoza-Mori speaking only Quechua. He guided the attendees through a short quiz on the primary points of the lecture, then walked around the room teaching greetings, parts of the body, and a song titled “Pirwalla, Pirwa.”

If you would like to attend the next event in the “UMaine Unido” professorship or learn of other multicultural programs at UMaine, check the UMaine event calendar or visit

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