Imbabura


I saw the sign from the highway and knew we were here. What a funny sensation! What a beautiful, green, cloudy, mountainous place, with gentle farms rising all around the highway mixed in with new concrete and brick construction everywhere, and colorful tile sculptures in public places.
Around 1992 while in graduate school in California, I read a book by Gabrielle Hermon that featured Imbabura Quechua to illustrate many points about Chomsky’s theory of principles and parameters in universal grammar. Reading this book suddenly made the theory more relevant and interesting to me; things that seemed trite and obvious about the structure of English looked amazing when seen to have the same underpinnings in a language as superficially different as Quechua. That’s when I decided to do my qualifying paper on second language acquisition of Spanish by Quechua speakers.
Theoretical linguistics books tend to be about as dry and abstract as anything I know. But here is the place, Imbabura, where the Quechua language is spoken by farmers and merchants. It all comes together for me – connecting my high school year in Bolivia, surrounded by indigenous people and those just one or two generations removed from speaking their ancestral languages; connecting many years of making Andean music, and then these recent years trying to get back to it all.
On the last night of the conference I talked with one of the Ecuadoran Quichua speaking women who was wearing traditional dress, and she referred to needing to get back home to take care of her animals and farm. Then in the next breath she let me know that her sister lives in Newark New Jersey and attends a protestant church full of Quichua speaking immigrants. Somehow, the juxtaposition of this woman’s traditional dress, her gentle manner and connection to the farm, seems light years away from the immigrant experience in gritty Newark, but I know they are both equally real and part of her family’s experience. Both worlds are part of my experience, too. I have spent the greater part of my adult life living and working with recent immigrants to the US. However, it is hard to maintain an accurate picture of where people come from when we see them in the context of inner city north America.

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