Department of Anthropology

Graduate Student Spotlight: Raul "Qui'chi" Martinez

Wed, September 4, 2019
Graduate Student Spotlight: Raul

The Department of Anthropology is excited to share the following interview with Graduate Student Raul "Qui'chi" Martinez, conducted by Elizabeth de Marigny. We will continue to highlight the amazing works our students are doing, in Austin and around the world, a few times each semester.

For your dissertation you are conducting research in Otavalo, Ecuador. Can you briefly outline your research goals and tell us what it is about this particular community that interested you?

Broadly speaking, I am interested in mundane and poetic speaking practices of Runa (Kichwa) people in and around the Andean town of Otavalo, Ecuador. The town is famous for its artisan marketplace (it’s massive!). Otavalan Runa people make a living as farmers as well as marketing textiles, folk music and shamanism within tourism hubs in Ecuador and abroad. Another major way Otavalan Runa families make money is by sponsoring their ritual kin to travel out of the town for labor wages—so much so that Otavalan Runa communities make up a highly mobile Latin American ethnic diaspora. These are socioeconomic conditions relevant to being Runa in Otavalo that have been documented well by ethnographers since the 1940’s. Yet, these studies are virtually absent in language-centered data, which is unfortunate considering that Otavalan Runa speakers (like many Indigenous people) are experiencing language endangerment. So what interests me is how growing Otavalan Runa socioeconomic differences (i.e., competition between tourism enterprises) and global politics of indigeneity shape the beliefs and ways of speaking Kichwa as well as other languages such as English and Spanish.

One of the main aspects of your work focuses on the varying ways in which verbal art is used for socioeconomic advancement in Otavalo. Can you tell us about different forms of verbal art and how they are used for such advancement? Have you encountered any generational differences in language use amongst Kichwa speakers? If so, what are they?

I want to combine the answers to these questions because it encompasses how I am attempting to document in a more empirical sense. I’m interested in the social life of Otavlan Kichwa verbal art such as stories, shamanic curing songs, and dreams. These are linguistic resources that can be invested with individual creativity and performed for different types of social goals (i.e., tourism; moral instruction; healing; harvesting). Unfortunately, the view that these types of traditions are vital for the transmission of culture is still not common. For instance, one of Ecuador’s major sources of national pride for being an official multilingual/multicultural country is its revitalization of Kichwa. In practice, however, this revitalization pushes more for standardization and literacy rather than engaging the myriad of Amazonian and Andean Kichwa speaking communities on their own terms. Listening to and admiring verbal art, in my view, is one way of being real with Indigenous people—on their terms. And because research participants can only explicitly tell me so much through interviews and surveys about how they experience and understand speaking their multiple languages, I am approaching these performances of verbal art as sites that provide a cultural rendering of language endangerment and social inequality in real-time.

Rather than trivial forms of speech, a narrative told might be an instance in which a Runa speaker is providing a metaphorical and coherent view into how he/she is experiencing or even combating language endangerment. And it turns out that some Otavalan Runa entrepreneurs are responding to the growing (inter)national interests in hearing, learning, or ‘experiencing’ (as it is commonly advertised) Runa language and culture by becoming brokers of verbal art to paying tourists and foreign exchange students. By contrast, other Otavalan Runa speakers without the appropriate skills and connections to forge these social networks are missing out on lucrative opportunities. So, my main research goal is investigating why verbal art might play a central role in organizing social networks for a Runa family mostly residing in the villages northeast of Otavalo. These networks differ in social type, geographic distance, goods, services, and ways of speaking. For instance, elderly speakers might use a story about growing corn to morally instruct their grandchildren how to properly treat others in the village, while relatively younger and formally educated members of this family might take charge of performing verbal healing rituals for home-staying international students, spiritual seekers, and Ecuadorian government officials. The former use of verbal art is geared towards intra- and interfamilial social networks, and the latter point for networks that enable socioeconomic upward mobility.

There are some major generational differences in speaking Runa and social networking to consider here. Just about 15 years ago there was hardly any popular interest in Runa culture aside from their purchasable materials. Many speakers across generations today attest to being ridiculed for speaking Runa at one point or another. But now outsiders are coming to some of Ecuador’s most historically marginalized communities to be exposed to Andean Kichwa life by culture brokers. These societal changes (namely, multicultural policies and rural/experiential tourism) as well as international Indigenous networks have also led to younger speakers to reconsider how they can reclaim their heritage language. My response to question (4) provides an example of the use and uptake of Runa verbal art in organizing novel and continuous social worlds that help one live a meaningful life.  

Your research investigates the role verbal art plays in forming what you call hemispheric indigeneity. What is hemispheric indigeneity and how does it relate to your dissertation work?

The visual and musical markers of “hemispheric indigeneity” are prevalent in Otavalo’s marketplace. These markers or symbols include dream-catchers, textiles with Geronimo’s face, Navajo-inspired blankets, moccasins, flutes, and hand-drums. By “hemispheric indigeneity,” I mean both a transnational identity of being Indigenous in the Americas and the social practices that articulate and validate its significance. Like the materials that represent it, this identity is widespread in Otavalo. And like any other form of indigeneity, it’s best understood in context and through its voices (aka via ethnography). So even though Hemispheric indigeneity circulates in transnational organizational spaces such the Native American Indigenous Studies Association’s meetings; or the United Nations, this type of indigeneity perhaps forms more through social media, films, music, and verbal art as evident amongst the multiple Otavalan Runa families I’ve come to know since 2014.

Still, I mentioned that Otavalan Runa folks migrate and travel far. So consider that every time someone like Willak (a middle-aged father, healer, merchant) and his siblings market their services to New Age spiritualists or White consumers of Andean culture in Canada, they simultaneously engage in the business of exchanging ideas, verbal art, and materials with tribes such as the Cree and Ojibwe in Saskatoon. They’ve been doing this type of intertribal social networking since the 90s and these social relations have spiritually and politically shaped their view of Kichwa linguistic heritage in ways that differ from their elderly speakers. You can hear these generational differences in their shamanic curing songs.

Unlike older and relatively less educated and traveled “yachakkuna” or healers whose Kichwa healing speech makes use of Spanish grammar, Willak can make Kichwa chants more powerful by separating it from Spanish. Willak and his enlightened shaman siblings ‘purify’ their Kichwa dialect in curing chants, especially when it comes to healing outsiders coming into their village, which often includes paying tourists. Often times, their chant’s capacity to cure is also amplified and legitimized by a caribou hand drum gifted to Willak’s family by a Cree elder in Saskatoon, Canada. Their appeal as shamans and brokers as well as their right to revitalize Kichwa is authenticated by hemispheric indigeneity.

So, here we have at least three societal conditions informing one another, which are observable in the performances of verbal art: (1) cultural tourism economies; (2) language endangerment; (3) and transnational politics of indigeneity. Their chants heal the recipients and financially benefit Willak and his family. But, they also express that these purified chants are meaningful to them as they represent their spiritual and political solidarity movement with other Indigenous people in the United States and Canada. In this case of verbal art, this commitment entails healing the Kichwa language in ways that they believe their elders and many others who speak like them cannot. The goal of my dissertation is to document what others might think of Willak’s particular revitalization of Kichwa by asking and observing what being and speaking Kichwa means to them.

Your work seems to be equal parts participant observation/ethnography, and educational outreach in that you are documenting language use as well as producing a descriptive grammar for Kichwa speakers. What challenges do you face with this work and what do you hope to achieve?

No descriptive grammar for me...although, I know a mentor in Ecuador who would love for me to do that. My training in cultural poetics at UT has taught to collaborate in transcription writing with local language experts. So we’ll be listening to different audio/video clips of interviews, performances, rituals, and the like, transcribe what we hear, then produce some translations and metadata that are contextualized and deliberated. I’ll also train some speakers in language documentation in order to build a useful skill set for community members. For these Runa Otavalan communities, these linguistic materials will constitute a diverse data set documenting language use and sociocultural practices, as opposed to a descriptive grammar. The linguistic data pertaining to language use and cultural knowledge we produce will help vitalize their local Kichwa linguistic variety that is under high pressure from an urban and largely Spanish speaking culture of Otavalo and Quito. I plan to deposit these materials at our Archive of Indigenous Languages of the Americas at UT and the Jacobs Research Institute in Washington. The materials will be accessible to anyone for free online.

In terms of challenges, I’m fortunate that my identity as a Native person and researcher leads to meaningful and unique conversations with Otavalan Runa concerning Indigenous language loss, colonization, and socioeconomic impacts of migration with which I am personally familiar. I also have personal perspective on hemispheric indigeneity as a skill, which I’m still discovering (but not like Columbus). This unique ethnographic subjectivity I embody will deepen and diversify this project’s capacity to appeal to various scholars and Indigenous language advocates. Through collaboration, this project will be useful for future Runa identity strengthening and revitalization activities as well as help those currently in progress.

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