Peru is a country rich in folklore. From Pachamama, a fertility goddess who sustains life, to Señora de Cao, a warrior queen considered the first female ruler of pre-Hispanic Peru, the South American country is teeming with tales that offer glimpses into the past as well as information and inspiration that could enrich its people’s lives today. Cecilia De La Fuente-Gorbitz doesn’t want these stories, and the cultural knowledge and pride they could induce, to get lost in time, so she started The K’uychi Project.
Launched in 2017, the project, which began as a children’s book, has turned into a multiplatform undertaking that uses technology and didactic materials to teach indigenous Peruvian culture and language.
“I wanted to research Peruvian folktales. I said to myself, ‘kids all over Peru know European folktales like Cinderella and Snow White, yet, in Peru, which has such a rich heritage of these stories, they are virtually unknown,” De La Fuente-Gorbitz, an anthropologist and artist, told FIERCE.
That’s when she started writing “K’uychi and the Awki.” The book, which she plans to self-publish in April, tells the story of K’uychi, a mythical young girl who embarks on a quest to find water after her village has been hit by a drought. On her journey, she meets friendly creatures who guide her to a mountain spirit, the Awki. The bilingual storybook will be available in print with side-by-side text in Quechua and Spanish as well as in digital form in Quechua/Spanish and Spanish/English.
De La Fuente-Gorbitz, who wrote and illustrated the book, also created an accompanying simple-objective, one screen game. Through the K’uychi Mini Game, available on Google Play, users move K’uychi from side to side to help her collect raindrops and avoid Kon, the Peruvian god of rain and wind who became vengeful after humans stopped giving him offerings, from falling on her. During the game, K’uychi says different words in Quechua, like “haylli,” or “bravo,” when she collects a raindrop, or “sonqo,” “heart,” when she gets a red heart. Soon, De La Fuente-Gorbitz, who has computer programming experience, plans on releasing a more advanced, platform game, where the player helps K’uychi complete various levels by using the right Quechua word.
For the Peruvian-born, New York-based creative, technology, like video games, is both an interactive tool to learn and preserve culture as well as a way to challenge notions that Peruvian traditions are antiquated.
“When people go to Peru, they focus on archaeological sites: museums that show artifacts from so long ago. That’s great, but people need to understand Peruvian culture is not dead, and it doesn’t need to be buried in a museum. It can be a part of the modern world,” she said.
While English is widely considered the language of the modern world, De La Fuente-Gorbitz wants Peruvian youth, many having been taught to abandon the indigenous tongues of their parents or ancestors, to understand that these languages remain spoken throughout South America today. In fact, about 4 million people in Peru speak Quechua, one of the most dominant tongues of the highlands of South America, and about 4 to 8 million more speak the language across the Americas. For her, this is evidence that widely spoken indigenous languages are neither obsolete or outdated.
“Peruvians, even with traditional culture, are also a part of the modern world. We are alive today. People till this day communicate in Quechua, so it’s important to bridge that gap and give a way for these voices that have been isolated from the rest of the world and from people’s eyes through technology,” the 27-year-old said.
De La Fuente-Gorbitz’s primary objective for the project is to offer much-needed representation to Peruvian youth. By sharing little-known parts of their history through characters who look like them and share similar experiences, she hopes it will instill self-confidence and inspire them to fight for the preservation of their culture and language.
“We are a country that for decades, centuries, has been minimized in a way, that has looked out to Europe, or the US more recently, instead of looking at our own national identity and taking pride in it. You can see that in the movies, shows and media we watch,” she said. “And I think that affects people, especially children growing up with images that they are somehow not good enough as they are. They don’t see themselves reflected and are constantly being bombarded with an image they will never be able to attain.”
While the creative started The K’uychi Project for youth in her home country, she believes that it could also benefit children and adults of the Peruvian diaspora. While studying in the United States, De La Fuente-Gorbitz, who is currently interning at the Peruvian embassy in Washington, DC, has noticed that unlike in Latin America, where most people identify by the country they were born in, people in the US, especially Latinxs, don’t often refer to themselves as Americans. Regardless if they were born in the US and only speak English, they largely identify with the nationality of their parents or ancestors, hyphenating themselves as Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans or Colombian-Americans.
For her, this self-identity is a result of diasporic Latinos being othered in their birth country because of the color of their skin, surnames or the cultural practices of their families as well as a disconnection from both the land they know and the faraway one of their predecessors. She believes a project like the one she has created could help them feel more rooted.
“I noticed a lot of Latinos want to understand their roots. They have a real genuine interest to reconnect with the land they or their parents emigrated from, and I feel there’s not that many sources of information for them to do so. So my project could help them feel more pride in themselves, how they look and gain self-confidence, and assert that, ‘I am valuable,’” she said.
She’s already finding proof of its effectiveness. In addition to her book and game, De La Fuente-Gorbitz also has an Instagram account that she uses to teach Quechua through vibrant images that illustrate the meaning of words and share its Spanish and English translations. With terms like “Warmi” (“Woman”), “Puñuy” (“to sleep”) and “Wawa” (“baby”), she is educating followers, many of the Peruvian diaspora, on common vocabulary, numbers and verbs in Quechua. The response, she says, has been all positive, with one fan even telling her that she once felt ashamed for not knowing her ancestors’ native language and now feels like she has an outlet where she is able to relearn and return to what was lost.
De La Fuente-Gorbitz, who herself is not a native Quechua-speaker and has leaned on a friend, Helberth, for translations, says she hopes to expand The K’uychi Project and create bilingual stories, games and language lessons in the indigenous tongues of Peru’s coastal, Amazonian and Andean regions.
For her, linguistic diversity makes us as a people smarter, stronger and more united.
“The way we think, our worldview, has to do with the language we speak. We can learn so many different things and broaden our horizons just by understanding someone else’s point of view, and this wouldn’t be possible if we restrict native language use and restrict people’s identities,” she said.
“K’uychi and the Awki” will be available for purchase in Peru and online spring 2019.