Features

The Fluency Influencer

Shana Inofuentes ’00 harnesses the power of social media for Indigenous language preservation.

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Cute bodega cats. Gravity-defying desserts. Thousands of #photooftheday-tagged sunsets. A quick scroll through Instagram brings up almost anything. But Indigenous languages? For Shana Inofuentes ’00, director of The Quechua Project and head of its communications strategy, the photo-based app is the perfect medium to showcase something unique: “We get so many messages from youth in our community saying, ‘Why didn’t someone think of this before? I can’t believe I’m seeing and hearing Quechua on social media!’”


The Quechua people are an Indigenous community from the Andean region of South America, which stretches from Peru through Bolivia and into Chile. Inofuentes is on a mission to keep Quechua — Bolivia’s second-most common language, with approximately 2.5 million speakers — vibrant and growing among the Bolivian diaspora. To that end she co-founded The Quechua Project, which places Indigenous pride at the forefront of social media with regular posts and stories that share Quechua language and culture with its eager followers.

Why Instagram? “I think it’s very important not to place us in the past,” Inofuentes says. “I can’t tell you how many times I read about Indigenous people in the past tense, like, ‘Our people used to, or we used to.’ It’s the idea that we’re relegated to vanishing into the past because we’re prehistoric, and not compatible with modernity.”

And what’s more modern than apps? “Something we like to say in The Quechua Project is that it’s not about going back,” she says. “It’s about moving forward — without the baggage.”


Inofuentes grew up just outside of Washington, D.C., which is home to the United States’s largest Bolivian diaspora (approximately 300,000 people of Bolivian descent live in the D.C. metro area). She says that the community is extremely tight knit, with very active pueblo organizations (community groups tied to specific regions of Bolivia) keeping people strongly connected to their homeland. The Quechua Project grew out of that community’s yearly carnavales, a months-long holiday that celebrates the harvest. Each Saturday, a different pueblo hosts the others for a day of singing, dancing and food. During that time, Indigenous languages like Quechua are ubiquitous; says Inofuentes, “If you go to a party or festival like that, which happens all spring and part of winter, you’re going to hear Quechua — it’s pervasive.”

Inofuentes, wearing a Columbia sweatshirt and a traditional aguayo wrap, harvests potatoes in the Bolivian Altiplano, with the revered Illampu mountain in the background.

EBER MIRANDA, NACIÓN RAP

But Inofuentes says that Quechua, like many Indigenous languages, is endangered; while older generations speak it among them- selves, younger people in the U.S. often end up fluent only in English and Spanish. This puts their Indigenous identity at risk of being erased, forced under a larger “Latin American” identity that doesn’t encompass their unique history and experiences.


The Quechua Project was co-founded by four Bolivian-American women from the D.C. area: Inofuentes, María Luz “K’ancha” Coco, Mónica Flores and Jennifer Albarracin Moya. Inofuentes met Coco, the project’s Quechua language specialist, during carnavales in 2018. But it wasn’t until summer 2019 — when the two had an apthapi (a meal with a focus on sharing food) with Flores — that they struck upon the idea of using media to revitalize Quechua use in the diaspora. That September, Inofuentes reached out to artist and photographer Albarracin Moya to ask her to contribute her expertise in the visual arts. The foursome decided that Instagram, with its focus on photos and short videos, was the perfect vehicle to showcase the beauty of Quechua — the app’s quick, digestible bites are ideal for the younger generation.

The Quechua Project launched online in September 2020, and quickly began growing followers. Comments on posts are ebullient: “I love this way of learning Quechua!”; “I love this movement.”; “I needed to read this. Thank you.”

But the eye-catching posts do more than just showcase the Quechua language. Inofuentes elaborates: “In order to create a generation of people from Indigenous heritage like ours, who are going to be empowered to contribute to racial justice and a better world, they need to feel empowered.” And for Inofuentes, part of this affirmation is to have people see their experiences represented on Instagram — to know that they don’t have to hide parts of themselves, either in real life or online, and to see that they can be economically and socially successful while still celebrating their heritage. Adds Coco, “It’s impactful to see four young women [from the community] focus on the language, even when Quechua isn’t ‘necessary’ for our lives in the U.S.”

“In order to create a generation of people from Indigenous heritage like ours, who are going to be empowered to contribute to racial justice and a better world, they need to feel empowered.”


So what does a typical Quechua Project Instagram post look like? Some are educational, teaching Quechua phrases like Kusikuy kay p’unchaypi (“Be happy today”) or Jamuy mikhurikunki (“Come eat”); some highlight the diaspora community through videos celebrating carnavales events; and others showcase Indigenous pride, like a series on ch’uñu — a preserved potato dish — and ch’uñuchay, the uniquely Indigenous process of creating the ch’uñu, which relies on the harsh Andean altiplano environment (freezing nights, hot days) for the preservation technique. The posts use a mix of English, Spanish and Quechua in order to reach their younger U.S.-based followers, who might not be fluent in Quechua but still identify with the culture or are interested in connecting with their roots. “[It’s about] embracing who we are and our various intersectional identities and allowing people to bring their whole selves to the table,” Inofuentes says.

She continues, “For centuries, European languages, like Spanish and English, have been viewed as though they have more value — that they are less backward, that they are better and that everything that we have is less than. We want our youth to feel confident in and proud of who they are. They don’t stop being who they are just because they, for example, decide to have a law degree and live in New York City. That’s a narrative that’s existed for centuries, and it’s been a way to erase us — that when we move from our communities to the city we’ve been told, ‘You’re no longer Indigenous.’ We’re fighting this big, long tide of erasure.”


In addition to The Quechua Project’s growing Instagram presence, the co-founders are conducting a survey of D.C.’s Bolivian diaspora to gather basic data about Indigenous language use in the community. Inofuentes, a Latin American studies and environmental science double major at the College, earned an M.A. from Georgetown in communications, culture and technology in 2021; she worked with faculty there to develop the survey. She plans to use the results to guide the project’s strategies to support the survival of Quechua in the D.C. metro area. “The fact that it’s research by us, for us is very powerful,” she says. “It’s not an extractive model of research.”

Adds Coco, “Knowing and working with Shana makes it so that things aren’t so pesados,” [literally “heavy,” but has connotations of “difficult”]. “Maybe because we flow together — I’ve learned a lot working with her.”


Ayni is the Quechua word for the spirit of reciprocity; in English it’s expressed as “today you, tomorrow me” and in Spanish, “hoy por ti, mañana por mi.” Inofuentes says that spirit of ayni is what drove her to create The Quechua Project. She describes herself as “a proud daughter of the community,” and says growing up dancing at carnavales and participating in pueblo events gave her a strong connection to her people and the desire to keep that connection strong among future generations. She is currently in Bolivia, creating short videos about people of Indigenous heritage reconnecting with their Andean homeland to share on The Quechua Project.


“Something like Instagram can seem so intangible and not impactful, but it is!” Inofuentes says. “This is the fuel to a certain kind of fire that I hope will grow — the untapping of our inherent power, our healing into the future after colonialism. We’d like to inspire a generation of people who are secure in who they are in their indigeneity.”