Linguistics arrived in my life in the most unexpected way. It was 1983 when I heard about it for the first time. I was about to start high school, and a new language instructor arrived into Lámud, a little town of about 2000 people in the foothills of the Peruvian Andes. He came from Lima, the capital of the country, full of enthusiasm and all these “new” ideas about language. And one day, he taught as to draw syntactic trees. This is how I first became fascinated by language structure.
For most high school graduates from the interior of Peru, going to college means moving to Lima to compete with thousands of others from around the country to get a spot into a university. At that point, my high school instructor, who by then became my brother-in-law, suggested that I seriously consider linguistics. The prospects of getting into a field that almost nobody had heard of was not very attractive at the time. But given that I had limited choices, in 1988 I applied to the Linguistics program of the National University of San Marcos, still the only public university in Peru that offers a bachelor’s degree in Linguistics. I was admitted together with 31 others. I soon noticed that the majority in my cohort had less idea than me of what linguistics was about. Most of them were hoping to change their major at the first opportunity. I considered that possibility as well, the big problem was that I didn’t have any other preference either.
Given the constant political turmoil, during my freshman and sophomore years our classes were quite intermittent, but full of excitement. I quickly discovered that at the university of San Marcos I could interact with inspiring professors. For example, I was lucky to take Andean linguistics with professor Rodolfo Cerrón-Palomino, Amazonian linguistics with Gustavo Solis, phonetics with Aida Mendoza, phonology with Maria Cortez, dialectology with Gertrude Schumacher, syntax with Felix Quesada, sociolinguistics with Madeleine Zúñiga, among others. What all of them had in common was a commitment to not only train young aspiring linguists, but also to conduct original research in the most difficult circumstances. Linguistics slowly grew on me, and I finished the program.
The most important moment of my career took place in February of 1997, when I embarked on my first trip to the Kukama-Kukamiria territory, in the Peruvian Amazon. I was hired by a project that trains bilingual teachers known as FORMABIAP, for its initials in Spanish, as the linguist responsible for working on the description of the Kukama-Kukamiria language. The Amazon was an entirely new world for me. After a short flight and nine hours in a boat, I arrived at a small village completely flooded by water. It was the rainy season! This trip lasted only 32 days, but that was enough time to recognize the challenges of working in this region of the world. Having to learn basic skills –– such a riding a canoe, which, by the way, is mastered by five-year-olds–– together with the limited contact to the outside world made an immense impact on me. Yet at the same time, I was deeply attracted to the idea of doing something meaningful. On the one hand, there was an obvious sense of urgency to work towards the preservation of this highly endangered language. The few surviving speakers that I met reported having no one with whom they could use Kukama-Kukamiria on a daily basis, and lamented the disappearance of their language. On the other hand, the complex socio-political context made it a real challenge to implement initiatives that focused on the preservation of the language. At that moment, the survival of Kukama-Kukamiria was only one component of a bigger movement initiated by indigenous organizations to address primarily land, education and health issues among indigenous Amazonian groups.
During my five years in the FORMABIAP project, I had the amazing opportunity to interact with members of fourteen different ethnic groups. I also participated in sporadic workshops delivered by Francesc Queixalós, a linguist from the CNRS-France. These experiences made evident that, to continue to work with Amazonian languages, I would need more advanced training. So, I started to look for opportunities. In 2001, I was granted a Ford Foundation Fellowship that would allow me to pursue graduate studies anywhere in the world. I got in contact with several potential mentors in the US and Europe, and Spike Gildea, from the University of Oregon, came across as someone not only passionate about Amazonia, but also eager to support international students. In addition to Spike’s enthusiasm, I choose Oregon because of its focus on documentary and descriptive linguistics, its faculty with active research in Latin America, and, most importantly at the moment, its offer of a scholarship to study English before starting the graduate program. I started the MA in January 2002. Oregon introduced me to a whole new world: colleagues from around the world and professors working around the world. Beyond functional-typological approaches to grammar and empirically-sound methodologies, I learned from Scott DeLancey, Doris Payne, and Spike Gildea, among others, that linguistics is not only about languages; it is about communities that speak those languages.
Because keeping the connection with the Kukamas was crucial to me, I was determined to find the resources to conduct field visits every summer. During these visits, I began to entertain the possibility of launching a larger project to document the Kukama-Kukamiria language. I graduated with an MA in June of 2004, and at that moment, it became obvious that I would have more opportunities to access to research funding as a PhD student than as an MA graduate. Thus, I decided to stay in Oregon to continue with the PhD.
In 2005, during my second year in the PhD, I was awarded a small grant from the Endangered Language Fund. This was the seed money that helped me — in collaboration with elders Rosa Amías Murayari and Victor Yuyarima Chota — launch The Kukama-Kukamiria Documentation Project. During my 2005 visit, I collected video data mainly from both of them: short stories and descriptions using drawings and pictures as stimuli. But we were well aware of the fact that the speakers of the languages were elders spread in small villages, often away from the main navigable rivers. Thus, visiting the villages to interview those speakers became urgent. In 2006, I was awarded a Graduate Studentship from the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Program, and a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation. With this support, Rosa, Victor, and I were able to conduct multiple fieldtrips in 2006. Rosa Amías and I continued to travel to conduct interviews in 2007 and 2008, and subsequently also transcribed, translated, and analyzed a portion of the collected data.
By the end of the project, we had interviewed 42 speakers from 16 communities, and recorded traditional narratives, stories from daily life, personal experiences, spontaneous conversations, songs, etc. Speakers were interviewed individually, in pairs, and in groups. We recorded approximately 20 hours of video and four hours of audio. Note that it was not a trivial undertaking to make these recordings, as they were collected in communities where this highly endangered language is no longer used for daily communication. From this raw data, I have created 249 files, including video, audio, transcriptions and morphological analysis, and deposited them in the archive ELAR of the Hans Rausing Endangered Language Program. On the basis of this data, I wrote a grammar of Kukama-Kukamiria for my dissertation, which I defended in 2010. This grammar was the recipient of the 2011 SSILA Mary Haas Book Award, an award bestowed on the best doctoral dissertation on a native language of the Americas, and also received Honorable Mention for the 2011 ALT Panini Award, given for outstanding typological studies and reference grammars. A revised version was published by Brill in 2016. Another outcome that derived from this line of work is the Kukama/Spanish dictionary I published in 2015 in co-authorship with my longtime friend and collaborator Rosa Amías Murayari. My current areas of research ––morphosyntax and language contact–– also grew out of my documentary work.
I have had the privilege of working with the Kukama-Kukamirias for almost two decades now. During this time, I have witnessed amazing progress regarding the revitalization of their language. This positive outcome is the result of several initiatives carried out by community members themselves with the support of many allies. These efforts range from teaching the language through instructional programs in elementary schools, teaching the language in neighboring midsize towns and cities, daily radio programs, radio ads for health campaigns, and more recently successful music videos that have been broadcasted nationwide. As a result, in the last decade there has been a significant positive shift in attitudes towards Kukama-Kukamiria identity and a renewed sense of community. I will continue to support their efforts to keep fighting for their language, their land, their self-determined way of life.
Maybe because I started my journey as a linguist in a teacher training program, it feels natural to me that the results of my research should not only be available but also accessible and useful to the speech communities where I conduct my research. It is important to note that for the children of many Amazonian ethnic groups, the lack of language resources makes it extremely difficult if not impossible to have access to primary education in their first language. For many languages, there is not even a writing system in place. In that context, carrying out language development projects, such as orthography design, production of school materials, and teacher training, among others, has become a natural extension of my endeavors. In the last few years, I have started to extend my documentary work to Secoya (Tukanoan), another minimally documented language spoken in the borders of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. There is a sharp contrast between Kukama-Kukamiria and Secoya with respect to their sociolinguistic contexts. The Secoya language is the main means of communication for all the generations, and monolingualism among women is high. I have been involved in the creation of the language resources for the speech community, including the first reading books for children and a writing system.
The applications of linguistic research to real-world issues continues to be the motivation for my studies. I hope to inspire others to engage in this type of work now in my role as a professor of linguistics at the University of New Mexico.