Yadira Aguinda grew up torn between two tongues. There was Spanish, the mainstream language of government, big cities and better job prospects spoken by her friends. And there was Kichwa, the Indigenous language of her family, brimming with culture and history.
As a child, she was sent to live with her grandmother, whose entire Spanish vocabulary was silencio. To compensate, Yadira picked up Kichwa words and phrases for everyday objects. Soon, she was fluent and used her new language to learn from her grandmother, asking questions about the past, about what their remote village was like before towns cropped up on the fringes of the rainforest, about the grandfather she never met.
The now-16-year-old remembers evenings spent sitting around the dinner table with her grandmother, absorbing stories in Kichwa. She recounts mornings walking to school through sprawling fincas of yucca and plantain, surrounded by classmates speaking Spanish. In her community of Bellavista, a cluster of farms and homes built on stilts sandwiched between Ecuador’s Napo River and the dense Amazon Jungle, age is the dividing line between languages.
Spanish is the future; Kichwa, the past.
“Maybe that’s the biggest threat,” Yadira says in Spanish through a translator, laying the blame for the language divide squarely on the racist legacy of colonialism. “Young people now don’t care to speak in our language. They feel ashamed, they say, ‘I’m not from the old times, I speak that language?’”
Yadira knows better. Thanks to her grandmother, she knows the old times have a lot to teach this generation. “I want to learn all of the stories of my past to let the world know,” she says. Her work with WE and Bellavista’s women’s group has become her channel to learn traditional skills while carrying her culture forward.
When WE partnered with Bellavista in 2013, Yadira’s mother was among the first to join the burgeoning women’s group Sumak Warmi (which means Beautiful Women in Kichwa), earning income from the braiding techniques passed down for generations now used to craft colourful ME to WE Minga Bracelets. The following year, Yadira joined as one of its youngest members, taking her place among the women of the community to learn the traditional art.
Growing up, when the mother and daughter duo visited markets, Yadira would marvel at the woven blankets and crafts. Now, she makes her own. For the women in the group, they’ve taken their place among men in the community as primary earners—supplementing their farms of yucca and plantain to support their families. Yadira is much younger. All she wants from the money is school supplies.
But more than the skills she’s learned or the income she earns, more than the books and pens she can buy as she enters grade 11, the group has been a cultural renaissance. It’s offered a chance to hone her language skills and learn stories from the women and elders in the community.
Kichwa belongs to a larger family of languages spoken by Indigenous people throughout the Amazon and across the Andes. It dates back thousands of years and was the language of the Inca Empire when the Spanish colonized much of Latin America. Today, more than one million people speak Yadira’s dialect, connecting them, like a twisting thread, to their past.
“When I speak Kichwa, I feel like I am inside the heart of our culture,” Yadira says wistfully.
Sitting in the open gazeebo where the women’s group assembles every month, within view of her school, Yadira recounts why that cultural connection is so important, especially for young people like her.
Her people have long been discriminated against in Ecuador, starting when the country was colonized by the Spanish beginning in the 16th century. Even after independence, government policies have privileged Spanish speakers over remote Indigenous communities. Many villages suffer a brain drain, with young people leaving for work and better prospects in big cities. The only way to protect their way of life, according to Yadira, is to reclaim their stories.
“We need to rescue our culture,” she explains.
While her classmates speak in Spanish, Yadira encourages them to stay connected to Kichwa culture and learn about traditional ways of life. She relays the elders’ stories of the time before the Spanish came, before roads that cut through the jungle took young people from Bellavista to cities in search of jobs. Most of all, she tells them to speak their language so they can remember their roots.
She’s become a steward and defender of the culture, bridging the generational divide.
A part of that bridge extends outward, teaching visitors about the Kichwa language and culture. When groups of young people visit Bellavista with ME to WE Trips to help build a classroom or work on a water project (to date, WE has helped build two new classrooms in the community as well as latrines and handwashing stations, and is currently helping build a new dining hall for students), Yadira is there, notebook in hand. She teaches the volunteers how to make their own bracelets and say a few words in Kichwa; in turn, she eagerly learns phrases in English and French.
It’s not lost on Yadira that while Spanish is the language that’s pulling people from their communities for jobs elsewhere, it’s Kichwa and her work in the women’s group that’s empowered her to stay in school in Bellavista. She dreams of becoming an Amazon guide, so she can share her culture with visitors from all over the world.
While she paints a picture of this potential future, interspersing her rapid-fire Spanish with phrases in Kichwa, the classrooms behind her begin to empty for the day, spilling young people into the midday Ecuadorian sun. Friends excitedly call to her. As she packs up her bag, her fingers nimbly moving as if lovingly crafting a bracelet, she stops abruptly. “I want to be the keeper of our heritage,” she explains, stone faced. “We need to defend our culture.”
Then, she’s off. A soccer match is about to begin. She is the team’s best defender.
Jesse is a lifelong learner and believer in the power of stories to educate and inspire. He knows everyone has an interesting story—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.