"Indigenous people have been forgotten, under-appreciated, exploited — and our languages have a lot to do with it," Peruvian Quechuan singer and rapper Renata Flores Rivera tells Refinery29 over Zoom from a recording studio in Ayacucho, Peru. "I want people to realize how instrumental Quechua is for our people and our culture." The 19-year-old singer, composer, and activist is on a mission to preserve the native language and customs of her ancestral roots through music by singing in Quechua. The Inca people's traditional language long before the Spanish came to colonize in the sixteenth century, Quechua is spoken by more than 8 million people in Latin America— predominantly in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia.
Although it became recognized as one of the official languages in Peru in 1975 (second to Spanish), many people have avoided teaching their children Indigenous languages out of the fear that they will be ridiculed, rejected, or discriminated against. Today, anti-Indigenous sentiments continue to run rampant in Peru and globally. The worry of "inferiority" and harassment has forced many to abandon their native language to assimilate into a colonized tongue. For centuries, Indigenous peoples have suffered from an unjust economic, political, and social system — and Flores Rivera wants to fight back with music.
Originating from the small city of Huamanga, a province in the northern part of the Ayacucho region in Peru, Flores Rivera's love for music began when she was a child. Growing up on cumbia, rock, electronic, and folklore music like huayno — a traditional genre and dance with Peruvian Andean roots introduced to her by her grandparents — all these genres played a pivotal role in influencing her sound today.
Her trajectory began in 2015 when she joined the reality talent competition La Voz Kids Peru as a contestant. Though Flores Rivera did not end up winning the competition, what occurred after ended up changing the course of her career. "I began growing as a singer and exploring more within music when I was around 14. It was nothing planned. I did not think music would turn into my life," she says. Renata and her momager Patricia Rivera Canchanya — who is a music academy director and former member of a Peruvian rock band along with her husband — decided to start uploading videos of covers in Quechua on her Youtube channel.
The first cover was "The House of The Rising Sun" by British rock band The Animals, which translates to "Intipa Lluksina Wasi" in her native language. After receiving positive reception from her first cover, she decided to drop the next one — a cover that would skyrocket her career. She covered "The Way You Make Me Feel "by Michael Jackson, which went viral and garnered almost 2 million views to date. "We did not expect so many people to take an interest in the Quechua music we are making. We always had that mentality that Quechua songs would not get that far from where we currently live. I hope people can learn from it and the culture," she says of the language that is also spoken in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and more Latin American countries.
Though her city is home to many Indigenous families and she was growing to fame singing in Quechua, she wasn't exposed to the native tongue as a child. "Many parents no longer teach their kids an Indigenous language from their region in Peru," she says. "As a child, my family would talk about many things in Quechua, and I didn't understand because they didn't teach me, nor did I practice at home. I started by trying to practise the phonetics; everything else was just listening." With hopes of learning more, Flores Rivera asked her grandmother for help with pronunciation and guidance with her songs. The learning only began there as she then also decided to take Quechua classes.
Flores Rivera's decision for her linguistic commitment was simple: She wanted to make sure she stood out from other artists while also taking social responsibility to protect, value, and bring visibility to Quechua and awareness to her people, who have been historically erased. "I want to be the voice of those people who are unheard and forgotten. [Indigenous Peoples] are not given the attention they deserve in the media," she shares. "I want to be the voice of the people who speak Quechua and other Indigenous tongues, especially in rural regions, since many of us do not know what they are saying and do not care to know or learn." With this mission of awareness, her YouTube covers were uploaded in partnership with the Asociación Cultural SURCA, a non-profit organization that focuses on teaching youth the importance of Quechua. This intersection of music and activism would go on throughout her career.
After her Michael Jackson cover went viral on social media, she reached a new level of notoriety but her desire to make an impact with her music remained the same. Eventually, she started composing her own songs that shed light on several social issues faced by Indigenous communities in Peru that go untouched, including government corruption, femicide, bullying, and the inadequate education system in rural areas.
Her 2018 debut single, "Mirando a la misma luna (Looking at the same moon)" speaks out against the persecution suffered by Quechua-speaking youth because of their hardships in speaking Spanish. She challenges her audience to preserve the Indigenous culture and language and end the cycle of generational trauma. According to World Bank, 13% of the Peruvian population have decided not to teach their descendants the language out of the fear that they will be rejected or mocked. "There are other Indigenous languages we must save, too. I feel like we are still getting to know ourselves and accepting ourselves. We must be proud and take action. We must value and respect our differences," she tells R29.
Her song "Tijeras (Scissors)" — a Quechea rap track infused with folkloric rhythms —is a cry for injustices faced by women, specifically femicides, which is a growing problem in Peru. According to the women's rights office of Peru's National Ombudsman's office, an independent group that monitors the country's human rights, states that in 2020 (from January 1 to August 21), there have been 75 cases of femicide and 35 violent deaths of women. Thirty-eight of those femicides have happened since mid-March.
Flores Rivera's most recent single, "Qam Hina," is an ode to her grandmother and the many young women who live in the rural areas of Peru and have faced adversity traveling to school to obtain a decent education. "My grandmother could not finish her studies at school; it was very difficult to for her to reach. That reality has not changed yet. The dangers that children, especially girls, have to suffer with such long walks/ Many of them stop studying because of it," she wrote on the YouTube caption for the music video. "People in rural areas have suffered a lot and will continue to do so if we don't think of them as our people, our blood; they deserve more attention, they have been forgotten for quite some time."
In 2001, a law was instated to improve better access to education for girls in Peruvian rural areas. While there has been more awareness on the issue since then, active change is still needed. According to a study conducted by The Inter Press Service, 83.7% of 12 to 16-year-olds attended schools in urban areas compared to 66.4% of the same age group in rural areas.
"We want to be seen as a part of our society and valued. Latin America is diverse, and there are a lot of cultures to be valued."
Renata Flores Rivera
Now, her debut album titled Inque ("nine" in Quechua) — that derives from Andean numerology as the "mirror of the soul"— is set to release by the end of 2020 and is inspired by trailblazing Andean women that have broken barriers before her. "We have been working on the album since last year. It will tell the stories of Indigenous women in history who have done a lot that should be seen and credited. We do not learn much about these women in school — so we must speak about it. We must show that Indigenous women hold value," she says.
As no surprise, her first full-length project will have an initiative attached to it. She also aims to raise money and create educational packages for the Wari archaeological center, which is located 40 minutes away from Ayacucho, where she filmed the video to her song "Qawachkanchik chay Killallata (Mirando la misma luna)" about education disparity within Indigenous communities. "[Learning] Spanish is fine; [it's more accessible to] learn it, but learning Quechua is very different. That is one of my goals," she tells R29. She remains optimistic with this project despite the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, adding: "With the pandemic, a lot of people do not have as much access to school, but I hope everything goes well."
No matter the message or the activism behind her lyrics, Flores Rivera's main fight is to bring the Indigenous people, customs, and languages back to the forefront — no matter the reception. "There were people who did not want me to sing Quechua with a more contemporary touch," she recalls. "They think that traditional music should not be mixed with any genre and are against fusion music. Maybe they do not understand it because they are used to hearing it in a traditional format, which is also very beautiful, but we must evolve as well."
As our Zoom call ends, she looks back on the Spanish conquistadors who colonized all throughout Latin America — and the instruments left behind by them like the guitar, violin, and harp, which were later added into Peru's traditional music. "Our traditional music is already influenced by Spanish music, starting with the guitar, an instrument created in Europe. So why can't we keep experimenting," she asks. "All the good that our ancestors left us should be rescued, and that also has to do with music. However, we must adapt to new trends. Otherwise, traditional music won't be able to evolve." As Flores Rivera's musical act of resistance proves: evolution and preservation can happen interchangeably — and make the difference.
Latinidad is ever-evolving. It cannot be defined by a blanket term or monolithic idea. That's why it's important to look at its future with respect to its past and present — and that's our mission. In a series of essays, reported articles, and stories for Refinery29 Somos and Latinx Heritage Month, we'll explore the unique conversations and challenges that affect these communities.