Graduate Student Spotlight: Sandhya Narayanan, PhD Candidate, Anthropology

photo of Sandhya Narayanan in the field in Peru
photo of Sandhya Narayanan in the field in Peru

“Market Women and the Politics of Indigenous Language Use in Puno, Peru”

The Boyd/Williams Dissertation Grant for Research on Women and Work is awarded annually to PhD students whose dissertations promote knowledge about and enhance understanding of the complexities of women’s roles in relation to their paid and unpaid labor, including volunteerism, domestic work, and political activity. In 2018, IRWG awarded two students the Boyd/Williams Grant: Sandhya Narayanan and Marzia Oceno.

Sandhya Narayanan is interested in the linguistic and social consequences of inter-indigenous language contact and use in Puno, Peru. Puno is located in the Peruvian altiplano, a high plateau region in southern Peru that borders Bolivia. It is also home to two of the most widely spoken indigenous languages in the Andean region: Quechua and Aymara.

Speakers of these languages have been in contact with each other for centuries in this region. Puno’s location as a meeting point between Quechua and Aymara speaking regions, and its economic and political importance in the region, makes the city a hotbed of indigenous language contact, where indigenous families from Quechua or Aymara speaking rural villages come to the city for work or school. In her research, Narayanan asks how the social context of past contact between indigenous Quechua and Aymara speakers has shaped the ways these languages are spoken today, the potential to change in the future, and the influence on inter-indigenous relations in the region.

One sub-group of indigenous migrants who continue to speak their native language is market women. Since the Spanish conquest, markets and marketplaces have primarily been the economic domain of women from indigenous or mestiza (mixed race) backgrounds. Market women work in the formal and informal markets throughout the Andes. Some create formalized cooperatives, while others sell their goods and wares on the streetside and curbs. They sell everything from fruits and vegetables, to clothing, and household items such as cups, pots, pans, detergents, and soaps.

photo of market women selling wares under a tent along a street side in Puno, Peru

Narayanan chose to focus a large part of her dissertation on the lives and linguistic practices of market women because of their unique role within the changing sociolinguistic context of Puno.  As multilingual speakers of Quechua, Aymara, and Spanish, market women can provide insight into how the intersection of these languages have historically affected and altered one another. Their current social and linguistic practices shed light on past relations between Quechua and Aymara speakers. Market women also give an insight into how indigenous women have historically tried to carve a living and space for themselves within the urbanized areas of the altiplano region.  

The bulk of Narayanan’s research included fieldwork in a market located in the center of Puno. In this market she conducted interviews, recordings, and observations of multilingual indigenous and mestiza women. With support from IRWG, Narayanan was able to travel to and around the Puno region in summer 2018 to finish her dissertation fieldwork, as well as to compensate research assistants for their time and help as local consultants in language and everyday life.

In early observations, she notes that treatment by others and self-evaluations by the market women about their linguistic abilities reflect changing attitudes about who is and is not a good speaker of an indigenous language. “Market women generally will devalorize their own speech practices in favour of more ‘pure’ and ‘perfect’ speech varieties that is growing in popularity in the region,” explains Narayanan. “These evaluations and treatment also correspond to complicated histories of race and indigeneity in the region, and the ways that market women have always and will continue to negotiate their place as indigenous and indigenous language speaking gendered subjects in the region.”

Narayanan hopes that findings from her investigation will contribute to a larger understanding of the complex dynamics of inter-indigenous language contact within the Americas, and will inform future studies on language maintenance, revitalization, and the social factors that promote or prohibit area multilingualism.

photo of elderly woman wearing a hat and apron sitting outside in the sun. She is a market woman, selling her wares on the streetside in Puno, Peru

Photos of market women in Puno, Peru, courtesy of Sandhya Narayanan.

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