Quechua is one of the three official languages of Peru, and is commonly found in the Andes mountains as it is historically associated with the Incan civilization. Quechua differs drastically between the mountain villages, so a Quechua speaker from Cuzco may not be able to understand a Quechua speaker from Huaraz. It is also entirely different than Spanish. For example, ‘hello’ in Spanish is ‘hola’, and is ‘rimaykullayki’ in Quechua. For those of you who are bad with math and languages, that’s more or less a 0% correlation.
This week, I’m in Lima helping a group of doctors with the organization Helping The Children. This organization comes to Peru twice a year on a surgical campaign to correct cleft palates, and is funded by the Peruvian government and is therefore free for all patients. Today was the official first day, and I worked with another Vive Peru volunteer, Carlos, to explain the consent form to all 186 patients, one at a time. I was incredibly nervous to have so much responsibility using a foreign language, but overall I feel confident I was able to effectively communicate with nearly all the patients, and hopefully I made them feel more comfortable about the procedure.
At one point later in the day, however, I had a young boy and his mother sit down with me to review the paperwork. The woman seemed distraught, but I decided to see what happened as the conversation progressed and I built more trust with them. I slowly explained the benefits of the surgery, the various risks, information about various observers and photographers in the hospital, and asked if they had any questions. The little boy followed the conversation, contributing with reassuring head nods. Finally, I asked the mother to sign the consent form, and the young boy explained to me that his mother didn’t have a signature because she didn’t know how to write. My Ross-Van-Dyke problem solving skills kicked in and I immediately found an administrator to ask about the possibilities of a fingerprint or electronic signature. When I returned to the family, I noticed something was wrong. I don’t remember exactly how it progressed, but I remember having a lightbulb moment of clarity and the thought “she doesn’t speak Spanish” flashed across my mind. I asked the little boy, and he confirmed my hunch. I asked him if he spoke Spanish, and he shook his head no.
We began searching the hospital for a Spanish-Quechua translator, and luckily found two patients who happened to speak both languages. When we returned, the woman was hiding behind her traditional hat and crying inconsolably.
Culturally, only speaking Quechua (and not speaking Spanish) brings a lot of shame, especially in the older generation.
Culturally, not being able to write brings shame.
This mother had no idea what was going to happen to her son, just that some doctors were here from the US and doing surgeries to correct cleft palates.
This woman also thought that her inability to write and her inability to speak Spanish would make her son exempt from our campaign.
I initially thought this woman felt nervous, anxious, and perhaps scared. Then I realized this woman felt shame. When the extent of the shame, humiliation, and embarrassment she felt came to light, my heart sank into my stomach. When I realized she thought she ruined her sons chances of surgery, and was carrying that guilt, my heart broke into a million little pieces and this blog is my way of processing all the levels of emotion we experienced in the course of ten minutes.
All I can think about is how brave this woman is. This mother was willing to travel for days, not speaking Spanish and not being able to write, to bring her son to a surgery she knew nothing about, all so her son could have a better life. This woman was selfless. She was willing to experience some of the most shame possible in this culture, so her son could have an opportunity to have a normal life. This woman was so filled with love and compassion, she was willing to sacrifice her pride, her esteem, and her comfort for him. Wow.
In retrospect, I started to wonder if I relate to this woman a little more than I originally thought. I wonder if we can all relate to this woman. This woman thought her son’s surgery was dependent on her ability to write and speak, but really the surgery is free for any Peruvian citizen who needs it. I’ve come to the cross, broken by my shame, humiliation, and guilt, desperate for grace. And it turns out, the shame I feel is my inability to live up to my own qualifications for grace, not Jesus’s. We already have grace, and we have it abundantly, so we don’t need to live up to a set of self-imposed requirements.
I’m praying for the woman who spoke Quechua, and for her son. I’m praying that God’s peace will overwhelm them, that His hand will guide them, and that she will realize she is worthy. I’m praying for all of the families here in Lima this week, for the medical staff, and for the entire campaign. I’m also praying for you — that you will feel God’s peace, and realize that you, too, are worthy of grace.