In his first year at San Marcos University, Hermenegildo Espejo barely spoke, and certainly not in class.
His Spanish was rudimentary, his accent an embarrassment. Classmates in Lima, a two-day trip from his Amazon home town, laughed at his grammatical stumbles, his odd pronunciation.
"I didn't understand anything. I couldn't pronounce words well," the 22-year-old Peruvian Indian recalls, wincing as he gazes out a taxi window on a rutted jungle road near his home.
Six years later, Espejo is a thesis away from an undergraduate degree in linguistics at Peru's top public university. And while his Spanish is now excellent, it is not his priority. He aspires to produce the first unified grammar of Awajun, his native tongue.
Espejo's story highlights the two biggest challenges Latin America's indigenous peoples face in their struggle to preserve their cultures: keeping their native languages alive and empowering themselves through education.
Throughout Latin America, native languages are disappearing and Indians are under intense pressure to speak Spanish. At the same time, Indians have little access to post-secondary education. They are ill-prepared by substandard schools, afflicted by high dropout rates and usually short on financial help.
More than a fifth of the 557 languages spoken by Latin America's natives are at serious risk of extinction, according to the ambitious "Socio-Linguistic Atlas of Latin America's Indigenous Peoples" that UNICEF is publishing this month. Across Latin America, more than 100 native peoples have abandoned their mother tongues and now speak exclusively Spanish or Portuguese, says Inge Sichra, the book's lead author.
In coastal Peru, speakers of the Andes' dominant native languages are routinely shamed into abandoning them, says Peruvian anthropologist Rodrigo Montoya.
"Racism isn't a historical relic. It's not something from the past, a colonial inheritance that's lapsed. No sir, racism is a concept fully in force," he says.
The legacy of suppression of language dates back to Spanish King Carlos III's 1770 decree banning native tongues in the realm. The order provoked uprisings up and down the Andes that the Spanish brutally suppressed.
That enduring baggage of colonial rule _ Lima was the seat of the Spanish viceroy _ persists today.
"My parents were bilingual but they didn't permit us to speak Quechua at home," says one of South America's most respected linguists, Rodolfo Cerron Palomino, a professor at Catholic University in Lima and a pre-eminent scholar of Quechua.
Alan Perez, an Ashaninka from Peru's interior and an industrial engineering student at San Marcos, says his parents never taught him his mother tongue. He has made little effort to learn it. "Like it or not, you adapt to this place and gradually lose who you are," he says of Lima.
For Espejo, the challenge of preserving his language and identity went hand in hand with getting a good education.
Espejo is among the few Amazon Indians at San Marcos, whose dusty campus borders a gritty industrial district and contrasts sharply with the well-manicured grounds of Lima's private Catholic University a mile away, dominated by Peru's light-skinned elite.
Upward mobility, limited to begin with for Latin America's poor, is doubly so for its indigenous citizens. And Peru, along with Guatemala, are among the countries where racism is most ingrained, academics and rights activists generally concur.
Last year, 62 of San Marcos' nearly 27,000 students, or 0.2 percent, were from the Amazon. Compare that to the 1.2 percent, or 350,000, of Peru's 29.5 million people who are Amazon Indians.
The hostility and suspicion Peru's natives encounter in Lima is alarming, says Wilfredo Ardito, anti-discrimination chief at the human rights group APRODEH. His files are thick with cases of indigenous people being denied entry to nightclubs, of dark-skinned nannies barred from exclusive beaches, of Indians beaten by police merely for venturing into exclusively white neighborhoods.
"People still think that the whiter you are, the better," says Ardito. The worst, he says, is the racial profiling by police, themselves natives, whom he blames for the worst abuses.
Such behavior may explain why just 13 percent of Peruvians identified themselves as indigenous in the country's 2007 census when anthropologists and linguists say the true figure is closer to 45 percent. Or why, in Ecuador, only 6 percent of Ecuadoreans identified themselves in a 2003 census as indigenous even though academics say they account for about 35 percent.
Espejo plans to use his schooling to help defend his people, the Awajun, who number about 45,000.
"We Indians don't have chemical engineers. We don't have lawyers, or doctors," he says during his first visit home in two years to Huampami, a jungle-skirted town of 1,200 people near Ecuador that is reached by river.
"The poor Indian isn't taught even to negotiate. How can anyone negotiate if he doesn't have the educational grounding?"
Friends and relatives greet Espejo warmly and press him for news as he treads the footpaths of Huampami, a district capital of dirt-floor dwellings. The secondary and elementary school principals praise Espejo's achievement and introduce him to their students, most of whom will likely end up subsistence farmers and hunter-gatherers like their parents.
"Eventually, I would like to train bilingual teachers," says Espejo, wistfulness in his voice.
Such teachers don't exist in Huampami.
Awajun is barely taught in elementary school; only rudimentary workbooks are available. And it's abandoned altogether at Huampami's high school, where half the students are boarders from outlying villages.
Espejo remembers ruefully how a high school teacher twisted his ear when he dared speak Awajun.
"We were told that we needed to learn Spanish so we could be successful in the city," says Espejo, a short, muscular young man with rimless wire glasses and broad cheekbones. "Our language, we were told, had no economic value."
Espejo first arrived in Lima in 2003 with 14 other youths from the Cenepa River basin. Only one other student stayed; the rest dropped out because they couldn't cope with the academic rigors or couldn't afford tuition and living costs.
Espejo's parents _ his father runs Huampami's tiny vocational high school and his mother teaches first grade at a village downstream _ helped him. But he sometimes couldn't scrape together the $175 per month he needed for tuition, room and board. So he'd borrow from friends, or do translations.
Food became a problem.
At the residence hall where he lived, all the meals were free. But demand was great and quantities limited. Students had to line up two hours before each meal. Get in line late and the food would run out.
"I had to choose sometimes between my studies and eating," Espejo said. "So I'd go hungry."
Indian students are more afflicted by this problem because they are from distant provinces and tend not to have relatives in Lima.
One activity for which Espejo increasingly found time was martial arts. He joined San Marcos' Kung Fu Wushu team and won first place in a recent tourney in his 75-77 kilogram (165-170 pound) weight class.
Espejo is also an avid soccer player. He says other club teams at San Marcos hate to play his squad, whose players are all from the small, tightly knit group of Amazon students.
And why is that?
Rarely does Espejo smile so broadly.
"Because we kids from the Amazon always win."
Associated Press Writer Andrew Whalen in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.