<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Indigenous Education as Politics

The Second National Congress on Indigenous and Intercultural Education


By Nancy Davies
Commentary from Oaxaca

October 28, 2007

A reggae song by Peter Tosh called “Equal Rights” has a lyric which goes, “everyone is crying out for peace; none is crying out for justice.” Tosh sings “I don’t want no peace, I need equal rights and justice…”


Photos: D.R. 2007 Nancy Davies
The Second National Congress on Indigenous and Intercultural Education in Oaxaca this week blossomed with peoples from all over Mexico, in a colorful array of men clad in the short pants of Chiapas authorities moving among women in jeans or long skirts or crowned with beribboned braids. It’s been a long process of self-definition for cultural rescue, language preservation, and equal rights and justice, led by the Coalition of Indigenous Teachers and Promoters of Oaxaca (CMPIO, by its Spanish initials.) Listening to each other and sharing experiences play a major role.

Oaxaca is a state with 16 different language groups; many of which were on the verge of disappearing when CMPIO stepped forward to promote bilingual education. Last July 30, I visited a workshop for teachers which focused on how grandmothers can renew their vanishing languages with their grandchildren: the in-between generation of parents were mono-lingualized by the state education system. Fernando Soberanes, present at that CMPIO event, said that the range of languages and experiences in all of Mexico is mind-boggling. There are at least 62 languages, with about 150 important variants. Oaxaca’s Zapoteco, for example, is spoken in seven variations, not mutually intelligible. At least a dozen Mexican languages verge on extinction, which implies a cultural loss as well. (For more information on languages in Mexico, INEGI, the national bureau of statistics, is a standard source). Hence the current congress has worked to present equal opportunity for geographical regions, and for gender equity as well because so many women historically were left out of both schooling and consultation.

Education in general in Oaxaca has been deplorable. Many accept government propaganda against teachers, but most of them, and especially the indigenous bilingual teachers, are heroic in combating state neglect. The indigenous teachers’ goal, through participation of all, is to invent methods and materials where printed resources in their mother tongues scarcely exist. A method from the spring workshop, offered by an American professor Lois Meyers, focused on going out into the street to gather printed words, on shops or tires or building walls. The printed word becomes precious. Systemization of bilingualism is still far off, aided by sharing of various educational practices. The many alphabets have been codified, along with adaptations as needed of sounds that do not appear in Spanish.

A related consideration of education springs from the extremely high rate of childhood malnutrition – about 50 percent of rural children suffer a dietary deficiency – and the lack of health services. Remote towns receive scant resources.

Nevertheless, under CMPIO’s promotion, Oaxaca is making strides with bilingual primary education, pilot projects at the secondary level, the creation of 20 intercultural community senior high schools, the normal school for indigenous education in the town of Tlacochahuaya, and the Intercultural University Ayuuk in the Mixe region. This places Oaxaca among the leaders for indigenous education, in a state where a third to one half of the population – especially women – remains illiterate.

Services for an Alternative Education (EDUCA, in its Spanish initials), also one of the first organizations to sign on to the APPO in June of 2006, assisted in organizing the Second Congress and served as one of the participants.

In a press conference, EDUCA member Aljandro Sandoval explained that the First National Congress for Indigenous and Intercultural Education (CNEII), held in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán in 2002, made clear the necessity of strengthening regional and local participation to draw on the richness of options and ideas already in practice.

This year’s congress gathered about 400 delegates from 30 different indigenous Oaxacan peoples, participants from 16 other states, and from Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, and the U.S.

The U.S. participants included, by video presentation, linguist/political analyst Noam Chomsky, who saluted the “valiant teachers of Oaxaca” for their professional work in education, but above all for participating in “a struggle of far-reaching importance.” The struggle of Oaxacan teachers, he said, “has an impact at this time in all of Latin America.” Chomsky sees Latin America as the most exciting area of the world, for the first time in modern history, because of the movement toward an important level of integration instead of “being separated among themselves and dominated by the imperial powers…. Latin America is beginning to overcome the true curse” of the American continent, “the curse of an enormous gulf, without precedence in the world, between a small elite with enormous wealth and a vast mass of people profoundly impoverished…”

Both Chomsky and the Mexican writer Carlos Montemayor observed that indigenous education necessitates a political posture. Chomsky in his video remarked that “organizing is of paramount importance, because it throws overboard 500 years of miserable ugly history, by revitalizing languages, cultures and technical knowledge.”

Montemayor, addressing the congress in person, added, “we are all profoundly racist in Mexico” because Mexicans, as a mixture of Spanish and original peoples, in public education date their history from the arrival of Spain, throwing aside the prior three thousand years of civilization. (Montemayor did not mention the admixture of Africans brought to Mexico by the Spaniards as slaves, nor the prior agricultural discoveries of perhaps 8,000 BCE.) Mexico must recover its indigenous self, he added.

In Mexico, many laws stand on the books regarding the rights of the indigenous peoples, including not only the federal Constitution and the Oaxaca state constitution, but the San Andrés Peace Accord reached in 1996 after the Zapatista uprising and never implemented. The indigenous peoples now struggle across the state of Oaxaca regarding land and water, mining, and wind power, as well as for equal education and health services. During the height of the popular movement initiated in June, 2006 the goal of peace was invoked on all sides by the government, the church, by the tourist and commercial sectors in Oaxaca.

In the country at large there exists no true policy of what is now called intercultural education, which would place indigenous and mestizo needs on an equal footing. As Fernando Soberanes said, “There is ongoing social and institutional discrimination, and indigenous languages continue to disappear.”

Ixcateco, Chocholteco, Zoque and Chontal languages stand in gave risk of being lost, which in the future would mean “a real poverty for humanity and for culture.”

Therefore, he said, one of the objectives of the second National Congress of Indigenous and Intercultural Education is to initiate a strong resistance movement against this kind of government policy.

Soberanes accused that the politics of education toward the Indian peoples are absolutely discriminatory. The expenditure per student in basic education is 8,000 pesos annually, while for an indigenous child is about 200 pesos.

Furthermore, he added, the State gives “the least and the worst education” to the Indian peoples because they are the ones who attend schools in horrible conditions, if they have any school at all, because the in the majority of cases classes are given under a tree or on top of a rock.

And if that weren’t enough, the teachers “are the worst trained”; so much so that children as docents have no teaching material. At the same time, the curricula proposed by the government do not take into account the indigenous ways, customs and culture.

That fact, he highlighted, “is leading to the loss of identity of the peoples” and when identity disappears there will be no policy on teaching the language. Instead, the strategy of grand capital has caused an expulsion and there are entire populations moving north in the country in search of options.

In spite of the work of social organizations trying to save the indigenous culture, these efforts cannot halt this type of problem, because they have to do with structural issues of the current political and economic policies.

Proposing new agendas for federal, state and city governments goes forward, but at the same time a strong popular movement for alternative education also goes forward.

The challenge falls on the indigenous population to organize and produce their own educational agendas. The indigenous teachers recognize that languages change, and words enter and leave every language. They don’t oppose the evolution of languages or cultures. But they demand equal rights, and justice.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America