Remaining Indian: Ethnocide, Cultural Resistance, and Hope in Indigenous Mexico Today

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The harm that has been wreaked upon countless millions of people around the world by “modernization” and “development” has yet to be fully documented and digested.  From desertification and deforestation, through pollution and intoxication, to pauperization, marginalization, social polarization and dependency, the effects of so-called maldevelopment or perverse development probably add up to one of the major human tragedies of our time. (Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Ethnocide or Ethnodevelopment: The new challenge, 1988: 61)

In the midst of so many tragedies, hope is what remains.  There is always a ray of hope that tomorrow will be better.  I see it when I listen to our fishermen who with so much hope await the rains in order to return with nets full of shrimp or fish. Or when I see parents interested in our workshops to revitalize our Ombeayiüts language for their children. Or when I see the enthusiasm of some colleagues to promote activities related to our language. Though somewhat isolated, these are what give me energy and hope. (Commentary by Beatriz Gutiérrez Luís, Ikoots preschool teacher, San Mateo del Mar, Oaxaca, September 2022)

 

It would be easy to lose hope that indigenous cultures will long survive in Mexico, given the country’s past and continuing history of cultural genocide, or ethnocide, as Latin Americans have known it for decades.  The concept of ethnocide was introduced to this continent more than half a century ago by Robert Jaulin and other French ethnologists like Pierre Clastres, who together with indigenous peoples in South America more appropriately re-named what had previously been called cultural genocide, that is, policies of nation-states against original peoples:  “‘Ethnocide’ refers to the act of destroying a civilization, the act of de-civilization…The political ethnocide involved in integrating national societies seeks to destroy the civilizations that exist within Western civilization; this can be called systemic de-civilization since its goal is the disappearance of civilizations” (Jaulin, 1979).  In Mexico, political ethnocide is really a declaration of war against difference inside national borders.  González Casanova (2006) calls it “internal colonialism,” the process begun by the State in the nineteeth century in order to conform itself as a nation, with the intent to eliminate linguistic and cultural differences among its inhabitants, as well as their struggles to defend what is theirs.

It was in 1988 that Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Mexican scholar who later would be appointed the first United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, declared the worldwide consequences of ethnocide a major human tragedy.  And yet, from Mexico’s southeastern Pacific coast, which today faces continuing threats of capitalist exploitation while fighting hard to defend its communal autonomy against these government-supported incursions, Ikoots preschool teacher and community activist Beatriz Gutiérrez Luís shares her frail but tenacious reasons for sustaining cultural hope.

Still, the threats facing indigenous cultures are pervasive and enduring.  In 1981, forty-six representatives from 12 Latin American nations, including seven representing Mexico, gathered under UNESCO’s sponsorship in Costa Rica expressly to discuss the dire issue of ethnocide.  The result was the Declaration of San José, a groundbreaking international instrument that both defined and denounced the “complex process, which has historical, social, political and economic roots, that is termed ethnocide” (UNESCO and the struggle against ethnocide: Declaration of San José, 11 Dec. 1981) The gathering critiqued previous international instruments dedicated to indigenous issues for their “neglect of indigenous voices in international political and legal matters” (Heiskanen, 2021:4).  This Declaration was the first to formally define ethnocide in terms of indigenous autonomy, not universalistic principles of national integration and economic development.  Ethnocide, the Declaration stated,

means that an ethnic group is denied the right to enjoy, develop and transmit its own culture and its own language, whether collectively or individually. This involves an extreme form of massive violation of human rights, and in particular, the right of ethnic groups to respect for their cultural identity.

The right to respect for one’s cultural identity was not a new demand in 1981; the Declaration acknowledged that this right had been established through “numerous declarations, covenants and agreements of the United Nations and its Specialized Agencies, as well as various regional intergovernmental bodies and numerous non-governmental organizations.”  But abuse of this right was also an established pattern across Latin American, including in Mexico.  “For the past few years,” the signers wrote, “increasing concern has been expressed at various international forums over the problem of the loss of cultural identity among the Indian populations of Latin America.”  The Declaration denounced specific abuses and demanded respect for an array of indigenous rights that constitute cultural identity: a) acknowledgement of Indian peoples’ history and contributions to mankind; b) recognition of all their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights; c) protection of Indian peoples’ right to their territories and to the recovery of land taken away from them; d) their rights to use, disseminate and transmit their cultural, social, political, legal, scientific and technological heritage;  and, e) respect for their forms of autonomy and internal organization.

Furthermore, the Declaration expressed an urgent need to initiate throughout Latin America “an authentic process of ethno-development, that is, the establishment and application of policies guaranteeing ethnic groups the free enjoyment of their own cultures.”  Ethno-development here was clearly defined in terms of autonomy and self-determination:

By ethno-development we mean the extension and consolidation of the elements of its own culture, through strengthening the independent decision-making capacity of a culturally distinct society to direct its own development and exercise self-determination, at whatever level, which implies an equitable and independent share of power.  This means that the ethnic group is a political and administrative unit, with authority over its own territory and decision-making powers within the confines of its development project, in a process of increasing autonomy and self-management.

The Declaration further demanded that “ethnocide, that is cultural genocide” be recognized as “a violation of international law equivalent to genocide, which was condemned by the United Nations Convention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948.”

That year was 1981; it is now 2022.  Additional agreements have been generated and signed across the intervening years, such as The UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011), to name only two.  Yet international law has yet to locate ethnocide within the legal interpretation of genocide, instead reserving for this “crime of crimes” solely the Holocaust-influenced definition of physical destruction of a specifically targeted group. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide” in 1944, signaled in his writings that he intended a broader definition, which “included what today would be called ethnocide –the destruction of the culture of a group– as well as what today would be called ethnic cleansing – the forced displacement of an ethnic group from a given territory” (Heiskanen, 2021). But Lemkin’s broader definition was not codified into post-war international law.  Citing Schabas (2009), Heiskanen lays the blame for the UN’s limited interpretation on pressures exerted by the world’s colonial powers, who feared their own colonizing assimilationist policies would be viewed as violations of a cultural definition of genocide.

Significantly, in 1988, Stavenhagen identified ethnocide as “a widespread phenomenon in the contemporary world” and claimed that it entails abuses that are not only cultural, but also economic.  While cultural ethnocide means that “all non-dominant ethnic units within a nation must disappear to make way for the overarching and modernizing nation-state,” economic ethnocide is “imbedded in the very theory and practice of development.”  Traditional territories of indigenous and tribal peoples that once were considered remote and isolated have come to be viewed hungrily by national development planners as a “new frontier” of untapped mineral and other natural resources, prime locations for dams and mining enterprises and targets of land development and settlement.  According to Stavenhagen, no allowance was made for pre-modern (indigenous) forms of communal economic organization within modern development efforts dependent on “private or multinational capitalism or state-planned socialism or mixes thereof.”

Community controlled ethno-development had been specifically defined and demanded in the 1981 Declaration of San Jose, but that definition was vacated and radically skewed in what Stavenhagen called out as “development schemes” which constitute “a deliberate strategy of destruction of ethnic groups by the State or a country’s dominant elites,” and which generally were promoted on behalf of nation-building and modernization (1988:62). Stavenhagen identified two principal reasons for these development schemes:

“Firstly, many development projects and programs are designed for reasons which have little to do with the well-being of the people, but rather with political, financial, external interests, etc., and their execution will mainly benefit technocrats, bureaucrats, ambitious politicians, or multinational corporations.  Secondly, those responsible for development projects and programs are usually fairly ignorant about the situation of ethnic minorities, do not particularly care about the problem and usually holds such groups in contempt … This is particularly the case as regards indigenous and tribal peoples…” (1988:64).

Today, almost forty years after Stavenhagen’s scathing critique of the brutally skewed, State-promoted, and capitalist engineered definition of ethno-development, what is the experience on the ground in indigenous communities in Mexico?  Is it ethnocide, as proclaimed in the Declaration of San José in 1981, or do they enjoy “progress,” as promised by the State and multinational enterprises?

Sweeping generalizations about indigenous Mexico are far from helpful and often are deceiving.  Mexico is a vast and diverse country, and its 64 distinct indigenous peoples are dispersed across all 31 states and the capital, Mexico City, or live abroad as migrants.  The 2020 Census indicated that 11.8 million persons in Mexico reside in indigenous households, and about 7.36 million people, or 6.1% of the total population, speaks at least one of 364 variants of the major original languages of the nation (El Mundo Indígena 2022: México). Consequently, lived realities in Mexican indigenous families and communities vary greatly.

In September and October 2022, in order to provide a current though limited assessment of local perceptions of ethnocide, community resistance, and hope in indigenous Mexico today, I conducted online interviews in Spanish with the following four indigenous colleagues from two of Mexico’s most diverse and impoverished states, Oaxaca and Chiapas.  Their responses, translated into English[2], reflect their communities’ current realities.

  • Beatríz Gutiérrez Luís, Ikoots/Huave bilingual preschool teacher and former school director from the Pacific coastal community of San Mateo del Mar on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca;
  • Alverino López López, Mixtec bilingual teacher and education supervisor originally from the community of El Oro, Santo Domingo Nuxaá, Nochixtlán, Oaxaca;
  • Lilia Martínez Pérez, Mixe bilingual preschool teacher and initial education supervisor from Tamazulápam del Espíritu Santo, Mixe, Oaxaca; and
  • Janeth Ruíz López, Maya-Tsotsil university student of Human Rights and Peace Efforts from the state of Chiapas.

All of these colleagues were raised in their indigenous communities, three of which are located in distinct regions of the state of Oaxaca, and one in Chiapas.  All either still reside in or are in intimate contact with their home community; consequently, all know well their community´s cultural characteristics, values, organizational structure, and its challenges.

In their responses below, I refer to these colleagues by their first names, not in disrespect relative to the published authors whom I reference formally by their last names, but because of the close relationship of respect and friendship I feel with these colleagues.  By using their personal names, I hope readers will resonate with my feelings of respect and friendship toward them and consider them, as I do, to be intimate knowers of their communal realities.

 

1. Is there evidence in your community of severe loss of “traditions, values, languages, and other cultural elements”? If so, what do you feel are the most notable cultural losses?

All respond in the affirmative.  Beatriz speaks of readily visible losses, such as home construction practices, and others that are invisible.  Homes constructed of cement are now common, though they heat up “like an oven” in the semi-tropics of San Mateo del Mar.  Traditional homes constructed of palm are disappearing, along with the knowledge, materials and tools that were used to construct them, and traditional beliefs about orienting homes to withstand strong isthmus winds are no longer respected.  Less visible but profound is the loss of community governance. Traditionally, governing was “for the community,” an unpaid communal service; few vestiges of this commitment remain.  Gone, too, are communal practices for imparting Ikoots justice through direct dialogues between village authorities and accused criminals.

Alverino lists multiple evidences of profound cultural loss in his community: increasingly rare preparation of traditional foods, and scarcity of the native forests and garden plants, flowers, and grasshoppers these foods featured; local medicinal plants and the knowledge of their use are dying out; few traces remain of the practice of “tequio”, uncompensated work offered on behalf of the community; and an erosion of love for the forest, with its multiple products and uses, and the care and respect it deserves as “part of the earth with which we co-exist, of which we are a part.”

All of these colleagues mourn the loss of their original language.  Beatriz reports the sobering statistics of her preschool: 20 years ago, 90% of three-year-olds spoke Ombeayiüts as a first language, while today 35% are Spanish first language speakers.  Alverino reports that the Mixtec language (el tiu´un davi), “the language that expresses Mixtec thought,” is now in great decline in his community: “Today, all children and parents who are between about 30 and 35 years of age no longer speak Mixtec.”  The loss of the Mixe language (Ayuujk) is the most noticeable loss in her community, reports Lilia.  Today most children no longer speak it.  She shares commentaries she hears from parents in the markets, in social conversations, and in her own family: “We want our children to speak Spanish early so they don’t suffer as we did… City people laughed at us for our simple vocabulary and poor pronunciation.  Little by little our self-esteem disintegrated, and we don´t want our children to suffer like that.”  However today, Lilia says, most people in the community look for ways for their children to learn English, not Ayuujk, because their fathers are working in the U.S.  They think that tomorrow their children, too, will go to the U.S. to work and English will help them communicate and get a job.  She hears comments like: “Speaking Ayuujk is an absolute deterrent to their learning”; “Speaking Mixe is for Indians”; “The Mixe language has no value anywhere.”  Janeth summarizes similar experiences in her community and others:

In all of Mexico, there has been an extremely sad loss of mother tongues.  Community members know that when you speak an original language or you are from an indigenous community, you are more prone to endure cultural violence and discrimination in many social contexts, and indigenous peoples are more likely to live in poverty.  For many years, discrimination toward our cultures has been a constant in this society.

 

2. Do these cultural losses directly impact the life of your family?

In each case, the families are directly impacted by these cultural losses.  All report impacts due to the loss of their original language and diverse but significant causes for this loss: “Some children, nieces and nephews speak Ombeayiüts, others understand but won’t speak it” (Beatriz); “My nieces and nephews speak to each other in Spanish, not Ayuujk, because their mother teaches in a government school that uses only Spanish and their father’s first language was Spanish because he was raised in Mexico City, not in the community.  My work causes me to live in the city of Oaxaca so my babies hear Spanish every day from the neighbors.  And my husband and I speak different variants of Ayuujk so we don´t always use our language, though we try to help our children understand our different variants” (Lilia); “Because our children are not taught our language for fear they will be rejected, the children feel estranged from the culture and communication with adults, especially those who don´t speak Spanish, is complicated” (Janeth); “Already years ago, Mixtec began to be seen as an obstacle for the children´s progress in school. For this reason, my parents prohibited me to speak it. But something funny happened between my mom and me – she spoke to me in Mixtec and I answered in Spanish” (Alverino).

But family impacts are not limited to original language loss.  Lilia, her mother, and her sister no longer wear the traditional clothing of the community, except at social gatherings such as community festivities; instead, they prefer the comfort of everyday clothes as they carry out home tasks or work obligations. She also comments on the loss of traditional foods.  When young mothers like her sister work outside the community, their nursing babies are given “artificial milk bought from stores” rather than mother´s milk.  She sees consequences in that these children attach more closely to their daily caregivers than to their mothers, and they often have stomach aches, flu, and cough.  Older children now are fed “all kinds of junk food” instead of traditional foods (e.g. the native plant quelite, criollo eggs, or local fruits).

Alverino identifies several additional family impacts, which he calls “sufferings”:

a) “suffering for not knowing how to make use of wild edible plants, leading to consumerism and unhealthy diet”; b) “suffering from illnesses, due to not knowing about medicinal plants, which results in high costs for commercial medicines, plus their secondary effects, and illnesses they can´t cure”; c) “suffering due to not loving the forest, cutting it down indiscriminately, which destroys the natural growth of edible and medicinal plants, leading to the children’s and other’s ignorance about them.”

 

3:  In what ways has your family resisted these cultural losses, if they tried to do so?

Each colleague´s response reflects the specific challenges faced by their family and community.   Lilia says that her family has had traditional Mixe apparel made for their children so that they learn to wear and value it.  She also says that some days she has time to prepare natural foods that are healthy, and her family is planting a bit of corn, beans, and fruits.  In Janeth’s family and community traditional apparel is still worn; this practice has not been lost.  Both Beatriz and Alverino credit one of their parents with maintaining the value of cultural elements in their family.  Beatriz´s mother communicated almost solely in her original language, refused to eat farmed eggs or refrigerated items, and resisted sleeping in a concrete house.  Alverino shares that, when asked, his 84-year-old father tells stories about traditional medicinal plants, their uses, and where in the forest he used to collect them.  “His voice becomes sad,” Alverino adds, “when he says that the forests have been cut down, they no longer fertilize the ground or provide the shade needed to grow our traditional plants.”  These intimate conversations with his father teach Alverino’s family to understand the importance of caring for the forest and using medicinal plants. With his daughters, Alverino now plants medicinal herbs, and he and his brother raise corn and beans to feed their families.  While they work, they tell each other stories to strengthen their Mixtec identity.

Defending or revitalizing the original language is each colleague´s deep concern.  Since childhood Janeth’s family and her community have spoken 100% Maya-Tsotsil as a form of cultural resistance, so as not to forget the language.  In Lilia´s case, she and her husband have pleaded with their parents to chat in Ayuujk whenever they gather so the children hear the language and begin to speak it.  Beatriz adds unique linguistic elements:

The fact that my parents were a biethnic marriage (father Ikoots, mother Zapotec) to some degree obligated me to understand both languages and to speak them, not with native fluency as I would have wished, but this transformed me into a teacher who gave unpaid community service (‘tequio’) for five years to teach a workshop for mother language revitalization at our community high school.  And together with other teachers, we created a practical Ombeayiüts alphabet. Today, the children and youth of the family are taught to participate in community activities, like dances and rituals.

 

4. You all have achieved university studies or beyond, and several of you have created impressive professional careers. Were you pressured to sacrifice cultural aspects of yourself to succeed in the educational system and in your career? 

The three colleagues who are experienced bilingual teachers in Oaxaca responded to this question. Beatriz identified a moment in high school when she felt “a kind of rejection for my origin.”  However, as a bilingual preschool teacher, she feels that she has sacrificed nothing; instead, she says she has achieved her studies due to her knowledge of her culture and language.  Alverino studied middle school in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, a small city located 90 minutes from his home community. “I suffered discrimination for being from an indigenous community, for the color of my skin, for the way I dressed which was not stylish, for my Spanish since it wasn´t very grammatical.  The word they used to ridicule us was ´yope´.”  But in later school levels, Alvarino added, “I don´t remember any other discrimination.”  That is, until he studied his Master´s degree in Mexico City, where he was pressured to pass a written English exam to graduate.  “First, they put me in courses with city students who already knew some English.  Because of this, I searched for others at the same level as me, we formed a new group of beginners, and only in this way was I able to advance a little and fulfill the requirement.”

For Lilia, leaving her Mixe community to study high school in the city of Oaxaca changed her life drastically because her city classmates spoke Spanish, a language she spoke very poorly.  “In my house and in my preschool, elementary and high school people spoke Mixe and very little Spanish.  So, I began to realize that I had to practice more Spanish to communicate with people in the school, in order to understand the lessons, get good grades, and get credit for my studies.”  Still, she hardly participated in class, fearful she would stutter in front of the fluent Spanish speakers.  Her experiences have taught her that it is important to speak excellent Spanish, a powerful language that she must use to communicate with those who don´t speak an indigenous language.  “But I´m also clear that it is important to speak Ayuujk and other indigenous languages, as they are the origin of our lives in community; the language identifies us as Mixe and allows us to communicate with those from our home community.”

 

5. Is there evidence in your community of systematic cultural genocide from outside sources, whether institutional, governmental, municipal, educational, or commercial? Have you seen governmental or commercial efforts to impose projects in your community, supposedly for “public and national progress,” but instead they threaten forms of life that you and your people traditionally have lived and enjoyed? 

Alverino´s deep concerns about the dietary health of his family and community are exacerbated by the busy store in his tiny Mixtec community. For 20 years the store has sold products of various multinational businesses, such as Bimbo, Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, LALA, and more, and various meats and dairy products, and a great many sweets. “It sells a lot because TV commercials promote these products. This contributes to the poor quality of people´s diet and diminishes the importance of producing fresh, healthy foods.”

For years Beatriz´s community of San Mateo del Mar has contended with, and resisted, repeated commercial incursion attempts.

Wind energy companies covet our windy coast and mine companies have gotten permits to work the mines.  If they install on our beaches, they will occupy our sacred spaces of ritual and symbol.  What does the government do?  Under former President Peña Nieto, the federal government granted the permits but never consulted the community. There also is the Trans-Isthmus train that would pass through part of our territory.  For López Obrador´s government, this is development for the peoples of the south.  But that isn´t true! To the contrary, even if the train doesn´t trespass our lands, it will impact our communal, social, economic, and religious life.

For Beatriz, community control and self-determination have been usurped by the government and powerful commercial interests.  “What little we have left of community autonomy is lost. There are no laws that favor indigenous peoples, our territories are taken from us in the name of development.  Development for whom?”

 Lilia provides two raw examples of agricultural crises among her community’s campesinos. Locals who are university-prepared agronomists sell them products that they claim will nourish farm animals and rapidly increase crop production.  However, cases have been documented of such products burning the plants, causing entire crops to be lost.   She also reports on Sembrando Vida (Planting Life), a pet project promoted by President López Obrador in multiple rural sites in Mexico and also in other Latin American countries, and one that would be “a monster to stop.” The project has sweeping impacts on the agricultural production in Lilia’s Mixe community and in hundreds of communities in other Mexico states.  Lilia recounts:

 “Sembrando Vida urges persons in the community to start planting fruit trees, corn, beans, and other specified products.  This program pays them 4000 pesos a month to buy and plant these seeds or more fruit trees and to pay laborers to do the planting. Many people say that this is good, it has improved their economic life because they have found strategies by which they spend the money on other things that they need in daily life.

The problem now in my community is that many people are uprooting and killing the natural flora and fauna on their lands, preferring to work under the requirements of the program.  One example: there are people who have planted as many as 20,000 maguey plants for mezcal, which has caused people to see this as good business, a lucrative product, and a way to benefit from their land.  Other people have said that in five years the community will experience drought, water sources will dry up, little rain, wood will be scarce, the variety of trees in our region will disappear, and local wildlife will migrate out.

 

Significantly, Alverino recounts positive experiences with the Sembrando Vida project in his Mixtec region.  These include encouragement of farmers to continue cultivating traditional grains, technical support to develop fertilizers and organic insecticides and fungicides, strategies to level terrain to stop erosion, production of cash crops appropriate for the local climate, and promotion of reforestation while respecting local trees.  The complaints he hears are the project’s demands of time and effort, straining resources for other family and community needs.

However, increasing numbers of published reports support Lilia’s concerns, even for Mixtec communities like Alverino’s.  One of these reports concludes:

[A]lthough Sembrando Vida is presented as a development project to create sustainable communities in primarily rural regions, the promotion of the production of maguey poses a risk to native maize (corn) species that community members’ livelihoods depend on…In order to meet the demand for commodified mezcal, Mexican national development projects therefore exploit Indigenous communities under the guise of development and sustainability (Alcantar, 2021).

  For these colleagues, continuing attacks on the use of their original languages have deep, systemic roots. According to Beatriz, the fact that children come to school and no longer speak their original language as their first language “is because of the school and the media and because there simply are no governmental actions that favor the use of our indigenous languages.” Judith adds that official negation or shaming of their languages is constant.  Alverino accuses the public school: “Our language began to be lost after the school was established in the community more than 80 years ago. The teachers began to prohibit its use and physically punished those who didn´t stop speaking it in school.” Rather than blaming parents who demean Mixtec speakers and refuse to teach their children the language, Alverino feels the school as a public, government-controlled institution should be blamed: “It has gotten to this point due to the discrimination that grandparents suffered when they attended elementary school, and young parents now have this attitude very internalized, expressing it automatically.”  While these attacks aren’t direct, Janeth sees them as deeply cultural and entirely violent.

It is more an implicit violence that exists inside institutions and governments that do not address the needs of indigenous communities. All institutions and public spaces, as well as educational and employment and social development opportunities, are generated from a Spanish-centric logic, which doesn´t permit one to think from the communitarian perspective where we feel our identity.  So not only don’t they solve anything, they complicate our possibilities to develop ourselves in community.

 

6. Do you find within your community resistance against the systematic attacks against your culture?

Despite community differences, these colleagues identify two shared areas of cultural resistance.  The first is collective action, the community acting together to defend what is culturally theirs.  In Chiapas, Janeth celebrates her community´s collective resistance: “Despite all we suffer for simply being indigenous, we continue with our customs. Most of my community speaks Tsotsil.  We wear our traditional dress every day.  And in the face of discriminatory actions, some of us no longer stay silent, we defend ourselves, despite all the difficulties that brings.”  Beatriz celebrates her community´s unflagging fight against the powerful business interests that incessantly pressure to commercialize San Mateo´s coastline and mineral resources: “The form of resistance that most moves me is to see the quantity of people -men, women, and youth together- fighting for our territory in 2009, defending our land.” Beatriz also celebrates the youth who have organized to strengthen traditional dances and the Ombeayiüts language. Like Beatriz, Lilia applauds a community organization that works to revitalize the community´s Mixe culture and language.

Another shared area of resistance is alternative education – efforts to create community-based schools that defend rather than devalue and destroy indigenous cultures.  It is important to note that the three bilingual teacher educators in Oaxaca (Beatriz, Alverino, and Lilia) all are members of Plan Piloto-CMPIO (School Zone 045), a bilingual indigenous school district serving rural communities statewide as part of Oaxaca´s official State Institute of Public Education. More critically, Plan Piloto-CMPIO identifies with the struggles of the rural communities it serves and patterns its own organizational structure to reflect its commitment to collective, communal values. A clear demonstration of this is the Pedagogical Movement, initiated by Plan Piloto-CMPIO in 1995, whose purpose is to construct, together with communities, alternative educational proposals that respond to the interests and needs of children, adults, and teachers in indigenous communities.

Alverino directly names the Plan Piloto-CMPIO preschool in his community as an uplifting site of cultural resistance: “The preschool works with themes that value the culture and healthy diets.” Nevertheless, he sees cultural resistance as an uphill battle in his community. “The children only attend the preschool for three years, then these ideas of cultural value are lost in later school levels.  The families themselves haven´t shown an interest in taking practical action on behalf of our culture.” Lilia is encouraged by some of her teacher colleagues who have begun to write their Ayuujk language.  And years ago, Beatriz and her teacher colleagues at the Plan Piloto-CMPIO preschool in her village began to create children´s books in Ombeayiüts to support original language and literacy development; this effort continues, and they have provided workshops for other teachers on the construction and creative pedagogical uses of these books.

 

7. Are you hopeful to defend and maintain the cultural life of your family, your community, and your people for future generations?

Each of these colleagues could find at least some reason, however tentative, to hope.  Lilia thinks meetings might be held in her community to talk about the Sembrando Vida project and the resulting uncontrolled logging of trees, and to call for more reforestation and conservation of the seeds of flora that exist in the community.  Alverino proposes that the culture-affirming preschool in his community organize a recuperation and revitalization project to sensitize community members, involving the elders of the community.  Janeth deepens the theme of original language loss by providing its existential meaning. This Chiapas colleague quotes Mixe linguist and poet, Elena Yasnaya Aguilar, with whom she “totally agrees”: “Languages are important, but much more important are their speakers.  Languages die because their speakers are discriminated against and violated.”

Building on the crucial human factor illuminated by both Janeth and the poet she cites – that hope can live wherever and whenever those who speak their language and value their culture collectively resist State-imposed, destructive, violent ethnocide, in order to defend their rights and proudly remain Indian – we return where we began, to Beatriz’s powerful community-focused, person-affirming, and resistant statement of hope:

In the midst of so many tragedies, hope is what remains.  There is always a ray of hope that tomorrow will be better.  I see it when I listen to our fishermen who with so much hope wait for the rains in order to return with nets full of shrimp or fish. Or when I see parents interested in our workshops to revitalize our Ombeayiüts language for their children. Or when I see the enthusiasm of some colleagues to promote activities related to our language. Though somewhat isolated, these are what give me energy and hope.

 

References

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UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011), www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/documents/publications/guidingprinciplesbusinesshr_en.pdf

Unesco and the struggle against ethnocide: Declaration of San José, December 1981.  Accessed at unesdoc.unesco.org

[1] Personal testimonies from Beatriz Gutiérrez Luís, Alverino López López, Lilia Martínez Pérez, and Janeth Ruíz López, close colleagues of the author, made this article possible.

[2] All Spanish document citations and personal testimonies have been translated to English by the author.

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