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Education and Oaxacan Poverty

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Building on the discussion of indigenous poverty in Oaxaca from a couple of days ago is this Guardian piece on indigenous children not going to school in rural Oaxaca, thus plunging deeper into a never-ending cycle of poverty exacerbated by the global economy.

Elena Gonzales folds yarn between her fingers. Her tapestry is woven in an intricate pattern of ochre and indigo, with fibre that has been dyed using moss and bark, fruit and flowers. Here in the hills of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, indigenous Zapotec communities have been weaving rugs for more than two thousand years. Elena spins the loom and the centuries fall away.

Like many Zapotec children growing up in the 1980s, Elena did not attend school. Faced with a primary curriculum that took no account of Zapotec language or culture, her parents decided that she should be educated by her community. She was taught to weave by her grandmother. Self-sufficiency is the historic norm in Oaxaca, but in recent decades as rural life has become increasingly entretejidos – interwoven – with the modern market economy, Zapotec children who have not gone to school are finding themselves on the wrong side of an urban-rural education divide that excludes them from employment and contributes to deepening poverty.

The Zapotec predicament is far from unique. According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, indigenous people – that is to say, people rooted by history and language and by myth and memory to a particular place on the planet – make up one third of the world’s 900 million extremely poor rural people. For indigenous people the foremost barrier to primary education is language.

This issue of language is extremely important, including when indigenous people come to the United States. My wife tells a story of a Mexican child placed into special education programs in American schools because when the teacher spoke in Spanish, the child clearly did not understand. Rather, the child was perfectly intelligent–but didn’t speak Spanish. The kid was indigenous.

We think of Latino migrants making up a Spanish-speaking community in the United States, but it’s often more complicated than that. Especially for people coming from southern Mexico and Guatemala, these are often not native Spanish speakers. Rather, they speak Mixtec, Zapotec, K’ich’e-Maya, or one of many less well-known indigenous languages.

In both Mexico and the United States, indigenous languages can put people behind the 8-ball in finding jobs and moving from a rural existence into the global economy. In the United States, this can often mean Spanish speakers taking better jobs and indigenous speakers being forced into the most difficult work such as picking crops. This is tough because many of us, especially indigenous people themselves, value these indigenous languages and ways of life, but we are also forcing them into a new economic model that their people are not always prepared to handle. Oaxacans have embraced native languages as part of cultures under threat and often hold them as a bulwark against homogenizing globalization. This is undoubtedly a good thing, but we also have to find ways to allow people to both continue long-lasting traditions while surviving in the scary new economy that upends their past.

Tough, tricky issues here.

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