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Yglesias on Oaxacan Poverty


In a post where there’s only a 99% chance he borrowed the link from me without giving credit, Yglesias comments on the same Guardian post on indigenous education in Oaxaca that I did. Except he really doesn’t seem to understand the larger forces at work here:

Obviously, the dilemma here is real. Not only does formal education improve one’s earning potential, so does better transportation and communications connections to the outside world. And Spanish-language competence has a higher market value than Zapotec-language competence. So insofar as you put an overwhelming premium on cultural preservation, the tendency will be for that agenda to entrench poverty. After all, the authentic cultural tradition of indigenous peoples in southern Mexico involves being poor. That said, we do see in Denmark, the Netherlands, Flanders, Sweden, etc. that it’s actually quite possible for a country to become very much a part of the global economy while still retain [sic] a distinct language community.

The “cultural tradition of indigenous peoples in southern Mexico” does not involve being poor, in the way Yglesias seems to define it, unless we consider our definition of poverty to be something set in stone. Rather, for much of Mexican history, indigenous people were not particularly more impoverished than most mestizo Mexicans. The differences between Mexico or Guatemala on one hand and Denmark and Sweden on the other are legion. For one, there is the colonial legacy, which is only, you know, a gigantic factor in deciding poverty between nations in the present. Second, there is the issue of how specific nations have incorporated non-capital city language speakers into the state. In most of Europe, traditional languages or dialects were ground under the centralizing state in the early modern centuries, but the Mexican state has never had the ability to do the same. A second language and culture has sometimes survived in European nations, but even that is fraught with difficulty, as the ETA in Spain or anyone in Belgium might tell us. Mexico has had to begrudgingly accept its multi-lingual heritage because it never could force large majorities of its citizens to adopt Spanish as their language. The situations are totally different.

But more importantly, languages like Swedish and Danish are essentially irrelevant to the larger global economy because everyone in those nations operating within the global economic framework is speaking English. These people speaking Flemish or whatever don’t only speak that language. They also speak English, and possibly Dutch or French or Spanish or German or some combination of the above. People in the Mixteca may very well only speak Mixtec and maybe a smidgen of Spanish, and they’ve never had the opportunity to learn anything else. Western European nations have economic prosperity and educational systems unknown in Mexico, making the first language/central state language-second language/indigenous language divide relatively moot when it comes to economic success. The colonial legacy is gigantic here, as Mexico was long a nation where only a small elite received functional education and had opportunities for economic advancement. Even in the post-revolutionary period, real advancement was limited, even for non-indigenous peoples.

And by saying that “So insofar as you put an overwhelming premium on cultural preservation, the tendency will be for that agenda to entrench poverty,” is Yglesias essentially saying that “cultural preservation” has no value? As I mentioned in my own post, these are very tricky and tough issues. God knows I have no good answer. But even from a strictly economic perspective, certainly there is some middle ground here, with possibilities of bilingualism, tourism, systems of self-government, cultural programs, and remittances from the United States overcoming some of the entrenched localized poverty without completely giving up on cultural traditions. In any case, I don’t think you can make these overarching statements like Yglesias does here without a lot more factual understanding about Mexico than I think he has.

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