The state of Oaxaca is home to 53 percent of Mexico’s indigenous population. Approximately 1,091,502 people in Oaxaca speak an indigenous language in addition to, or instead of, Spanish. The native people of this region have clung fiercely to their ancient traditions and cultures, assisted by the rugged, mountainous terrain that has historically shielded them somewhat from the outside world.
In the past, indigenous Oaxacan parents often chose to home school their children, teaching them practical skills and traditional arts and crafts, rather than send to schools where they would be taught exclusively in Spanish. However, a recent article from the Guardian points out that this strategy is no longer working, and has in fact become counterproductive:
“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.”
To address this inequality, Oaxacans have turned to a two-fold strategy. First, they are agitating for school reform, for schools that educate children in their native languages instead of exclusively in Spanish. Currently, as Fernando Bojórquez of the National Congress of Indigenous and Intercultural Education explained to the Guardian:
“Our children may be bilingual or monolingual in any of the sixteen original languages that exist in Oaxaca, but they are taught and evaluated in Spanish, sometimes via national standardized examinations, without taking into account their abilities or their linguistic and cultural rights.”
The second part of the strategy is to place children in “Language Nests” before they go off to school. These are like preschools, but taught by the children’s grandparents and community elders. They teach children not only the language of the community but also traditional values like communalidad, a sense of community that incorporates language, customs and connection to the land.
It’s not realistic to expect Oaxaca to stay completely frozen in time, cut off from the outside world. The trick is helping indigenous people to succeed in an increasingly global society without having to leave behind their native languages or values like communalidad. In the past, indigenous people were often discouraged from speaking their native languages in favour of more commonly spoken ones like English and Spanish. Now, we know how that approach damages these communities and violates the human rights of the people in them. Alleviating poverty in rural Oaxacan communities shouldn’t have to come at the expense of indigenous languages and cultures.