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La Educación
Número: (122) III
Año: 1995

A Gesture Toward Inclusion

I have tried to examine the voices which speak of indigenous women from three distinct discourses: that of indigenismo which claims to strive for national integration, and yet rules out indigenous womens’ perspectives; the critical discourse of “Indian education,” which succeeds in explaining indigenous womens’ patterns of subordination and yet omits the empowering way in which these women deal with oppression; and the voices of indigenous women themselves.

When read in juxtaposition with indigenista discourses, the voices of indigenous women subvert the images of ignorance and simple rusticity which have been created for them. In contrast, they show the complexity of their understanding of the forest, as well as how their forms of knowledge are situated within a sophisticated historical-prophetic tradition that dates back to the pre-Columbian period. Moreover, indigenous women provide critical representations of the nation that excludes them. First, women invert the view of progress advanced by indigenista discourse, thus demonstrating the fiasco of the policies that have tried to “integrate” them into the nation on an equal basis. Their histories reveal the dehumanizing nature of Mexican rule during the ancient slavery and its evident connection to current forms of oppression embedded in paternalistic state policies. From the standpoint of indigenous women, the possibilities of their citizenship within the framework of the nation-state has been limited to their enfranchisement as third-class citizens, as slaves, as peons, as “beasts of burden,” which in turn has been linked to a “deadening of the spirit.” The ideological function of indigenista discourses in speech and art consists of bypassing these circumstances of oppression without acknowledging their existence in the present. Indigenous women expose in their narratives the distorted indigenista view of the present as a time in which conflict has been smoothed over.

The voices of indigenous women also contrast with portrayals of them as mere victims and bring to light their efforts to fight oppression through creative strategies of resistance which have ranged from flight to tactics of silence and survival. These strategies are transmitted through a scathing critique of Mexican moral authority.

Indigenista initiatives, educational and otherwise, have been based on the premise of a homogeneous culture which has excluded differences, and which has been stripped of relevance for indigenous women and men. What would happen if we favored the assumption, so well-stated by Rosaldo (1992), that there is the possibility of both being different and belonging in a democratic participatory sense. Rosaldo shows, quite convincingly, that an education that tries to include this kind of participation must, on the one hand, strive to “override the systemic forces that are producing inequality,” and on the other, “attend with care to the specific aspirations of local communities and groups.” This second point, Rosaldo says, would involve understanding and grasping each groups’ specific understanding of belonging, dignity, and respect so that we will not speak for them but will be able to attend to the articulation of their own concerns and aspirations.

What would an inclusionary education of this sort look like? I will mention five important features in the context of Macehual women’s histories, which although pertaining to their specific situation, can be used as a guideline for other initiatives of indigenous education in Latin America.

First, a more pluralistic history would become the norm. In the case of Macehual women, this would mean giving voice to an indigenous history portrayed in a prophetic genre which emphasizes metaphors, poetry, and a particular sense of time. This history would encourage recognition of the complexity of indigenous peoples’ forms of knowledge, and contribute to the dispelling of ideas about them as “inferior,” and “without culture.”

Second, the inclusion of women would make salient the experiences too often ignored in mainstream history. For Macehual women, these would include the smallpox epidemic, the pain of the ancient slavery, the experiences of women in the times of flight through the forest, and the different ethnic mixtures of the Macehualoob. Including Macehual histories would encourage teachers and students to acquire new knowledge, a deeper sense of the political character of history and new explanatory frameworks.

Third, including indigenous women’s histories would highlight not only the existence of inequalities, but the existence of a long tradition of struggle against them as well. Analogous to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, which nearly everyone now agrees ought to be part of the curricula of schools in the United States, the Caste War could be approached as one instance of the Macehual’s long tradition of struggle to produce social change through separation, not because of an intrinsic “inner hatred” of whites, but because of the constant failure of the nation-state to enfranchise the Maya as full citizens. Women’s histories expose how nineteenth-century nationalism turned them into instruments of labor and objects of pleasure subject to “punishment without culpability.” Their histories of the twentieth century reveal the suffering they underwent in the forest as a result of the arrival of “civilization.” Moreover, women expose the bankruptcy of the revolutionary project of Mexican nationhood which pays lip service to integration while it pursues its own economic development in spite of the obstacles of internal colonialism.

Fourth, including indigenous women’s perspectives would challenge the stereotypes of them as “passive” and “non-contesting” victims. Macehual women’s histories lay bare their awareness of the sufferings that emanated from Mexican rule, and how this awareness feeds resistance, exemplified in their strategies of survival, silence and invisibility, as well as in their critique of legitimate authority.

Finally, educational initiatives for indigenous women have been dictated from the government. It is my fundamental contention that any education that is relevant to indigenous women cannot be conceptualized from high up in the government, but needs to emerge from them. This education could be formed through a process of dialogue in which instead of trying to “see” indigenous women, as the critical discourses of “Indian education” advise, we attend with care to the articulation of their own concerns and aspirations.

Only when we address these issues can we properly speak of a multicultural education that is relevant to the needs of indigenous women. Otherwise, we will continue to have coexisting discourses that do not talk to one another: most notably, an indigenista discourse which idealizes indigenous women as icons of national identity while masking their oppression, and an indigenous one, which portrays the deceptive forms of this oppression over time. I would venture to say that if real initiatives were made to make indigenous people such as the Macehualoob full citizens, they would engage in social change not through initiatives of separation, but within the parameters of the nation-state. The decision to implement these initiatives is a choice that depends on what we want from indigenous education—the perpetuation of symbolic representations that do not correspond to reality, or the inclusion of indigenous women and men as full citizens.