*Susan J. Rippberger

Through formal education in Latin American, indigenous communities are changing the way they see their present and future condition. Indigenous women are working quietly and persistently to transform education, making it more relevant to indigenous community needs. In Mexico, particularly the state of Chiapas, women are beginning to construct new gender roles from old cultural assumptions. Where indigenous men typically have held public positions, such as in teaching, women are now entering the ranks combining their traditional domestic roles with teaching. Through bilingual education, indigenous women are, within their classrooms, making specific cultural adaptations to the national curriculum so that education may become more relevant to Indian children. They are also working with their communities and with local and state educational authorities to formulate educational programs that reflect more of their Mayan culture and promote greater economic opportunity.

While indigenous civilizations in Latin America were once culturally unique, today there are many similarities among them, due in part to the Spanish invasion of Indian lands in the sixteenth century. Remnants of Spanish colonization, such as the marginalization and poverty of indigenous groups, still abound. Currently, 39 million Indian people of over 1,000 Indian nationalities live in Latin America (South and Meso-American Indian Information Center 1992). The Mexican government officially recognizes 56 language-based indigenous groups within its borders. Indian resistance to marginalization and exploitation has been continuous since the Spanish invasion (Campbell et al. 1993; Taylor and Pease 1994); the 1994 Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas being the most recent attempt to promote greater equity and representation for Indians within the national government.

The Mexican government, while acknowledging language differences in theory, separates the nation into just two ethnic groups, mestizo (of mixed Indian and Spanish heritage) and Indian, ignoring cultural variations among Indian groups. Since most Mexicans are part Indian, the distinction between the two official ethnic groups is based on socio-cultural outlook and patterns of living more than on biological heritage. Most Indians consider themselves, first, members of their specific Indian nation, and second, related economically to the wider Mexican nation. One of the most significant cultural differences is the Mayan ethic of collective responsibility, which contrasts with the European/Spanish ethic of individual freedom (Gossen 1994). The concept of "respect" pervades Indian thought and action; it includes a reverence for life, a respect for elders, the integrity of the community, and religion. Indians tend to characterize non-Indians as abrasive, disrespectful, and ostentatious about their wealth.1 Many mestizos describe their differences with Indians in terms of physical appearance, i.e., lighter skin, western clothing, and use of the Spanish language. They often describe Indians as child-like and gullible. Since social and economic status belong to those who are less Indian, many Indians have renounced their Indian culture and language as inferior. However, there are groups of Indians struggling to overcome this imposition, valuing their Indian culture and preserving respect for their way of life.

Official bilingual educational programs throughout the republic of Mexico were created to acculturate Indians to mestizo society. Currently, the government espouses a philosophy that acknowledges the richness of cultural diversity, yet programs remain assimilationist. While the government calls certain teachers and classrooms bilingual, there is no specific bilingual education program. Bilingual teachers are expected to teach Spanish and translate the Spanish textbook in first and second grade. Aside from this expectation, bilingual teachers receive no training in second language acquisition, nor do they receive bilingual materials. Children are expected to become fluent Spanish speakers by second grade, then transfer to an all-Spanish academic environment. Many bilingual teachers believe that this narrow interpretation of bilingual education is ineffective, and adapt their classroom programs to make education more effective.

Chiapas is a unique case because it has one of the largest Indian populations in Mexico, and because Indians are numerically in the majority. Indians typically live in poverty in rural areas--half the homes in the state of Chiapas have dirt floors, and close to 80 percent use thatch or other vegetation for roofing (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática 1992). A less measurable, but more qualitative, indication of poverty is the widely held definition of happiness given by many Indians living in rural Chiapas: having enough food--corn and beans--so that they are not hungry (McGreevy 1986).

Bilingual educational needs are great in Chiapas, with an average Spanish illiteracy rate of 30 percent (a combined mestizo-Indian illiteracy) compared with a national average of 12 percent. In rural areas, where close to two-thirds of the women and one-third of the men speak only a Mayan language, Spanish illiteracy is much higher. In 1980, 66 percent of the population lived in rural areas, yet most of the educational services were located in urban areas. By 1990, 60 percent of the population still lived in rural areas, yet they have no secondary schools and very few primary schools that offer a full six years of education.


This study is an ethnographic and interpretist analysis that focuses on the personal perspectives and narratives of women involved in the day-to-day construction of education and culture. It is an attempt to understand bilingual education from the perspective of the Mayan women in the indigenous communities of Chiapas. Such a focus rejects traditional patriarchal images of education and government that normally treat women as peripheral (Gore and Luke 1992). An interpretist perspective reveals women as individuals initiating change, and developing their own capabilities, rather than as passive recipients of a mainstream male voice and patronage. The locally based educational programs with which these women work are participatory in nature, and lead to an affirmation of their Indian identity.

As an ethnographic account this chapter offers a pluralist assessment of educational equity and opportunity, challenging the government's goal of assimilation through education. It rejects a modernist hierarchy where Indians and women are by definition marginal (Tronto 1993; Greene 1993). Much of the specific ethnographic data in this chapter comes from observations, interviews, and social interactions with Tzotzil and Tzeltal Mayan women and girls in Chiapas, Mexico.2 Traveling through 14 Indian communities and villages, I spoke with approximately 50 Indian families, including students, parents, teachers, and administrators about indigenous education and Indian culture. The bilingual program officially exists only for the first two grades of primary school, and primary teachers, principals, parents, and students, with first-hand experience in bilingual education, have the greatest expertise for this study. Their perspectives and views, related in conversations, provide the foundation for their approach to teaching and reform. These perspectives on education and the desire for literacy and economic status are echoed by indigenous women throughout Latin America (Bronstein 1982; Hahner 1980; Ruiz 1990).

Within an interpretist framework, relevant reform must be locally based and participatory in nature. Rather than legitimate state-driven, modernist assertions of reform that often serve to reinforce a status quo that benefits non-Indians, such a framework supports a more pluralist perspective. In many ways, Indian communities have influenced educational policy bringing permanent structural change through their persistent, although unacknowledged, efforts. Through organization, pressure for change, and tenacity, they have compelled those in power to negotiate with them, creating a steady series of local changes which eventually influence national policy.

Attitudes toward ethnicity, culture, and bilingual education are complex and contradictory because there are varying viewpoints within each cultural group. While there is no unified Tzotzil or Tzeltal perspective on bilingual education or cultural preservation, a new Indian-oriented perspective is emerging. There are many Mayans who have accepted the mainstream imposition that the Indian culture and language are inferior because they are less modern. They have often separated themselves from their origins to attain greater social status. There are others, however, who are rejecting this colonialist attitude, attempting to claim their Indian ethnicity with pride. How this group perceives their culture and how they go about preserving it or adapting to the mainstream culture has significance for other groups in similarly subordinated positions. Through education, many teachers are striving to help students overcome their shame in being Indian as well as their low academic proficiency. However, by becoming bicultural through education, many fear of losing their culture. The more they take on outward characteristics of mestizo patterns of living, the more they seek to preserve their original culture, often redefining culture in terms of its animating spirit or unseen essence. More than appearances such as clothing, residence, foods or even language, they see culture as an outlook and knowledge base from which to understand life.

Just as there is no unified Mayan viewpoint, the Secretariat for Public Education (Secretaría de Educación Pública-SEP) is also a diverse group made up of those who support the status quo and others who support change. Its diverse makeup may account for its changing policies with respect to Indians. In the highlands of Chiapas, reform typically starts at the local level and works its way through state educational offices to the national level. Teachers adapt their classes to meet the needs and expectations of the community. These adaptations are brought to the attention of local supervisors and state educational representatives of Indian education. From state-wide teacher assemblies and state educational offices, demands for change travel to authorities on the national level.

Initially, by boycotting urban monolingual education for five centuries, Indians promoted the government to offer bilingual education in rural Indian areas. When bilingual education was established in the early 1950s, they rejected it until monolingual mestizo teachers were replaced with bilingual Indian teachers. Thus, employment in education became one of the very few points of entry into the middle class for Indians in Chiapas. Until the government started hiring Indians as teachers, most economic integration of Indians into the mainstream culture had been in unskilled labor at minimal wages. Now Indians take part in the formal education structure as bilingual teachers and administrators, and are able to influence policy decisions and practice based on their understanding of Indian needs. Indian teachers, working from within the government educational system, are introducing a bicultural program in their classes. Because of Indian efforts, the official government philosophy regarding Indian education has expanded to recognize the richness of cultural diversity.3

As Indians continue to prepare themselves academically, they become bicultural and are better able to confront and resist mainstream assimilationist policies. Entering the mainstream they bring with them an appreciation for their Indian knowledge base and encourage others to do the same. However, the task of universal integration of the two ethnic groups, without the disintegration of the minority group, is contingent on power sharing between the two.


Latin American countries share a similar history of invasion and colonization by Spain in the 1500s. The Spanish crown awarded desirable land and unpaid Indian labor to Spanish colonial leaders in government, business, and religion. During colonial times the status of women and men was a function of nationality and wealth, an elitism favoring Spanish and Catholic ancestry (Lavrin 1978). Prior to the invasion, native populations, such as the Inca, Maya, and Aztec had the largest and most organized civilizations in areas that later became Bolivia, Peru, Guatemala, and Mexico. In these countries, close to 90 percent of Indian population died during the first few decades of colonization, yet Indians currently make up close to 50 percent of the population. In most other Latin American nations, indigenous populations also exist in cohesive groups, but in much smaller numbers. Costa Rica, for example, has an Indian population of one percent, and Nicaragua, four percent (Europa 1988). The maintenance of traditional Indian communities in the face of the original ethnocide and continued modernist assimilation policies indicates the cohesion and strength of the indigenous civilizations (Carter, et al. 1989).

In the 1800s and early 1900s, much of the fertile land still retained communally by Indians was taken by Latin American governments and sold to commercial developers for cultivation of export-based cash crops (e.g., bananas, coffee, sugar). This displacement forced many Indians from their land and from self-sufficiency into servitude and debt peonage. Since the Spanish invasion and the national governments' later industrialization strategies, the political and economic status of isolated indigenous populations has remained relatively stable: they are poor, marginal, and isolated from the more industrialized mestizo society (Calvo and Donnadieu 1992).

Extreme poverty, the norm for most indigenous communities, keeps many children from attending school. Homes typically are one-room, mud-and-wattle structures with thatched roofs. An open fire on the packed dirt floor serves as stove, heater, and gathering area. Most small Indian communities are without electricity or running water (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática 1992). Malnutrition and health problems are serious concerns that frequently overshadow the importance of schooling. Women and girls in particular feel the effects of poverty. In large families, males often receive better nutrition and are given greater opportunity to receive education and job preparation.

Indigenous women in Chiapas take responsibility for both children and the domestic economy. They raise and sell livestock and maintain small vegetable gardens. Men care for larger crops apart from the household and for decision-making in the public arena. More recently, indigenous men have been venturing into the Mexican world for cash wages, leaving women with a double work responsibility. Typically a woman's labor does not yield enough to support her family, and her opportunity for finding work in the outside world is circumscribed by her lack of education and limited ability to speak Spanish (Eber 1992).

Indigenous bilingual schools in rural Mexico are typically one-room cement structures, often without chalk boards, electric lighting, a playground, or running water. Children work at rough-hewn benches and tables made by parents. Education is compulsory through primary school, but most schools in Indian settlements usually offer only the first two years. The government's purpose for bilingual education has remained unchanged over the centuries: it is seen as a way to integrate Indian groups into the national language and culture. Indian purposes for education, however, include a desire for autonomy, economic mobility, and social justice. For the last 50 years, the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) has hired Indians to be bilingual teachers in rural Indian areas. The SEP does not offer specific bilingual training or materials; all teachers, bilingual and monolingual, receive the exact same pedagogical, philosophical, and methodological training. Indians hired as bilingual teachers are expected to run a bilingual program that involves oral translation of the Spanish textbook, and instruction in Spanish as a foreign language. In addition to regular class duties, bilingual teachers are expected to work in the community after school, without remuneration, offering adult education courses and acting as legal liaisons between the Indian community and the outside mestizo world.

In 1992, the government presented a philosophy of bilingual education, but offered no corresponding pedagogical, curricular, or financial support (Calvo and Donnadieu 1992). Officially bilingual education is discontinued after the second grade, at which time the SEP assumes that Indian students are ready to continue all academic work in their second language, Spanish. Because this is not usually the case, Indian teachers in the third through sixth grades report that they use their Indian language unofficially so the students will understand them.

Periodically the government has produced limited quantities of textbooks in the Indian languages. In the early 1950s, the National Indigenist Institute (Instituto Nacional Indigenista; INI) provided health and educational handbooks in fifty-six Indian languages. These were distributed to Indian teachers throughout the nation. Again in the early 1980s, the SEP, with assistance from linguists and native Indian speakers, designed a beginning reading textbook in each of the Indian languages. These textbooks were distributed once and then discontinued, even though bilingual teachers have found them very useful, many photocopying them at their own expense for use in their classrooms.

Education for Indians often serves as a bridge between the urban mestizo and rural Indian worlds, providing skills and opportunity for economic integration of Indians into the established mestizo economy. Yet, typically, two years of indigenous education prepares Indians only to compete for unskilled wage labor--as migrant laborers, household servants, or subsistence merchants. This type of bilingual education encourages Indian children to give up their language and culture, but refuses them any economic gain in return. For some, continuing their education can prepare them for a career in bilingual teaching.

Indians in Mexico were first introduced as teachers in the 1950s when the INI brought education to rural Indian settlements through the use of promotores, or bilingual paraprofessional promoters of education and health. At that time, many Indians hired by the INI began making a transition from an agricultural life to a more urban life. Clara, a bilingual Indian teacher in Chiapas, discusses below the importance of the early promotores. Clara is working on her baccalaureate degree while she teaches first grade. She grew up in a small Indian community, but is now building her own home on the outskirts of a large town. Thirty-five years old and single, Clara has been teaching for eight years in an Indian settlement about seven hours from her home in the city.

In 1948 the INI initiated its program of promotores, who were sent to each municipal head [county seat], and their surrounding communities. Before that, the government of Chiapas had sent monolingual [Spanish-speaking] teachers to teach in the towns, but there wasn't any communication because the indigenous people didn't understand anything they said. Because of this there probably wasn't much progress for Indian education.

Then the INI came, looked for Indians who were successful in school, even though they may have been taught by monolingual teachers, and when they finished third or fourth grade, they were hired by the INI to be trained in pedagogy. One of my teachers was one of the first promotores.

Indian parents, teachers, and administrators reported that before the INI brought bilingual schools to remote Indian areas, girls rarely attended. In the first INI class in Chiapas there were fourteen girls, many of whom became teachers and married other teachers. Frequently, their children also chose teaching as a profession. Indigenous women's participation in a formal wage-earning government position such as teaching has begun to affect their community life. As teachers they are stepping out of culturally defined gender roles and creating new family patterns. Teaching has also enabled many female teachers to purchase homes in larger villages or cities where services such as running water and clinics are available. To become a teacher, though, indigenous women must overcome cultural and economic barriers, often giving up outward manifestations of their Indian culture.

Barriers to Education

Traditionally Indian girls did not attend school, but indigenous parents are beginning to see the importance of education for all their children. Before bilingual Indians were hired as teachers, many parents hid even their boys, or dressed them as girls so that they would not be forced to attend school, such was the lack of trust between the SEP officials and Indian parents (Modiano 1973). A bilingual administrator who grew up in an Indian village outside the town of San Cristóbal de las Casas (a major commercial center), described the importance of teachers being bilingual and bicultural.

Monolingual teachers struggle because they can't communicate with the people who live in the communities. There are communities who have run the monolingual teachers out--they can't help the people. On the other hand, with bilingual teachers, there is communication, they understand their communities, their agricultural lives; they think the same.

With indigenous teachers, Indian parents say that they feel more comfortable sending their children to school. Dominga, a Tzotzil-speaking Indian parent from a tiny Indian settlement who never attended school and whose husband attended only through the second grade, now encourages all of her children to attend school: "Education is necessary; it doesn't matter whether they are girls or boys, just so they get a primary education." This attitude was expressed many times in conversations with other Indians.

Although more girls are attending school than before,4 the traditional beliefs that girls do not need an education and are safer from physical harm, or from criticism, if they do not attend school often preservere. Cultural expectations, such as the preference for girls to remain at home to help with domestic chores, or the belief that girls should marry early and start raising their own families, tend to limit girls' aspirations. Also, when resources are limited, boys instead of girls attend school.

Dolores, who grew up in a small Indian community and later taught there, now has become a principal at an Indian school. The only woman in her normal school graduating class in the 1970s, she explained some of the biases against girls who attended school:

There were fewer girls in school because their parents didn't care that much if they attended. They thought their daughters would get lost, or immediately fall in love and go off with some boy, or that they would lose respect for their culture. This does not really happen, but it is what they think will happen.

Often parents fear their daughter will run off with a boyfriend she meets at school, or that she will be harmed on the trail to school, or in the classroom. Most girls don't go to school to find a boyfriend, as many Indian parents have suggested, but there is a danger of mental or physical harassment for girls. One Indian mother whose daughter was threatened as she walked to school, moved the whole family from their settlement in the mountains to the town where the school is located, so her daughter could attend school free from harm.

A conflict of cultures encountered in schools can be intimidating to girls unaccustomed to speaking in a public setting. The school setting, often their first encounter with mestizo culture, introduces a new culture and language quite unlike their home culture. At school, girls are expected to speak in class and interact with male classmates and teachers, contrary to indigenous habits. The loss of culture is also a danger as girls become bilingual and acculturated to mestizo ways through schooling. Many do leave their Indian communities and traditional agricultural life to continue their education and to become bilingual teachers.

Girls who manage to go past sixth grade and to become teachers continue to encounter social and cultural obstacles in teaching, such as a double work day and the belief that women do not need higher education. Pay for female and male teachers is somewhat equitable because the wages are based on the level of education and on teaching experience. Men, as a group, have been in teaching longer, and therefore have greater seniority and often hold the higher-paying administrative jobs. Education administration, however, is not limited to men; some Indian women have moved into administrative positions.

Female teachers deal creatively with the expectation that women give primary care for children regardless of their work outside the home. Often women take their young children to work with them, and stay at school all week, sleeping in their classrooms. They return home only on weekends to see their families. This arrangement is fairly common, particularly when women teach in remote rural areas, since travel to and from their work site is expensive and time-consuming. A woman with older children often will pay a relative from her Indian village to care for her children during the week so the children can attend a nearby urban school.

Changes in education, including more advanced teacher preparation, have a tendency to exclude women just as more women are entering the field. Mandatory preparation for bilingual teachers has increased from a rudimentary third-grade level to a normal school degree in the last few decades, and more recently the Mexican government began requiring a baccalaureate degree. The requirement for a baccalaureate degree that went into effect in the early 1990s, may have the effect of discouraging women from going into teaching because of the increased schooling that is needed. Martín, an indigenous administrator who now works in policy planning at the state capital, explained:

There are fewer women who attain a baccalaureate degree and go into teaching. In March [1991] they chose a group of students for the indigenous education program, in which a great number were young men, and fewer were women

Maybe it is because of cultural factors that do not allow a woman to continue studying. Parents restrict their daughters from going to school, particularly past the primary level. They feel women should not study, but should help their parents at home and in the fields, or marry and form their own households. In contrast, young men have greater opportunity to continue studying.

Regardless of these obstacles, there are indigenous women who are using education to prepare themselves to occupy positions once thought to be for men. Since the 1970s, the ranks of Tzotzil and Tzeltal-speaking women in teaching have grown considerably.5 Parents and teachers suggested varying reasons for this increase in female teachers. Martha, the granddaughter of one of the original promotores, was raised in the city and is now studying education at the university level. She suggested the greater options open to women.

Now there are more women becoming teachers because there is greater freedom. Perhaps it was that girls did not want to study before, because it seemed too difficult, or because they did not feel like it. Girls used to stay home, look after younger siblings, and learn how to cook; now they go out and study. I think this is much better, and much more practical.

Girls and women explained that they are going into teaching for many reasons, primarily economic ones. Female teachers from indigenous communities see the hope of an easier, healthier life. Clara, who left a tiny rural Indian community for teaching, explained why.

Work in the country is much harder, especially for women. We get up very early, at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. This is our schedule for starting the fire, and making the tortillas. If children come, all the work is done while carrying them. With all this, women go off and do field work with their husbands, too.

More women are realizing they need to leave; they do not want to have the same life as their mom's. If work were easier in the countryside, perhaps fewer would want to leave. But they realize it is much better to work as a teacher than stay in the countryside. For us, teaching is very good work; we don't have to be in the mud [mountainous, often muddy footpaths], or the smoky kitchen.

Other women feel that it is the changing cultural beliefs regarding women's roles and education that offer greater opportunities for women. Dolores, a bilingual principal who has taught in elementary and secondary schools in rural and urban areas, saw this change as universal.

Now there are more schools, and a greater interest in education--most communities have their schools. There are more teachers, and more girls are given permission to study and to prepare themselves for work. Parents have changed a lot.

Guadalupe, a third-grade bilingual teacher who now teachers in a tiny rural school, explained some of the motivation for teaching.

Women go into teaching for various reasons. There are some that want to help elevate their people. Also, women need to work to support themselves and their families.

As girls and women overcome obstacles to schooling and teaching, they become role models in their communities. By providing an example, female teachers encourage girls to think about alternatives to their rural agricultural life. Those who remain in isolated Indian villages see this as the loss of Indian culture, and fear their way of life will be lost or corrupted by mestizo influence. Teachers who move to the cities also fear they will loose their culture as they take on outward mestizo cultural characteristics such as the Spanish language, residence in a city, and wearing non-Indian clothing. Yet they still are Indian enough in appearance to be labeled "Indian" by non-Indians, regardless of their mestizo trappings. Also, they see themselves as retaining an Indian world view that includes respect for their Indian upbringing, religion, work ethic, and communal orientation. A bilingual Tzotzil-speaking administrator explained, "Our culture is very rich, it's not just artifacts for others to see, but it has spiritual meaning that I feel in my soul." A retired Indian teacher, one of the first promotores, agreed,

Our culture is very `us.' We can only copy `the other' [mestizo]. We can keep the good and get rid of the bad. As you learn another culture you begin to see your own; we respect the elders, the way of communal dress, the [religious] music and the traditions.

Female Indigenous Teachers as Role Models and Cultural Intermediaries

Most bilingual teachers were raised in an Indian settlement and work in rural areas, but they often prefer to live in cities. Women report that they must travel anywhere from one to sixteen hours to reach the indigenous school where they teach. Their children often attend monolingual (Spanish) urban schools, speak Spanish fluently, and do fairly well in school, though learning less of their own Indian language. As a result, they have trouble communicating with cousins and grandparents still living in Indian villages. As teachers and their families take on outward mestizo cultural characteristics, including language, they acknowledge the changes they have made, but do not feel they have stopped being Indian. Their children, however, know less of the Indian culture because they grow up in a city.

Female teachers serve as role models in their communities, often introducing their relatives and neighbors to the teaching profession. Their individual experiences illustrate some of the cultural and economic obstacles women have overcome. While most remain in contact with their Indian communities and see themselves as Indians, they also have become bicultural enough to interact competently within the mestizo society. Most are satisfied with their new life, feeling it gives them greater choice in adapting what they feel is useful from both cultures. For example, they maintain a respect for Indian religion, which is basic to their cultural outlook, and contact with their Indian communities. Yet, they wear shoes and other western clothing when they find them useful.

Since bilingual teachers are usually known and trusted in the Indian communities, parents feel comfortable sending their children to school. Merced, an experienced bilingual teacher who grew up in Tzotzil Indian settlement, recalled the respect and admiration she held for one of her teachers. "My second-grade teacher was a great and wonderful woman who also cared a great deal for me. I wanted to be just like her and came to visit her at school on the weekends." Merced was also influenced by her father, one of the first INI promotores, and she in turn has influenced her own daughter, Martha, to become a teacher. Martha explained her interest in teaching.

I have always wanted to become a teacher. Ever since I was three or four years old, I used to go with my mom to her school in Ya'alboc [a rural Indian community]. I played there, ran around, and watched how my mom taught. Later I wasn't sure what I wanted to be, but I enjoyed the idea of teaching.

Alma, a Tzeltal-speaking primary school teacher who works in her original Indian village in the highlands of Chiapas, provides an illustration of the motivation necessary for indigenous women to complete an education. She was one of the very few Indian girls in her age group who attended primary school in the 1950s, and the first from her village to finish normal school. She has been teaching indigenous children for over seventeen years. As a child she had to leave her family and communal life after she finished second grade to attend school in a nearby village. Through the experience she developed a strong sense of self-reliance, but has returned to live in her original community, much the way her family once lived, although her house has more rooms and her family now has a more balanced diet. Alma continues to wear her Indian community clothing, and teaches using the Tzeltal language. She described how the decision to continue her education past second grade affected her life.

I became a teacher because I was interested in teaching and wanted to help my people. Not many studied when I was growing up. I had to finish primary school at an Indian boarding school in a town about four hours away by bus. After that I got a scholarship to go to a secondary boarding school for girls [a twenty-five hour bus trip from home]. I had to go there because there were no more scholarships for secondary schools nearby.

When I finished secondary school, I taught school while attending the normal school in the state capital [three hours away]. My first teaching job was in fifth grade, and the kids were big, especially the boys. I was very young and a little intimidated. But I treated the students with respect and they behaved well, so we managed.

I think more kids go to school now and are learning more. When I was a child, the children rarely spoke Spanish, but now most do learn some Spanish in school. As for clothing, students used to wear only typical Indian outfits, but now they wear long pants and other western clothing.

Alma has retained much of the outward appearance of Indian culture (wearing her traditional Indian outfit and living in an Indian-style house), but she is aware of the changes that have taken place within herself and her family. Her children will grow up completely bilingual and will have more job opportunities. She has taken the first step toward acculturation to mestizo ways, but she retains her Indian culture. Her children will continue to adapt to mestizo culture, and may leave an outward Indian way of life behind, yet they feel hopeful that they will never give up their essential Indian outlook and values.

For many women, the teaching profession offers a better life, one that provides greater social status, is less taxing physically, and is more secure economically. With ties to both worlds, women teachers mediate between the established national curriculum and their Indian students. While becoming educated and living in cities does influence women to adapt to the dominant culture, women are aware of their dual roles in preserving Indian ways of life and in teaching students the mestizo culture. Merced, an Indian teacher who is currently teaching third grade, encourages respect for Indian culture in the classroom.

We were raised in our Indian culture, learning our mother tongue. All the Indian traditions are learned first and we are not going to forget them. There are certain traditions that we cannot give up, like faith in traditional healers, belief in the power of dreams for spiritual guidance, our language, and respect. I believe there are advantages to our culture. Science [positivism] cannot always do everything--there will be a return to spiritual ways--people will see its efficacy.

I like to tell the little children myths and legends of our culture--the ancient traditional myths of our ancestors. My dad used to like to do this, and we loved to listen. We never lose their attention with these stories.

Martina, an Indian teacher working with a rural bilingual second-grade class, resists total assimilation to mestizo culture. Speaking Spanish with a Tzotzil accent, she explained why:

I think assimilation is not good. Spanish and Mayan languages are equal, both are full languages, and there's no reason to lose either. The SEP obliges us to change over to another language [Spanish] and culture, and I don't think this is good. We should not give up our language--there's no reason to change. Culture can be preserved if we continue practicing it as it is. Some young people have lost it, and those who have now left the community don't practice it anymore. But there are more older people who continue to conserve it, and in this way they maintain the cultural practices and traditions.

Luz is a preschool teacher in an Indian settlement, fluent in two Mayan languages and Spanish. Her father was one of the first promotores in her Indian village. Born in an Indian village, she moved with her parents to the city as a ten year old, and continued her education in the city's monolingual Spanish schools. She emphasizes teaching socialization skills and use of the children's first language for academic success.

The most important thing kids learn is not to be afraid of school [many are afraid]. We try to give them a sense of confidence so they can participate more. We teach everything in the Indian language; if we were to speak to them in Spanish they would not understand. They may learn, but it would just be rote memory--there wouldn't be any motivation to learn if they could not understand.

Parents describe women as creating a gentler learning climate, more in tune with the informal learning styles of Indians. Many Indians feel that women are more patient with children and more inclined to adapt to the students' learning needs. Gloria, a new indigenous preschool teacher, explained her focus in teaching and why she feels women are often preferred. Her perspective is representative of many of the teachers and parents who spoke with me.

Many think women have more patience than men. They know better how to care for children and how to motivate them. Men yell a lot and can't put up with kids. It's a challenge to know how to motivate them. If we don't motivate them to learn, they sleep, or start to play.

Female teachers, who help Indian students attain more through education, are admired in their communities. They often bring relatives or community members to live with them, so they can attend school past the second grade. One such teacher, Clara, illustrates the passage many women make from a poor, agricultural life to a professional job and a home in the city. She lives in her schoolroom during the week, but returns home on weekends. Her younger sisters will come to live with her in the city when they have completed the schooling offered in their village.

Clara's mother supported her desire to go to school, knowing it would change her life, but her father forbade it. She explained how her parents and other community members viewed her education.

Most of my relatives did not want me to go past second grade; they wanted me to get married young (I was twelve years old at the time), so that I would stay with them and not leave the community. But my mom encouraged me to go. She said she did not want the same life for me as she had. She had aspirations to be something in life and wanted her daughter to attain something. My dad disagreed and said I should stay home, marry, and live nearby. But I did not want to stay; I wanted to study.

For girls, getting married seems to be the deciding factor in whether they stay in the Indian settlement or not. If they continue with their education, there is little doubt that they will eventually move to a nearby city. If a woman marries young and has children, it is unlikely that she will leave the Indian community or continue her education. While marriage is still considered the norm, many women are choosing to stay single. They create their own households by caring for nieces and nephews, or having their own children outside of marriage. By remaining single, they feel a greater independence in decision-making and in managing their income in ways that most benefit them and their children.

Clara continued:

Other parents want kids to go to school so that they don't have to do the same work in the field as they did. They want them to prepare themselves to do something else--it's hard work in the fields.

In my family, all of us are going to school. The first few of us did not go until we were older. I was nine years old when I started the first year of primary school, and didn't finish my second year until I was twelve years old. The bilingual primary school in my Indian settlement only went up to second grade, so when I finished my second year, I dropped out of school for three years, but I didn't know anything, so I went to an Indian boarding school [provided for free by the SEP] to finish primary school. It wasn't comfortable at the boarding school--there was never enough food, and we didn't eat supper at all.

Friends ask my dad, `Don Miguel, why do all your kids have such an interest in education and my kids do not? Do you demand that they go?' He replies, `I don't know, maybe it's the destiny our Lord sends me. I would like my children--at least one--to help me in the fields. I have animals and later, when I get old, I won't be able to look after the animals without a child--boy or girl--to help me.' He's still alone in the field and tells me, `I hope my last two daughters do not leave me, too.'


Clara's personal problems in choosing education are common to many girls in her age group. Her solutions to the problems were unique.

My mom was supportive of my desire to go to school. She told me, `I want you to go to school, even though your dad may be angry with me.' So I enrolled, but my dad didn't know about it.

I was lonely at school. I had been so used to doing my chores at home, and helping my mom. Alone in the boarding school, and not knowing any of the other students, I felt strange. But I gained confidence and made friends, so I really began to enjoy studying. It made me happy to be doing something with my life.

There were some students who were very interested in studying; others weren't--all I did was study. During recess, I studied more. When I arrived I was the most behind because I started there in the fourth grade, having only completed second grade back home. But I caught up, and did well even though I couldn't understand everything. The teacher told the other students, "Look at Clara. She has started behind you all and now has advanced. You should learn from her." They were envious and I felt bad, but I kept learning. In the fifth grade it got easier.

My mom was very happy for me, but not my dad. After my first week of school I came home on Sunday afternoon. When I arrived I was afraid, so I quickly began to do my chores around the house. We had farm animals, and my dad was bringing them home to the corral. When I heard the bells on the animals, I wanted to escape and hide so my dad wouldn't scold me.

So I pretended to be sick. I lay in bed [a straw mat to one side of the kitchen fire], and covered my head with my shawl to make myself seem hot. When my dad came in, he began to scold me, asking why I left without permission. I thought he was going to hit me. My mom told him not to hit me because I was very sick, and had arrived with a fever and headache, and that's why I wasn't seated in the kitchen. "Have a little heart," she told him. "How can you hit a sick child?" So they gave me dinner and my dad asked me what was bothering me. He noticed how warm I was and said, "Yes, daughter, you do have a fever, but why did you go to school without my permission? I didn't want this to happen to you." But I didn't say anything. The next morning I got up at three or four a.m. to make tortillas (my dad slept a few more hours). He asked later if I were still sick. I said that I was, but was a little better. That was the end of the problem. When I returned the next weekend, he didn't do anything.

Much of Clara's influence on her own sisters and brothers and on the community is based on the status she has gained as a teacher. She continued,

Other families want their kids to go to school so that the kids don't have the same hard work at home and in the fields as they did. When I go home, my friends in the country ask me how I did it--how I found such good work. I think they have talked a lot about me, and the fact that my dad did not want me to go to school.

Clara describes some of the abrupt cultural adjustments she made, remembering the differences in city life she encountered as a girl.

I have changed my life tremendously, I can't deny it. The city is so different for those who grow up in the country. It's difficult; we miss the country, and don't understand cars or street lights at first. This happened to me when I moved here to San Cristóbal de Las Casas. The houses seemed enormous, especially those with two floors. It seemed as if they might fall on top of me. And I was so afraid of the cars that I felt I would never be able to cross the street.

But now I don't miss the country much--the constant smoke of the kitchen fire, and the slippery mud on the mountain paths during the rains. There is no mud here in the city.

Even though Clara represents a better life to her friends and family, she feels that it is important to conserve the Indian language and values. As a bilingual teacher she would like to encourage pride in her students' cultural heritage to help preserve the Indian language and customs even though she values her life in the city.

I will teach first grade in the fall, using lots of Tzeltal [the children's native language]. In some ways it is good to maintain Tzeltal so the children don't lose their culture or language. I think it is very important for them to know both languages.

We need to prepare ourselves so that we can help our community, to give them more opportunities, but this depends on each teacher. Many bilingual teachers don't want to be indigenous; they prefer to be identified with the mestizo people. Some think I am here living with mestizo people. My clothing is different [western], but I find it difficult to leave my culture; it's very good to preserve it. I speak Tzeltal, visit my town, and understand and respect all my community's customs. My mom still wears her native costume. Culture is something we don't forget; it's part of our being--we're proud of it and don't want to lose it, ever.

Clara, like many Indian teachers, regrets not being taught to read and write in Tzeltal, and sees it as a obstacle to helping her students learn. Since her education was monolingual, she learned to read and write in her second language, Spanish, never developing literacy in Tzeltal. The SEP has developed reading materials in Indian languages, but no longer prints or distributes them.

We consider ourselves Indian, but we cannot write our own language--and people can't understand why. It makes me sad that we don't have adequate teaching methods where I work. I feel as though I were doing wrong to my own people. For this reason I like to teach first-graders, so that I can use my native language to help them. But I have never studied in my own language--all my education has been in Spanish.

Clara has experienced great changes in her way of living, but feels she retains a basic Tzeltal worldview that she will try to transmit to Indian students. At the same time she hopes to open her students' eyes to knowledge and opportunity outside the Indian community, specifically economic opportunity.

Bilingual Education Reform

For bilingual education reform to have meaning for its recipients, it must be a participatory, negotiated change focusing on local Indian needs. Educated indigenous women are participating in the organization and implementation of this type of change, offering their community greater educational and economic opportunity, while preserving respect for the Indian culture. As Indians, these women are subtly influencing change individually and collectively. Changes on an individual local level include role modeling and creating specific classroom activities to make education more meaningful to Indian students. Collectively women are organizing for economic and educational self-development through artisan cooperatives, educational radio programs, and health programs. These programs are funded by a variety of sources including international agencies, the SEP and other sections of the Mexican government.

Individually, teachers find they have to adjust the curriculum beyond translating textbook passages into an Indian language if they are to teach successfully. They rarely receive adequate materials, so they create lessons that make sense to their students. Experienced bilingual teachers, Martina, Dolores, and Gloria, describe their need to be resourceful in their classrooms. The ideas they expressed are representative of those of the indigenous teachers and administrators in the area.

Teacher education programs only teach us techniques for monolingual [Spanish] classes, techniques that cannot be used with indigenous communities. We have to adapt the curriculum so that the kids can understand it. There are subjects and things the kids will never understand because they have never seen some of the things in the textbooks--like traffic lights. Kids ask, "What's that?" Maybe one or two kids have been to the city, but most have not seen the traffic lights. (Martina)

We have to adapt the curriculum to the interests and abilities of the kids and their community. I would love to have more materials and books in our language because there are so few. We have to use natural materials, things we can find, but it would be nice to have more professionally developed materials. The Secretariat of Public Education sends very few materials. (Dolores)

We lack materials--we have to buy posters and crayons ourselves. Parents can contribute a little money, and what they give only helps for the first month or two. The SEP sends only one book, and it is very complex. Because it is so hard to explain to the children, we look for other ways to teach. (Gloria)

Some of the lesson adaptations bilingual teachers make reveal a dedication to an education that is based on the experiences of Indian children. Ana, a first-grade teacher, gave several examples of how she addressed the curriculum, using an Indian model.

In one lesson the book suggested that the class visit a factory in the city. Since there are no factories or cities nearby, I took them to a home where the people were weaving baskets, another where they were making wooden chairs, and a third where they were weaving cloth for the marketplace. With these examples, I could orient the students to rural and urban industry, showing them how they differ.

When I had to teach a unit on traffic lights and street safety, I had to change the activity, since there are no cars or streets in the mountain communities. So I taught them safety on the mountain footpaths. They learned how to deal with wild animals, farm animals, or snakes they might encounter on the paths. I do explain the traffic lights in the pictures, but their actual experiences are from the countryside.

For physical education, the plan of studies called for activities on the balance beam. So we used a bench in the classroom, because we had no professionally made balance beam.

Another teacher (Clara) fulfilled the textbook requirement to visit city factories in a similar way.

Kids out in the community have to visit factories as part of their education. But there aren't any here, so we visit households where carpenters or potters are working. We watch how they work. This is what I have done because there are lots of activities that are not possible in the Indian setting.

In the fourth grade, there is a lesson about a shoe factory. Most Indians don't wear shoes. So we need to explain about the city, so that when they leave their community, they do not feel so strange. We explain all the pictures and activities. We explain about the stop lights--when to wait for cars and when to cross the street--so they will know what to do if they go to the city.

Teachers frequently feel that their work is more difficult because the government refuses to recognize that bilingual classes have special needs.

We try to get ideas from the community, since we are rooted in the community. Our studies are based on what happens here, we work first with the students' world and value what is theirs. For instance, growing corn is essential [to their lives and religion], so we need to use this in the classroom. We talk about what corn is used for--tamales, tortillas, atole [indigenous foods made from corn]. We use pieces of dried colored corn to teach colors, we count them, and divide them. We use beans, too, things the children are accustomed to. (Luz, preschool teacher)

These adjustments to the curriculum guarantee that the Indian culture is incorporated into the students' education.

On a larger scale, indigenous teachers are working together to produce new structures for change, such as bilingual educational radio programs, parent-infant health programs, and artisan marketing programs. Through infant health programs, indigenous female teachers and administrators collaborate on creating programs that help parents provide more nutritious meals and more mentally stimulating activities for their children. Several administrators mentioned health education programs designed especially for Indian women and their children.

"Initial Education" deals with health, prenatal care, and nutrition for indigenous mothers and their babies. The teachers are women from the same community who are currently enrolled in a baccalaureate program for teachers. They show Indian mothers ways to promote greater psychological and physiological development in their children. The hours are flexible, so community women can decide which hours are best for them.

An Indian administrator described a bilingual radio program broadcast into Indian towns and settlements.

Recently I worked in a special program called "Radio Bilingüe," a program that supports bilingual education for Indian communities, under the direction of the SEP. I worked with two groups of bilingual teachers, first through sixth grade, and preschool, to make presentations for the radio program.

Educators at the university level and in administration are developing bilingual materials, specific programs, and teaching strategies to make education more meaningful to Indian children. While these programs are just in the initial stages, they indicate a growing awareness on the part of Indians to preserve cultural identity through an Indian voice in education. In addition, there are state level indigenous planners of curriculum and instruction working on similar projects for bilingual education. There are groups of educators working in the Department of Indian Education who are designing new bilingual programs and methods on the state level. They have taken suggestions from the teachers in the local areas and are working to incorporate these into the state educational structure. Still in the developmental stages, these projects show the direction Indian leadership is taking, one that has implications for future Indian education. A bilingual administrator spoke of this growing awareness among future generations of teachers:

There is a group of university students at the National University of Pedagogy in Mexico City. When they finish their studies, they would like to create a center here in Chiapas for research on bilingual education, and training for Indian educators. They hope to analyze programs, methods, and techniques for teaching, and form new programs that conform to the cultural and linguistic characteristics of each ethnic group.

Other programs deal specifically with economic diversification in Indian communities. Female Indian teachers work with community women to build their abilities for organizing and running cooperatives such as in bread-making, weaving, dressmaking, or knitting. The cooperatives help diversify the local economy, raise cash, and secure better diets and education for the women and their families.

Merced, a third grade teacher, told of a training program for women that she directs:

I give courses for women who want to organize themselves in collectives and the like. They need to know reading, writing, accounting, and how to get credit from the government, besides the specific production skills. Then they need to know how to deal with government stores where the collectives can sell their goods.

Dolores, a bilingual school principal, also encourages Indian parents to gain new skills with which to develop community self-sufficiency:

I have always given talks at parent meetings to raise their consciousness. It is important that they feel responsible themselves. For me, the most important thing for the community is that people learn different kinds of work. For example, where I work there are no carpenters, no barbers, nothing, and it would be good for them to take the responsibility to develop their own community. They should learn different skills, like electricity, carpentry, clothing making, or bread making, so that they can diversify and supply their own needs. Agriculture is all they know, and it is not enough.

In Mexico, bilingual indigenous teachers do not consider the teachers' union a collective means for reform. Rarely did teachers mention the teachers' union as an agent for change because of its close affiliation with the national government and the Secretariat of Public Education (Loyo 1993). Many agreed that the national teachers' union provided job security, but that it was not concerned with the quality of education, with educational opportunity for Indian students, or with the academic or professional needs of bilingual teachers.

Most female teachers saw the union as a male construct and basically irrelevant to their needs. Several female teachers expressed a negative attitude toward the union:

The teachers' movement and union are always fighting. I am not interested; I have never been for the union (Merced).

The unions don't seem to help, they are run by complacent people, who feel no need to change things (Gloria).

I am not interested in unions. As women, we do not need unions except when we are sick, then the union will defend us. But they defend men much more, men who have vices like drinking. Women do not have the same needs. Men seem to have more of a need to be defended. (Alma)

One radical collective manifestation of Indian-based reform is the Zapatista rebellion that began in January, 1994. The rebel movement (named for Emiliano Zapata, a Mexican peasant leader of the 1910 revolution) is an attempt to force issues of equity and pluralism onto the national political agenda. The rebel army, a coalition of Indian and mestizo peasants based in Chiapas, transcends ethnicity to reach a shared consciousness of oppression. While few Indian teachers actually took part in the armed rebellion, many support the rebels' goals.

A reported 30 percent of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de la Liberación Nacional, or EZLN) are women involved as combat soldiers, one becoming highly visible as an EZLN representative during the initial peace talks. Many more indigenous women, though, are affected as refugees or as victims. Rebel demands include greater indigenous representation in government, protection of the rights of indigenous people with a special focus on women's rights, and better educational facilities and programs in Indian areas. Widespread national and international support for the rebels' cause has compelled the Mexican government to acknowledge their demands.


Many more Indian girls in Chiapas now attend school regularly. As girls attend in greater numbers, many go on to become teachers themselves, creating an environment that is more comfortable and meaningful for female students. Previously, Indian culture defined one basic role (child-rearing and farming) for women. Schooling and teaching, now more available to girls and women, provide an acceptable professional role that is tied to the formal economy and promotes social status within their own community. Education is an important step toward greater autonomy and economic independence for women, and it helps elevate the abilities and aspirations of the whole community.

As teachers, women tend to encourage the maintenance of the Indian culture within the classroom, modeling an Indian core of values in the way they treat children and run their classrooms. They also have the ability to communicate and empathize with Indian parents, understanding their expectations of schooling. Female teachers broaden the possibilities for indigenous girls, respecting them as individuals and as Indians. However, as they help students succeed academically, their success brings them to greater acculturation to the mainstream culture, separating them from their original Indian culture. They recognize the danger of cultural loss as they move away from village life and become accustomed to life in urban areas. The risk of cultural loss is even greater for teachers' children who are further removed from Indian life since they live in cities and attend mestizo schools. As many Indians become bicultural, though, they develop a greater understanding of and appreciation for their original Indian culture, and seek to preserve it.

Women who become teachers experience changes in status and self-perception as they become leaders in their Indian communities. Entering the cash economy and controlling a consistent income enables them to care for their family and for themselves more successfully. Because of their extended education, teachers are respected in their villages and consulted on matters as divergent as health and politics. Indigenous women, who have traditionally been represented by their husbands in public, are beginning to see themselves and to be recognized as independent contributors to marriage, community, and the larger national economic system (Bronstein 1982; Modiano 1973).

The transformation of women's status is not separate from the transformation of society as a whole. Such a recognition is reflected in the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population. Since the last Conference, ten years earlier, U.N. conference planners have undergone an important ideological shift from "population control" to "women's empowerment" as a credible way to sustain the world's population (Knickerbocker 1994). This type of shift implies that women might be recognized as essential to their own development rather than as objects of an imposed national development program.

Indigenous Mayan women's contribution to the economic growth and higher quality of life for their families and themselves has become a focal point for national and international support (King and Hill 1993). Women are planning and participating in programs for other women such as parent-infant care, educational radio programs, and marketing programs for artisan goods. An acknowledgment of the elevation of women's status is basic to a healthy, stable nation. As Latin American indigenous women attain more formal education, they become more aware of their rights and better able to initiate programs that reinforce equity and community mobility.

*Susan Rippberger received her doctorate from the international and development education program at the University of Pittsburgh. She is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso in the Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations. Her research addresses reform, pluralism, diversity, and equity in bilingual and multiethnic education in Latin America and the U.S. She is especially interested in the process that official policy makers and local level practitioners go through as they negotiate educational change.


1. Such stereotypical descriptions do not define all mestizos, but do tend to characterize the long-time exploitative nature of mestizo-Indian relations in the highlands of Chiapas.

2. All names have been changed to allow anonymity. The fieldwork took place during the summers of 1992 and 1993.

3. Even though the government currently proclaims the richness of its country's cultural diversity, its policies persistently focus on assimilation.

4. Statistical evidence on Indian attendance is difficult to assess because the Mexican government does not distinguish between rural and urban attendance for girls. However, virtually everyone I spoke with, Indians and mestizos alike, indicated that there are many more Indian girls attending school now and that there are more women teachers in bilingual education than ever before.

5. The state of Chiapas has the smallest percentage of female teachers: 46 percent female, compared to a national average of 60 percent female (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática, 1991). While these statistics do not distinguish between monolingual and bilingual teachers, they hint at a trend acknowledged by the indigenous communities in Chiapas that indigenous men typically have been the teachers, and that only in the last few decades have women gone into teaching.


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