Snapshot: Mneesha Gellman (Mexico, 2019/20)

Jun 29, 2020
Photo of ceremonial parade to celebrate International Mother Tongue Day
CSEIIO's ceremonial parade to celebrate International Mother Tongue Day, 2020, Oaxaca, Mexico

Messages of dominant cultural values are communicated through language regimes, curricula, and daily practices within schools. [...] Education can be a mechanism of acculturation that, while imparting many valuable skills, furthers culturecide for indigenous students


COVID-19's impact on education in Oaxaca, Mexico

As I write in my recent article, going to school can be dangerous for some students. Classrooms and campuses, as well as transit to and from them, can be spaces of physical violence including gang violence and harassment. Silences or misrepresentation of minority identities in school curricula act as more subtle, but no less nefarious, forms of violence. For students at one high school in Oaxaca, Mexico though, school was a safe harbor that let them get away from the violent politics that constitute a form of civil war in their hometowns. Until COVID-19 sent them home. I’ll share the story of one student I interviewed who I feature in the ReVista article.

Lupita’s (a pseudonym) family saw her attendance at the Bachillerato Integral Comunitario Numero Uno (BIC1), in San Pablo Guelatao, in Oaxaca’s Sierra Juárez mountain range, as an escape from the violence of her home community in the Sierra Sur of Oaxaca. BIC1 is part of a system of 48 schools throughout the state, mostly situated in rural and indigenous-majority communities, that offer indigenous culture-oriented curricula alongside state and national education requirements. Such curricula include two years of mandatory indigenous language classes, one of the only high school systems in Mexico where such classes are available. 

At BIC1, 60 percent of the student body is made up of students from just one municipality in the Sierra Sur, Santiago Amoltepec, more than nine hours away. Amoltepec—a predominantly indigenous Mixtec community—has been rife with conflict over governmental authority and resource control for years, manifesting as blood feuds between families and political groups. Gang-like groups from rival factions carry out targeted assassinations against each other. 

For Lupita and students like her, going to school meant the chance to get away from community violence and focus on their education. With government scholarships funding a rented room and a partial meal plan in the school cafeteria, school provided a stability unknown to her in her hometown, where her mother scraped to provide for herself and her siblings after her father was killed in the civil conflict.

The trauma on young people at these critical identity formation moments should not be underestimated. For students from middle-class homes free from violence, COVID-closed schools may feel like a nice vacation. For many others, it constitutes the forced return to danger.

Photo of Mneesha Gellman at BIC1
Mneesha Gellman meets with BIC 01 Director Paul Romario Santiago Castillejos in his office, Guelatao, Oaxaca

The trauma on young people at these critical identity formation moments should not be underestimated. For students from middle-class homes free from violence, COVID-closed schools may feel like a nice vacation. For many others, it constitutes the forced return to danger.


Indigenous language learning

All people have a right to obtain an education, as articulated in the United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As defined in Article 26, “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace” (UN, 1948).

This aspirational goal of education as something that can promote the “full development of the human personality” has time and again been undermined by racist and nationalistic agendas that promote homogenous sets of characteristics for worthwhile citizenship. Yet it is important for the collective human conscious that such rights exist, albeit as aspiration. The Mexican Constitution has embraced the right to education for all in Article Three, and the right to indigenous autonomy and cultural expression in Article Two. By contrast, the United States Constitution contains no right to education or cultural diversity beyond religion.

In my examination of educational systems in Oaxaca and California, my research shows the insidious ways that norms and values of the dominant culture are embedded in and play out through young people. Messages of dominant cultural values are communicated through language regimes, curricula, and daily practices within schools and the wider communities. As youth form their independent identities and struggle to determine not just who they are in the world, but how they will participate it in, the role of public sector education should not be seen as a benign universal good. Education as a right in the UDHR is good for everyone. In its implementation, however, education can be a mechanism of acculturation that, while imparting many valuable skills, furthers culturecide for indigenous students.

Social and curricular exclusion has major impact on the self-esteem of indigenous children (Lara-Cooper, 2019: 31). This exclusion is not an evitable process, but rather, as my research shows, exclusion is the logical outcome of state language regimes and agendas of culturecide embedded in formal education. Practices of exclusion can be at least partially rectified through education policy interventions, and larger inclusive societal interventions as well.


Building a social conscience

My parents deserve much credit for instilling values of appreciation for diversity in me at a young age. They were respectfully interested in Native American traditions during my growing up, and also used to drive my sister and I down to Mexico for camping trips when we were small, where I remember feeling very confronted by the inequality I saw, but didn’t yet know how to process it. Those were seeds of interest in different ways of living planted, that really grew in high school when I became involved in the local environmental movement, which in the 1990s in Humboldt County was focused on protecting old growth Redwood trees. Between this movement and the then-illegality of Humboldt’s prime export crop of marijuana, I had people close to me incarcerated and became very involved in interventions for people in the criminal justice system – this eventually lead to me founding the Emerson Prison Initiative.

After high school, I took my backpack and went to Mexico, lingering in Oaxaca and Chiapas, soaking in the energy of the Zapatista revolution that was still novel in 1998. And yet as the years went by, I always went back to Humboldt County because the more skills I gained in my education, the more I was able to process about the inequality, silences, and misinformation I saw all around me both in California and also in Oaxaca, Mexico. My current project is based in a desire to give back to communities something that is useful to them, where I can use my fancy academic learning to actually make a positive community impact. I have continued traveling to both places for years, and people’s resilience in the face of chronic injustice and inequality continues to inspire me to work for a more equitable peaceful coexistence.


Mneesha Gellman is Associate Professor of Political Science in the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College. Her current research looks at cultural resilience and education policy for high school and college-aged students in relation to heritage language access in northern California and Oaxaca Mexico. Her Fulbright project in Oaxaca, Mexico in spring 2020 was titled “Culture Kids: Language and Education Politics in Mexico and the United States".

Gellman’s first book, Democratization and Memories of Violence: Ethnic Minority Social Movements in Mexico, Turkey, and El Salvador (Routledge 2017) examines how ethnic minority communities use memories of violence in mobilizations for cultural rights, particularly the right to mother tongue education. Gellman is also the founder and Director of the Emerson Prison Initiative, which brings college classes into a Massachusetts prison, and she serves as an expert witness in US asylum cases for people from Mexico and El Salvador.


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