When School Cancellation Means Return to a War Zone

By Mneesha Gellman

Photos by Mneesha Gellman

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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.

Public art from International Women’s Day, March 8, 2020, Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca, Mexico

Lupita’s (a pseudonym) family saw her attendance at the Bachillerato Integral Comunitario Numero Uno (BIC1 hereafter), 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. 

Foráneos, foreigners, as students like Lupita are referred to by fellow schoolmates, rent rooms from Guelatao families and live on their own all year, except for summer and winter breaks when they return home. Many foráneos work for local families in the fields or in shops on weekends or after school. They depend on that income, along with government scholarships, to pay their school fees, meals and rent. Ranging from 14- to 18-years-old, students from the Sierra Sur, including Lupita, had many other high school options closer to home. But BIC1 represents an indigenous-grounded curricula in a generally tranquil part of Oaxaca state, where families know their children can be away from the violence consuming the Amoltepec region while advancing their education and their indigenous identities.

Colegio Superior Para La Educación Integral Intercultural de Oaxaca, Calenda (Parade) International Mother Tongue Day, February 19, 2020, Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca, Mexico


Researching education, documenting violence

My research for the last several years has focused on the politics of education for indigenous high school-aged students in Oaxaca, Mexico, and comparatively, in northern California. My ongoing project documents how education policies have forced assimilation of minority students into the norms of dominant majorities—mestizos in Oaxaca and whites in California. I particularly look at how indigenous students are resisting policies and practices of culturecide, or cultural genocide. I didn’t set out to document how Oaxaca’s internal migration impacts school experience, nor how Covid-19 disrupted it, but stories like Lupita’s connect into a larger matrix about cultures of discrimination at school that overlap with political, ethnic, and gender-based violence in communities.

Through collaborative methodology, rather novel for my discipline of political science though widely practiced by scholars in other fields, I have been working with stakeholders, including teachers, administrators and indigenous leaders, to assess the significance of indigenous language access in public schools. Specifically, I study the role that the formal education sector—meaning the institutions that compose credentialed schools—plays in youth identity formation and civic, cultural and political participation. In other words, my research considers how schooling shapes young people into the adults they are in the process of becoming. Like many researchers, Covid-19 upended my carefuly made plans for collaboration and reporting back to the communities I work with. School directors now have to focus on keeping their students both engaged in online learning—a challenge in the low-internet realities of rural, indigenous villages—as well as alive by ensuring they still receive the scholarships that feed them.

Bachillerato Integral Comunitario Número Uno, delegación estudiantil, Calenda (Parade) International Mother Tongue Day, February 19, 2020, Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca, Mexico

Curricular offerings, educational media content, and teacher ability to be culturally relevant all influence youth identity and participation. So do a host of other variables like family, school, and community environment, socio-economic status, trauma levels, mental health, and migration histories. What my research shows is the way that indigenous language class access, for example multilingual indigenous language classes at BIC1 that facilitate student research of their own heritage languages, increases the wellbeing of all students. This classroom learning that validates youth resistance to mestizo assimilation promotes self-esteem for heritage-speakers. It also increases intercultural competency and interest in being allies for those non-indigenous who are nevertheless connected to their culture. Lupita, as a native speaker of Mixtec, was enrolled in an indigenous language class built to facilitate student research into a language of their choosing, alongside Chinantec-speakers and non-speaker Zapotec students. Each got something different out of the class, but access to the class had a universally positive affect on their self-identities.

Many people are now familiar with the genocidal role of boarding schools for indigenous children in the countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia, and there are similar effects in indigenous people from internment schools in Mexico. In addition, widespread physical abuse for speaking indigenous languages in public day schools in Mexico affected nearly all of the more than eighty students I interviewed across four Oaxaca schools. I have written elsewhere about how states rely on the assimilationist practices of schools to form future citizens as part of democratization. Classrooms and educational material such as textbooks are sites where myths of nation-building are passed on from one generation to the next. Schools reinforce dominant ideas about in-groups and out-groups, and shape the norms and expectations for what it means to belong in society.

Even at schools like BIC1, where the entire student body identifies as indigenous-descendent to some degree, social hierarchies operate to sort students according to degrees of indigeneity, with accolades given to those who are taller, whiter and speak better Spanish, while those who are shorter, darker and speak Spanish with an accent are sometimes made fun of for being “too indigenous.” Though often done in teasing ways that take the form of light joking for the sake of engagement or even flirting, students on the receiving end of these comments, in the confidentiality of anonymous interviews, do report feeling hurt by the comments, and questing to better “blend in.”

Entrance to San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca, Mexico

Being teased about the degree of her indigenous visibility might seem quite apart from Lupita’s experience of fleeing Amoltepec to go to high school, or what the repercussions are for her since Covid-19 required that she go back, but it is connected. In Amoltepec, as in many communities throughout Mexico, political power divisions over access to resources are divided as much along racial lines as they are along family allegiances or other markers of identity. Mexico’s dominant political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), has long cultivated local caudillos, or strongmen, and provided them with paramilitary support to direct local politics, including local resource control, in their favor. Such support tends to operate along racialized or indigenous identity-based lines, with those who are more culturally assimilated siding with the PRI. Such dynamics are widely known in Oaxaca, where cases such as that of autonomy-seeking Triqui from San Juan Copala or environmental activists in Calendaria Loxicha have been targeted for assassination to prevent their claims on or protections of natural resources.


Covid’s impact on internal migrant students

Lupita was thrilled to be at BIC1, where, as she put it, at least she didn’t fear for her life, and her scholarship allowed her to eat without taking food away from her siblings. And most of the time, she was engrossed in her studies, learning algebra alongside agronomy, learning how to turn a blackberry garden into an income-generating business. She studied her own Mixtec language alongside English in her language classes, and was interested in the utility of both. Lupita felt she could handle a few verbal insults—they bounced off her and she could take it, no problem. Watching her family member die from bullets shot by oppositional community members in her hometown—that was much harder. 

Oaxaca schools, like schools in much of Mexico, closed their physical doors in mid-March 2020. Students began the conversion to online learning, and students like Lupita moved home to a far more uncertain physical environment than boarding in Guelatao. I was in Oaxaca as a U.S. García-Robles Fulbright Fellow in January through March 2020. My fellowship was supposed to go through June, but following the March 19 U.S. State Department’s Level Four Do Not Travel advisory, Fulbright cancelled all programs worldwide and remanded Fellows back to their countries of origin. Covid-19 is devastating for so many people throughout the world, so I won’t linger on my own grief at having fieldwork cut short. I now need to figure out how to share back the stories that were already entrusted to me. But during my own sheltering-in-place, I realized I still had more than a dozen completed permission forms from students at BIC1 to participate in interviews, and I revised my Institutional Review Board permission to pivot and be able to speak to them from a distance.

Roadside sign pointing the way to BIC1

Engaging with students via internet communication technology is far more difficult than walking up to them at school and inviting them to come talk. Internet in one student’s home village was so bad that we decided to do the interview via chat, since the audio and delay on Whatsapp made a conversation untenable. Another student had only a squeaky phone line with a bad delay, so it was impossible to get a sense of body language or facial expressions that I generally rely on to keep conversations well-paced. Students from BIC1 rely on Whatsapp to exchange regular assignments with their teachers, sometime going to great lengths to get a signal. Nevertheless, the six students I interviewed remotely felt confident they could finish up the school year this way. 

Despite its temporary viability, Lupita’s story, which is a story for many across Latin America, the United States, and elsewhere, is that school closures from Covid-19 have made her less secure. There are many shared problems with students globally, including lack of economic resources and difficulty to focus on her studies and goals in the midst of her family’s needs. And there are a few bright spots, like her ability to spend time with her grandmother, a Mixtec speaker, and practice with her what she had been studying at BIC1 in her indigenous language class. But the context of violence in Amoltepec lends her Covid-19 displacement experience a particular edge, and one I haven’t been able to shake long after our interview ended. 

The formal K-12 education sector in Mexico is riddled with problems. It is corrupt, it isn’t educating to the degree it should, and it certainly hasn’t fulfilled the promise of bilingual, intercultural education for indigenous children that it lays out on paper. In fact, formal education systems in Mexico and the United States perpetuate culturecide, and curricular shake-ups like indigenous language access are a means of resistance. For students from Oaxaca’s Sierra Sur, who found their way to BIC1 in pursuit of a high school education free from violence, being sent back to their home community because of Covid-19 has put them in danger once again. How long it will be before they can return to school, and to safety, is anyone’s guess.


Mneesha Gellman is Associate Professor of Political Science at Emerson College, where she also directs the Emerson Prison Initiative. Her manuscript in process is Culture Kids: Indigenous Resistance and Language Survival in Mexico and the United States