Indigenous Movements in Ecuador

The Struggle for Teaching Kichwa in Schools

By Nicholas Limerick

In October of 2019, Ecuador was thrust into the international spotlight. For nearly two weeks, a multitude of protesters in the capital of Quito demanded that President Lenín Moreno repeal decree number 883, which proclaimed the elimination of gas subsidies. The decree would raise the cost of many products from food to transportation. Bus fares in Quito alone were scheduled to increase by 60 percent. Moreno had accepted a loan from the International Monetary Fund, which forced Ecuador into austerity measures that would devastate many Ecuadorians, especially the poorest ones.

Ecuador’s Indigenous organizations were suddenly united against the measures. Though they have manifested significant divisions over the past 15 years, Indigenous mobilizers demanded a policy reversal as they filled the capital from near and far, including distant parts of the highlands and the Amazon. Moreno fled to the coastal city of Guayaquil and temporarily moved the capital there. The protests attempted to close off roads into and within Quito and other smaller cities throughout Ecuador. Using the counts of Indigenous organizations and independent media outlets, as tensions escalated, police violence was responsible for the deaths of at least eleven people, with thousands of others injured and still others imprisoned. In Quito, universities turned into zones of aid for the protestors, with hundreds of volunteers working around the clock to provide food and medical care. On October 14, 2019, in a meeting with representatives of Indigenous organizations and pueblos, as well as government officials, Moreno repealed the decree, and protests subsided. Indigenous organizations continue to demand the ouster of cabinet members who bared authority over police brutality, as well as the release of imprisoned protesters, at the time of this article’s publication. 

The strike is the latest example of how Indigenous movements have been key protagonists in effecting change in Ecuador, as well as how they have been a primary target of state violence and repression. In recent history, Indigenous schooling is another major political advance that has depended upon their struggle, protest, and legislative prowess. Though the most recent protests focused, directly, on economic policy, one of the most overlooked triumphs of Indigenous movements is that in 1988 activists pressured then-president Rodrigo Borja to establish a second national public school system for Indigenous students. Members of Indigenous pueblos and nationalities would direct the school system, which came to be called intercultural bilingual education, the primary institutional label for Indigenous education throughout the Andes and Latin America in general. Since its founding, intercultural bilingual education in Ecuador has become a national infrastructure of schools that would provide culturally relevant curriculum for students and would promote Kichwa and Ecuador’s other 11 or so Indigenous languages. It began around a decade earlier than national intercultural bilingual planning went into effect in Bolivia, which is also well known for Indigenous education. 

Over the next 30 years, the system grew to approximately 2,500 schools and has employed more than 10,000 teachers. According to official calculations, more than 75 percent of students belong to the Kichwa nationality, the largest Indigenous group in Ecuador. Indigenous planners and teachers made schools open to a more diverse student body with better prepared teachers and administrators to support Indigenous students and their families. Many teachers speak a variety of Kichwa, the most frequently spoken Indigenous language family in Ecuador (called Quechua in Bolivia and in Peru, the Americas). In the agreement to set up the school system, there was a requirement that employees speak Kichwa or another Indigenous language, further attempting to integrate Indigenous language use with schooling.

While the recent mobilizations unified several Indigenous movements, the project of intercultural bilingual education illustrates the range of diversity in backgrounds and ideas among those who participate in it. Major challenges exist to reaching unified strategies, indicating the remarkably high level of dissent against the recent economic policy. The multiplicity of perspectives has much to do with how authority emerges in the spaces of policymaking and schooling. For example, one significant challenge of intercultural bilingual education involves schooling itself. As in cases in other parts of the world, scholars of language revitalization have considered a salient question: Can schools (as opposed to other forms of organizing) be used to halt Indigenous language shift to Spanish? Schools have long served as state pedagogical institutions that attempt to assimilate students to a racial majority. Yet, now with intercultural bilingual education, planners and teachers aim to re-configure schools to teach Indigenous languages and support diverse forms of teaching. For many reasons, the answer is somewhat mixed. For example, early on when the school system was founded, parents were, understandably, suspicious of schooling in general and how it might be part of how states have long used schooling for assimilationist projects. They questioned who had authority for teaching their children.

A number of other challenges have arisen over the years, such as that most of intercultural bilingual schooling primarily occurs in Spanish. Like situations of schooling in non-dominant languages elsewhere, parents have been concerned that their children learn Spanish as a means to a less difficult life. Yet, academic research has shown how this concern is misleading, as learning Spanish is not mutually exclusive with learning Kichwa for several reasons. For instance, marginalized students experience an unequal society regardless of the primary language in which they study. Also, if students understand instructions better in their first language, they are more likely to succeed at school. Another dimension of dissent in previous years was around ideas about where and with whom Indigenous languages should be spoken. Parents routinely described Kichwa as a more intimate language spoken between people of confidence and questioned changing linguistic practices in school instruction.  

In recent years, other difficulties have emerged around how to teach Kichwa within intercultural bilingual education. In many intercultural bilingual schools, if Indigenous languages are taught, they usually include around an hour per week of instruction as a subject. However, because of increasing language shift to Spanish in families and communities, many children arrive to school speaking Spanish as their primary language, and limited instruction is not enough to become conversant in Kichwa. Further, while Kichwa is more commonly promoted at school, some of this promotion tends towards showcasing the fact the language is being taught instead of towards systematic teaching. In many intercultural bilingual schools, for example, there are posters describing the names of colors in Kichwa, or depicting a Kichwa alphabet. One might also find the use of dialogues for instruction in which students learn greetings or songs. Kichwa proficiency would require an expanded set of pedagogies. Moreover, schools have tended to teach content that is similar to the main school system, which means that practices like weaving or storytelling are largely absent. The school system is currently trying to find new ways to teach Kichwa for students who may need systematic instruction and is training more teachers in Kichwa linguistics in order to teach Kichwa as a second language. 

Another major challenge to uniting around how intercultural bilingual is taught has to do with education policy from national offices. Planning has often involved focusing on writing as a means to make Kichwa comparable to other languages throughout the world. In my ethnographic research with the school system, I routinely heard coordinators emphasize that people can speak differently but that they should write in a standardized variety of Kichwa called Unified Kichwa. This idea turned out to be a divisive one. Many teachers and parents speak different varieties of Kichwa, especially as linked to the region where they grew up. The new words of standardized Kichwa, or the different grammatical forms, are widely disliked by teachers and parents and are sometimes unintelligible to them. This challenge has meant that textbooks for the school system, written in Unified Kichwa, can remain shrink-wrapped on shelves. Furthermore, many teachers and parents believe such forms of language planning to be prescriptive of how they should speak. Uniting a diverse set of speakers does not occur around just a language, as such, but rather foregrounds one way of speaking a language over many others, which shows the constraints of “national” schooling projects and materials. 

Yet another challenge to unity is coordinating intercultural bilingual education within the offices of the Ministry of Education. Former president Rafael Correa moved the planning offices of intercultural bilingual education within the Ministry of Education in 2009. While many Kichwa educational activists spent years working unpaid in rural communities throughout the country, they now press their finger to a machine in order to clock into office work in the morning and out in the evening, as do other Ministry of Education employees. Salaries are fixed and paid out like most other state offices. Yet, others with more precarious jobs, such as parents, may decry fixed hours and salaries as uprooting schooling as a project of passion and struggle and, further, that the office work prevents directors from involvement in schools throughout the country. 

A major irony of working within national state offices is that even though such employment requires planning for Kichwa schooling and use, it is challenging to routinely speak Kichwa in this environment. National-level planners work in Quito, where most interactions occur in Spanish, and have lived there for years. Additionally, there are not yet widely used words in Kichwa to talk about many of the bureaucratic and legal procedures of office work. Those words tend be borrowed from Spanish or invented and known to few people. On the political front, however, speaking Kichwa in office spaces is helpful for reminding mestizo employees that Kichwa has been recognized in the constitution as a language of “intercultural relation.” Yet, some Ministry officials are hostile towards Kichwa-speaking, and speaking totally in Kichwa in public speeches may be construed as rude because mestizo Spanish speakers who are audience members do not understand. As a remedy for this dilemma, planners often speak with greetings in Kichwa to open speeches. However, Kichwa-speaking audience members may critique the greetings because they constitute use of standardized Kichwa. Others may lament that Kichwa is curtailed. The activities of coordinating the school system make it difficult to actually speak Kichwa.

The case of intercultural bilingual education offers an example of the challenges to schools, including the vast that were overcome in Ecuador’s successful recent protests. In recent years, politicians have fostered and stoked division to magnify dissent across Indigenous movements, such as the case of Correa. He routinely labeled directors of Indigenous movements as elite, attempting to describe their employment (such as receiving a fixed middle-class salary) as something of immense personal gain. He would also sometimes speak Kichwa himself in speeches, blurring the boundaries of who can use Indigenous languages for political appeal. His administration understood that Indigenous organizations in Ecuador are not monolithic, and it magnified those ruptures. For example, the ideas of members of Indigenous movements often differ from those of directors, or one Indigenous movement may have quite different agendas from others. The most prominent organization, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), has a far more radical political agenda than the Council of Indigenous Evangelical Pueblos and Organizations of Ecuador (FEINE). CONAIE has had more influence on intercultural bilingual education, which other organizations have protested. 

In sum, intercultural bilingual education illustrates Ecuador’s Indigenous movements’ effectiveness in mass mobilization and political acumen. It also demonstrates an acute version of the challenges that such movements face, especially as directors move into positions of eminent power within the state’s dominant institutions. Schooling has been a primary arena in which divisions are inherent to its practice. Intercultural bilingual education shows a number of the complexities behind political unification and national organizing, and the use of Kichwa and the future of Indigenous languages is bound up within these larger challenges. 


Nicholas Limerick is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology & Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.