We Want Public Education!

Education on the Agenda of Bolivian Indigenous Peoples Movement

by | Oct 29, 2011

An indigenous child holding a prized piece of candy.

An indigenous child exhibits a prized piece of candy. Photo by Winifred Parker

“We Want Public Education” has been a decades-long call among the Bolivian indigenous peoples’ public demands. It represents thousands of voices, thousands of women and men looking for the right to have access to school. We had to organize our communities to request schools and teachers from the national governments. For endless years the indigenous leaders traveled to the cities asking for one teacher or a new school, over and over again. We had to bring gifts to the authorities in order to gain one teacher for our communities. Sometimes our needs for education became good business for bad authorities. But today, our past requests are legal rights. This article tells about the indigenous movement that achieved intercultural bilingual education for everybody in the country.

We Want Public Education!

The following story illustrates the challenges that confronted our quest for education. Alberta Quispe (my mother) was an indigenous woman, Aymara and Bolivian, who was born before 1952. At that time indigenous people did not have any right to an education or to citizenship. Indigenous men and women were predestined to be workers, employees, and servants. They were considered incapable of abstract thought, or understanding civilization and modernity. Alberta dreamed of going to school all her life to learn to read and write. But she was excluded from receiving an education by an institutionalized and racist national political system. However, the girl had a thirst for knowledge that went beyond the limitations of history, and she learned from the knowledge of Andean Aymara women. In the cities, Alberta saw the causes of the indigenous women’s situation and subjugation as they remained poor and illiterate. This led Alberta to become involved in social movements and in the struggles for education.

In the 1980s, Bolivia’s government issued Decree 21060, which threatened to privatize education, and this in turn stimulated social movement to defend public education. At that time, Alberta was living in El Alto city, a municipality that connects La Paz with the altiplano. She had been diagnosed with cancer, but all her thoughts were concentrated on finding a good education for her children and grandchildren; she understood the importance of education for all indigenous people, for indigenous women, and for the entire Bolivian society. The following is an excerpt from the narrative of Alberta’s last experience organizing for education:

Yesterday we had a meeting at the neighborhood council. We were informed by the federation (FEJUVE) about the Decree. We were told we should defend public education by marching. Nobody wanted to move, then I decided to speak and I said: I am an old woman. I am sick and tired but I will take to the streets with the leaders to defend the education of our wawas (children). Where are the men? Will you go with us or not? Then, one by one they began to join the march until finally everybody decided to go. After finishing the meeting we all went to the streets. On the way we met people from other areas and neighborhoods. I did not have time to change into my city clothes and I thought: What will my friends think if they see me looking like a country bumpkin? But we had to keep walking. Reaching the city, our social movement caused chaos, the cars could not move and people began to be angry and upset. Then I heard two chotas (city women) say: these ignorant Indians bother us! I turned my head to the crowd and shouted aloud: Yes, we are ignorant Indians! So, what do we want?! And they all shouted: Public Education! (La Paz, Alberta Quispe, 1986)

Yes, education had been on the agenda of indigenous peoples for hundreds of years. Education was seen as a right and an opportunity to become citizens. Indigenous women felt the effects most. According to National Statistical Institute (INE, 2001), in Bolivia the female illiteracy rate is 19.35 percent while the male is 6.94 percent. In the rural areas female illiteracy is 37.91 percent, male is 14.42 percent. In the last five years literacy campaigns have lowered female illiteracy rates.

Public Policies for Indigenous Education

Since the National Revolution (1952) indigenous peoples in Bolivia have had the right to education. Education was considered the main instrument for consolidating the country. However, it was also used to assimilate the population. Local languages were to be used only for the purpose of teaching the dominant language, Spanish. This educational goal was reinforced in the Educational Code of 1955.

Article 115 – The literacy action will predominate in areas where indigenous languages, using the native language as a vehicle for learning immediately from Castilian, as a necessary factor of national linguistic integration. To this effect will be adopted phonetic alphabets that save the greatest possible similarity with the Castilian language alphabet (emphasis added). Article 120 – The fundamental objectives of rural education are:

1. Develop good habits in the farmers’ life, with regard to their eating habits, hygiene and health, shelter, clothing and personal and social behavior.

2. Promote functional literacy training through the use and mastery of the basic tools of learning: reading, writing and arithmetic.

3. Teach farmers to be good agricultural workers, trained in the use of renewable systems of crops and animal farming.

4. Encourage and develop their technical vocational skills by teaching the basics of rural industries and handicrafts in their region, enabling the earning of a living through productive manual labour.

5. Cultivate love of the traditions, folklore and national popular applied art by developing their aesthetic sense. Prevent and eradicate the practices of alcoholism, the use of coca, superstitions and prejudices prevailing in agriculture, through science education.

6. Develop the farmers’ civic awareness so they can participate actively in the process of economic and cultural development of the nation. (National Educational Code 1955)

The National Educational Code of 1955 was designed to assimilate indigenous people into the Bolivian mainstream to benefit the dominant class.

The indigenous people in Bolivia developed diverse strategies to resist and persist. After 1955 many indigenous started to go to school, some to the Superior Normal Institutes (teachers) and a few to the public universities. Even though the indigenous professionals were taught from the assimilation perspective, they used their knowledge to help the indigenous movement. The first Aymara students were present at the emblematic indigenous meeting in the Andes and help to write a most important document during the military dictatorship in the 1970’s, as follows:

Tiwanaku Manifesto (1973)

We, Quechua and Aymara farmers, just as members of other native cultures of the country, feel economically exploited and culturally and politically oppressed. In Bolivia there has not been an integration of cultures but rather only a layering and domination, maintaining us in the lowest and most exploited stratum in the social pyramid.

The education [we receive] only seeks to convert the Indian into a species of mixed person without definition or personality, but it also pursues his assimilation into the western and capitalist culture.

Neither our virtues nor our own vision of the world have been respected […] our culture and our mentality have not been respected.

The document also declared that despite the lack of respect, indigenous knowledge was alive.

In order to construct a model of education rooted in indigenous knowledge and wisdom the indigenous professionals looked to the past and studied the Ayllu Warisata School that was active from 1931 to 1940. The school emerged from the spirit and philosophy of clandestine schools that began in 1905 in order to promote the freedom and autonomy of indigenous communities. Aymara cacique Avelino Siñani and teacher Elizardo Pérez spearheaded the Warisata School, which promoted certain values and visions about education and the Bolivian state. Students at the school divided their days between productive work, community service, and classes. A council of Amawt’as (Aymara wise people) assumed responsibility for decisions about school life. This experience was quickly replicated in other indigenous communities in the Andes and in the Amazon. In 1940 the Warisata School was closed by the national government because it was seen as a threat to the status quo.

The Educational Proposal Woven by Amazonian and Andean Indigenous Peoples

“We want education” is still the indigenous women’s demand in Bolivia. However, the question is: what kind of education? The answer is not simple or easy. The experiences of indigenous peoples have opened a complex and diverse scenery that demands a new educational model, new curricula, and new vision about Bolivia.

All of Bolivia’s indigenous people came together in a huge organization (2006) called the Indigenous Block with representatives from the Amazon and the Andes. Led by Indigenous Educational Councils (CEPOs), the Indigenous Block drew up an education proposal after a wide consultation with all indigenous communities in the country. The result was the book entitled A Native Indigenous Education Aiming towards Ideological, Political, Territorial and Cultural Self-determination. This book was the most important input for designing the new law on education in Bolivia in 2006, under the presidency of Evo Morales.

The Ministry of Education organized a committee to write the new education law in March of 2006. The committee included 21 members from social, educational, and indigenous peoples’ organizations. I was a member of this historical process and I can testify to how hard it was to achieve final agreements. Every sector presented its educational political agenda. The committee collected the proposals and gathered educational experiences from different institutions. The final version of the new education law was named “Avelino Sinani and Elizardo Pérez” document in tribute to the pioneers of the Ayllu Warisata School.

In 2006, the National Congress on Education reviewed and approved the draft of the Law of the New Bolivian Education. The bill was presented to the president and then to the national parliament. Finally, it was approved in December of 2010.

The educational law was written during a time of structural changes in Bolivia, drawn up before the new constitution. However, since a few participants in the design of the educational law were members of the Constituent Assembly, some articles from the New Constitution overlap with the new educational law.

The following are some articles from the each of the documents that shows how much the indigenous people achieved in the area of language policies and education.

National Constitution

Article 5. I. State Official languages are Spanish and all indigenous languages which are Aymara, Araona, Baure, Bésiro, Canichana, Cavineño, Cayubaba, Chacobo, Chiman, Esse Ejja, Guarani, Guarasua’we, Guarayu, Itonama, Leco, Machajuyai-Kallawaya, Machineri, Maropa, Mojeño-Trinitario, Mojeño- Ignaciano, Mosetén, Movima, Moré, Pacawara, Puquina, Quechua, Sirionó, Tacana, Tapiete, Toromona, Uru-Chipaya, Weenhayek, Yaminawa, Yuki, Yurakare and Zamuco.

II. The plurinational and departmental governments should use at least two official languages. One of them should be Spanish, and the other will be decided taking into account the use, convenience, circumstances, needs and preferences of the population as a whole or the territory in question. Other autonomies should use the languages of their territories, and one of them must be Spanish.

New Education Law

These changes in Bolivian law will be controlled by the social organization and Indigenous Educational Councils (CEPOs.) This control covers the entire national educational system, including universities. CEPOs have specific functions such as participating in formulating educational policies, and ensuring the implementation and enforcement of intracultural, intercultural and multilingual education from planning to evaluation.

Indigenous adults are organized and connected with the educational process in their communities or schools in the cities. Various elders were also called to contribute their knowledge, so that knowledge from many indigenous communities will now become part of the mandatory national curriculum. Therefore, Bolivia will have a national curriculum that will provide intercultural education to all the citizens. Also, every indigenous nation will have the opportunity to write its own curriculum, using its specific knowledge, time, space, didactical process, and criteria for evaluation, etc. This is a veritable cultural revolution and a huge challenge for people in the government and people in the communities. It is a historic opportunity to assemble much knowledge together, including the indigenous knowledge.

Fall 2011Volume XI, Number 1
Luz Jiménez Quispe is an Aymara woman from Bolivia, educator and anthropologist. Currently she is a Doctoral Student in the Educational College of the University of Arizona.

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