Liberating Education and Race: The Stunning Proof of Change

Emiliano Panjoj is just one example of the potential of indigenous people in the world to succeed, indeed excel, when given the opportunity.  Below, speaking at a meeting.  As a Maya K’iche’ person he grew up in a Guatemalan population of indigenous peoples historically despised by the dominant “ladinos” who were descended, in part, from the Spanish OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAconquerors.  They, who were themselves of mixed DNA, distanced their lives from the indigenous by calling themselves “ladinos,” rather than the more accurate “mestizos” (mixed race).  Their stance was to think of themselves as a superior race—given, as they chose to think, that the racial mixing took place so long ago as to be meaningless in the modern world.  In their stereotypes ladinos named the indigenous as “indios” (Indians), as unfit for anything but manual labor and inappropriate to educate.  In that society the Maya were essentially enslaved to work in the coffee, cane and cotton plantations for the dominant ladino owners.

“Race relations” (a complicated term) have changed in Guatemala, but in ways that have recognizable parallels in the United States.  Charles Hale, in a fascinating book, notes that “Beginning in the 1980’s and into the current century, the dominant ladino culture adopted a new discourse regarding the indigenous population, which spoke of the indigenous as equals and affirmed their culture.” [He] argues, however, that “their politics lagged behind their discourse, and ladinos were loath to give up their dominance in the racial hierarchy.  While this stance of ‘racial ambivalence,’” as [he] calls it, “represented superficial progress, it stopped well short of equality in the structural control of power and social status.  Indians who stayed within the bounds of the now-accepted indigenous expression of cultural practice were indios permitidos (permitted Indians).  But those who pushed toward genuine equality were [feared as] ‘the insurrectionary Indian’ bent on vengeance, according to ladino fantasy.  Thus, racism continued in a changed garb, with continued economic exploitation and ladino dominance of the indigenous.”*
Yet young people like Emiliano came along in Santa María Tzeja and elsewhere who challenged the long-standing fantasies of the dominant ladinos.  He was the first from SMT to graduate from the national university, a rigorous six-year program.  Beyond Emiliano with his award Best thesis of 2006that, however, in the career field he studied he graduated first in his class and his undergraduate thesis was judged the best of 104 submitted in 2006, the year he graduated.  (In the photo at the left, Emiliano is holding the medallion he received for the best thesis.) This was a fantasy-cracking achievement.  His thesis was judged so highly, in part, because he worked closely with the parental generation in thinking about how they could make better use of their land.  He, born of word-illiterate but deeply knowledgable peasant-parents, used satellite images to view the land from perspectives that led to judgments about how the land could be best used for income-generating purposes.  But he combined that high-tech expertise with a deep appreciation of the indigenous knowledge of his largely illiterate parental generation, which had developed over prior generations.  Rather than seek his own fortune with some multinational company, he returned to his home community, where he taught science and math in the middle school as one way of paying back to the community from which he felt he had gained so much.   He gave leadership in the village.  He ran for office and was elected to the regional governing body as a member of the revolutionary party.  His rising career bears following.
Now the village has 18 university graduates in agronomy, law, medicine, education, architecture, and journalism, with many more graduates expected in the immediate years ahead.  This is an extraordinary story, unmatched by other indigenous villages in the country.  As these beneficiaries of liberating education continue to rise in their careers they will bring increasing challenges to the fantasies of those loath to give up their culturally dominant fantasies.
*Charles Hale, Mas que un Indio/More than an Indian. (Santa Fe, N. M., School of American Research Press, 2006, quoted in, Clark Taylor, Seeds of Freedom: Liberating Education in Guatemala. (Denver, Paradigm Publishers, 2014)
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One response to this post.

  1. Great posting, Clark! it’s always good to follow the success stories coming out of Santa Maria Tzeja.

    Randall Shea

    Reply

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