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October 2, 2013

Plans for Multicultural and Bilingual Education in Peru


Eliza Squibb: Shipibo textiles

September 23: Ministry of Education: “Round table discussion with officials working on education and social inclusions issues for indigenous populations. What is the situation of Native American education and what support does the government provide?”

September 24: CHIRAPAQ, Centro de Culturas Indigenas del Perú: “Discussion on indigenous culture”


Photo from CHIRAPAQ’s facebook page

I was lucky enough to sit in on both of these discussions which were organized to bring together many different representatives of Peruvian cultural diversity from the sierra (mountains) and selva (jungle): poets, writers, architects, teachers, anthropologists, activists, and more, together with Robert Martin, president of the Institute of American Indian Arts, and Luci Tapahonso, renown poet and teacher from the Navajo Nation, both visiting from Santa Fe, New Mexico. This potent mix of cultures led to very animated discussions as everyone was eager to learn about the experiences and history of the other. Everyone started by introducing themselves in their own language, Quechua, Aymara, English or Spanish, and the fact that the discussions took place through translation was very appropriate as one of the main subjects was intercultural and bilingual education.

Luci and Robert talked about the experience of American tribal nations, the concept of tribal sovereignty, and how the different tribal nations have created their own educational institutions and developed bilingual curricula for their schools. They described the process of creating educational materials by bringing together teachers, healers, tribal elders, story tellers, and how classroom education is supplemented by these visitors who share elements of tribal culture. All children are taught how to cook traditional food, traditional arts, stories, songs, seasonal knowlegde. Tribal knowledge is taught alongside typical Western education, and children are shown the points of intersection between the two. All this is accomplished through an extensive effort to train teachers in multicultural and bilingual education. There have also been studies to prove that when children are helped to gain a strong sense of confidence in their cultural identity, they succeed better in school.

This is quite a different picture from how education was employed only a few generations ago in an attempt to violently separate Native Americans from their culture and language. Luci talked about her experience in boarding school where her hair was cut, and she was prohibited from wearing Navajo jewelry, clothes, or speaking in her language. In her parents’ generation, these boarding schools were even more extreme, severely punishing children who spoke in Navajo and forcing everyone to perform military marches with wooden guns. After living through such a trauma, it is perfectly understandable that parents would rather have their children grow up speaking only English in an effort to protect them from this torture. Luckily, the tides have turned, and and instead of being lost, now all children in the Navajo nation learn to not only speak Navajo, but also write their language.

This historical perspective resonated strongly with the Peruvians, many of whom had also experienced traumatic separations from their culture and language. For the past few decades, Andean Peruvians have been migrating towards urban centers in search of better economic opportunities or to escape terrorism and violence in their rural communities. Once in the city, they find themselves without the community support they had in their villages, without land and natural resources, forced to exist in a cash economy, and faced by discrimination for speaking Spanish as a second language (or not at all). After such a struggle, they have little motivation to teach their children Quechua, and native language tends to be lost only one generation after migration to the city.

In a country where over 40% of the population identify with one or multiple indigenous groups, and there are over a hundred distinct languages, Peru has only recently made an effort to recognized that every child has a right to an education in her native language and respect for her cultural identity. While linguists are still working with indigenous communities to alphabetize many of the languages, the ministry of education is starting to create educational materials in seven of the most widely spoken languages, and identify communities that most need bilingual curricula. They are also trying to provide 800 scholarships to incentivize teachers to become bilingual educators, because at the moment, there are only a fraction of the teachers needed.

While both Native Americans and indigenous Peruvian communities have suffered immense psychological and physical violence against their cultures, each community has had to deal with its own distinct history of trauma: a unique equation of violences that have affected each group differently. In Peru, these distinct factors have included colonialism, terrorism, the rubber era during which Amazonian communities were enslaved and forced to collect rubber, Petroleum companies built in “uninhabited” territories that have polluted land and cause illnesses in many communities, forced government relocation, logging, mining, overfishing, evangelization, and even today, racism and discrimination. Each of these factors have affected different communities to different degrees, and over all, they have caused loss of land, natural resources, language, art, culture, and traditional knowledge of the natural environment, plants and medicine.

The Peruvian government recognizes this debt, and at least, that it owes its citizens a better system for bilingual and multicultural education. Hopefully, the future will contain more respect and safeguarding of indigenous cultures and less loss of cultural diversity. It was a very emotionally charged two days of discussions, and it was obvious that everyone present felt very honored to participate. It was wonderful to spend some time with Luci and Robert, and also the NGO CHIRAPAQ was also incredibly welcoming and invited me to future events.

Both discussions helped me re-evalute my experiences thus far in Peru, as well as think about my future projects.

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