ArticlesEstudios Fronterizos, vol. 20, 2019, e022

Diversity and interculturality: The indigenous school in the context of migration

Diversidad e interculturalidad: La escuela indígena en contextos de migración

Laura Velasco Ortiza *
Daniela Renteríab

a El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, Departamento de Estudios Culturales, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, e-mail:

b Universidad Iberoamericana, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, e-mail:

* Corresponding author: Laura Velasco Ortiz, e-mail

Received on October 3, 2018.
Accepted on January 8, 2019.
Published on January 24, 2019

CITATION: Velasco, L. & Rentería, D. (2018). Diversidad e interculturalidad: La escuela indígena en contextos de migración [Diversity and interculturality: The indigenous school in the context of migration]. Estudios Fronterizos, 20, e022. doi:

The objective of the article is to describe and analyze cultural diversity in indigenous schools and the challenges of interculturality in the face of ethnic-racial discrimination. Methodologically, the article is based on a survey on cultural diversity to a sample of 14 schools and 21 focus groups, with students and teachers of the 70 schools of the indigenous education system in Baja California. The findings point to a school cultural diversity fed by the same elements that emerge as objects of ethnic-racial and migrant discrimination as the basis of the inferiorized construction of the indigenous -migrant and native categories-, around the practice of some indigenous language, the skin color, and ancestral origin. Some limitations of the article come from its attention to the population of students and although it considers the teaching interaction, it does not analyze the diversity of that actor in the school space.
Keywords: cultural diversity, interculturality, school space, ethnic-racial discrimination, symbolic inferiorization.

El objetivo del artículo es describir y analizar la diversidad cultural en escuelas indígenas y los retos de la interculturalidad frente a la discriminación étnico-racial. Metodológicamente, el artículo se basa en una encuesta sobre diversidad cultural a una muestra de 14 escuelas y en 21 grupos focales, con alumnado y docentes de las 70 escuelas del sistema de educación indígena en Baja California. Los hallazgos señalan una diversidad cultural escolar alimentada por los mismos elementos que surgen como objetos de discriminación étnico-racial y migrante como base de la construcción inferiorizada de la categoría indígena -migrante y nativo-, en torno a la práctica de alguna lengua indígena, el color de la piel y su ancestralidad. Algunas limitaciones del artículo provienen de su atención a la población del alumnado y aunque considera la interacción docente, no analiza la diversidad de ese actor en el espacio escolar.
Palabras clave: diversidad cultural, interculturalidad, espacio escolar, discriminación étnico-racial, inferiorización simbólica.

Original article language: Spanish.


Since the 1980s there has been criticism concerning the indigenous policies of the Mexican State, largely nurtured by the indigenous peoples themselves. One of the most criticized dimensions is bilingual intercultural education as a means of integration of indigenous peoples. After decades of the paradigm of interculturality in the indigenous education system as part of the nationalist program, some challenges arise that come, among other sources, from the configuration of the cultural diversity of Mexico, under the great internal and international migratory flows. Thus, intercultural education faces, in practice, a complexity of ethnocultural diversities arising from multi-ethnic migrations and the existence of indigenous peoples with different cultural matrices.

The objective of this paper is to describe and analyze the cultural diversity that characterizes schools for indigenous education in Baja California, a northern Mexican state that has been founded by multi-ethnic migrations from all over the country and which, at the same time, has the presence of indigenous peoples of the Arid American region. In particular, it is interesting to understand how such diversity challenges interculturality in the face of ethnic and racial discrimination dynamics among the student body. The study arose from an initial pragmatic interest in understanding how teaching staff in schools within the indigenous education system address the student body’s cultural diversity in urban and peri-urban contexts that are characterized by migration and settlement processes in the state of Baja California1.

This article is a first step in the analysis of the results of the study that is situated in the field of the relationship between school, as a space of cultural encounter, and other processes of the construction of cultural difference such as racism and ethnic discrimination. This interest echoes efforts by institutions, indigenous organizations and civil society to generate knowledge to guide intercultural educational policy using as a reference the indigenous condition juxtaposed with migrant students and teaching staff. The study is also inscribed within a broad intellectual horizon that interrogates the role of schools in cultural transformations in societies with a high degree of geographic mobility and ethnic difference. The decline of culture as a reference of unity (Wieviorka, 2003, p. 26), and its strength as a source of division and fragmentation, demands the attention of scholars and institutions. The study adopts the perspective that schools are a space where action can be taken to create encounters and communion among culturally different individuals.

Conceptual Discussion

In Mexico, the controversy over indigenous education is at the origin of the indigenous project within the framework of Mexican nationalism (Bonfil, 1989; Díaz-Polanco, 1978). According to Guillermo de la Peña, the term indigenism was coined to “refer to the set of discourses, categorizations, rules, strategies and official actions that have the express purpose of creating a State domain over the groups designated as indigenous” (Peña, 2005, p. 719). From very early in the nationalist project, specific educational and indigenous actions converged in the rural school (Stavenhagen, 2006).

Indigenism has evolved through different models according to the changes of the Mexican nation-state itself and the indigenous mobilizations in the Latin American continent. The critical indigenism of the eighties allowed leaving behind the assimilationist discourse and moving to what can be denominated as participative indigenism (Barabas, 2000; Peña, 2005) that moves towards the indigenous collective.

In 1992, as a result of Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO), a constitutional reform was carried out that recognizes the multi-ethnic and multicultural character of the country, along the same lines as the Declaration of Barbados and the demand for the right of indigenous peoples to promote ethno-development, with the appreciation of languages and customs, among other elements. This reasoning attempts to establish the satus of right that interculturality takes in relation to indigenous peoples in Mexico and its implementation of different policies, including education. As Schmelkes (2004) asserts, to fully meet the constitutional tenet of Mexico’s multicultural makeup, a participatory intercultural education and research program is needed to foster the production of knowledge and develop informed strategies on this issue.2

The challenge proposed by the paradigm of intercultural education is not limited to the bilingualism of indigenous languages and Spanish, but it also includes the communication and coexistence of different cultural forms (Grimson, 2011) in the school environment and its reach in other social spaces. While a focal point of intercultural education in Mexico is the participation of indigenous peoples, the challenge of teaching and coexisting in the school environment involves the other ethnic and regional categories to which administrators, teachers, and students belong (Corona & Barriga, 2004) since the communication that is implicit in interculturality involves indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.

A preliminary review indicates a fragmented field of knowledge with contributions from education institutions such as the National Pedagogical University, organizations such as the National Congress on Indigenous and Intercultural Education, and the Mexican Council of Educational Research (COMIE for its acronym in Spanish), certain research centers with specialists from disciplines such as sociology and anthropology, and, of course, indigenous and intercultural education professionals and administrators. It is not unusual for the group of actors involved and interested in the development of the intercultural model to have markedly different expectations and ideas, which at times are incompatible and contradictory (Muñoz, 2001, p. 310). Dietz, Mendoza, and Téllez (2008) see indigenous education as a field that struggles between different actors with competing interests. A timely reminder that this educational policy has its origin in the anti-systemic and anti-colonial criticism of the 1990s (Walsh, 2007), given the inequality and discrimination of indigenous people in the school environment, which was soon absorbed by the ethnic policy of the State.

The following two analytical axes are proposed to facilitate the understanding of the relationship between cultural and intercultural diversity. The first axis addresses the relationship between education and cultural diversity models, and the second axis addresses the establishment of a diverse school environment as a result of the migrations that animate specific regional contexts.

Multiculturalism and Intercultural Education

As Medina (2007) asserts, the research on sociocultural diversity and interculturality has been positioned as a field of study that has gained a leading place in the social sciences and the humanities; however, it has done so through different concepts that are also polysemic such as multiculturalism, cultural diversity, and interculturality. This situation compels us to make explicit the concepts of multiculturalism, interculturality, and bilingual intercultural education as they are used in this article.

According to Schmelkes, multiculturalism is “a descriptive concept that refers to the coexistence of culturally different people and/or groups in particular spaces or territories; it does not refer to the relationship between these people and groups” (2004, p. 11) and generally refers to the nation-state. However, interculturality is a dynamic concept that addresses the relationships that are built between different cultural systems starting from recognition and respect to difference. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), interculturality is defined as:

The equitable presence and interaction of diverse cultures and the possibility of generating shared cultural expressions through dialogue and mutual respect. Interculturality presupposes multiculturalism and results from <<intercultural>> exchange and dialogue <<on local, regional, national, and international levels>> (Unesco, 2006, p. 17).

The approach to interculturality as a means of transcending asymmetrical power relations between cultures and replacing them with new relations based on equality and respect (Sandoval, 2004, p. 57); can prove to be a complicated practice, however, it functions adequately as a guiding value to orient institutional action.

The focus of intercultural education proposes “incorporating the differences and [… ] the equality of opportunities by means of respect and tolerance of diversity and cultural plurality, recognizing and valuing difference in the search for areas of common ground” (Cedillo et. al., 2002, p. 3). It should be specified that, as Schmelkes (2004) asserts, the intercultural education model is not fixed; on the contrary, it considers the characteristics of the social context as well as cultural heterogeneity and the multiple boundaries within ethnic and cultural categories that come into contact and interact in the school environment. Furthermore, interculturality not only entails a peaceful encounter but also the conflictive encounter associated with the power relations that traverse the school environment.

In Mexico, the institutionalization of intercultural education began in the 1990s and reached its peak with the creation of the General Coordination of Intercultural and Bilingual Education (in Spanish, CGEIB), which sought, through:

A series of intentional pedagogical processes, to induct people into an understanding of reality from different cultural perspectives and that would allow them to engage in social transformation processes that respect and benefit cultural diversity. This approach assumes a deep understanding of one’s own culture as well as an understanding of different cultures (CGEIB, 2014, p. 49).

In this regard, the studies within the “sociocultural teachings and learning and their curricular articulation” line of research of the Mexican Council of Educational Research (COMIE) concentrate a body of knowledge, where experiences related to the articulation between the sociocultural knowledge or practices of the community and conventional school contents are analyzed, given that, for the authors, the creation of a school culture associated with interculturality is only possible through linking the different educational actors (Bertely, 2006; Bertely, Gasché & Podestá, 2008).

The study that provides the empirical basis for this article examines the impact of intercultural policy on the everyday life of schools, beyond the school curriculum, creating different projects to promote intercultural coexistence, which not only implies ethnic difference but other types of cultural difference such as those associated with the local, regional, and national origins of the student body, an outcome of the migration and geographic mobility of children and their families.

Intercultural Education, Cultural Diversity, and Migration

Multiculturalism, defined above, implies cultural diversity in a specific location. It suggests the importance of considering the historicity of ethnic configurations at the national and regional levels in understanding such cultural diversity as well as the project of intercultural education as a state policy with roots in Latin American indigenous movements (Dietz & Mateos, 2013). Initially, one might assume that the cultural makeup of societies that were former colonies such as those of Latin America would be different than that of societies that are shaped by migrant flows, as is the case of the United States and Canada. However, throughout history, there have been cases─such as that of Mexico─in which these two configurations coalesce as a result of Mexican migration and return migration from the United States. The ethnic/racial makeup (indigenous, mestizos, and afro-descendants) inherited from Spanish colonial rule delineates cultural difference between indigenous and mestizo peoples with long-established relations of subordination and discrimination. The massive character of the migration of indigenous populations has forged new lines of cultural differentiation. The cultural contacts produced by internal and international migration in schools has altered the rigid demarcations of cultural models by putting children from various local, regional, national, and ethnic origins in contact with one another. In this way, the school becomes a highly complex mosaic of affiliations and labels that reshape the lines of power and discrimination imposed on their ancestors. This condition of change is highly visible in the Mexican cities and regions focused on agricultural exports where one can observe indigenous populations from various generations coexisting in local spaces with populations from different ethnic, racial, and regional origins.

That said, the complexity of migration does not obscure the colonial ethnic differentiation and prejudice against indigenous peoples (Schmelkes, 2004). That is why multiculturalism necessarily entails the multilingual nature of the country, with 62 ethnolinguistic prehispanic groups, which creates a significant challenge to the implementation of the intercultural education model. For example, despite the existence of educational materials in 56 indigenous languages and the distribution of close to 2.5 million books in indigenous languages (Hamel as quote in López-Bonilla & Tinajero, 2011, p. 6). The research on educational processes in indigenous schools (Czarny, 2008; Durin, 2007; Saldívar, 2006) reveal that these schools do not work with basic instruction in indigenous language because the children speak Spanish and only have some notions of the language of their community; likewise, the teachers in front of the group are not always speakers of indigenous language, or they do not speak the same language as the children. So, in spite of the models promoted and the materials developed, “bilingualism is less than present” in the so-called indigenous schools (Barriga-Villanueva as quoted in López-Bonilla & Tinajero, 2011, p. 6).

In societies with a high degree of migration, the challenge of having strictly bilingual schools-Spanish and an indigenous language-rests on a multiplicity of factors, among which the following are notable: linguistic heterogeneity and local and regional affiliations with differentiations such as northerner or southerner, oaxacan or zacatecan, or other local and interethnic identities within indigenous regions.

The ideal of equality upheld by the intercultural perspective encounters challenges in structures that are oppressive and discriminatory against indigenous communities and poor and racialized immigrants in local and national society. For example, based on a study of indigenous children in public primary schools in Mexico City, Saldívar (2006) argues that historical racism not only manifests itself in the discrimination of certain groups but also in the valuation of others for their class, physical appearance, or ethnic identity. He mentions that in an interview with teachers, Otomí children were described as “good for handicrafts (because of their indigenous status) and good for numbers (because of their poverty status)” (Saldívar, 2006, p. 117). This is how he concludes that the school makes the mistake of joining characteristics of cultural identity with social aspects, that is, it subscribes to the discussion on essentialist discourses that relate phenotypic elements with social and cultural elements.

From this perspective, schools are a space of cultural coexistence and conflict, where the teaching staff and students generate daily strategies that are not necessarily associated with institutional planning, but rather they are driven by a creativity that emerges from daily practices that can either reproduce or overcome inequality.

Cultural Diversity in Indigenous Schools in Baja California

In the nationalist Mexican model, the weight of ethnic/racial difference can obscure other forms of cultural difference such as that which emerge from migration, class status, gender, and age. In fact, currently, migration patterns are one of the most important sources of cultural diversity and discrimination in the world. Consequently, observing the overlap of migration patterns with other forms of differentiation, such as those inherited from Spanish colonial rule, can be highly relevant for Mexican education policy and for local and regional communities in Mexico. Migration introduces complexity to the educational reality and forces the education system to quickly adapt to function in the context of student mobility and increasing cultural diversity, given the regional and ethnic origins of the school population (students and teaching staff).

The state of Baja California has a component of cultural diversity that is tied to its proximity and intense social interaction with the state of California in the United States, to the presence of prehispanic indigenous settlers, and, in turn, to the migrant flows from southern Mexico. Among these flows, indigenous mixtec and purepecha peoples, who have settled in different municipalities of the state, stand out because of their ethnicity. However, the presence of indigenous people in Baja California3 is not only the result of migration; for centuries, local indigenous groups have settled on both the Mexican and American sides of the border (Garduño, 2003). Since the mid-20th century, the indigenous population has noticeably increased due to immigration from southern Mexico to such an extent that in 2000, indigenous migrants made up 99.8 percent of the indigenous population of the state, and local indigenous people constituted a percentage small enough not to be considered qualitatively important (Corona & Serrano, 2010).

In 1982, the presence of indigenous immigrants in Baja California led to the transfer of teachers from the Oaxacan indigenous education system who joined local indigenous teachers to expand the educational system of the state. Therefore, between 1982 and 1999, the number of students grew to eleven times its size, from 692 to 7 754, while the number of teachers grew to nine times its size, from 33 to 294 (Lestage & Pérez, 2000). This expansion of the indigenous education system was not only a result of constant immigration but also due to the emergence of the second generation of indigenous immigrants. By the year 2000, 41.01% of the members of indigenous households had been born in the state of Baja California. Furthermore, given the migration from different regions of Mexico, bilingual indigenous schools also enrolled non-indigenous children (Velasco, 2010).

In 2000, three decades after the start of this indigenous migrant flow, there was a total of 56 schools in the indigenous educational system in Baja California, with an enrollment of 9 453 students. One of the characteristics of the indigenous educational system is that it’s classrooms include children from very diverse regional and ethnic origins, both local as well as immigrant, including children who have been born in the state of California on the other side of the border. It can be said that in Baja California, there is no pattern of ethnic segregation, with the exception of the farmworker camps4 in the south of the state; rather, there is a trend of dispersion, with some indigenous centers settled based on their place of origin. For example, in Tijuana the neighborhoods with greatest indigenous presence are pluriethnic spaces where people from Oaxaca, Jalisco, Sinaloa or those born in Baja California coexist (Velasco, 2010). This diversity is an important component of general elementary schools, having become most noticeable in elementary schools within the indigenous education system given its focus on interculturality.

Thus, indigenous schools have become a microcosm of the cultural diversity of Baja California, particularly in cosmopolitan cities such as Tijuana, where 50 percent of the population was born on the other side of the country. However, the truth is that even with this increase, the indigenous population of the state achieves lower educational scores than the nonindigenous population. In 2000, indigenous households reported one less year of education than nonindigenous households (5.9 years of education, compared to 6.94 years for nonindigenous households) (Corona & Serrano, 2010). Nevertheless, if we consider these figures from an intergenerational perspective, the effect of migration and the process of integration of second-generation indigenous peoples can be observed. A study conducted in 2005 in the city of Tijuana highlighted an important generational change in the education levels of children in indigenous households (Coubès, Vela & Velasco, 2010). The difference between the education level of the head of household (3.6) and spouse (3.8) compared to that of the children (7.6) is close to four years. This suggests a process of school integration for the second generation if we consider that the average education level of indigenous people in Tijuana is 6.29, which is close to that of nonindigenous people (6.89 years). This means that for young indigenous people, school is a more important means of social and cultural integration than it was for their parents, which underscores the mounting need to understand the educational integration strategies for the cultural diversity of states with high rates of migration, such as Baja California.

To approach the universe of schools where the populations of indigenous children are concentrated and migration is also a key issue, it is relevant to consider schools within the Directorate-General of Indigenous Education (DGEI for its acronym in Spanish) and schools enrolled in the Basic Education Program for Children of Migrant Farm Worker Families (PRONIM for its acronym in Spanish), which primarily operate in farmworker camps.

Taken together, for the 2011-2012 school year, both models of indigenous and migrant education served 16 446 students in basic education (pre-school, elementary school, and middle school), representing 2.38 percent of the total student population of the state, distributed across 132 schools and served by 614 teachers (Sistema Educativo Estatal [SEE], 2012).

The impact of indigenous migration in the cultural and educational makeup of Baja California must differentiate the urban context from the rural context. Cities such as Tijuana, Mexicali, and Ensenada have living conditions that are notably different than those that dominate the agricultural regions of the state. An analysis of indigenous households in Baja California in 2000 (Corona & Serrano, 2010) found that the average education level of members of indigenous households who were five years old or older is practically the same as that of nonindigenous households (6.29), while indigenous households in the municipality of Ensenada-where the majority of farmworker camps are concentrated-had lagged behind nonindigenous households in education levels by 3.4 years. It is interesting to consider, through the study of the education levels of children in the Valle de San Quintín agricultural region in the municipality of Ensenada, that migration has a greater impact than ethnicity in children’s school attendance. In other words, children who were born outside of the municipality attend school for fewer years than local children, which is likely connected to child labor and geographic mobility (Velasco & Coubès, 2006). Thus, their condition as migrant agricultural workers more heavily influences the duration of their education than their identity as indigenous people.

In this scenario, the concept of interculturality is different in each type of rural or urban settlement. As Cedillo et al. (2002) demonstrate, indigenous schools that are close to agricultural fields have an ethnic diversity that is connected to residency in farmworker camps, where workers and their families are housed by landowners and networks of people from the same community operate, but where interaction with people from other communities or regions is very frequent. Additionally, children’s agricultural labor-whether permanent or temporary-is a part of this. This situation affects their academic progress and the amount of time they have available to dedicate to their education. The study by Cedillo et al. (2002) also highlights the need for inter-institutional work among the various agencies that are involved (Secretaría de Educación Pública [SEP], Programa Nacional con Jornaleros Agrícolas [PRONJAG], Instituto Nacional para la Educación de los Adultos [INEA], Desarrollo Integral para la Familia [DIF]) to create a flexible intercultural bilingual curriculum that can meet the needs of migrant children. The geographic mobility that characterizes schools with migrant populations intensifies in agricultural areas, as described by Castro (2002) in their study of the challenges faced by teachers in indigenous education in the state of Sinaloa, which include absences from school, shorter school days, and the difficulty of maintaining continuity in the classroom.

Migration produces a multiculturalism that reaches its peak regionally or locally and in specific spaces of interaction or interrelation. Each school is a cultural diversity universe that creates its own intercultural dynamics and simultaneously requires specific operational strategies that do not always fit within planning or programming timelines; rather, they are produced through daily institutional actions.

Study Methodology

The research had the schools of the indigenous education system in Baja California as study universe for two reasons. First, because it departed from the question “How does this subsystem of indigenous education face migratory and ethnic cultural diversity through teaching strategies in the classroom?” And second, in previous studies (Velasco, 2010; Velasco, Zlolniski & Coubès, 2014) the spatial concentration of the indigenous population in certain colonies of the urban centers of the state and their correspondence with indigenous education schools was documented. Both reasons founded the decision to concentrate on the indigenous education system. The methodology considered two phases: the first entailed the design of the study and gathering the school censuses from a sample of 14 elementary schools within the indigenous education system, and the second phase entailed 21 focus groups in a subsample of four schools from the sample that was surveyed from the indigenous education system in Baja California.5

In the first phase, a census-based questionnaire was conducted in a sample of 14 elementary schools affiliated with the Baja California region of the Directorate-General for Indigenous Education (in Spanish, DGEI) based on the following diversity indicators: place of birth, ethnicity, and indigenous language, to determine the sociodemographic characteristics of the children and their parents.

A set of 70 indigenous elementary schools in the state of Baja California was selected based on information from the National School Information System (in Spanish, SNIESC).

The aim in selecting criteria for the 14 schools was to obtain a diverse set of schools based on a) municipalities and delegations, b) instruction modality (single, multi-grade, or general), and c) schools with migrant- or local populations. The municipality of Ensenada has the largest number of indigenous schools (81.43%), followed by Tijuana, Playas de Rosarito, Mexicali, and, finally, Tecate. The sample sought to represent this municipal distribution.6

Each school in the sample was surveyed between February and April of 2014, obtaining a total of 2 711 questionnaires, which represented 20.36 percent of the total population of 10 660 children.

In the second phase of fieldwork, 21 focus groups were conducted, of which 12 were with students and 9 were with teachers. In total, 171 individuals participated. In the focus groups with the children, the participation of at least eight students per school was requested. The selection criteria were grade, sex, and indigenous language. In this way, an equal participation of girls and boys was sought, as well as the participation of children who spoke and did not speak an indigenous language. In the case of the focus groups with teachers, language, grade, and sex diversity was also sought.

The Diverse School and the Obstacles to Interculturality

There is no model of multicultural government in Baja California. The indigenous education system that operates in the state comes about through federal policy and is based on the Mexican constitution, which recognizes the country’s multiculturalism, a legacy of nationalism in the 20th century. This multiculturalism is rooted in the context of the former colonial ethnic multicultural composition of the 16th century. In this model, unlike other countries such as the United States, ethnic difference is grounded in the experience of Spanish conquest and colonization instead of on migration flows. In Baja California, there is an overlap at the regional and local levels of these two sources of diversity: ethnic diversity that results from colonization and ethnic diversity that comes from internal and international migratory streams.

Verdery’s (1994) work regarding the importance of historical-cultural origin is useful in understanding the processes of cultural differentiation in societies with a high degree of migration. Verdery (1994) asserts that ethnicity in societies with high levels of immigration is marked by the geographic origin of the immigrants, producing complex processes of symbolic reterritorialization. Schools can be understood as spaces where a diversity of geographic and ethnic diversity coalesce with these multiple territorialities, simultaneously diverse due to differences in age and gender. There are different age ranges among the children; some are as young as recently enrolled six year olds, and others, at 12 years old, have reached adolescence and are in their last year of elementary school. Out of the total number of the surveyed students, 51.5 percent are male and 48.5 are female, with ages ranging from six to 12 years old, with higher percentages of eight, nine, and ten year olds, which together make up almost half of the school body (40.7%). On this issue, we focused on two sources of diversity that produce a clear cultural difference in the school environment, setting aside age and gender diversity-not because it is less important but because in this study we prioritized the analysis of ethnicity and regional origin given the indigenous nature of the educational system under analysis. The concept of historical-cultural origin is a useful framework for the analysis of diversity and the construction of cultural difference. The concept of historical-cultural origin entails ancestrality, which encompasses generational connections, geographic location, and cultural practices.

The regional and national geographic origins entail different historic origins for the families to which the children belong. A total of 93.1 percent were born in Mexico, 3.8 percent were born in the United States, and there was only one case of a boy who was born in Honduras. Of the students born in Mexico, a large majority were born in Baja California (72.2%), and nearly onethird (27.8%) were born in the states of Oaxaca (8.8%), Guerrero (2.5%), Sinaloa (2.5%) and Michoacán (1.8%), which indicates a recent migration pattern. The aforementioned data highlight a complex mobility that involves different family displacements, including migration from southern Mexico-as they find a more bicultural environment than in the interior of the country. In the case of the students born in the United States, a little more than half did not know in which state they were born. However, the children who did know where they were born indicated the states of California, Arizona, Florida, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington.

The majority of parents of school-age children were born in Mexico: 97.8 percent of the fathers and 98.5 percent of the mothers. There were a few cases where the parents were born in other countries: United States, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and the Philippines.

Figure 1 shows that the fathers and mothers, in similar proportions, who were born in Mexico are mainly from the states of Oaxaca, Baja California, Guerrero, Sinaloa, Michoacán and Veracruz. The state of Oaxaca is the place of birth of more than one-third of the parents; the state with the second highest population of people who spoke an indigenous language in the country in 2010 (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía [Inegi], 2010).

Figure 1 State of birth in Mexico of the parents of students in indigenous elementary schools in Baja California (percentages)
Source: Created by the authors based on data from the Cuestionario a Niños, Diagnóstico y evaluación de las estrategias escolares para la interculturalidad: Experiencias locales ante la diversidad cultural de Baja California, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2014.

The comparison between the birthplaces of the parents and children makes it possible for us to assert that there is an important generational change, as approximately 80 percent of the parents were born outside of Baja California, while that number drops to 27.8 percent among the children who attend indigenous schools. Indigenous schools in the state have a student body made up of local children who are, for the most part, second-generation migrants. This finding raises the challenge of conceptualizing geographic origin as an ancestral location to which there is a relationship that is more symbolic than practical, as is the case with the parents.

Linguistic Origin and First Language

The landscape of the linguistic diversity of the student population shows the vitality of indigenous languages in addition to Spanish (Figure 2). Observing the data associated with the use of indigenous language among parents, it is relevant to highlight the intergenerational decrease in the use of an indigenous language among the children. This information is consistent with studies that have been conducted in households in Tijuana (Velasco, 2010) where an intergenerational decrease in the use of indigenous languages was found. Nevertheless, a little over one-third of the children who attend the schools that were surveyed speak an indigenous language.

Figure 2 Comparison of rates of speaking an indigenous language among fathers, mothers, and children in indigenous schools in Baja California (percentages)
Source: Project created by the authors based on data from the Cuestionario a Niños, Diagnóstico y evaluación de las estrategias escolares para la interculturalidad: Experiencias locales ante la diversidad cultural de Baja California, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2014.

It was found that the children who assist the schools that were surveyed represent monolingual, bilingual, and trilingual-Spanish, indigenous language, and English-cases. The largest group is of children who are monolingual Spanish speakers (54.6%), which is relevant in the context of the Intercultural Bilingual Education Model upon which these schools are based because we found that Spanish, and not an indigenous language, is the first language for just over half of the children. In this way, the teaching staff must devise strategies to adapt this model to the school’s context. In the teacher focus groups it was agreed that the native tongue of the school population is Spanish. For example, teacher Catalina from the Sentimiento Purépecha School in Rosarito says, upon entering the classroom as a teacher: “That is when you realize that children don’t speak the indigenous language and neither do their parents. It was a process of adaptation on my part, because there was no guide” (Soto, 2014).

Faced with this situation, in an interview, Professor Gustavo Sánchez (2014) says: “the objective is not that children speak one hundred percent of the indigenous language, but that they value and learn what they can of it. It is to promote intercultural coexistence”. Or, in the words of Professor Rogelia Santiago (2014): “…more than anything, to promote the indigenous language-since for some reason it has been lost-, to rescue the indigenous language”.

The second intermediate group, in terms of percentage points, is that of bilingual children, whether they speak a combination of Spanish and an indigenous language (33.8%) or, at a significantly lower rate, Spanish and English (5.1%). Spanish-indigenous language bilingualism is a result of a family practice where the indigenous language is the means of communication, recreation, and socialization of the children. The case of Spanish-English bilingualism emerges from Baja California’s location on the border, in which families may have a daily life that is tied to commuting or cross-border family networks, or perhaps because they were born or grew up in the United States and their parents were deported from that country.

A third group of trilingual students, although small (2.3%), is culturally significant; this group speaks Spanish, English, and an indigenous language (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 Linguistic diversity in children in indigenous elementary schools in Baja California (percentages)
Source: Project created by the authors based on data from the Cuestionario a Niños, Diagnóstico y evaluación de las estrategias escolares para la interculturalidad: Experiencias locales ante la diversidad cultural de Baja California, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2014.

Furthermore, it is possible to observe a group of Spanish-speakers who report having knowledge of an indigenous language, although they may not be fluent in it (3%). According to the results from the focus groups, this group of children who report having knowledge of an indigenous language may or may not be indigenous, and it may be that the little that they have learned, they know through indigenous language programs and interaction with children who speak an indigenous language.

The indigenous language spoken by the children are primarily Mixteco, Triqui, Zapotec, Náhuatl and Purépecha (see Figure 4).

Figure 4 Indigenous languages spoken by children in indigenous schools in Baja California (percentages)
Source: Project created by the authors based on data from the Cuestionario a Niños, Diagnóstico y evaluación de las estrategias escolares para la interculturalidad: Experiencias locales ante la diversidad cultural de Baja California, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2014.

Accordingly, parents speak the same languages at similar rates as the children. Over half of these parents, as with the children, speak Mixteco. This information makes sense given the above mentioned data regarding place of birth, as just over one-third of the parents were born in Oaxaca, and a smaller percentage were born in Guerrero. Both states are the historic homeland of the Mixteco peoples. Similarly, those who speak Triqui and Zapotec are also from the state of Oaxaca. Parents who speak Náhuatl and Purépecha are originally from the states of Veracruz and Michoacán, respectively. However, the findings indicate less than 1 percent of students who speak a local indigenous language. The system of indigenous education includes 70 schools in which indigenous students are enrolled, of which only 2 have students from local indigenous groups from Aridoamerica: the Cucapá, the Kumiai and the Pai-pai. It is worth noting that there were no children who speak or have knowledge of the Pai-pai language.

In school focus groups where there is a native indigenous population -the cucapá, in Mexicali-, it was found that none of the school children spoke the language. Some mention that their parents know some of the words they are taught, and some of the songs, but they do not speak it. Several children commented that their grandparents are the ones who know the Cucapá language. One girl says her grandmother can speak three languages “cucapá, indigenous language, and English”: “Mi Tata, may he rest in peace, taught me and my brother some indigenous words” (Josué, 2014).

The imprint of international migration and border crossing is seen in the English speakers. It was found that some parents and children speak English as well as Spanish, and, to a lesser extent, an indigenous language too. In general, it is the fathers who proportionally speak English more compared to mothers and children. A possible explanation for these data is related to the phenomenon of cross-border employment, as it is documented in the case of Tijuana in the study by Corona and Serrano (2010) where the indigenous population engages in a commuting pattern that is similar to those of other border municipalities in Baja California. Similarly, in the fieldwork with the focus groups, where the children reported that their parents and other relatives (mainly uncles) worked or have worked in the United States or were deported from the United States. This situation is connected with the transnational mobility that is a part of indigenous households living on the border, with strong networks in both places. For example, it is known that in Tijuana “indigenous households tend to migrate more, receive more immigrants, and send more immigrants to the United States than non-indigenous households” (Corona & Serrano, 2010, p. 53). Furthermore, in the focus groups, we found children who stated that they learned how to speak English from their parents, their uncles, or their cousins who live or have lived in the United States or because they were born or raised in the United States; however, when one of their parents was deported, they were forced to move to a border city.

Taste and the Practice of Indigenous Language

The relationship between taste and the practice of indigenous language is framed within the ethnic processes of Mexican nationalizing with its hierarchical system of categories. As demonstrated by Bourdieu (1984), taste is delimited by social relations of status and power; however, in this case study, indigenous languages lost their communication function by increasingly reducing their use to private or intimate spaces. Children who speak an indigenous language, whether they are bilingual, trilingual, or only have knowledge of the language based on what they have learned in the classroom and/or with their family, stated that they do like to speak an indigenous language but only in certain spaces. For example, at the Francisco González Bocanegra school in the Valle de San Quintín. In the focus group with children it was possible to hear testimonies such as the following:

I like the indigenous language because it recognizes us as Zapotecs and because the class is very fun since the teacher makes us do things, and investigate what that means, and I know several things in Zapotec (Suriel, 2014).

Without any problem they say a few words, no one laughs at their classmates but remind them of some words to help them (Juan, 2014).

Qualitative data are echoed in quantitative data, like Figure 5 shows that just over half of these children state that they like to speak an indigenous language with their relatives (52%), while only one-third like to speak it with their friends (30%), and less than one-fifth like to speak it with teachers. Defined by taste, indigenous languages continue to be a cultural practice that is primarily recreated in intimate life. Additionally, it is notable that although it is an intercultural school, they do not like to speak to teachers in an indigenous language. This information can be analyzed based on the relationship of authority that mediates the student-teacher relationship, which inhibits the use of the language; while also raising the complexity of performing interculturality in the classroom.

Figure 5 People with whom they like to speak an indigenous language (percentage)
Source: Project created by the authors based on data from the Cuestionario a Niños, Diagnóstico y evaluación de las estrategias escolares para la interculturalidad: Experiencias locales ante la diversidad cultural de Baja California, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2014.

Here, we present some possible explanations that emerges from our observations during fieldwork and from the focus groups. The first is that in a context of migration, children are frequently cared for by their grandparents, which is why they learn their language even when their parents no longer practice it. Second, intercultural schools reinforce this learning in the classroom through their stimulation and because there are other children there who speak it and with whom they can practice. Furthermore, in the focus groups, we found children whose first language was not an indigenous one but who nevertheless had some knowledge of it: they knew short phrases, songs, and words, and they expressed an interest in learning more. There were cases of children who are not of indigenous family origin but who expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for speaking an indigenous language and for identifying as indigenous. It would seem that at certain ages and within a context where cultural diversity is encouraged, they have not yet developed the ethnic prejudices against indigeneity that is present in society at large, or perhaps they have learned the ambivalent value of ethnic identification that might lead to the possible negation of identity, as shown in the following passage:

It is better to speak many languages than to know only one [... ] because if you go to other places you will be able to talk to people who speak a different language than the one you speak [and] [... ] because if we go to Oaxaca City you can talk to neighbors and that way we can communicate with other people (Pedro, 2014).

Discrimination and Cultural Inferiorization

As asserted by Brubaker and Cooper (2001), understanding identity formation processes requires considering the external forces that influence categorization and identification such as institutionalized ethnic discrimination and cultural inferiorization. As established by Bonfil (1989), Mexican nationalism has been founded on the devaluation of the indigenous present and the magnification of the indigenous past. In this mission, the school has played a strategic role, insofar as it has been one of the main vehicles for the socialization of the new generations. Hispanicization (castellanización) was based on the task of culturally mixing indigenous peoples, denying their languages and identities in order for them to get closer to Western culture (Villoro, 1996). According to Martínez (2015, p. 113), there is a clear tension between the state project of bilingual intercultural indigenism and the structure of inequality that subjects indigenous people to the lowest strata and what can be called the structure of ethnic inequality. For Dietz et al. (2008), indigenous education has become a field of struggle where indigenous institutions and movements converge. In our opinion, this arena of struggle can be observed from inside the school in the discrimination experienced by school actors, mainly children and teachers. To analyze this element, we turn to the results from the focus groups. Two general findings organize this analysis. The first was the divergence of perceptions between teachers and students about the topic of discrimination within schools. Although the teachers recognized discrimination against indigenous people, which they themselves experience given their indigenous background, they located it more outside the school. Meanwhile, the students speak about discrimination in the classroom and in the school, as well as outside of school. The second finding was that a counterpart of discrimination is the resistance or effort to recognize differences as positive, perhaps as a mechanism for self-affirmation.

In the analysis, we took the discussions in the focus groups with children and only considered focus groups with the teachers as complementary. The discussion is organized in a series of thematic points to which we will refer as emblems or marks on which discrimination is built: language, skin color, place of origin, dress, and physical or bodily attributes. Simultaneously we track the mechanisms of discrimination and of the construction of cultural difference and social hierarchy that characterize the school community.

Mocking someone by using phrases to ridicule their attributes was the most-mentioned recourse both in the classroom and while playing during recess. Based on their own accounts, mockery generally preceded physical violence between children. The construction of the cultural term “oaxaco” intersects a set of forms of discrimination such as indigenous language, skin color, physical characteristics, and the location of one’s family or ancestral origin. Meanwhile, other categories of school life are organized around physical bodily attributes and school performance that inflicts suffering on children such as disability. In all categories, the mechanism of the construction of deteriorated differences is mainly inferiorization through mockery as well as insults or physical violence.

What do teachers think about discrimination and the term “oaxaco” in the school environment? This question was asked in the focus group, and the teachers were silent for a few minutes, later stating that they had heard this term, but outside of school. There was even an opinion expressed that this was a means of referring to someone from Oaxaca and it was not always insulting. These reflections contrasted with the opinions of the children, as well as with the reflections of the very same teachers in subsequent interviews.

During individual in-depth interviews, some of the teachers mentioned the discrimination that they have experienced for speaking an indigenous language and their parents’ refusal to teach them the language because of discrimination. One of the teachers recounted the school harassment that he experienced for speaking an indigenous language in school in Baja California Sur, where his parents had migrated. The only way to avoid it was to confront one’s harassers through physical force. This lived experience of discrimination and violence led him to decide to be a teacher in an indigenous school to “help children not feel inferior because of their origin or their indigenous language” (López, 2015). The discrepancy of perceptions about the relevance of discrimination in schools between teachers and students is possibly because the school dynamics in both sectors occur in fragmented worlds. Furthermore, the optimistic view of teachers concerning this issue could be a way of managing the difficulty of responding to this challenge. In general, teachers have the perception that discrimination inside the school has decreased with the multilingual program. For example, they mention that at the beginning of the program, children would deny that their parents spoke an indigenous language (Sarmiento, 2014). In a way, the teachers are trying to reconstruct the meaning of difference by eliminating its negative connotation and promoting positive affiliation, while the children experience a context of ethnic and class discrimination, filtering their school experiences through those of their life in their neighborhood and in their family.

Final Reflections

A recurrent commentary from teachers in the indigenous education system in Baja California was the incorrect assumption of the Mexican intercultural model that, first, is only directed toward indigeneity and, second, but consequently, assumes indigenous languages to be a student’s first language. This critique from teachers is consistent with the data presented here. There is a cultural diversity in the student body that indicates a heterogeneity of historical-regional and linguistic origins with the predominance of Spanish as a first language, as the presence of monolingual indigenous-language speaking children is extremely low. This cultural diversity is connected to internal migration from south to north but also international migration through regional migration to the United States and the more recent patterns of return and deportation from that country.

This cultural diversity does not on its own imply cultural dialogue; it requires institutional action and, in particular, teaching strategies that pragmatically apply the intercultural model, an issue that we did not address in depth in this article. What was observed were the obstacles to interculturality that result from the emerging ethnic discrimination in the classrooms and to which they are not strangers, given that they share the students’ class status and ethnic origin. Although this shared status assumes cultural empathy given the common historical experience, in fact it also poses a challenge to distance themselves from their own class and ethnic status to recognize the discriminatory dynamics in the classroom. The article presents a set of cultural elements that are the object of a very specific devaluation and that together shape ethnic and class discrimination in the schools that were studied.

The first is indigenous language as the object of ethnic discrimination by being tied to the inferiority ascribed to those who speak it. The second is skin color and other physical characteristics as a racialization of inferiority. The third is place of origin, such as ancestral origin, which connects a person to a collective of differentiated social and cultural status that has been historically subordinated. These three elements find a synthesis in the term “oaxaco,” which condenses indigeneity and adds elements of social class and foreignness because of the significance of agricultural work as a frequent occupation for immigrant families. There is an emotional dimension to discrimination that elicits shame about speaking an indigenous language, having brown skin, and being from families whose historic origin is from ethnicized regions such as Oaxaca, Guerrero, or Puebla, for example.

Indigenous schools, diverse as a result of migrations, operate with cultural differences that fragment the school community within it and which require an intercultural model that faces these new forms of social and cultural discrimination.


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1 The research project from which this article arises is Diagnosis and Evaluation of School Strategies for Interculturality: Local Experiences with the Cultural Diversity of Baja California [Diagnóstico y evaluación de las estrategias escolares para la interculturalidad: Experiencias locales ante la diversidad cultural de Baja California], financed by the SEP-Conacyt Sector Research Fund for Education [El fondo sectorial de investigación para la educación SEP-Conacyt]. Project 1282 (2014-2015).

2 In 1992, Mexico recognized itself constitutionally as a multicultural country, based originally on indigenous peoples (Ramírez & Lara, 2009).

3 Baja California is a state on the northern border with the third largest indigenous population (6%), after Sonora (10%) and Chihuahua (7.6%) (Corona & Serrano, 2010, p. 34).

4 These camps in the Valle de San Quintín, in the municipality of Ensenada, have notably decreased over the last decade and even when it can be said that they are spaces of indigenous segregation, they also have an ethnic and regional diversity, as indigenous peoples from different historical matrices and poor mestizos from Sinaloa and Sonora coexist here.

5 For more information, see Velasco and Rentería (2015).

6 The sample had the following percentage distribution: Ensenada 57.14 percent; Tijuana 21.43 percent; and Playas de Rosarito, Mexicali and Tecate 7.4 percent each (Velasco & Rentería, 2015).

Laura Velasco Ortiz
Mexican. Ph.D. in Social Sciences with a specialty in Sociology from El Colegio de México. Research Professor at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte. Lines of research: migration, mobility, and identity transformations; collective action and identity politics; and borders and clandestine processes. Among her main publications are: Cross-border Mobility and Clandestine Practices: Scenarios of Violence in the Mexico-United States Border Region, Human Organization (2016); Métodos cualitativos y su aplicación empírica. Por los caminos de la investigación sobre migración internacional (2012), coordinated with Marina Ariza, El Colef-UNAM; and Mexican Voices of the Border Region (2011), co-authored with Oscar Contreras from Temple University Press.

Daniela Rentería
Mexican. Ph.D. in Social Sciences with a specialty in Regional Studies. Professor at the Universidad Iberoamericana, Tijuana, Baja California. Her lines of research are: indigenous education and interculturality; agents and school spaces in contexts of cultural diversity; and intercultural educational models in contexts of high human mobility.

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