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GUATEMALA: Teaching With Two Voices

Inés Benítez

GUATEMALA CITY, Dec 4 2007 (IPS) - In the Xepanil village school in Santa Apolonia, to the west of the Guatemalan capital, 20 children are learning both Spanish and the Mayan indigenous language Kaqchikel. Their teacher, Marta Lidia Rodríguez, one of thousands of bilingual education teachers in this country today, walks an hour a day to get to the school.

"There are children in the village who don’t understand Spanish," Rodríguez, who teaches primary-level students between the ages of seven and 12, explained to IPS. "Speaking to them in their own language at school is elemental and productive."

In 1989, the literacy rate among indigenous people between the ages of 15 and 24 stood at 54 percent. By 2002, it had risen to 71 percent in this age group, according to the 2nd Millennium Development Goals Progress Report for Guatemala, released in 2006.

Nevertheless, three out of every 10 adult Guatemalans do not know how to read or write, and among indigenous Guatemalans, the adult illiteracy rate is 48 percent, more than double the rate for the non-indigenous population, according to official figures. And among rural indigenous women, the illiteracy rate rises to 65 percent.

Indigenous people represent 41 percent of the country’s total population of 13 million, according to the National Institute of Statistics, and up to 65 percent according to other sources. The indigenous population in Guatemala comprises 22 Mayan ethnolinguistic communities in addition to the Xinca, a non-Mayan indigenous people, and the Garífuna community, descendants of Caribbean indigenous people and African slaves.

Pedro Us, a technical advisor at the Guatemalan Vice Ministry of Bilingual and Intercultural Education, told IPS that there are currently 6,342 bilingual teachers working in the public education system in 14 of the country’s 22 departments (provinces). They teach preschool and primary-level students in the four most widely spoken indigenous languages – Quiché, Q’eqchí, Kaqchikel and Mam – and 14 less widely-spoken languages.

These bilingual education teachers are trained at some 20 schools run by the Vice Ministry, where they also receive language courses provided by the Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala, explained Us.

For 2008, the government plans to commit 353 million quetzales (45.9 million dollars) to bilingual education, which represents 0.83 percent of the total education budget.

But according to Álvaro Pop, a Q’eqchí Mayan political analyst, the government’s commitment to bilingual education and the financial resources it provides have been "very limited," which is why these initiatives are largely funded through international cooperation, he told IPS.

Bilingual education was initiated in 1980 through a Guatemalan Ministry of Education project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The project’s objective was to promote access to schooling and reduce dropout rates among Mayan children.

The Directorate General of Bilingual and Intercultural Education (DIGEBI) was created in 1995, and the Vice Ministry was established in 2003.

One of the obstacles to bilingual education is the poverty that plagues indigenous communities, in addition to the difficulty in reaching many of these communities and the lack of infrastructure, said Abelardo Quezada, a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) official, in an interview with IPS.

According to official figures, 51 percent of Guatemalans live in poverty and 15 percent live in extreme poverty, on incomes of less than one dollar a day. Poverty is particularly prevalent in rural areas and among women and indigenous people. Non-governmental sources put the poverty rate as high as 80 percent.

Us, who is of Quiché Mayan descent, said the transition from education in Spanish only to bilingual education provided by indigenous teachers has not been easy. This is partly due to teachers who are resistant to the idea, "because they think it will mean double the work." But it is also a result of the persistence of "discriminatory practices," he added.

Racist attitudes lead Guatemalans of European and mixed descent to view Spanish culture and the Spanish language – the official language of Guatemala – as superior to the "vernacular languages, which form part of the Nation’s cultural heritage," according to the Constitution.

The bilingual teachers interviewed by IPS said they sometimes receive complaints from parents who send their children to school "so that they will learn Spanish" and who criticise the use of the Kaqchikel language in the classroom, arguing that their children "already know it." For these parents, the use of indigenous languages in schools represents backwardness.

Melida Xicó, a teacher in the village of Xejolón in western Guatemala, believes that teaching in the children’s mother tongue as a first language and in Spanish as a second language "helps them to develop and to participate more in activities," as well as reinforcing their identity and values.

The majority of indigenous students drop out of school once they reach the last grade of primary education. Girls leave school at an even higher rate than boys, because "in the villages, being female continues to be a limitation," commented Xicó.

"Learning our mother tongues is more than a human right, it is a linguistic right," Francisco Ruiz, director of Linguistic and Cultural Planning at the Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala, told IPS. In his view, the country’s indigenous languages "are being revitalised," and are thus in no danger of becoming extinct.

"Many children are learning to read and write in their own languages, which helps them to learn more about their culture," said Luis Javier Crisóstomo, national coordinator of the Central American Multilingual Intercultural Education Programme.

With support from the UNDP and funding from Finland, the programme serves 70 Mam and Kaqchikel primary schools with a total of 15,000 students and 700 teachers. Crisóstomo, a Mam Mayan educator, told IPS that there has been a "qualitative conceptual leap" with regard to promoting literacy among indigenous people.

What was once "a forbidden subject during the years of internal armed conflict" is now being addressed within the framework of the state educational system.

The peace accords of 1996 brought an end to 36 years of war between the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) and government forces, which claimed the lives of 200,000 victims, mainly rural indigenous people. A truth report held the military responsible for at least 90 percent of the killings.

In the Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, signed between the Guatemalan government and the URNG in 1995 and incorporated into the peace accords a year later, the government pledged to "promote the use of all indigenous languages in the educational system, to enable children to read and write in their own tongue or in the language most commonly spoken in the community to which they belong and, in particular, to protect bilingual and intercultural education and institutions such as the Mayan schools and other indigenous educational projects."

The challenge now is to move beyond the realm of indigenous peoples and influence the general education curriculum with a greater emphasis on diversity, said Us.

To this end, he noted, DIGEBI has been tasked with developing a curriculum for the entire country. Us hopes that as a result, "new generations of non-indigenous Guatemalans will understand that they live in a diverse country and that indigenous people have the right to participate in the outcomes of development, and not only the processes."

Virginia Ajxup is the Quiché Mayan coordinator of the Pop Noj ("weaving ideas") educational programme, which seeks to provide training for indigenous organisations through their own culture.

She stressed that while a great deal has been achieved in recent years in terms of research and text books in indigenous languages for children and young people, the government has not allowed Mayan people "to run our own schools with our own vision of education."

Education aimed at indigenous peoples "has traditionally been an instrument of discrimination and slavery," Ajxup told IPS.

"In Guatemala, an education that responds to the interests and demands of the Mayan people has never been possible," she maintained.

Meanwhile, back in her classroom in the village of Xejolón, Melida Xicó uses an avocado and bird feathers to teach her students the Kaqchikel glyph for the number zero, represented as a seed and charged with religious symbolism. "Zero is the beginning and the end," she tells the class, and then writes the Arabic symbol for zero on the blackboard, before the rapt gaze of 30 small faces.

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