Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Educational Change in Mexico


John E. Petrovic, The University of Alabama
Fernando Hernández Villanueva, Universidad Autonoma de Tamaulipas


Paper presented at the annual conference of the American Educational Studies Association, Miami, November, 2001.





Driven by NAFTA and a variety of other international forces, Mexico has initiated a series of actions intended to secure its place in an increasingly global community. Over the last decade Mexico has taken on the challenge of transforming itself into a different type of nation-state, adding the characteristics necessary for participation in the global marketplace and community. These characteristics include an open economy, integration into the international market place, stability to attract foreign investment, and increased democracy (Diaz-Couder, 1997).[1]


This last characteristic has required the acceptance of and steps toward tolerance of cultural diversity, acceptance of the ideals of multiculturalism, and unrestricted respect for the plurality of languages and cultures within Mexico. Accepting these requirements necessarily included the rejection of the ideal of a homogeneous nation-state, a nation-state that heretofore systematically denied the existence of its indigenous peoples whose languages, cultures, and traditions are an integral part of Mexico.


As we shall see, Mexico is increasingly redefining itself as a multicultural nation-state. This has immediate consequences, especially for the educational system. For example, hundreds of thousands of indigenous children now have the right to an education that reflects their cultures. This includes the right to use and maintain their primary languages and to have them used as media of instruction, equal, in theory, to Spanish.


Such policy changes come as a result, it seems, of a change in the philosophy of nationalism gaining support in Mexico. It is a nationalism that will lead the country in a completely different direction. In this article, we examine this new philosophy of nationalism, juxtaposing it to the one that Mexico has left behind. We divide the article into three major sections.


We begin with a discussion of nationalism, pointing out some of its key features. We then present two philosophies of nationalism, assimilationist and multiculturalist, and present examples of how they can and have influenced educational programs in the context of the United States. It is interesting to note that the defenders of both philosophies present the liberal democratic ideal of individual freedom as the justification for their particular brand of nationalism. We offer several criticisms of assimilationist nationalism, arguing above all that liberalism must take into account cultural communities and group rights.


Proceeding from the two philosophies of nationalism and their educational implications, we next sketch the history of assimilationist nationalism in Mexico. Fundamentally, this philosophy was embraced as the best way of building the Mexican nation-state and promoting the liberal ideal. Over the past two decades, however, an indigenous or indianist movement[2] has been building and the government has responded rhetorically, legally, and, many ways, practically with steps towards a more multiculturalist nationalism.


The challenges that exist at the level of the school to live by this shift towards multiculturalist nationalism are gargantuan. In the third major section, we present several such challenges, especially those that concern the education of indigenous children and the maintenance of their heritage languages.


Competing philosophies of nationalism and education


Cultural communities, political communities, and nationalism


In 1923, Dewey entered a discussion of the process of “uniting and bringing together the exceedingly heterogeneous elements of our population” (p. 514). Dewey’s observation of our great cultural heterogeneity raises the fact that two types of communities must be considered in any discussion of nationalism: cultural community(ies) and a political community.


On the one hand, there are cultural communities defined by the shared cultural characteristics of their members. These characteristics include a shared history, religion, language, and customs. It is within this community that individuals “form and revise their aims and ambitions” (Kymlicka, 1989, p. 135). On the other hand, there is the political community. Within this community individuals “exercise the rights and responsibilities entailed by the framework of liberal justice (Kymlicka, 1989, p. 135).


These two communities are referred to by a variety of names. Emerson (1960), for instance, refers to the “terminal community” instead of the political community. Gellner (1983) writes about the “political unit” instead of the political community and the “national unit” instead of the cultural community. Whatever the nomenclature, the fundamental difference between cultural communities and political communities remains consistent throughout the literature on the topic of nationalism. And nationalism is, ultimately, depicted in the way one community treats the other(s). Since political and cultural communities are rarely one and the same, tensions between the two arise.


In other words, in a given nation-state, there is a dominant cultural group that has defined and set into place the political community. For them, the two communities are coterminous. However, most nation-states have within their borders more than one cultural community, e.g., African and Native Americans in the United States, the Ainu in Japan, and the Fries in Holland. The type of nationalism that we consider here consists of the dominant cultural group seeking to make the political community and cultural community coterminous for everyone.


Many of these cultural communities have now achieved a certain number of group-differentiated rights to protect their cultural communities. However, in liberal democracies these groups have faced or still face great skepticism regarding such group recognition, as opposed to individual rights. This skepticism has a long history and continues to this day. Will Kymlicka (1989, 1995) argues that post-war defenders of the liberal democratic tradition have been so eager to promote the overarching value of individual freedom that they have virtually disregarded the communities in which individuals flourish. Indeed, as early as 1927 John Dewey pointed out that the tendency to equate democracy with individualism and individual freedom makes the ideals of fraternity, liberty, and equality, “hopeless abstractions” by isolating them from communal life (p. 149). In multicultural societies, it is this very communal life, especially that of cultural and linguistic minorities, that is threatened by nationalism.


Throughout the paper we use the terms that we have briefly introduced here. For our purposes, and consistent with prior definitions, the term “nation” or “national” is never used to mean “nation-state.” It instead refers to cultural groups or communities, of which there are and always have been many in Mexico. We also view “state” as being synonymous with “political community.” Given this understanding, Mexico has never been a single nation-state; it is a state of many nations. As we shall see, this process in both the United States and Mexico has consisted or consists of those in power trying to assimilate the various cultural communities such that they reflect the same values, customs, and norms—the culture—of those in power.


Assimilationist nationalism


Gellner (1983) makes the strict claim in his “nationalist principle” that “the political and the national unit [read: political and cultural community] should be congruent” (p. 1). For, when political boundaries cut through cultural boundaries, unrest can occur. We can view this unrest as the enactment or process of nationalism, the purpose of which is “to endow a culture with its own political roof” (Gellner, 1983, p. 43). In acquiring such political self-determination, national communities become political communities, i.e., nation-state. More importantly, for Gellner, they become culturally homogeneous nation-states. Gellner’s concept of nationalism, in sum, is the process of binding politically and making culturally homogeneous a group of people within a given geographical space.


In fact, cultural homogeneity, Gellner argues, is an inescapable imperative of industrial society and one of its by-products. He claims, “[i]ndustrialization engenders a mobile and culturally homogeneous society” (p. 73...and that an industrial society’s economy “depends on mobility and communication between individuals, at a level which can only be achieved if those individuals have been socialized into a high culture” (p. 140). But this claim is tenuous and difficult to assess since most cultural minority groups, at least in the United States and Mexico, have faced some extensive, and often violent, coercion.


The educational policies and practices of assimilationist nationalism


The effect of Gellner’s principle of nationalism on educational policy and practices is fairly straightforward. In the United States, we have seen it Americanization programs, Bureau of Indian Affairs Schools, and the English-only movement, among other things. Furthermore, the principle of nationalism drives criticisms of a number of progressive educational ideas including multicultural and bilingual education. This is, we believe, due in great part to the recognition that such programs give to group differences and not just individual differences.


Arguably, any number of present day conservatives can be included among those who embrace assimilationist nationalism vis-à-vis education, including the likes of Diane Ravitch, Chester Finn, William Bennett, Linda Chavez, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Schlesinger, for example, draws on Gellner to decry what he abusively terms a “cult of ethnicity.” Schlesinger (1992) argues “they [cultural minorities] should be assimilated to our customs, measures, and laws...” (p. 25). This is a defensible position. However, he goes on to complain that “a cult of ethnicity has arisen both among non-Anglo whites and among nonwhite minorities to denounce the idea of a melting-pot, to challenge the concept of ‘one people,’ and to protect, promote, and perpetuate separate ethnic and racial communities” (Schlesinger, 1992, p. 15). With this, it seems clear that Schlesinger is demanding more than assimilation to mere measures and laws. He expects much more and when minorities reject to being “melted” they become cult-like to Schlesinger.[3]


Perhaps the most comprehensive application of Gellner-ian nationalism to education is provided by E. D. Hirsch. Indeed, Hirsch (1988) explicitly points out, “Gellner describes education in cultural literacy as the central requirement of industrial society” (p. 73). (In fact, Gellner writes of “universal literacy” not “cultural literacy.” Ultimately, however, Hirsch’s cultural literacy can consistently follow from Gellner’s nationalism. Thus, exploring the difference between their notions of literacy, while interesting, is unnecessary for our present purposes.)


Similar to Gellner, Hirsch (1988) argues that “at the heart of modern nationhood is the teaching of literacy and a common culture through a national system of education” (p. 73). It is important to point out that this common culture necessarily includes a common language for Hirsch and in creating this common culture he does worse than ignore the backgrounds and experiences that minority children bring with them to school; he sees them as “cultural deprivations” (Hirsch, 1988, p. 18). These “deprivations” provide Hirsch with his excuse to promote what he calls the acculturative responsibility of the schools. For teaching “the ways of one’s community has always been and still remains the essence of the education of our children” (Hirsch, 1988, p. 18). Notice here that by “one’s own community” Hirsch is referring to the nation-state which happens to be organized, for the most part, according to his culture. He is willing to ignore other cultural communities.


A primary aspect of Hirsch’s project is to provide some empirical support for Gellner’s emphasis on the need for “exo-socialization,” defined by Gellner (1983) as “the production and reproduction of men outside the local intimate unit”(p. 38). For Gellner and Hirsch , the primary guarantor of exo-socialization or cultural literacy, respectively, is a monolithic educational system. As Hirsch (1988) points out, “the first step [in education]...must be for all of us to become literate in our own national language and culture” (p. 93). Literacy in one’s own (read: Hirsch’s own) national language and culture is what Hirsch calls cultural literacy.


He provides support for its teaching in schema theory. Very basically, schema is the term used to describe the background knowledge that people use to make sense of new information. Driven as it is by nationalism, Hirsch’s application of schema theory vis-a-vis cultural minority students is fundamentally flawed. As Howe (1997) cleverly observes, “Hirsch employs schema theory like a hired cab, which he discharges when he reaches his desired destination—the school house door” (p. 57).  In other words, Hirsch picks up the cab and ignores the distance the cab traveled before getting to him. For contrary to Hirsch’s claim, cultural minority children are not culturally deprived when they enter schools. They are culturally different. Their cabs, to continue the analogy, have traveled great distances before being hailed by Hirsch, who fails to look at the odometer (if he hails their cabs at all!). The point is that these children arrive in schools with schema already in place, but it is not necessarily made up of content and experiences that Hirsch prescribes.


With his cultural literacy, Hirsch provides a clear example of the kind of misguided educational policy that stems from assimilationist nationalism.[4] These policies are not only contrary to much of the literature on effective schools, but they can also breed resentment among minority groups.


A primary justification for following this type of nationalist education is that promoting assimilation promotes equality. It promotes the freedom of individuals qua citizens, that is to say, as members of and participants in a political community. For only by sharing significant amounts of the same cultural capital, nee literacy, can citizens have equal access to the things society has to offer. But this ignores the important fact that citizens of the political community are also individuals within cultural communities. It is the former that tends to have far more power and relevance in helping individuals to become who they are. But we will return to this point later. 


Multiculturalist nationalism[i]


In his political writings, Dewey dealt often with the ideal of nationalism and the unity of the nation-state. He expressed his philosophy of nationalism not in terms of culture and certainly not in terms of cultural homogeneity but in such abstract notions as “unified social consciousness,” “national mindedness,” “community,” and “democratic culture” (Cf. Dewey 1923, 1916bc, 1902).


Following the general principles and characteristics of nationalism, Dewey believed that people in a nation-state should have certain things in common. He pointed out that people are always going to have different ideals and beliefs but that in “public and national life below all these differences we [must] have a common unity...enough common work, common responsibility and common interest and sympathy so that in spite of all these other distinctions we can go on working together” (Dewey, 1923, p. 516). However, these commonalities should not be narrowly defined by culture and the process by which they are realized should not be coercive or subtractive. That is to say, forming commonalities necessary to the sustenance of the nation-state need not involve the abandonment or “melting” of peoples’ prior languages or cultures.


Dewey’s ideal of the “great community” provides one illuminating conception of what the nation-state should be. In discussing this great community, Dewey (1902) points out that all groups must be assimilated to a “socialism of the intelligence and of the spirit” (p. 383). This socialism involves acceptance of and engagement in the ideal of the great community in which citizens share a common understanding of the principles and procedures of a political system dedicated to the promotion of individual freedom and civic participation.


While assimilation to a common understanding and application of these and related ideas is required, Dewey leaves plenty of room for a myriad of local communities—be they religious, linguistic, ethnic, or cultural—to exist. He does so because the great community “can never posses all the qualities which mark a local community” (Dewey, 1927, p. 211). Recognizing these distinct local communities, it is clear that, for Dewey, assimilation to the ideal of the great community does not require sacrificing one’s own cultural heritage. In fact, maintenance of one’s culture within cultural communities is imminently consistent with the spirit of this notion of nationalism.


In a 1916 address to the National Education Association, Dewey explained his notion of nationalism, noting that unity, national mindedness, or a unified social consciousness all involve developing “the good aspect of nationalism without its evil side” (Dewey, 1980, p. 203). Recognizing that the nation-state is interracial and international in its make-up, Dewey argued that no one cultural group can provide a pattern to which others must conform. Attempts to eliminate diversity represent an intellectual and moral problem in society (Cf. Dewey, 1916). Indeed, Dewey found assimilationist notions like Americanization and the melting pot “rather repellent” (Dewey, 1917, p. 205) and he rejected both of them.[5]


The educational policies and practices of multiculturalist nationalism


The implications for educational policy that stem from this view of nationalism surface in Dewey’s criticisms of “traditional” education. Here Dewey insists that the experiences and backgrounds of students be taken seriously and built on in the classroom. Dewey (1938) pointed out


[in traditional education] there was no demand that the teacher should become intimately acquainted with the conditions of the local community, physical, historical, economic, occupational, etc., in order to utilize them as educational resources. A system of education based upon the necessary connection of education with experience must, on the contrary, if faithful to its principle, take these things constantly into account. (p. 40)


This criticism continues to motivate the contemporary movements in multicultural education. Profiles of schools and programs that have dealt successfully with minority students by providing culturally appropriate and relevant instruction are evidence of Dewey’s wisdom (see, for example, Lucas, Henze, and Donato, 1990; Au, 1993; Vogt, Jordan, and Tharp, 1993; Ladson-Billings, 1994).


The success of using students’ first languages as media of instruction in bilingual education programs provides further evidence of the importance of respecting students backgrounds, in this case their linguistic backgrounds. Indeed, research indicates that students in the programs that make extensive use of their first languages do better academically and learn the target language just as quickly as students immersed in the second language (Ramirez, 1991; Greene, 1999). Furthermore, there is a demonstrated positive correlation between bilingual education and staying in school (Curiel et al, 1986).


However, the larger question is whether or not schools, especially public schools, should go beyond the mere exploitation of children’s backgrounds to further academic goals. In other words, should one of the purposes of schooling be to promote or maintain minority cultures? As long as children are also seeing other viewpoints, considering other ways of life, and empowered to flourish in and challenge the socio-cultural status quo, the multiculturalists’ answer to this question is yes. This, then, requires a move away from the assimilationist nationalism that has dominated history in nation building and continues to prevail.


Competing philosophies of nationalism and education in Mexico


Assimilationist nationalism and education in Mexico


The discussion so far has laid the groundwork to provide a more detailed look at the process of nationalism through the history of Mexico. While the general process of nationalism—putting into place a political state whose members share a certain amount of loyalty to that state and each other and who share a certain number of cultural characteristics—is the same across time and geography, its specifics are effected by the peoples within that geographical space. In Mexico, as through Latin America generally, the governments that were born from the fragments of state control left by colonialism formed full state systems and institutions after independence. These state systems, under the control of the economically and politically privileged, imposed a national cultural dominance on the marginalized masses. However, it is not until the end of the 19th century that we can actually speak of anything resembling a state with national characteristics in Mexico (Cf. Collado, 1993).


Nevertheless, at least parts of the nationalist goal were begun immediately upon the invasion of Mexico, especially through educational endeavors. In 1542, missionaries, who had actually begun arriving as early as 1524, were assigned the role of teaching language and religion. Even though this “education” of indigenous peoples was primarily designed and offered in terms of evangelism, i.e., teaching the Catholic faith (Brice Heath, 1972), in subsequent periods, those in which a nationalist fervor took hold, education took on a greatly extended role. It became a primary tool to adding “nation” to the newly formed state.


1. Colonial Mexico


Upon the arrival of Cortes in what is now Mexico, at least twenty-five million indigenous peoples were already living there (Wolf, 1982). Some eleven million were living in central Mexico (Cook and Borah, 1960). These peoples, as we know, endured intense exploitation at the hands of the Spanish invaders. Colonization also brought to the region epidemics that wiped out huge numbers of Mexico’s indigenous population. In fact, by 1605 the indigenous population had been reduced to a just over a million.


This dramatic reduction in the autochthonous population created an urgent need for laborers to work plantations and mines. As in other parts of the world, this problem was solved by bringing slaves from Africa. The intermingling of now three different “races” in Mexico helped to create a complex caste system which included not only people “pure” of race but also “mestizos” (born from Spanish and Indian parentage) and “mulatos” (born from Spanish and black parentage). Indeed, by 1793 mestizos and mulatos represented nearly a third of the population (Hernandez Diaz, 1993). The indigenous population, even with its dramatic decline, continued to represent approximately sixty percent of the population.[6]


Throughout the colonial period, a primary goal of the Spanish Crown was to “civilize” the indigenous population to become good subjects. Complete linguistic and cultural assimilation was essential to the Crown’s goal of one culture, one language, and one religion (Cf. Heath, 1975). By 1800 the viewed cultural inferiority of indigenous peoples was firmly institutionalized within a strict caste system at the bottom of which were the numerically superior indigenous peoples. The descendents of the Spanish conquerors born in “New Spain,” known as criollos, held a place of power above this vast majority of the population. Despite their firm place in the existing society, the criollos resented their second-class position behind Spaniards, whom they now considered foreigners.


2. Independent Mexico


It is within this growing discontent of the criollos that we see the nascent promotion of a common national identity for Mexico. For the criollos began to emphasize the differences between themselves and their Spanish forebears, striving to separate themselves as a distinct social and ethnic group treated unjustly by the crown (Lafaye, 1973). They increasingly recognized “Mexico” as their country and resented the government of “foreigners.” This resentment reached a head in 1810 with the war for independence.


Even with independence, however, a thorough-going Mexican nationalism did not obtain. What is important to point out is that such an identity has its roots in the colonial period with the criollos who set for themselves the task of forming an ideology and elements of union necessary for separation from Spain and to initiate the creation of a sovereign nation with, ultimately, a distinct nationalism. It was the criollos who first coopted the term “Mexican,” from the Mexica (commonly referred to as Aztecs), to distinguish those born in Mexico from the foreign Spaniards.


Once independence had been achieved, the new Mexican nation-state found itself with a large number of provinces with rather weak ties. Despite the previous oppressive efforts of the Crown, Mexico was still multiracial, multilingual, and multicultural. Given such circumstances, the primary efforts of the new state centered on consolidating a national unity.


Creating this new national unity stirred debate and throughout the nineteenth century liberals and conservatives struggled against each other for influence. Each group had its own idea of nation-state and of how to promote it. Conservatives tended to be centralists, striving towards a centralized government; whereas, liberals “aspired toward a democratic federal republic, governed by representative institutions, without religious influence, in which all interests would be included…state activity would be limited to national defense, education, and internal security” (Brading, 1980, p. 101). The liberals embraced the ideals of equality, liberty, and fraternity and demanded the same rights for all citizens before the state, breaking the caste system that had prevailed for three centuries.


The new Mexican elite, the criollos and mestizos, embraced these liberal principles in their aspiration to create a nation-state modeled on those of Europe. The new elite strove to create a nation-state that consisted of a single culture, language, and race. Rhetorically, the liberal principles they embraced applied to all peoples. In fact, however, the goal was worse than to ignore indigenous peoples, their cultures, and their languages—seen as an obstacle to the achievement of their nationalist project; the goal was to assimilate “them.” This is why during this period the indigenous populations of Mexico were in “an even more vulnerable position than in the colonial period, since during the latter times they at least had their own spaces for social reproduction” (Diaz Couder, 1996, p. 1).

Under the presidency of Benito Juarez, influential thinkers of the day followed the tenets of a burgeoning liberal influence from Europe. Leaders such as Justo Sierra and Ignacio Ramirez felt that progress toward individual liberty could only be made with an educated population. Some radical leaders, including Ramirez, argued for a certain amount of self-determination for indigenous communities, especially in matters of language and education. Nevertheless, most people sided with Sierra who believed that the survival of indigenous languages and cultures was an obstacle to national integration (Cf. Aguirre Beltrán, 1983). The combination of these ideals led to educational policy that promoted schooling as a means of acculturation in order to make true “citizens” of indigenous peoples (Cf. Brading, 1980).


In order to have greater control of the process of nationalism, the state had to seize control of the schools, historically under religious rule. Therefore, the Constitution of 1857 included a decree, Article 3, stating that education would be free and that the offices needed to implement it would be determined by law (Cf. Solana, 1981). Weakening of religious influence in education continued in subsequent years, such as in the Law of Public Instruction passed in 1869. This law eliminated religious instruction in public schools and required that schools include the Federal Constitution and History in their curricula. Under the control of the state, the goal of the schools changed drastically. Previously their function was primarily to promote a religious agenda, especially in indigenous communities. Now their function was sociological: to make “Mexicans.”


The educational (and nationalist) ideals of Juarez were continued throughout the more than thirty-year presidency of Porfirio Diaz, a period known as the “Porfiriato.” It was during the Porfiriatothat the concept of a national education became more firmly defined. In 1908, Justo Sierra, Minister of Public Education, defined this as,


…the study of the historia patria, of basic geography of Mexico, and of civics. [A national education recognizes] the national language is the Spanish of Mexico…[A national education] deals with differentiating itself, with respect to other countries, by adding to its general design the features necessary to integrate the Mexican citizenry and the Mexican man [sic]…(Yanez, cited by Solana, 1981, p. 98)


Clearly, the primary intentions of the Ministry of Education then was to make “Mexican” citizens. Indeed, in 1908 the Law of Primary Education was passed and made clear that “The primary education shall be national, that is, it shall aim to develop in all the children a love for the Mother Country and its institutions…” (Barranco, 1915, p. 54).


But it was not enough that the “Mexican” love his country, for other educational goals included castellanización (Spanish-ization) and cultural homogenization of the people. These policies were vigorously pursued through schools. Given the power of the state in education after the secularization of schools and the passing of mandatory attendance laws, the schools were the first and foremost tool in the creation of this citizenry. The subject matter of schooling was also unified, establishing instruction in history, civics, and Spanish as the elements that would most promote cultural assimilation and a common nation.


In the last year of the Porfiriato, 1910, the President “searched for a way to demonstrate the interest that he held in serving the country; one of the ways was represented in the project to extend the benefits of [Mexican] culture throughout the country” (Gomez Navas, 1981, p. 128).  In order to do this, he proposed legislation to establish “Las Escuelas Rudimentarias” (rudimentary schools).  Subsequently, Article 2 of a 1911 Congressional decree defined the objective of these schools: to teach indigenous students to speak, to read, and to write in Spanish and to do basic arithmetic (Andrade Herrera, 1996). In other words, the Porfiriato ended as it had begun, i.e., with the assimilationist nationalist goal of acculturation and castellanización.


Continuing the nationalist project, the intellectual leaders of the revolutionary years, 1910-1940, also saw education as the best tool in the creation of a culturally homogeneous state. One of the most prominent thinkers of this period was Jose Vasconcelos. Vasconcelos argued for the creation of a new race, what he called a “cosmic race” consisting of the “fusion” of indigenous and Hispanic people that would create a single race of people and, thus, a single national identity (Cf. Matute, 1981). Nevertheless, Vasconcelos tended to have a greater appreciation for the European side of his cosmic race. Given this prejudice, Hernandez Diaz (1993, p. 36) points out Vasconcelos “chose his cosmic race as a way of assimilating or making disappear the diverse mesoamerican cultures.” As Molina Enríquez, a contemporary of Vasconcelos, proclaimed, “…for the good of the country, the mestizo must be the dominant ethnic element and the base of political control (Knight, 1990, p. 85). This mestizo nationalism was supported by three fundamental pillars: Catholicism, the Spanish language, and Hispanic (read: mestizo) culture.


Under Vasconelos’ leadership, a series of programs was implemented to “serve” indigenous communities. The first of these programs was the rural school. Following the model of the rudimentary schools, the rural schools provided instruction in Spanish, basic skills, and some trades. Despite the value of many of these services, it should be remembered that these school effectively promoted assimilation and castellanización and were “instruments of political mobilization and nationalist propaganda” (Knight, 1990, p. 81).


Upon the creation of the Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP)(Department of Public Education) in 1921, the indigenous policy was institutionalized within the Departamento de Educacion y Cultura Indigena (Department of Indigenous Education and Culture) in 1923. The purpose of this centralization was to achieve educational unity within the complex of educational institutions and programs. One of the first policies initiated under this plan of creating unity was to require that all schools, especially those serving indigenous children, would teach Spanish, hygiene, farming, and the application of machinery to agriculture (Mejía, 1981).


In the meantime, the Department of Indigenous Education and Culture proceeded to implement other programs to civilize indigenous populations. Included among these programs were the so-called “Missions of Indigenous Improvement.” People from a variety of professions participated in the missions, including doctors, nurses, carpenters, agronomists, and teachers of physical education. The missions set up in and around indigenous communities and offered technical help in farming, organized fitness campaigns, founded workshops, provided medical services, helped in the construction of streets, and lend advice in legal and administrative manners within the community (Cardiel Reyes, 1981, p. 344). Parallel programs included the Escuelas e Internados de Indigenas (Indigenous Boarding Schools). Here the discipline of anthropology was “institutionalized and used as a tool to assimilate the indigenous population into the ‘national’ society” (Aguirre Beltrán, 1970, p. 109).


In 1948, the creation of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI)(National Indigenous Institute) signified an important advance in the treatment of indigenous peoples. The functions of the INI included the scientific study of the indigenous communities, including their structures, composition, and social problems; coordination of diverse government agencies working on economic, social, educational, and cultural improvement; and, working with the SEP on the elaboration of educational programs appropriate for indigenous communities that would promote their integration into the national society.


At this time the INI embraced the ideal of bilingual education and the use of indigenous languages in schools. Nevertheless, it was competing with the boarding schools run by the Office of Indian affairs and the rural schools. Both of these institutions rejected the use of indigenous languages in favor of the “direct method,” i.e., immersion in Spanish (Heath, 1972).


In sum, the nationalist history of Mexico demonstrates a clear pattern of assimilationist nationalism. It was justified by a liberal perspective that focused on “civilizing” indigenous peoples, completely ignoring the importance of their cultural communities. In this process the school was of first importance and educational policy reflected the philosophy of nationalism which was, in theory, to make the political and myriad cultural communities one and the same.


Multiculturalist nationalism and education in Mexico


As we saw, the recognition of the value and importance of indigenous languages and cultures began as early as 1948. But it was not until many years later that serious consideration of the rights of indigenous communities to maintain their languages and cultures would be given.


In 1975, momentum towards this final and hopefully expanding recognition of indigenous rights began with the Carta de las comunidades indígenas (letter from the indigenous communities). In this document, Mexico’s indigenous leaders announced the formation of the Consejo Nacional de Pueblos Indígenas (Council of Indigenous Communities), denounced centuries of economic and cultural oppression, and demanded educational services to promote indigenous language maintenance. These proclamations spurred further action among indigenous teachers, mainly from preschools, who created the Alianza Nacional de Profesionistas Indígenas Bilingües (National Alliance of Bilingual Indigenous Professionals) in 1976. This group become an effective lobby for changes favorable to indigenous languages (Patthey-Chavez, 1994). 


A myriad of other indigenous groups gained their voices during this period. They were fighting to create “a new ideology to maintain diversity within the country, [and to] combat the predominant conception that [Mexico] is a “mestiza” nation (Hernandez Diaz 1993, p. 55).


Between 1990 and 1992 several legal actions significantly broadened the scope of civil rights, including cultural and linguistic rights. Among these actions we should point out the ratification of Accord 169 of the World Organization of the Worker, the modification of a number of articles of the penal code, and most importantly to our purposes, the modification of Article Four of the Mexican Constitution. This last reform, approved in January of 1992, provided explicit recognition of Mexico as both multicultural and multilingual. This amended article now reads as follows:


The Mexican nation has a multicultural composition, stemming originally from its indigenous peoples. The law will protect and promote the development of their languages, cultures, habits, customs, resources, and specific forms of social organization and it will guarantee to them effective access to the jurisdiction of the state. In judicial and rural proceedings in which they are part their judicial practices and customs will be taken into account under the terms established by law.


Following the lead of this constitutional change, the Secretaría de Educación Pública (1999) recognizes the obligation of 


continuing to advance in the construction of a system of bilingual and bicultural education…that respects the particular identities of each culture…Bilingual education is based on the recognition of and encouragement toward the capacity to read and write in one’s own indigenous language as a didactic resource and as an element of the revaluation of the cultural identity of this population (pp. 40-41).


Over the past two decades the SEP has been expanding its bilingual education programs and has begun production and distribution of indigenous language texts.


The recognition of indigenous language and culture at the national educational level is further spurred by individual states. For example, the state government of Oaxaca passed a law stating that


It is the obligation of the State of Oaxaca to impart bilingual and bicultural education to all its indigenous peoples, with plans and curricula that integrate knowledge, technology, and value systems corresponding to these peoples. This system of education will be conducted through the use of maternal languages and with Spanish as a second language. Plans and curricula that include knowledge of the State’s ethnic cultures and regions will be incorporated into the curriculum of the remainder of the population. Ley Estatal de Educación de Oaxaca, 1995


Despite this advance in the philosophy now driving educational policy, serious challenges must be overcome to make these paper promises of multiculturalism real. Indeed, President Vicente Fox recently that the previous constitutional reform was “juridically insufficient to alleviate the grave conditions of the indigenous peoples and communities of the country” (Gaceta, 2000).


Educational challenges in living by multiculturalist nationalism


Even with all of the political activity and the starts towards language and cultural maintenance, a severe gap remains between the spirit of the recent constitutional change and the actuality in schools. Among many others, three significant challenges surface immediately.[7] First, there is the sheer number of indigenous languages to serve. Second, stemming from this is a chronic lack of materials, despite the gargantuan efforts made already. Third, there is also a shortage of qualified teachers.


Even with a thorough commitment to carrying out the spirit of article of four of the constitution, solving these problems will not be easy given the great number of indigenous communities and, in many cases, their remoteness. There are some 6.3 million people over the age of five who speak an indigenous language as their first language (Census, 2000) representing more than eighty different languages or dialects (Secretaría de Educación Pública, 1999).[8] This includes nearly 2.2 million children of school-age (ages 5-19). The challenge is even greater in states with particularly acute levels of diversity such as Oaxaca.


Despite the state’s philosophical and, as we saw above, legal commitment to bilingual/bicultural education, the challenges to carrying it out are considerable and vary from state to state. In Oaxaca there are just over 3.2 million inhabitants. Almost forty percent of the population speaks an indigenous language (Census, 2000) and half of these are monolingual in that language (Morales Sanchez, 1999). Initially, this may seem like a perfect situation for language and cultural maintenance. But we must also consider that this indigenous third of the population is represented by sixteen distinct indigenous groups with their own languages (Vasconcelos Beltrán, 1999). The state currently serves approximately 150,000 students in bilingual programs.


As concerns indigenous language materials, the National Commission on Free Textbooks, for example, observes “it is a right of children to learn to read and to write in their own language.” To this end, in the 1998-99 school year the Comisión distributed over a million books in indigenous languages. These books covered thirty-three different languages and fifty-two dialects of these languages (Secretaría de Educación Pública, 1999). Officially, there are 62 indigenous languages in Mexico (Instituto Nacional Indigenista, 1995) In other words, there are a number of indigenous languages for which primary language materials are unavailable. There are several reasons for this. First, some languages simply do not yet have a written form. Second, it is also often the case that, even if the language has a written form, there are no native speakers with the necessary educational training to develop materials. Third, in developing or having developed a written form the indigenous community itself cannot reach consensus on the alphabet or the syntactic and lexical standard (E. Ularte, personal communication, October 17, 2001).[9]


Another aspect of this lack of indigenous materials is the fact that textbooks are only distributed, at this point, up to fourth grade and a number of communities only receive first and second grade materials (E. Ularte, personal communication). This helps to explain why most so-called language maintenance programs last only through the first few years of elementary school (Patthey-Chavez, 1994), if that long. This is grossly insufficient. Furthermore, even in these programs there is often minimal use of the indigenous language (Hidalgo, 1994).  This is explained, in part, by the fact that the materials distributed in indigenous languages are for the development of reading and writing only. Textbooks for content areas, e.g. history, science, math, etc, are not being developed in the indigenous languages (E. Ularte, personal communication).


As intimated above, another scarce resource is teachers. The editors of Praxis Universitaria astutely pointed out,


Strengthening the base of 35 thousand indigenous teachers constitutes another problem [to living up to the promise of Article Four]. Here we must factor in the lack of basic services in the [indigenous] communities, the lack of housing near education centers for teachers, and the difficulty of finding enough teachers who speak the 57 languages that exist nationally and who want to work with indigenous children. (Del indigenismo, 1994, p. 4)


Finding teachers who speak the indigenous language and who might want to live in the often isolated community is not a new problem. Historically, indigenous youth who had completed the equivalent of a junior high school education were recruited to become teachers. This practice, while on the decline, continues and students are given minimal preparation, a 100 day crash course, before beginning to teach. This creates an interesting paradox. Since 1984, a high school diploma has been required for entry into a teacher preparation program. So there are presently teachers in Mexico who are not qualified to enter the teacher preparation program and yet are teaching (Petrovic et al, 1999). This is a clear indication of the dire shortage of teachers to work in these communities.


Concluding remarks on liberalism, cultural communities, and multicultural Mexico


The fact is that most nation-states are multicultural. That is to say that political states have within their borders a variety of national communities. The most obvious form of nationalism is the attempt by the larger or politically dominant community to force the complete assimilation of other cultural groups. While driving out, breeding out (as was Vasconcelos’ plan), or melting away other cultures has often been the purposeful intent of nationalism historically, this should not be the aim.


Nevertheless, throughout much of its history this was indeed the goal of Mexican leaders. They followed a philosophy of assimilationist nationalism that relegated indigenous communities to second class status--fifth class throughout the colonial period. Education became a crucial tool in the plan to create a culturally homogeneous nation-state. While the reach and effect of earlier education policies, given the geographic isolation of many indigenous communities, may not have been great, the official intent of assimilation was clear. Even when more progressive educational policies were put into place, e.g., bilingual education, often the intent was not language maintenance but castellanización (Hidalgo, 1994). For as early as the 1940s linguists argued that students in bilingual programs learned Spanish more quickly (Heath, 1972).[10]


As is the case in the United States presently, much of the assimilationist bent was justified through liberal ideals. But we should now begin to recognize that multiculturalist nationalism is, in fact, truer to these ideals. For the focus of liberalism is on the individual but the individual must be grounded. This is why the flourishing of cultural groups is so important: “human beings become who they are as individuals only as members of groups…” (Schmidt, 1993, p. 82).


In this vein, the notion of multiculturalist nationalism developed earlier in this paper might just as easily be called “liberal nationalism.” Two of the central and interlinked tenets of both of these notions of nationalism are (should be?) the necessity of communal belonging to individual well-being and a commitment to pluralism (Cf. Lichtenberg, 1999). We have used the terms “multiculturalist nationalism” and “assimilationist nationalism” in order to bring more fully into the foreground what Dewey (and we) believe to be the “evil side” of nationalism. We also do this because, as was pointed out, the assimilationist nationalism that ruled Mexico historically was defended through liberal theory. Indeed, it could be argued that people like E. D. Hirsch and Arthur Schlesinger defend liberal nationalism. The difference brought to the fore through our terminology is that for them (and other assimilationists) individual freedom is best brought about through thorough assimilation into the “mainstream” culture such that this culture becomes everyone’s “community” or, to use Kymlickan expression (developed further below), everyone’s context of choice. The problem here is that “persons who do not belong to the dominant nationality ipso facto have their dignity recognized in an inferior way to those who belong—a flat contradiction of the [liberal] principle of universal and equal recognition” (Fukuyama, 1994, p. 24).


This position of inferiority degrades the cultural communities that help to define who we are as individuals. This is problematic because it is through our cultural group membership that the choices that we make as individuals (and the estimations of their value) are made available to us. Kymlicka (1989) is worth citing at some length here. He observes that


Different ways of life are not simply different patterns of physical movements. The physical movements only have meaning to us because they are identified as having significance by our culture, because they fit into some pattern of activities which is culturally recognized as a way of leading one's life. We learn about these patterns of activity through their presence in stories we've heard about the lives, real or imaginary, of others. They become potential models, and define potential roles, that we can adopt as our own. From childhood on, we become aware both that we are already participants in certain forms of life (familial, religious, sexual, educational, etc.), and that there are other ways of life which offer alternative models and roles that we may, in time come to endorse. We decide how to lead our lives by situating ourselves in these cultural narratives, by adopting roles that have struck us as worthwhile ones, as ones worth living (which may, of course, include the roles we were brought up to occupy). (p. 165)


What Kymlicka focuses on here is the cultural community as a context of choice, not necessarily the character of the community or its traditional ways of life. These aspects of the community members should be free to endorse or reject. Given the importance of cultural membership as a context of choice and, therefore, to the promotion of individual freedom, the protection of minority cultures and the recognition of the importance of groups is a consistent part of liberalism. In other words, by refusing to see the importance of communities to individuals, we create a bogus dichotomy between individuals, whose freedom is the raison d’être of liberalism, and the groups that help to forge their individual identities.


Given this, the official steps that Mexico has taken towards a philosophy of multicultural nationalism and education are extremely encouraging. How thoroughly and in what ways this new philosophy gets incorporated into daily societal functioning and into school curricula remains to be seen and should be the focus of future research endeavors. As pointed out earlier, there are a number of serious logistical and practical challenges to implementing a multicultural nationalism and educational philosophy; but given the history of Mexico, perhaps the most serious challenge—an assimilationist political ethos—is on its way out.


Finally, while it is beyond the scope of the present article, there is the important question of minority nationalism that should be raised. By minority nationalism we mean the intent of minority groups within particular geographical spaces to endow themselves with their own political roofs within Mexico. It is doubtful at this point that full blown secession is a threat. However, demands have already been made, by the Zapatistas for example, for increased autonomy and decision-making power in certain policy areas, such as education. These demands are not necessarily unreasonable and must be given serious consideration. 



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*Note that the Bilingual Research Journal was at the time two years in arrears. Therefore, while the article was published in 1999, it appears in a 1997 issue of the Journal due to the decision of the new editors to maintain an uninterrupted date sequence and numeration.






[1] Whether “globalization” and the international forces that have been brought to bear on Mexico—the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, etc.—are bringing boon or bane to Mexico is unclear. Clearly, some groups, such as the Zapatistas resent the interference of such organizations and believe that they represent yet another hegemonic invasion into their communities, ways of life, and political philosophy.

[2] Indigenous leaders tend to use the latter term in order to mark a difference between those ideals that have come from the top down for indigenous peoples as opposed to those that are both by and for indigenous peoples.

[3] To a great degree, Schlesinger’s arguments are driven by a fear of balkanization, i.e., the U.S. nation-state could break apart. Liberal democratic societies are probably more stable when a nation-state happens to be culturally (which includes, linguistically) homogeneous, i.e., when “political” and “cultural” community refer to the same people. This would seem to require the more thorough assimilation to a dominant national culture that Schlesinger and others want. While it may be true that democracy can far more easily and thoroughly obtain in such a society, the process of realizing such a homogeneous society violates the ideals of the very liberal democracy that it was meant to promote. At any rate, it seems that the balkanization that Schlesinger fears is not a realistic threat in the United States today (Cf. Petrovic, 1999). 

[4] In his more recent work, Hirsch (1996) continues in much the same vein. He also continues to misapply his own thinking. Petrovic (1998), for example, pointed out how Hirsch develops and subsequently violates a theory he dubs “Sticht’s Law,” claiming that “reading ability in nondeaf children cannot exceed their listening ability.” For other criticisms of Hirsch see Howe (1997) and Feinberg (1997, 1998).

[5] See Dewey (1902, 1916c, and 1923) for his criticisms of Americanization and Dewey (1917) for his criticism of the melting pot.

[6] Barranco (1915) identifies seven racial classifications as follows: European, Criollo, Mestizo, Castizo (Spanish and mixed descent), Indians, Mulato, and Zambo (Indian and black descent). By the census of 1910, the indigenous population was reduced to about 35% and the Mestizo and Mulato population more than doubled (see Barranco, p. 9).

[7] Other challenges that must be taken into consideration given their direct impact on the ones highlighted here include things such as the following: (1) the remoteness of the communities which, for one, makes it difficult to attract qualified teachers; (2) the extreme rate of poverty among the indigenous communities; and, (3) the.high drop out rate of indigenous students—owing in great part to #2.

[8] The exact number of “languages” is unknown. The 2000 Census reports that “more than 60 indigenous languages” are spoken in Mexico but does not refer, as the SEP, to dialects. This certainly has both political and educational implications.

[9] E. Ularte, Director para Desarrollo y Fortalecimiento de las Lenguas Indigenas, Dirección General de Educacion Indigena, Mexico, D.F.

[10] Whether early supporters of bilingual education made this argument merely to receive support for their programs or whether their intent was indeed castellanización is unclear. Heath (1972) seems to suggest the former.

[i] Much of this section of the paper dealing with Dewey recently appeared in Insights,  (a publication of the John Dewey Society. See Petrovic (2001).