Teaching Children Without Colonizing Their Minds

June 9, 2016

In Mexico City, the cathedral – this stentorian thug of a cathedral – is sinking. Built to crush the indigenous temple beneath it, while its decrees pulverised indigenous thinking, Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral is sinking under the weight of its own brutal imposition.

Walking nearby late one night, I was captivated by music. Closer, now, and I came upon an indigenous, pre-Hispanic ceremony being danced on the pavement hard by the cathedral. Copal tree resin was burning, marigolds were scattered like living coins, people in feather headdresses and jaguar masks danced to flutes, drums, rattles and shell-bells. While each cathedral column was a Columbus colonising the site, the ceremony seemed to say: We’re still here.

A young man watched me awhile, as I was taking notes, and then approached me smiling.

‘Do you understand Nahuatl?’ he asked.

Head-shaking smile.

‘Do you want me to explain?’


He spent an hour gently unfurling each word. Abjectly poor, his worn-out shoes no longer even covered his feet and his clothes were rags, but he shone with an inner wealth, a light that was his gift, to respect the connections of the world, between people, animals, plants and the elements. He spoke of the importance of not losing the part of ourselves that touches the heart of the Earth; of listening within, and also to the natural world. Two teachers. No one has ever said it better.

‘Your spirit is your maestro interno. Your spirit brought you here. You have your gift and destiny to complete in this world. You have to align yourself in the right direction and carry on.’ And he melted away, leaving me with tears in my eyes as if I had heard a lodestar singing its own quiet truthsong.

A few days earlier, I’d been invited to the Centre for Indigenous Arts in Papantla, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, 300km east of Mexico City. The centre was celebrating the anniversary of its founding (in 2006), and promoting indigenous education: decolonised schooling. Not by chance, it is 12 October, the day when, in 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in the so-called New World. Here, they come not to praise Columbus but to bury his legacy because – as an act of pointed protest – this date is now widely honoured as the day of indigenous resistance.

A few hundred people, mainly Totonac, a pre-Colombian civilisation, cluster together in the centre’s candle-lit, flower-strewn courtyard. From tiny children to old people, everyone is dressed with care, the men wearing white cotton trousers and tunics, the women white dresses. All colours have meaning; white symbolises purity of thought.

Copal incense weaves the breeze. Banana-resin is used to paint shooting stars and flowers on the pottery, which is, they say, a sacred work because it comes from Madre Tierra, the mothering Earth. ‘Every object is charged with thousands of years of knowledge,’ says Salomón Bazbaz Lapidus, the centre’s director.

Laid out on the ground is a hand-tended and mind-attended mandala of what education could aspire to be. A path of huge, waxy banana leaves links exhibits of traditional medicine, storytelling, pre-Hispanic healing saunas, pottery, dance, painting, theatre, cotton-culture, carpentry and – candidly now – tourism. Looked at as a whole, it is a pathway, a camino of pedagogy – ‘because we are following a long path not to be conquered’.

The day begins with long blessings and continues with longer speeches to confirm and celebrate the centre’s work. The camino of pedagogy is walked ‘poco a poco’, they say: little by little, each step involving public consultation, ‘soaked in dialogue and steeped in ceremony’, each word crafted to articulate their cosmovision (their conception of life) without compromise. The camino is walked with an old slowness. ‘Much listening to the grandfathers and grandmothers,’ says Humberto García García, the pedagogist.

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