MEXICO: Empowering indigenous people through HE

During 2006, I worked with indigenous community leaders in Oaxaca, Mexico, to help establish one of the country’s first indigenous universities: the Centro de Estudios Ayuuk- Universidad Indígena Intercultural Ayuuk (CEA-UIIA). Seeking to provide the youth of their communities with avenues of higher education within their own region, the Mixe (or Ayuuk) people saw the need for a university to address local challenges.

While studying the economics of poverty in Mexico City, I was invited to conduct socio-economic research to establish the viability of such an institution. I have since seen their vision transform into a growing space for Mixe students to base their education in their communities.

The Mixes, a group of more than 150,000 people in the region northeast of Oaxaca City, have traditionally practised sustainable agricultural practices on communal lands, followed their usos y costumbres in managing local governance and community affairs. They have sought to maintain a vibrant cultural identity but today their culture, language, and way of life face serious threats.

Much of the Mixes identity is grounded in the links with their traditional lands. But the spread of transgenic corn breeds, deteriorated soil quality and deforestation threaten to diminish their ability to maintain a culture tied to the land. For many Mixe communities, low global coffee prices have erased the income of most families. Other communities have sold off their ejido lands, only now to find themselves wage labourers on land they could once call their own.

And, as for many Mexicans, hardships resulting from the North American Free Trade Agreement have driven vast portions of many villages to emigrate to the United States in search of work. This has created a migratory process accompanied by dubious cultural influences from the North while those Mixes who could leave their communities to study or work rarely returned to share their experiences or knowledge.

The CEA-UIIA was conceived by Mixe leaders as a way to address these problems with a local solution, providing an educational alternative that responds to the needs of indigenous communities. The objective was to offer “an option of professional formation for the youth of the Ayuuk territory and surrounding municipalities that allows them to successfully integrate themselves in the productive life of their community and region, with clear respect to the cultural context in which they find themselves, and to promote development in the region”.

As a model that seeks to strengthen indigenous cultural and economic autonomy, and to promote community development through local projects, the university aims not only to manage the realities of a globalising world but also to challenge the assumption that the global, Western model is the only way.

In January last year, the university opened its doors in the town of Jaltepec de Candayoc, Cotzocón Mixe. It currently provides its 60 students with degree programmes in communication for social development, and administration and sustainable development. Enrolments are expected to reach 100 students this autumn as its ideas, infrastructure and resources grow. The university has a growing library collection, is expanding its teaching facilities and is planning on building a football field within the next few years.

But the creation of a groundbreaking indigenous institution has also brought its share of challenges. The Mexican state does not view the CEA-UIIA as a proper institution of higher education and remains resistant to recognising it as such, creating numerous bureaucratic hurdles. While generously supported by the Jesuit University System of Mexico and the Ford Foundation, securing long-term funding for its teachers remains a constant issue.

Nonetheless, the CEA-UIIA continues to serve as an example of how higher education – when founded in local ideas and guidance – has the potential to be a dynamic means by which to address a diverse array of global, social, and economic problems.

The adverse effects surrounding the free trade agreement and irresponsible global agricultural policies have left many young Mixes with few options but to leave their communities. Now, courses at the CEA-UIIA allow indigenous students to integrate their studies with local development, cultural, and community initiatives, with the hope of slowly reunifying their peoples.

The rise of the neoliberal world has brought with it difficulties for groups like the Mixes who are not alone as a unique indigenous culture struggling against the disparate effects of a globalising world.

Aid, development and trade policies aimed at developing nations, while often well-intentioned, have largely failed to recognise a fourth world in which indigenous and tribal communities are left without a political and social voice. Indeed, within this context, how indigenous communities can effectively address issues of local education and development is a more pressing question.

The establishment of the CEA-UIIA presents a picture of indigenous communities’ incredible capacity to empower themselves when given the resources and opportunity to do so. This underscores the need for states and academics alike to recognise the centrality of local, indigenous autonomy when thinking about development, poverty-alleviation, and cultural rights.

Finally, while it can be seen as inspirational in thinking about the power of higher education, the Mixes’ university asks the faithful of the Western academic institution to think critically about the limits of their reach.

*Matthew T Wooten is a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. He is completing a master’s degree in Latin American studies. For more about the CEA-UIIA, see