Dialogues Between School and Spanish Language. Education and Symbolic Violence

Kupijy Vargas

There was no classroom; rather, next to the church, there was a room with unglazed wooden windows. To keep out the cold, they had covered the windows with a cloth that prevented them from seeing how the mist moved outside, but both the cold and the mist got into the room and into the children’s skin; it burned their cheeks, leaving them red, it cracked their lips so much that smiling and talking hurt, because the cold sliced the folds of their skin. Sitting on the floor of that room were several children, all wearing huaraches in different shapes, the girls in white skirts and blouses with red flowers. Everyone in that place had hard hands from working the land and their eyes were black. Until that day none of them knew anything beyond the church chapel, that place seemed strange to them, and being there with others similar to themselves made them feel uncertainty. It was cold and the place with wooden windows covered with cloth was no shelter; the fog cornered them and the ideas of more than one were directed to think of their homes as shelter: adobe houses with a fire pit that hid the flames that warmed their hands and comforted the pain caused by the cold burns. In those thoughts, several questions arose. What were they doing there? Why, instead of walking to the fields as they did every day, had they walked to church that day? The girls wondered if they would be shelling corn there and the boys if they would be taken to chop wood from there. They were concerned that they had brought nothing to work with and also that there were no tools at that place. They were alone, cold, feeling unsheltered and bewildered, but no one spoke, they knew that questions were answered by the grownups, and in that place they were alone, so they only resorted to looking into each other’s eyes from time to time.


The presence of all those children there had several explanations and those who could give them were the adults. However, they were also unclear about the intentions of the outsiders toward them and the children. It had all started months ago; in those days the children carried wood, shelled corn, worked the land, tended animals, embroidered blouses, and sheltered from the cold in the mornings in front of the fire pits in their homes. Both children and adults went to church, prayed their rosaries, and said their prayers in the language they knew, with which they had grown up, with which they named the sky, the water, and the trees. Those who came to this place hidden in the mountains had learned to speak it, to dialogue with it, to name what they saw and felt through it. In those mountains, only two sounds were heard: the words in that language and the sound of the wind at night. Nothing was different. The life of the people who lived among the cold and the fog was centered on these two sounds.

But one day that changed and that change came with words and sounds that no one there knew. That day began when the church’s bells rang calling to mass. As soon as the adults arrived, they realized that it was not a mass like the usual ones: flanking the priests were some tall, white men who spoke with different sounds than those heard in everyday life; their words did not resemble familiar ones or those of the wind, they sounded loud and tough; their voices had a certain distrust. Those men stood in the chapel, waiting for the priest to begin speaking, seeing no one but themselves. The priest did not begin with the usual words; he did not speak of God, but of progress. The adults knew that those words did not belong to the priest but to the men standing next to him. The dialogue consisted of announcing that those outsiders were going to teach the young new things, give them jobs, and turn them into citizens of a country named Mexico.

The white men spoke with words no one knew: schools, books, teachers, Spanish, and progress. The priest listened to the men in their language and then spoke to the adults trying to explain everything, but the astonished faces of everyone and the distrust of the outsiders made the atmosphere tense. No one ever asked if the adults and their families wanted to be part of what was known as the country; no one ever asked if white men and their ideas were welcome in those mountains. On the contrary, after that afternoon these ideas became permanent and it was difficult to escape from them.

The white men asked that afternoon to form a group of young people who would go to the region’s capital to enter Normal school, to learn Spanish, and become teachers; they said they would be men and women of reason in the future, that they would study to stop ignoring, that they would learn to read and write and that they would bring knowledge to the next generations. They chose the few young people who were there at that time and without being able to say a proper goodbye to their families, they left on foot, getting lost in the paths of those mountains.

The white men told the adults through the priest that they should not worry, that their children were safe, that they would return to bring progress to those regions, that they would be well-nourished, that everything was for the better and for being a country. No one at the time, not even the priest, knew what they meant by that word. What was a country? What was that Mexico they talked about? Where was it? For the adults, the borders were the neighboring villages and, from there, what their eyes could see in the top of the mountains. Perhaps Mexico was that which could be seen in the distance, which they were not going to be able to know. Until that moment they knew that the place they talked so much about had taken their children away from them and left them with the uncertainty of not knowing if they would ever see them again.

Tears were hidden in the rebozos of some women, ending in sobs and worries. Men concealed their uncertainty through their gestures and in their minds they prayed, as did the women, for the steps of their children.

Months passed without the adults knowing of their children’s whereabouts. They kept their worries in the flames of the fire pit until one day on the mountain paths they found their faces again. It was them, the same kids who had left with the white men months ago, but something in them had changed and their words were not the same: they now crumbled on their tongues a thought that was not theirs.

Now they had to learn to read and write, they had to learn the words of truth, the words of reason: Spanish

The group of young people asked to meet with the adults as the last time they saw them. When they were together in the church, adults noticed something different in their souls, they could see it in the young’s eyes and in their hands, where they hid the marks that the fields had left. Adults realized that the language with which they had been raised and with which they named themselves and named the world was no longer used by the young. Now they spoke to each other with sounds and words they had heard from the white men on their visit. Perhaps it was a disease that made them communicate in ways that adults did not understand; perhaps it was the result of an animal bite, those were the answers they found to the changes in their eyes, their hands, and their tongue, but none seemed to make sense of what they saw and heard. With the arrival of those young people who had been theirs and were now strangers, the children’s future changed. Adults were asked to listen carefully to the words of reason because only they would set them free; adults were asked to find a place where these words could spread to the children and form what outsiders understood as progress: a school.

The priest supported the proposal and designated a space outside the church. Very seriously, the young people asked that the next day all the children report to the place; they could no longer go to the fields nor tend the animals nor shell corn in the mornings, now they had to learn to read and write, they had to learn the words of truth, the words of reason: Spanish. So it was that the children arrived that morning, exposed to the cold and with wandering thoughts. There the young asked the children not to speak to each other in the language they had been raised with, they asked them to refer to themselves as me, to the boys and girls as them, and all together as us. They also let them know that if they did not name themselves with the words they had been taught and continued to speak in the language they heard at home, they would have to pay one peso for each word they did not pronounce in Spanish and, if this was not enough, the teachers were allowed to hit them on the hands with the sticks left over from the wood.

Weeks, months, mornings, and nights passed. The children forgot how the land smelled at dawn, they no longer got up to go to sow, now they went to school. They learned the vowels, drew the letters, and eventually learned to read and write; they became men and women of reason. Many eventually forgot how the sounds they grew up with were, they forgot it on purpose because, when they remembered it, memories of the cold room, the pain of the stick on their skin, and the line of pesos piling up on the edge of the wall also came to mind.

Symbolic Violence 
According to the National Institute of Indigenous Languages, 68 indigenous languages are spoken in the territory historically formed as Mexico. Among the most widely spoken languages are Nahuatl, Ch’ol, Totonac, Mazatec, Zapotec, Otomi, Tsotsil, Tseltal, and Maya, which are spoken in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Guerrero, places with the largest indigenous populations.

The National Institute of Statistics and Geography recorded in 2022 that more than 23 million people aged three years or older self-identify as indigenous, making the indigenous population 9.4% of the country’s total. This census also identified that there are currently more than seven million people aged three years or older who speak an indigenous language, representing 6.1% of the total Mexican population.

Several educational studies have shown that one of the problems in indigenous education is the imposition of Spanish as a second language, since neither the plans and programs nor didactic materials are focused on the population being educated, but made in Spanish, forsing the teaching and learning processes in that language. This leads to the imposition of knowledge embodied in Spanish over that safeguarded by the indigenous languages.

Throughout the history of the indigenous peoples, school has been a place of symbolic and intellectual violence, creating a fracture in the community, imposing a language and a vision of the world different from those thought by those who inhabited the valleys, mountains, and rivers before this territory between borders was called Mexico.

Kupijy Vargas was born in Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca, in 1998. She studied Pedagogy at UNAM and has obtained scholarships from UNAM’s Program for Studies on Cultural Diversity and Interculturality; from the Centers of Applied Research for Indigenous Peoples program (National Institute of Indigenous Peoples and CONACYT), and of the Chair of Latin America and the Caribbean Feminist Decolonial Theologies (Iberoamerican University). She was awarded Oaxaca State Youth Prize 2019. She currently works in the Direction of Regional Planning at the National Institute of the Indigenous Peoples.
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