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Campus News
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
Current Issue:  April 22, 2002
Volume 37, Number 19

Meyer works with indigenous educators

By Laurie Mellas-Ramirez

UNM College of Education Associate Professor Lois Meyer frequents the dirt roads of Oaxaca, Mexico, to learn the needs of teachers working to implement Spanish-indigenous, bilingual education in schools.

The roads lead to the border and the poverty-plagued state exports more field hands to the north than any other in Mexico.

“The teachers would like to transform the schooling experience of their communities. If I’m going to collaborate with teachers, then I must know in a profound way the communities where they work and the challenges that they face,” says Meyer, principal investigator for a two-year project titled, “Tequio Pedagogico: Pedagogical Collaboration in the Community,” funded by the Spencer Foundation with a two-year $50,000 grant. “Tequio” is the name given the expectation that indigenous Oaxacans work together to strengthen their own communities.

Oaxaca is the most diverse state in Mexico with 16 ethnic groups and more than 50 variants of indigenous languages. The few books available in the classrooms are Spanish language, government issued textbooks. The 24 teacher/researchers participating in the Spencer project are members of the Coalition of Indigenous Teachers and Promoters of Oaxaca (CMPIO). They represent nine languages, six preschools and three primary schools throughout the southeastern state.

An applied linguist, Meyer is the only U.S. academic mentor working on the project, which builds on her work as Fulbright scholar in Oaxaca in 1999-’00 and is part of a broad educational, bi-literacy effort by the CMPIO called the Pedagogical Movement.

Exposed as a young girl to inequalities in Latin America, Meyer lived in the “Panama Canal Zone at the height of U.S. colonialism,” she recalls. As an adult, for six years, she worked in Mexico City for an elite international school. She has spent the last 20 years working with bilingual education in inner city California.

She left a tenured, full professor position at San Francisco State University nearly two years ago for UNM after the long, hard and unsuccessful fight she and others waged against Proposition 227, California’s anti-bilingual education legislation. “The role schooling plays in the loss or destruction of immigrant and indigenous languages and cultures is a volatile educational issue in both Mexico and the U.S.,” she notes.

“Ultimately, the intent of the Spencer project is to increase the meaningfulness and cultural and linguistic appropriateness of schooling, literacy and completion rates of Oaxacan children,” Meyer said. “Our goal is to achieve these outcomes by democratizing educational practice in indigenous communities in the most fundamental sense, that is, by grounding the forms and teaching strategies of schools in the knowledge, values and aspirations of the parents and members of these communities.”

Meyer says she is careful to take the role of collaborator rather than

“I see myself as an advocate, as contributing the perspective of a colleague from the U.S.,” she says. “And I struggle with an enormous dilemma – how do I use my experience and preparation to guide the project while also learning from the Oaxacan teachers?” She cites an example from her year as a Fulbright researcher. Recognizing the lack of indigenous learning materials, Meyer guided the teachers to make from books from scratch for their classrooms reflective of their cultures in their own languages.

In preparation for a regional event attended by indigenous parents, “ten teachers committed to their own native language, Ombeyuits, created a book in Spanish!” Meyer recalls. “I had to think, what questions might I pose so they could step back, reflect on the parents’ language proficiency and rethink their choice of language for the book?”

During their dialogue with Meyer, the teachers acknowledged that literacy in their communities varied, some had lost indigenous languages and others are monolingual in Ombeyuits. In the end, the group collaborated on a book in Spanish and Ombeyuits and awkwardly, but proudly, practiced reading the indigenous language portions aloud before the parent meeting.

Meyer says she would like several of New Mexico’s Native American educators to accompany her on the next trip to Oaxaca June 6-8 for a meeting of the coalition’s statewide congress at which Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú will speak.

She cites numerous benefits of the Spencer project, among them, facilitating better communication between teachers and community members about schooling and language and culture loss. “The Oaxacan discoveries may prove important for other communities in Mexico and beyond that are facing cultural and linguistic extinction,” Meyer says. She adds that there are many parallels between Oaxaca and New Mexico – both are rich with indigenous histories and are experiencing present day struggles to retain and value native languages and cultures.

Although new to New Mexico, she says she is a “careful learner” and voices concern about the impact of new national testing standards and the education motto of the Bush administration to “leave no child behind.”

“What that means is the child is not being left behind from the homogenous goals of U.S. schooling as long as he or she leaves the family culture and language behind,” she says. “We need to take seriously that language is a central part of the child’s identity. Suppressing language is an abuse of the child’s human rights and the community’s autonomy and integrity.”