Promoting diversity through intercultural experience

From left to right:

Emilia Cristina González Machado
Universidad Autónoma de Baja California

Ernesto Israel Santillán Anguiano
Universidad Autónoma de Baja California

 – Diversity and interculturality have both been converted into a discourse which is present in today’s education. In this article we describe a workshop to promote these elements among students, teachers and members of the indigenous Pa Ipai community in Northwest Mexico. Here interculturality is seen as an exchange of knowledge with the community in its context. The intention is to promote dialogue based on an encounter between people and cultures which are different. 

One of the paradoxes of the globalisation processes is the recognition of multiculturalism as an element which has the potential to benefit humankind. This potential is reflected not only in the integrating and disintegrating expressions of geopolitical scenarios, but also in the diversity of cultural expression. Cultural diversity is intimately linked to the processes of identity; it is expressed in local spaces, and it helps to define new cultural expressions in the individual and in the group. In the new global scenarios, where borders are being constantly defined, new rules emerge in social relations, whilst at the same time the question arises: What role do multicultural processes play in the promotion of diversity and inclusive education?

The concept of interculturality is central to education because it indicates that the relationship between groups and individuals from different cultures must be based on mutual respect, and therefore implies that there are parameters of equality between them. In this sense, interculturality is a concept with a strong democratic sensibility, where domination relationships disappear (Schmelkes 2006). Social groups cannot be explained without relating to the people who compose them, both in and out of the group. Interculturalism is in this way related to the processes of constructing an identity for the collective actors. Identity, as defined by Giménez (1997), implies that the group shares a diversity of symbolic and cultural expressions that function at the same time as integrating elements within the group and elements of distinction for those outside of the group.

The recognition of geographical space and local history is an important factor in bringing students and teachers closer to the Pai Ipai culture. For thousands of years the Yuman peoples lived from their relationship with the desert, © Ernesto Santillán/Cristina González

The community 

The community of Santa Catarina is located in the State of Baja California in the North of Mexico. It has a population of about 150 inhabitants belonging to the Pa Ipai people of Yuman ancestry. The settlement of Santa Catarina was founded at the end of the 17th century by members of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), who settled in the place because of its geographical characteristics and natural resources. The Dominicans established a mission and forced the local indigenous populations to modify their traditional lifestyle, a lifestyle based on nomadism, hunting and gathering, which then became a sedentary life in line with the criteria set by the colonisers. The establishment of the new border between Mexico and the United States in 1849 substantially modified the indigenous Yuman communities, who had to divide their territory and their families. Finally, changes in land tenure due to agrarian policies arising from the Mexican Revolution of 1910 led to a shift in the relationship between the Yuman groups and the territory, converting several communities into communal spaces and provoking subsequent conflicts with the owners of large private properties (Santillán 2015).

In common with other indigenous communities in Mexico, Santa Catarina has lower levels of development than the rest of the mestizo population. In Mexico, those municipalities with a majority indigenous population have the highest rates of social underdevelopment. In other words, there is a causal, close and direct relationship between being indigenous and being poor (Puyana 2015).

Community workshop

Together with a group of teachers and students from different disciplines, we visited the indigenous community of Santa Catarina, where we organised a workshop. We planned the visit and the workshop on “Intercultural education in indigenous communities of Baja California, Mexico” as an alternative learning strategy, in which educational and informative aspects could be combined (Ferreiro 2007). The objective was for the participants to have a rapprochement with indigenous communities, so they would collectively build knowledge. A fundamental element is to break with the idea that knowledge is an individual product associated with a formal space (e.g. a classroom). This last element is of special importance, since the students are accustomed to studying in a public University. So when we generate the idea of linking learning activ-ities with practices in an indigenous community, we try to bring students closer to processes of understanding and of approaching a culture that is different from their own, a culture that has maintained a relationship of subordination with respect to the dominant mestizo culture in Mexico. Table 1 shows the contents and competences developed in the workshop.

With the intention of it being a critical approach to everyday life, the workshop addressed the role of students as actors immersed in their relationships and experiences. It recognised the human being in the student, with needs that have to be socially satisfied in their relationships with the other actors: students, teachers and the community. In that sense, a central objective was to strengthen the ties of social interaction within the workshop, as well as consolidating the idea that the educational processes of the different disciplines are also built under defined social processes. As delineated by Häbich (1997), there are a number of cultural, social, political and ecological implications in vocational training which should not be subordinated to knowledge, practice, particular sciences, or specific cultural forms, but should however be thought of as being found at multiple intersections of various disciplines, sciences, knowledge, activities and cultures. In other words, the students’ University education must be reinforced with experiences that allow them to expand their knowledge of other cultures. This can hardly be developed from experiences within the classroom, and can be supported by experiences of “direct” contact with communities. In the end, it is hoped that the experience can be a trigger that supports a new way of relating to indigenous communities.

The workshop was made up of a series of didactic strategies that tried to connect the school experience with life, that is to say theory with practice. One example is the creation of a socio-emotive environment among the participants that favours creative and reflective thinking. An important element consists of creating an environment of mutual trust between the participants and the facilitators. This environment allows students to freely express their concepts and beliefs about reality. The idea is to break with the hegemonic idea that teachers/facilitators are the only possessors of knowledge. At this point, consensus plays a primary role in the fulfilment of tasks, norms and roles within the group. We seek to promote the development of each individual and at the same time the cooperative and planned fulfilment of the tasks of the workshop (Ferreiro 2007). In the same sense, respect for diversity of opinions is linked to respect for expression of emotions. It is common for the participants to reach a point of reflection that translates into diverse emotions such as joy, sadness, anger. Therefore, facilitators and other participants should generate a climate of acceptance, support and channelling of emotions in a positive sense for the participant, the group and the community:

“On one occasion, after finishing revising some points of Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization, a student stood up and asked to speak in order to express her sadness and disappointment at the education she had received. She said: ‘At no point in the time I was in school did I realise what we have done, as a country, to the indigenous peoples. … That has to change.’ At that moment, some of her companions got up and hugged her, others began to comment on what they thought. From that moment on, the experience of the workshop was transformed.” Daniel (Facilitator)

“The facilitator should be prepared to listen actively and tolerantly, with a positive approach to diversity, dialogue, acceptance and respect for each other, as well as criticism.”

One element to take particular notice of is the role of the facilitator. She/he intervenes, managing the time that makes the approaches, the meetings, the dialogue and the search for solutions possible. The role of the facilitator involves making a diagnosis of the group’s dynamics, to evaluate the intersections and complications between the members in order to promote certain common objectives. The facilitator should be prepared to listen actively and tolerantly, with a positive approach to diversity, dialogue, acceptance and respect for each other, as well as criticism.

For many students the visit is not only a rural experience, it is also their first contact with the native cultures of the region © Ernesto Santillán/Cristina González

A central component that influences group dynamics is change in the known physical space. Moving students and teachers out of the formal spaces into natural spaces makes the experience innovative in terms of the teaching-learning dynamic. The intention is to make the cooperative work into an attempt to provide an alternative to school-type rigidity, which is loaded with norms and rules. It is not possible to continue arguing, for example, for the inclusion of human rights and the promotion of democracy when most educational practices are based on arbitrary and authoritarian processes (UNESCO 2008).

The educational commitment: contact

All of this is to help students and teachers recognise, from close up, the social needs of the region. According to the Tuning project (2007), societies require professionals with critical thinking, a profound knowledge of their local and global reality and an ethical commitment to society. 

Thinking in Latin America continues to contain orientations associated with European thought, and therefore with an emphasis on the “literate culture” associated with modernity. However, in the middle of the 1980s, with the so-called “peripheral modernity”, there was an approach to a new series of experiences open to heterogeneous, multicultural and time awareness. This innovative thinking aims to propose a freer perspective, with approaches based on cross-disciplinary thinking, strongly influenced by the sociology of culture and the new anthropology (Sosa 2009).

Some experiences of the students:

If I had to use only three words to define the feeling left in me while being together with some members of the Pa Ipai community, I would use the terms sensitivity, commitment and kindness…” (José)

“During my experience, there were three special moments that transformed my emotions, my ideas, that helped to generate in me a learning experience for life: They are the stories of the women of the community on the ecotourism project; the traditional songs and dances of the girls; and the meeting with Mrs Teresa (Pa Ipai artisan), the latter being the climax of our time spent together…” (Michell)

“Meeting the girls in the community helped me to reflect on my experience. With them I had a little more communication and interaction, they infected me with enthusiasm, and the activities we engaged in together allowed me to go deeper into knowing about their customs and way of life. I believe that young people have a key role to play in a community because they are the ones who care and transmit the legacy of a culture actively…” (César)

This means that an educational vision based on diversity cannot be realised at the same time as there are significant social and economic differences. As long as there are some ideas regarding the world that are considered superior to others, interculturality, inclusion and diversity cannot grow where there is no real rapprochement.

With this work, we try to bring the world of the student closer in line with regional indigenous reality. We seek to reduce the distance that official education has generated with the so-called “indigenous Mexico”. To identify what Krotz (1994) calls “equality in diversity and diversity in equality”, a phenomenon that can only be achieved through cultural contact, and which at the same time involves making it consciously, reflectively and critically.


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About the authors

Emilia Cristina González Machado. Professor-Researcher at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (Autonomous University of Baja California), Mexico. Her research involves the study of young people and their social conditions. She is currently leading a team of University professors carrying out projects that bring her students closer to the indigenous communities.


Ernesto Israel Santillán Anguiano. Professor-Researcher at the Autonomous University of Baja California, Mexico. His work is the study of the identity of indigenous youth and cultural practices. It tries to bring the work of researchers closer together, so that they become involved in productive projects that support indigenous communities.


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