Intercultural University Opens in Chiapas

The Intercultural University of Chiapas in San Cristobal de las Casas opened on August 22 to serve as a center for the protection and promotion of Mexico’s indigenous languages and cultures.

"Intercultural universities are very important phenomenon, because they create development proposals from the perspective of the indigenous people, and are not imposed by the dominant culture," said Eloy Lopez, a Nahuatl indigenous representative and rural projects coordinator at the Center for Rural Development Studies (CESDER) in Sautla, Puebla.

The newly-opened university in the impoverished southern state of Chiapas offers training in five major areas: tourism, intercultural communication, language and culture, sustainable development, and law and agro-ecology. The school has a student body of 937, of which 60 percent are women, according to IPS News.

The Intercultural University of Chiapas joins four other intercultural schools already operating in the states of Sinaloa, México, Tabasco, and Veracruz—Mexican states with the highest percentage of indigenous groups.

In July, the World Bank released a report, Mexico: Tertiary Education Student Assistance Project, Indigenous Peoples Development Plan, which found that only two out of every 100 students from indigenous communities graduate with a university degree, as opposed to 22 out of 100 students from the rest of the population.

The report came five years after the Education Secretariat launched the National Program for Higher Education Scholarships (PRONABES) to increase higher education access for low-income youth. Yet as of the end of 2004, PRONABES had awarded only 730 scholarships to indigenous students, according to the daily newspaper Diario de Chiapas.

The intercultural universities are publicly funded—tuition is equivalent to approximately US $15 a year—and the government has also set aside funds to provide food and housing stipends for qualified indigenous students, said Dora Ruiz Galindo, advisor for the Education Secretariat in a phone interview.

"The spaces are developed with, but not exclusively for indigenous groups," Galindo said. "The curriculum incorporates the cosmovision of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, their knowledge and languages together with the vision, knowledge and languages of the Western culture."

Lourdes Casillas, the General Coordinator of Intercultural Bilingual Education, explained in an email the major challenges to intercultural curriculum development and implementation are a lack of teacher training in indigenous languages and educational materials.

"Intercultural education is not only about indigenous people, because it is not important that we alone know our rights and cultures. It is necessary that the rest of society gets to know about the rights and cultures of indigenous people; this is what is missing," said Lopez.