Native tribes get to work together, teach each other and exhibit their value

January 11, 2002

Mexico's first indigenous university - the University of Mochicahui - opened in October 2000 and now has more than 1,200 students from 13 different states.

The university, in a small town in northwestern Sinaloa state, had a low-key launch because it feared being overwhelmed by applications before everything was in place. It plans to expand to a capacity of 3,000 students and seeks representation from each of the country's estimated 100 distinct ethno-linguistic groups.

"This project began because Mexican society treats the indigenous population as if they are an anchor on its development," said JesNos gngel Ochoa Zazueta, 63, anthropologist and director of the university. "But much of this country's income comes from tourism, and millions around the world visit because they value the richness of the culture here."

Dr Zazueta says that of every 1,000 indigenous children in Mexico who start primary school, only 100 go on to secondary level and, out of these, just one gets a place at university.

It was as a young anthropologist that Dr Zazueta first became disturbed by the "disintegration and extinction of the native languages and traditions" in Mexico. After a distinguished career at the Universidad Nacional Aut"noma de Mexico (Unam), during which he published 44 books, he decided that "the time for writing and analysing was over, it was time to start doing something".

He joined four colleagues to put together a plan to identify tribal economies that had potential for development. He said: "This university brings together people from these tribes who would otherwise be isolated from each other. Here they have a chance to work together, learn from each other and demonstrate their importance to society."

The university is in a dynamic phase, and the enthusiasm is everywhere to be seen - from those studying in the park to members of the local community, many of whom have volunteered services to the university.

"At first, the residents of this small rural town were suspicious to see a sudden increase in the number of young people on the streets," Dr Zazueta said.

"But they have seen the local community transformed and now we have their full support."

Business tourism student Belen Castro Zepeda, 19, of Yolenme-Mayo origin, said: "The tutors have shown me how to research, but more than anything they have taught me how to value myself. I could have gone to many other universities, but I chose a humble one because the people understand my culture."

The eight courses on offer are all slanted towards areas of particular importance for the future of indigenous communities: rural sociology, law, business tourism, popular culture, computers, journalism, accountancy and ethno-psychology. End-of-year written exams have been replaced by oral tests every three months before a panel of three course assessors. Tutors are available each day to help guide students who are not involved in one of the many study groups that meet informally around the grounds.

Students generally converse in Spanish, but there are occasions when they talk in their native tongue. When appropriate, they wear traditional costumes and compare tribal customs. "We want them to understand the technology that took us to the moon while not forgetting their past and origins," Dr Zazueta explained.

Of the university's students, 90 per cent study on campus, but courses can be followed virtually. The university's website is a key point of reference for the students, many of whom first heard about Mochicahui via the internet.

"I have been very surprised by what indigenous people can access," said Manuel de JesNos Valdez, head of computer developments. "When I first saw students from Chiapas (one of Mexico's poorest states) with laptops, I talked to them and they told me that they have internet access in their villages. Our department has been given a lot of extra work by students who wanted to use their laptops to access the internet via our network - they force us to be at the cutting edge and we love it."

Although the university benefits from free internet access courtesy of Unam and free use of software thanks to Microsoft, it struggles to meet its costs. But it is committed to offering free accommodation and food to its students because, as the director points out, "to charge would be to put off the very people we want to include".

Grants or help in kind has come from local government, other universities and individual donations, "but the costs at the outset meant the tutors themselves had to forgo their pay for seven months", Dr Zazueta said. The federal government has yet to make a contribution.

The financial problems, however, do not seem to dent the spirit of any of those involved. "Many of the students are very poor and knew little more than how to grow crops on their land before they came," Ms Zepeda said. "But the ancestors of these people were the founders of Mexico. For indigenous people, it is the fulfilment of a dream to have our own university."

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