Afro-Ecuadorian educational movement: racial oppression, its origins and oral tradition.

Author:Johnson, Ethan


The meaning of race is changing in Ecuador. In 1998, due largely to the struggles of Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian groups, Ecuador for the first time acknowledged itself as a multi-racial and cultural nation through a constitutional referendum. Through this new constitution Afro-Ecuadorians and Indigenous groups also gained fifteen collective rights; three of which made reference to educational practices and processes. (1) In 2009 through another constitutional referendum, the rights and recognition gained in 1998 were expanded upon and made more specific. Furthermore, since the 1990's a body of literature has developed that examines racial discrimination and inequality in Ecuador that previously did not exist. However, these changes in the way the nation imagines itself are more rhetorical than substantive. (2)

In Ecuador, the educational system has made and continues to make the contributions of people of African descent to the political, cultural and economic development of the nation, silent and or absent. Furthermore Afro-Ecuadorians continue to experience powerful forms of racial discrimination and inequality inside and outside of formal schooling. The present moment, nevertheless, represents a highpoint in the efforts of Afro-Ecuadorians to challenge their systematic exclusion from access to mainstream institutions and resources. This paper examines the Afro-Ecuadorian Etnoeducacion movement and claims that it is rooted in the experiences of colonialism and slavery and cannot be disconnected from the interrelated themes through which Afro-Ecuadorians have and continue organize and struggle, such as identity and ancestrality/collective knowledge of Afro-Ecuadorian communities.

One of the most insightful ways Afro-Ecuadorian scholars and activists are conceptualizing their work is revealed in the terms 'casa adentro' and 'casa afuera.' 'Casa adentro' or 'in house' processes refer to addressing the impacts invisibility and absence has had on communities of Afro-Ecuadorians. 'Casa adentro' can be thought of as a reconstruction of Afro-Ecuadorian identity from the inside. 'Casa afuera' or 'out house' processes refer to efforts of formal inclusion and recognition of Afro-Ecuadorians and their contributions to the political, economic and cultural development of the nation. While analytically we can think of these two processes as separate, they, in various ways, cannot in practice be separate. (3)

To date there are a number of programs and schools that have implemented AfroEcuadorian Education programs, which are primarily oriented towards addressing Casa Adentro issues, such as racial and cultural identity and ancestralidad. The term ancestralidad here refers to the lived philosophies and collective memories that constantly reconstruct historical, cultural, and spiritual ties and energies and rearticulate feelings of belonging within everyday life ..." (4) While Casa Adentro and Afuera confront difficult challenges, Casa Adentro has had more success in its implementation as it does not depend on collaboration with and resources from mainstream society to the same degree for its implementation. Hence, in this paper the focus is primarily on Casa Adentro practices and processes.

Hence, in this work I aim to describe the socio-historical context of Afro-Ecuadorians generally and specifically related to education (there are important differences characterizing Afro-Ecuadorian populations with respect to history, geography, urban/rural, and gender that help elucidate the diversity and complexity of the Afro-Ecuadorian experience) and demonstrate how colonial and nation building practices and processes have attempted to silence and make absent the history and contributions of people of African descent have made to the political, economic, and cultural development of the nation, practices that continue into the present that has resulted in the reproduction of a racial hierarchy generally, and within education. Second, I demonstrate the origins of Afro-Ecuadorian social movements in relation to education to argue that the Afro-Ecuadorian Etnoeducacion is part of a continuous struggle for freedom and full citizenship in the nation. And third the paper looks at a fro-Ecuadorian Etnoeducation program called Taller Tradicion Oral Afro-Ecuatoriano (Afro-Ecuadorian Oral Tradition Workshops), which Juan Garcia (an acknowledged leader in the field of Afro-Ecuadorian studies) designed and implemented in the province of Esmeraldas in 2009. Here, I answer the question of what are the objectives of this program through analysis of the curricular materials, and demonstrate that TTOA is a response to the long history of oppression Afro-Ecuadorians have experienced in their particular location as colonial and national subjects.

This research is based primarily on an analysis of proposals and educational materials produced by Afro-Ecuadorian organizations and programs. I also utilize in my investigation secondary sources, reports and studies that document and analyze these programs. And finally, this research will build on limited interviews and participant observation I have conducted of one Afro-Ecuadorian educational program.

Racial Oppression and Education in Ecuador

Evident in the writings of well-known European philosophers of the 18th and 19th Centuries such as Immanuel Kant and G.W.F Hegel are the characterizations of the people of Africa as without history, religion, laws and closely resembling animals. (5) These revered European thinkers associated their characterizations of dark skin African peoples with the region from which they originated, i.e., Africa. During the colonial era of Latin America, European nations developed institutional, territorial and epistemic structures through which they imposed this racial and spatial understanding of the world. The colonial system stripped African and Indigenous people of their cultural diversity and organized them into singular racial categories. This system denied the existence of knowledge structures of people of African descent and Indigenous peoples. Moreover, the colonial system justified oppression and violence upon these groups. While both of these groups experienced powerful forms of oppression it is important to understand that they were differentially located within colonial structures. Catherine Walsh and others refer to this process as the colonialidad de poder. (6)

In Ecuador and throughout much of the Andean region both within the colonial and early republican eras institutional structures were created that substantiated Indigenous identities and provided recognition of their humanity that people of African descent did not experience. Understanding the process of Colonialidad de poder is critical because it reveals that Latin American societies were constructed largely upon a racial hierarchy that located people of African descent as the 'ultimate others' or not part of the nation. (7) This is not to argue that Indigenous people have experienced less virulent forms of oppression, but to demonstrate that they were differentially located within the nation in relation to people of African descent and these processes continue into the present. Analysis of how national identity occurred in the region sheds more light on the particular way the racial hierarchy functions in Ecuador and much of Latin America today and in particular within institutions of education.

As is evident in the writings of primary thinkers of Ecuadorian society, they reproduced the racial hierarchy established during the colonial era, however, they also had to make a compromise as they went about the process of imagining and constructing the nation. When they looked upon their newly formed nation, they realized they could not adhere to the categorical and rigid constructions of race that formed in the United States. The majority of their populations were and continue to be non-White, thus in order to not condemn their nation to stagnation (from their perspective) the elites constructed a form of national identity that could include through racial and cultural mixture African descendant and Indigenous peoples, while at the same time exclude those that were not moving physically and/or culturally towards what is Western and White. (8) As a result, throughout most of Latin America the concepts of mestizaje (racial and cultural mixture) and the ideology of blanqueamiento (movement towards Whiteness or what is Western) developed as the foundations of the dominant discourses of national identity and what legitimates the exclusion of African descendant and Indigenous people from full participation as national citizens. (9)

While both Indigenous and African descendant people are excluded within this framework of Ecuadorian national identity they maintain different places in the racial order of society, which reflects a continuation of that established during the colonial era. Elite groups have officially appropriated the Indigenous past particularly in the Andean region, while Afro-Ecuadorian people and their contributions to the political and economic development of the nation have been rendered largely invisible. (10) As a result of the different locations of these two groups within the dominant discourse of national identity, mestizaje and blanqueamiento, Indigenous groups have been formally included into mainstream institutions of the nation and have been studied more than people of African descent. Within this conception of national identity Afro-Ecuadorians are not deemed worthy of study because they do not represent a separate culture. (11) The unique positioning of African descendant people in relation to Indigenous groups in Ecuador and much of Latin America helps to explain why the study of the educational experiences of Afro-Ecuadorians has been neglected. Additionally, as scholars have demonstrated, the practices and processes of schooling in Latin America play a...

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