Nationalizing racism: government sponsored modernization through formal and social education on Oaxaca, Mexico in the 1920s.

Author:Carroll, Savannah N.

Historical Background

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 is widely regarded as the first social and political rebellion of the twentieth century. Revolutionary insurgents such as Pancho Villa, Emilliano Zapata, Francisco Madero, and others were intent on dismantling the Porfirian dictatorship (1876-1910) and implementing social, economic, and political practices that were equitable for all citizens regardless of racial, ethnic, or class differences. Along with revolutionary insurgents, the Revolution was carried out by the Mexican intelligentsia, who was tasked with constructing national identity, image, and memory on an educational and cultural level.

One of the most influential intellectuals of this period is Jose Vasconcelos, whose 1926 publication La Raza Cosmica (The Cosmic Race) discusses racial construction in Latin America and its relationship to prospects for socioeconomic and political progress. (1) Central to Vasoncelos's notion of a cosmic race is the perception of racial mixture as an ideal method for nation building and promotes hybridization as a "biological process of national formation, allowing the emergence of a national homogenous type through a process of racial fusion." (2) Vasconcelos's theory resonates because it endorses an ideology of mestizaje, which is viewed as a solution to solving socioeconomic and political challenges that existed in Latin America due to its racial and ethnic diversity. The objective of mestizaje is to "assimilate all the racial elements of the nation into a single cultural and biological norm": the mestizo. (3) Vasoncelos's La Raza Cosmica is vital in validating this discourse and its benefit to Latin America.

Jose Vasconcelos is also a prominent figure in Mexican history due to his position as Secretary of Public Education from 1921-1924. Considering that he was the first person to hold this office, Vasconcelos is credited with constructing the framework for public education in Mexico and implementing programs that promoted literacy as a tool for modernization. Although La Raza Cosmica was published after Vasconcelos's tenure as Secretary of Public Education, there is a direct correlation between mesitzaje ideology and educational programs Vasconcelos created. In particular, a group of teachers, called the Misiones Culturales (cultural missionaries) were organized by Vasconcelos and instructed to build schools in rural communities throughout Mexico in an effort to modernize sectors of the population that had been socially, economically, and politically marginalized by the government prior to the Revolution. These schools were heavily concentrated in indigenous communities that were isolated from the mainstream. Mestizaje is relevant to this endeavor in that the objective is not solely to provide people in indigenous communities with a formal education, but also to socialize and acculturate them to customs that are acceptable by those who represent the majority or mainstream population.

This paper will focus on the activities of cultural missionaries in Oaxaca during the 1920's. While modernization efforts through social and formal education were predominantly implemented in indigenous communities located in the northern part of Oaxaca, I argue that observations from cultural missionaries related to social and educational conditions are indicative of a particular construction of Mexican identity that promotes mestizaje. The exclusion of morenos from this state sponsored initiative suggests that blackness along with indigenity is otherized, with the primary difference being that morenos lack visibility. (4)

Los Misiones Culturales: Who Were They and What Did They Do?

According to Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio, a nation has distinct characteristics that unify all its citizens across socioeconomic boundaries. These characteristics are racial and ethnic similarity among the majority of citizens, use of a common language, common cultural customs, and a shared historical memory. (5) Because indigenous people live in enclave communities and practice traditional indigenous customs, they represent a challenge to national unity and intellectuals such as Gamio and Vasconcelos theorized on how to resolve "the Indian problem". Vasconcelos's solution is to create an educational program focused on the social and formal education of indigenous people living in rural areas of the country. Teachers who participate in this program are called misiones culturales and are "expected to transform the mainly Indian population and incorporate it into the national mainstream". (6) While building schools and providing instruction in reading, writing, and Spanish language is a significant aspect of the program, Vasconcelos includes components such as classes on nutrition, hygiene, and acceptable cultural practices that are reminiscent of Spanish missionary principles, which suggest that "heathen" people can achieve spiritual redemption through instruction in living a proper religious life. (7) Vasconcelos intends to replicate this notion and apply it to mestizaje ideology by acculturating indigenous people to mestizo cultural norms through education.

From Vasconcelos's perspective, creating missions would have social and economic benefits for indigenous communities, serving as "important economic spaces, fostering the development of local natural resources and combining academic education with technical and agricultural training". (8) In the state of Oaxaca, these efforts were concentrated in indigenous communities located in the northern part of the state. Local directors were responsible for bringing Vasconcelos's vision to fruition and reiterated the role of the misiones culturales. A document written by the director of the misiones culturales in Yanhuitlan, Oaxaca on April 7, 1926 states that "to encourage the complete development of a school for children and the social improvement of the community, the commissioner of this organization proposes, and the secretary accepts, that a small cultural center for the home and school be installed in every zone." (9) This document represents a specific example of Vasconcelos's idea that schools in rural indigenous communities should serve an educational as well as a social and cultural purpose. Vasconcelos believed it was critical to prepare children as well as adults in having an active role in the modern economic and political system. Another significant component of the cultural missionary program was that teachers' responsibility extended "beyond the distribution and gathering of information" to include a social role in promoting "local, regional, and national cohesion". (10) Therefore, missionary schools were an essential tool in transmitting mestizaje ideology to citizens and crafting ideas concerning race, national identity, and patriotism.

Being that the image of the new nation was reliant on racial amalgamation and socioeconomic prosperity, Vasconcelos held high...

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