Years ago, an elder told me that the Indigenous cultures of Abya Yala, CemAnahuac or Pachamama – the ancient cultures of this continent – do not need to be revived, because they never died. Instead, the elder said, it is we who have been severed or disconnected from those cultures.
The culture, the languages, the songs and the stories are all there – rather than revive them, we just need to access them. And equally important, we also need to create and contribute to our own cultures.
I think about that now because of two monumental educational struggles taking place in Arizona and California, both of which have been instrumental in reconnecting our communities to ancestral and living Indigenous knowledges. In both cases, the schools and programs in question continue to be under daily siege. In Tucson, the highly successful Raza Studies program has been dismantled whereas in Los Angeles, the charter for Anahuacalmecac is on the verge of being revoked.
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Many people consider Tucson, Arizona the epicenter of the struggle for ethnic studies – the epicenter of the struggle to preserve Raza Studies – and it is. It is the epicenter of something very special, but for a quite different reason than most people think.
Tucson’s Raza Studies department was the holdout or the exception in the realm of public education. When Raza Studies educators were teaching In Lak –Tu eres mi otro yo – You are my other me -and Panche Be – buscar la raiz de la verdad – to Seek the root of the truth – very few public school teachers, much less schools or school districts, were doing the same anywhere in the country.
That was not accidental. Cultural genocide was a project (reducciones) central to the mission of colonization. This is why most people today cannot even name 3 Indigenous pre-invasion cities on this continent, much less their histories. It is why most Mexicans/Central and South Americans, who live in the United States, can speak English or Spanish, but not an Indigenous language.
The Tucson Raza Studies curriculum was a showcase of what the rest of the nation’s pubic schools could teach. Maíz or Maya-Nahua culture was its philosophical root. The teaching of the Four Tezcatlipocas (The Indigenous-based values of Tezcatlipoca-self-reflection, Quetzalcoatl-wisdom and beautiful knowledge, Huitzilipochtli-the will to act, and Xipetotec -transformation) and the Aztec-Mexica Calendar was also the heart and soul of that root.
As the struggle continues in Tucson, we turn to Los Angeles where there is actually a school, Semillas, that was created at almost the same time (2002) as TUSD’s Raza Studies.
In a cultural sense, Semillas’s goals – and its project – have been much broader than Tucson’s program. And being an independent charter school, it could afford to. Its goal was to create an Indigenous school with an Indigenous curriculum, connected to its surrounding community. Its goal was to create students who were not simply bilingual, but trilingual: English, Spanish and Nahuatl. In effect, it is a de-colonial project; its emphasis is an autonomous education model that teaches Indigenous culture, values and language, referred to as Tlamachilisxochiponajle or flowering knowledge.
Z.C. (Azteca, 16) describes the importance of Anahucalmecac: “Our school is what all communities need because it is based on culture, and culture is important for youth to have to grow into, it is something our school provides but most schools around Los Angeles or even around the nation do not.”
Akin to Tucson’s Raza Studies, the Semillas schools – comprised of Xinaxcalmecac (2002)and Anahuacalmecac (2008) – have been successful by the standard of student success: The students exceed all state standards and the college-going rate for Anahuacalmecac graduates is 80%. But more importantly, the Semillas schools are now a cultural and educational fixture in Southern California. What they have done is nothing short of phenomenal.
As an educational institution, Semillas is doing what no one else is doing in this country. It literally has taken up the mission of the ancient Calmecacs. It is not simply teaching that maíz or Maya-Nahua culture to its students, but it is creating temaxtianis or teachers of that culture. Relative to the culture, many of the students and now graduates, can teach what college professors in the United States are not teaching. One example is the math system based on the ancient Nepohualtzitzin. Marcos Aguilar, principal of Semillas describes it as “a mathematical model based upon the ancestral vigesimal maize-based mathematical epistemology which recognizes the human relationships to the cosmos.”
As with Raza studiess in Tucson, rather than being recognized for the invaluable educational and cultural hub that it has become, Semillas’ very existence is under threat. It has been under steady attack from right wing forces for almost a decade, which has included a steady drumbeat from hate radio, which has precipitated death and bomb threats.
As in Tucson, the students will not permit their school to go down without a fight. S.P. (14, Zapoteca) explains why: “Our school is important to defend because I feel safe here. I’ve grown up here and I feel comfortable with my teachers, so I know I can always go to them to ask for help in school because it’s always good to have people around you that support you… Our school is unique because it is culturally-based so youth can learn about the world through our own eyes. It is also important because indigenous peoples around the world would love to have a school like ours, but may not have the resources or know how to start it. Anahuacalmecac shows it is possible and this can help others around the world.”
The current attacks are coming from LAUSD itself, which is threatening to not renew its charter unless Anahuacalmecac turns over the lead petitioners’ including parents’, social security numbers. This is but the latest salvo in a long war against Semillas. And again, akin to Tucson – whose [UNIDOS] students invoked the 2007 UN Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, when they took over the school board in April 2011 – the students are defending themselves, having recently returned from the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues advocating for support. Their fate will be determined no later than June 30.
This attack is not simply directed at the school, but at the cultural patrimony and cultural heritage site that it has now become. Its very existence is protected by the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, by the very fact it not simply educates students about ancient knowledges, but also preserves and contributes to the reconnection of peoples to those ancient and living cultures. More than that, Semillas is the embodiment of the 2007 Declaration – the students are living the document, living its ideals.
M. K. (Azteca, 16) describes their trip to the UN: “The significance of our delegation to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is that as an international forum, our voices may be heard as youth by Indigenous Peoples and governments from around the world. This way we can create solutions to our problems as we identify these collectively and internationally as indigenous peoples.”
Z.C. adds: “In our visit to the UN, we heard loud and clear from indigenous youth around the world that they wanted indigenous teachers and curriculum to learn from because most often they do not have access to this in their communities. Here in Anahuacalmecac, we are fortunate to have our perspective included in our education.”
The world may be listening, but perhaps not LAUSD. Stated bluntly, for the district to permit Semillas’ demise is to partake in that cultural genocide begun 520 years ago. I will go further and say that Semillas is sacred space atop sacred land. If it requires an active defense to prevent its elimination, then so be it. Some things are worth going to jail for. As we have said in Tucson: It’s not what we are willing to die for, but rather, what we are willing to live for.
To find out more about Semillas Community Schools, please visit Semillas’ official website www.dignidad.org or you may visit their site to their collaborative international education program www.kalmekak.org.