Aware from personal experience of the failures of the Chilean school system in serving the needs of indigenous people and, more generally, in instilling respect for people of varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds, José Ancán is working to remedy these institutional deficiencies. He is developing new teaching materials that will serve the above-mentioned ends, mobilizing support for the adoption of these goals by school officials, teachers and community leaders and finally prepare teachers to make effective use of the new materials in schools throughout the country.
The New Idea
A member and vigorous protector of the Mapuche people and their culture, José Ancán is persuaded that Chile's school system, with certain much-needed reforms, could be transformed into a vitally important instrument both for addressing the needs and problems of indigenous people and also for inculcating a better appreciation, among the country's population at large, of the worth and contributions of people of varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds. He also believes that the key obstacle to the needed reforms is the absence of appropriate, carefully developed and well-tested materials presenting the ideas and cultural practices of indigenous groups.Accordingly, he is engaged in a carefully conceived and pioneering effort to develop, test and refine the needed materials and prepare them for use in schools throughout the country. In order to assure their wide acceptance and effective use, he is also engaged in a parallel effort to win support for his initiative among school officials and administrators, teachers, parents and other community leaders and to prepare teachers to use the materials and become effective agents of bicultural education.
Like their counterparts in other Latin American settings, the Mapuche and other indigenous peoples in Chile have long been engaged in an arduous struggle to maintain their cultural identity and autonomy. Among them, some have sought assimilation into the mainstream of Chilean society, while others, for reasons of choice or circumstance, have remained tied to their indigenous communities. But for most indigenous people, whether in rural settings or urban areas, poverty is the norm, opportunities for economic betterment are few and hope and self-esteem have been dimmed. Moreover, the marginalization of indigenous people is a matter of little concern in the dominant sectors of Chilean society. Most "mainstream" Chileans see little value in indigenous cultures and traditions and correspondingly little reason to regret their rapid disappearance. They also fail to appreciate the "costs" that discriminatory practices impose on society at large.Unfortunately, too, the Chilean school system has played a central role, not in combating these social ills, but in reinforcing them. In the nationally standardized school curriculum, the history and culture of indigenous people are completely excluded, and instruction is available only in the Spanish language. For children in indigenous communities, this means that the only education that they are offered is both in an unfamiliar language and often similarly foreign to their cultural values and traditions. For children in indigenous families that have migrated to the cities, schools offer no opportunities to learn about their roots. And for young Chileans who trace their roots to Europe, opportunities to learn from other cultures close at hand, and to gain a deeper respect for their neighbors with indigenous backgrounds, are also lost.Since the return of democratic rule in Chile in 1990, there have been frequent calls–and promises–to remedy these failures in the country's educational system. But there has been little concrete action, and the political challenges that reformers confront are compounded by the near-total absence of relevant teaching materials and of training programs that would prepare teachers to implement bicultural programs.
José is attempting to transform the Chilean educational system into an effective agent for addressing the needs of indigenous people and, more generally, for instilling respect for people of varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds.The work that he is pursuing with that end in view is targeted on children from the seventh grade through the last years of high school, and it places heavy emphasis on learning experiences involving a series of organized activities. In pilot endeavors that he has already undertaken, students have formed groups to learn about their varied cultural backgrounds through games, guided exercises and collaborative projects. In addition, José has used videos and participation in local events to acquaint students with the history, folk tales, art, music, ceremony, traditional medicine, agricultural and environment-conserving methods, and other aspects of indigenous cultures. The experience and information that José has collected and generated are now being incorporated in instructional materials for broader dissemination. The institutional locus of that work is a nongovernmental organization, the Center of Mapuche Studies and Documentation, which he directs. The Center has programs in Mapuche history and culture, comparative indigenous legal systems and inter-cultural and bilingual education. It maintains a growing collection of books and documents, hosts researchers and students from all over the world and finances a portion of its operating costs through the provision of services, including editing and printing, and meeting space to other organizations.José and his colleagues are pursuing what is essentially a four-step process in developing the new teaching materials and assuring their successful insertion and use in school curricula throughout Chile (and, at a later point, elsewhere in the Andean region). The first step is the creation of materials, including readers and videos, for classroom use. The second is the testing of the new materials in selected schools in both rural and urban areas, the evaluation of the test experiences and the refinement of the materials when indicated. The third is a series of lobbying activities and workshops, in various parts of the country, to acquaint politicians, ministry officials, school administrators, teachers, parents and other community leaders with the aims of their initiative and the materials developed, and to mobilize support for the needed curriculum reforms. The fourth step is the organization of a series of teacher training programs to prepare teachers to use the new materials and to transform their schools into effective instruments for the education of indigenous students and instilling respect, among all students, for the cultures and worth of ethnic groups other than their own.Jose's efforts are aimed, initially, at achieving the needed changes in the Chilean school system, and they are focused, in particular, on the special needs of Chilean schools in areas with high concentrations of indigenous people. But he has also set his sights on other Andean countries with similar needs, and he plans to use the Center as the organizer and site of a series of activities that will acquaint educators from Argentina, Peru, and other countries in the region with the approach and materials that he is developing.
José Ancán is a proud member of the Mapuche people. He is also a Chilean, whose family migrated to Santiago in the 1940s in search of work. From his early childhood onward, José has been enmeshed in the conflict of "cultural identity." On the far-from-even playing field that Chile's capital city provided, and caught up in their struggle for better economic opportunities for themselves and their children, his parents would not allow their native language to be spoken in their house. But José did not lack opportunities to observe the continuing struggle of the Mapuche people to maintain their autonomy and cultural independence and to assert their rights. Acutely aware, from personal experience, of the economic and other forms of discrimination that that the Mapuche people have long endured, José also witnessed the attendant loss of self-esteem and hope for a better future among many of his Mapuche brethren. He came to realize, as well, that such problems were gravely exacerbated by an education system that in essence denied not only the worth but the very existence of indigenous people in Chilean society. José learned, from his own school experience, that many of the underlying tenets of the Chilean education system and the curriculum that all students followed were incompatible with Mapuche teachings. And that discovery was the genesis of what is now his central mission.Strongly encouraged to pursue higher education by his parents, José enrolled in the University of Chile in Santiago. His chosen field of study was the theory and history of art, and he received a master's degree in that field in 1989. Since completing his university studies, José has worked tirelessly to win official recognition of the cultural worth of indigenous cultures, to create a similar awareness among the public at large and to achieve more equitable and culturally attuned educational opportunities for indigenous people. He has helped organize and administer an international conference on the "Economic Development of Indigenous Communities." He has served as a member of the governing committee of the bulletin, "Indigenous Communities," written articles for that publication, and worked as a columnist for a cultural magazine. He has also trained teachers in the development and effective classroom use of bilingual/ bicultural materials.Several of José's activities in recent years have drawn on his background in the field of art. He has presented a collection of Mapcuhe art in a "National Encounter of Art and Culture." He has produced award-winning videos on Mapuche ceremony, traditional medicine and daily life for television airing and university use. He also coordinated an event that engaged some 50 young indigenous people from diverse ethnic backgrounds in various forms of artistic expression and discovery, including art, music and theater.José has published numerous books and articles and has presented his ideas on bicultural education at more than a dozen conferences throughout the country. Drawing on his rich and varied experience, he now directs the Center of Mapuche Studies and Documentation, an independent nongovernmental organization that sponsors research and training activities and serves as the base for his educational reform initiatives.