Juan Areli Bernal
This profile was prepared when Juan Areli Bernal was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1995.
The New Idea
Soon after the United Nations proclaimed a Decade of Indigenous Peoples in 1995, Rigoberta Menchu, the Nobel prize-winning Guatemalan indigenous activist, said that the task of generating respect for such cultures lay in the hands of the indigenous peoples themselves and that it would never successfully be accomplished by governments. Juan Areli is leading a drive to preserve and revitalize his native Mixe culture in northeastern Mexico. The Mixe are one of Mexico's 56 indigenous groups who together comprise about ten percent of the country's population. According to an official 1990 census, there are about 95,000 Mixe, most of whom are poor and rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Their communal identity has been weakened by the departure of many of its young people who migrate to the cities and suppress their ethnicity.Juan is demonstrating that the Mixe culture can successfully be reinvigorated through a system of education that nurtures cultural appreciation and pride in its children while consciously preparing them to succeed in the outside world. If native cultures are to be preserved, their youth must not be forced to choose between success and their heritage, and that insight is fundamental to Juan's work. Only by providing education and opportunities for advancement can communities prevent their youth from fleeing to pursue their dreams in the city. Juan focuses on the school as the setting for his work, and he has developed a curriculum model for Mixe students that provides instruction in their community's values, traditions, language and agricultural techniques while it prepares them with the practical skills and professional training they need to participate in the Mexican economy. His goal is to educate students to become confident professional adults with strong cultural identities, who will simultaneously promote the region's economic and cultural development. By demonstrating that economic and social progress is possible within the Mixe culture, Juan is building a model for the long-term promotion of indigenous cultures everywhere.