Speaking of Difference: The Politics of Indigenous Education and Development in Southern Mexico
Alan Shane Dillingham

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Spring Hill College

Primary Discipline

This project is one of the first historical studies of mid-twentieth century efforts aimed at incorporating native peoples into national political and economic structures in Latin America. It examines the relationship between indigenous peoples and state initiatives, particularly primary education efforts, through a regional focus on southern Mexico and the state of Oaxaca. For rural and indigenous regions of Latin America, education and development efforts were articulated as dual components of indigenous modernization. The orthodox critique of policies of indigenous modernization, collectively termed indigenismo in Latin America, emphasizes how state celebrations of indigenous aesthetics contribute to a notion of a degraded indigenous present. Scholars have argued that indigenista polices have been at best folkloric in their treatment of native peoples, and at worst a form of ethnocide.In contrast, this project’s starting point is an understanding of modernization as a contested project, and explores the ways in which indigenous peoples articulated and acted upon their own visions of modernization and education. Through the use of oral histories of indigenous teachers, the project places schooling at the center of the modernization project in order to develop a more nuanced understanding of how indigenous communities experienced the process. By combining attention to both policy and on the ground practice, the research demonstrates the multiple challenges to implementing truly bilingual, what some term intercultural, education in indigenous communities.The project contributes to the history of Mexican education, by considering together questions that have so far been studied in isolation. Federal rural teachers were central actors in the formation of the postrevolutionary state in Mexico. Federal policymakers understood rural education and literacy campaigns as key achievements of the Mexican Revolution. In the 1930s, Diego Rivera’s murals in the national ministry of education depicted rural teachers as revolutionary heroes, with a book in one hand and a gun in the other. Scholars of Mexican education history have established a robust literature on the role rural teachers played in stitching together an often fractious country, building a national cultural politics synthesized from local practices. Teachers, and the trade unions they went on to found, became key players in a corporatist political culture dominated by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The national teachers trade union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), the largest in Latin America, was a key player in Mexican politics and remains so in the twenty-first century. Scholarship on the teachers union itself focuses on internal struggles for democratization of the union and its relationship to political power. In turn scholarship on education reform focuses on national-level policy debate and institutional change while the scholarship on indigenous communities remains primarily close ethnographic study. This project connects all three of these literatures to examine how trade union practices have shaped classroom instruction, paying particular attention to how national policies intersected with local conditions in southern Mexico.
About Alan Shane Dillingham
Alan Shane Dillingham is assistant professor of history at Spring Hill College, in Mobile, Alabama. His research interests include modern Latin America, indigenous histories, and the Global 1960s. His current research project examines the intersection of indigenous development and anti-colonialism in southern Mexico in the second-half of the twentieth century. In addition to a Spencer Dissertation Fellowship (2011-2012), his work has been supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Inter-American Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Smithsonian Institution. Prior to teaching at Spring Hill, he received his Ph.D. in Latin American History from the University of Maryland in 2012, after which he worked as a visiting assistant professor at Dickinson College and Reed College, respectively. He is the author of “Indigenismo Occupied: Indigenous Youth and Mexico’s Democratic Opening (1968-1975)” (published in the October 2015 issue of The Americas).

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