December 1998


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Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 2 Dec 1998 09:23:09 -0500
Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
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Physics Dept, Univ of Massachusetts at Boston
George Salzman <[log in to unmask]>
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Wednesday, December 2, 1998


    I am troubled by the discussion started by Aram and Wendy’s posting
on “ethnic” biological warfare because I believe there are underlying
issues that have so far been largely avoided. Even Herb Fox’s
constructive “Let’s have more light, less heat” note, suggesting a path
away from the conflict, did not try to understand WHY the rancor
developed, aside from referring to a sense of frustration among some of
us. I hope at some point we can take the time to ask WHY, and explore the
underlying reasons that fueled the tension. At the moment my own
priorities are pushing me to do other things first, and that’s probably
the case for many of us.

    Recently I got involved with a fairly widespread popular education
movement in the southern state of Oaxaca in Mexico, and am looking for
ways to support these efforts. One such effort aims at establishing a
communal university, as described in the account following this note. If
any of you have ideas or know of others who may be helpful, I would
appreciate hearing from you. Currently I’m putting together a list of
individuals and groups who may be willing to help grassroots educational



Totontepec, a dream to be realized in the mountains of Oaxaca

      High on the steep slopes of the northern Sierra in the Méxican
state of Oaxaca lies a small village, a "pueblito". Totontepec is a Mixe
village. The Mixe is an indigenous group, I was told, that has never been
conquered, not by the Aztecs nor by the Spanish. Oaxaca is the second
most southern state, just north of Chiapas, one state removed from the
Guatemalan border. It is also the second most impoverished state of
México, Chiapas holding first place. But in eithnic diversity Oaxaca is
number one, with no less than sixteen distinct indigenous peoples living
there and many more languages, considering that even within one ethnic
group the dialects spoken in different villages are not uncommonly
incomprehensible to inhabitants of other villages in the same group.
Surely this is a result of the extreme isolation, until recent times, of
many of the villages.

      A village of "maíz y frijoles", corn and beans, it is poor, dirt
poor but not destitute. And probably has been this way since before the
time of Columbus. I arrived Friday evening, October 23, 1998, after a
tortuous six-hour bus ride snaking endlessly up (and sometimes down)
those cliffs and steep slopes that enabled the separate dialects to
develop. The rain was ceaseless, the road, with rock, gravel and mud
slides, problematic. By chance, when I boarded the bus in Oaxaca city, an
elderly man befriended me. Poking me gently from across the aisle with
his knurled walking stick to catch my attention, this intensely sociable
"abuelo", grandfather, was curious about an obvious gringo embarking on a
second-class bus ride into the mountains. "¿Donde va?" Where are you
going? Totontepec, I answered, and his face lit up. "¿Porque?" Why? To
visit Juan Arelí, I responded. Ah, "¡Mi hijo!" My son! And from then on
it was a love affair "entre los dos abuelos", between the two

      His son, Juan Arelí Bernal Alcántera, had founded a school in
Totontepec, an autonomous Mixe school with a curriculum oriented to the
needs of the community, and after years of effort, finally succeeded in
getting state authorities to recognize the validity of the indigenous-
oriented course of study. With that accreditation students could then
continue to more advanced studies in state schools after completing their
prepatory years in Totontepec. But Juan Arelí's goals didn't end with
that achievement. He wants to build a university in Totontepec, and has
actually begun to do it.

      Why a university in the mountains? When students leave to pursue
their professional studies in distant large cities, even cities no more
remote than Oaxaca, they usually do not return to their home communities.
What Juan Arelí hopes to achieve is a professional school in which
students from Totontepec and other mountain communities will become
technically skilled, as engineers, computer specialists, biologists, and
so on, but whose orientation will be to use their professional training
to serve the immediate needs of their communities, i.e. they will not
lose their campesino roots. To me it is a profoundly important direction
in which to move. Only by making life in the world's villages better, by
making it possible for young people to have not only materially decent
lives but culturally rich and fullfilling experiences in their
communities, only in this way is there a hope of reversing the disastrous
flood of impoverished peoples to the growing slums of the world's
already-inundated and suffocating metropolises.

      I was lucky, of course, to meet my immediate friend on the bus.
Otilio Bernal Reyes had worked as a farm laborer for three years in the
U.S. and he knew a few English words, like Com'on! when he instructed me
where in the rain we should get off the bus. My name: "Jorge", George. He
called me Meester George, and I called him Señor Otilio. I managed to
wriggle into my poncho before we got up to leave the bus, and I followed
him the few streets -- rivulets -- to his house. He took me right to the
table where his son Juan Arelí was working, a space was cleared of some
papers, and the visit began with hot coffee.

      "Mi casa es su casa", My house is your house, Juan Arelí said. And
it was. Generous hospitality. That night I awoke at about 2am and for
over two hours could not go back to sleep -- my mind racing with
excitement over the dream of Juan Arelí. What a fantastic idea! To have a
university that combines scientific and technical expertise with a
profound respect for the Mixe culture, in fact, which is grounded in that
culture and its ecological perspective. We worked pretty much all day
Saturday. And Sunday morning I got on the bus, accompanied, to my
surprise, by Señor Otilio, a gracious host beyond reason.

      This note is by way of introduction. I would like to explore
whether there is enough interest in the possibility of establishing a
sister-university relationship between the University of Massachusetts at
Boston and the proposed University of Totontepec to justify pursuing it.
Because of the multiplicity of indigenous languages in Oaxaca the "lingua
franca" there is Spanish. Within our university there is much talk about
diversity, but in fact it is to a rather large extent within the
eurocentric context. This could provide an opportunity to broaden the
range of diverse experiences open to our students and faculty. I will
appreciate any expressions of interest, comments, or other feedback.
                              --George Salzman, November 10, 1998
Physics Dept
University of Massachusetts
Boston, MA 02125
    tel: 617/287-6067
    at home:617/547-5033
    e-mail:[log in to unmask]
    fax: 617/287-6053