Indigenous students from the other Mexico visiting Silicon Valley

What happens when you bring a group of brilliant, inquisitive indigenous young men and women, who through their effort and sheer will power, have overcome huge obstacles to become university students, together with an equally brilliant and inquisitive group of students from a private elite university? This is the 4th. year that we host a Summer Seminar on Global Risks, Security and Governance in Latin America at the Center for Latin American Studies at Stanford. The program brings together students who belong to indigenous communities (pueblos originarios) throughout Mexico, with students from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, one of Mexico’s most prestigious universities. The students learn about some of the most pressing challenges we are facing in our region. But more importantly, they learn from each other. They learn to respect the diversity of their backgrounds and the richness of each other’s life experiences. And they learn to trust, respect and treat each other as equals.

The program provides perhaps one of the few opportunities for indigenous students to participate in an academic program without a huge disadvantage. The Ch’ol, Maya, Mixe, Nahua, Nhanhu (Otomi), Purepecha, Tojolab’al, Totonac, Tzotzil, Tzeltal and Zapotec students who come are not a small minority in a larger non-indigenous setting: the program is fundamentally designed for them to not just get some theoretical knowledge, methodological tools and substantive discussions with their peers (which they also get), but to actually share their knowledge about how indigenous communities in Mexico are facing risks to their security, biodiversity, sustainability or the provision of public goods and services. But the program is not “adjusted” to our indigenous students: except for the fact that instruction occurs in Spanish, it is done in the same way we would structure it for the highly sophisticated academic training ITAM or Stanford students have.

The program seeks to immerse all of our students in an experience that takes advantage of a wide range of opportunities existing in Silicon Valley, one of the most technologically oriented and innovative places in the world. While in Mexico indigenous peoples are usually excluded and discriminated in virtually all the environments they participate in (with the exception of life in their own communities), I believe that in the program we succeed in highlighting the richness of their cultures, languages and their contribution to practical solutions to the very complex problems our world faces today. I cannot know for a fact whether we can remove the exclusion, stigma and the subtle implicit biases we may retain, but the whole experience is designed to remove as many obstacles and barriers as possible. The willingness of our ITAM and Stanford students to plunge into this shared experience is crucial to make this happen.

The learning process always involves a rough start, where “the other” is alien and far removed. Otherness works both ways, and sometimes also between indigenous cultures that seldom interact with each other. Some of the initial interactions are not pretty: they exhibit many of the entitlements, privilege and prejudices students often are not even aware they have. And they sometimes also exhibit a habit of submission and deference that prevents some of our indigenous students from being more assertive. We have had students inadvertently lapse into all sorts of political incorrectness, but that is perhaps the only way in which they learn. The lessons are subtle and may be gained while washing clothes in the dorm, watching a movie, or sharing a meal together.

I am sure the experience must be a challenge to both our ITAM and indigenous students. For ITAM students the program often makes them aware for the first time of how millions of Mexicans live in conditions they could never imagine. For the indigenous students the three weeks must be a true whirlwind, where they go from their small home communities and universities, particularly the intercultural system ones, that hardly have any resources, to visit Mexico City for the first time in their lives, see the resources and facilities ITAM students have for their own education and training, and then find themselves in midst of one of the wealthiest places on earth and in a University with resources that are 100 or 1000 times those of their home institutions.

People have asked me over the past years every time we do this program what are we trying to accomplish. It is a hard question, because I think we did not really have much clarity when we started. We knew we wanted to make a difference to indigenous students we have met over the years, as we have interacted with them while carrying out field work in various locations in Southern Mexico. We also knew that the ITAM students would get a unique educational experience that paradoxically they could not get in Mexico. Our colleagues in the US Embassy in Mexico and ANUIES believed in this program as a way to open up an opportunity of international educational mobility that is quite different from any other program in Mexico or the United States. But I do wonder what the metric of success would be, or how we would go about justifying a program that is quite expensive by any standard. How do we know whether the program makes a difference to any of our participants?

We cannot really perform an impact evaluation like a Randomized Control Trial (RCT) with a treatment or a control group, nor will we probably be able to follow their careers throughout the next decades. The difficulty in measuring impact in a program like ours is that the students are already bright and motivated, and will go on to to do great things. What we contribute is probably very small compared to what they already have in themselves. But I also firmly believe that one of the things that Mexico most sorely needs is to build bridges and conversations that allow members of different socioeconomic groups and communities to understand each other. I have had the privilege of those conversations throughout my life, since I was an eager and young high schooler; and I have had these type of interactions again over these past few weeks during our summer course. Those conversations and interactions changed my life, always for the better.

Mexicano orgulloso, migrante renuente. Economista ITAM y Politólogo Duke. Senior Fellow en CDDRL y Director Centro Estudios Latinoamericanos Stanford University