Mexico, like most North and South American countries, is multicultural and its population consists of many ethnic groups. There are three main ethnic groups, the largest being the Mestizos, who are a mixture of European heritage (mainly Spanish) and indigenous (Amerindians). Others include whites of European heritage (around 9% of the population) and indigenous groups such as the Mayans, Zapotecs, Mixtecs and Tarascans, who make up around 10% of the population (see Schmal, 2008).
The indigenous groups are the most affected by poverty in Mexico and have largely been left out of the mainstream Mexican economy (Gamboa & Linse, 2006). ‘An indigenous person has a 57 per cent probability of being extremely poor, compared with a 13 per cent probability for a nonindigenous individual’ (Ramirez, 2006, p. 162). The illiteracy rate among indigenous peoples is significantly higher at more than twice the national rate for the population as a whole. Indigenous people have fewer years of schooling and are also much more likely than non-indigenous children to be in a lower grade year than is appropriate for their age. Ramirez also reports that there is evidence that indigenous peoples suffer not only from fewer years of schooling, but also from lower-quality schooling. The evidence comes from lower reading and mathematics scores in indigenous schools than in other types of school.
Some indigenous children can attend an indigenous primary school that offers bilingual education for those who do not speak Spanish as their primary language. Bilingual education is offered in 44 indigenous languages, 33 of which are used in textbooks, and in 15 dialectical variations, but without specific textbooks (Ramirez, 2006). However, there are indigenous children in the remaining 18 small linguistic groups who do not have the option of being taught in their own language and have to attend a general primary school, an indigenous primary school that teaches in a different indigenous language, or a rural community school. Gamboa and Linse (2006) state that the main difficulty is finding trained teachers whose mother tongue is an indigenous language.
Bilingual education is underpinned by the Ministry of Education’s policy document entitled Policies and Foundations of Intercultural Bilingual Education in Mexico (Ahuja et al., 2004), where intercultural education is combined with bilingual education. The reasons stem from the belief that learning Spanish and retaining and developing one’s mother tongue integrates the country (Pineda & Landorf, 2011). Intercultural education, as defined by the Ministry of Education, aims to transform society by fighting structural and systematic exclusion and social injustice as well as respecting and benefiting from cultural diversity.
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