Comunalidad and Collaboration

Building a decolonial framework in intercultural education

This overview of my fieldwork, SLACA’s winning Whiteford Paper in Applied and Public Anthropology, draws on 11 months of collaborative research at the Instituto Superior Intercultural Ayuuk (ISIA), an intercultural university in Jaltepec, Oaxaca, Mexico from August 2015 through June 2016. My research examines the ways in which the ISIA draws on indigenous Ayuuk knowledge to create a novel educational model. Moreover, I explore how forms of knowledge that have historically been practiced in family, community, and regional spheres are translated to a new educational setting and how this knowledge is negotiated with other, more conventional, forms of school-based knowledge.

 Comunalidad is a key framework of sociopolitical life in local communities that is expressed through five elements: relation with the earth, community assembly, service, collective work, and rites and ceremonies.

As part of my research collaboration, the ISIA asked me to help redesign their model of collaboration with visiting professors. My Whiteford paper was the result of the expansion of the ideas that I shared with the ISIA. I examine how epistemological inequality is reproduced in intercultural education, and I suggest some ways that the locally salient concept of comunalidad could be utilized to foster horizontal collaboration between the ISIA and visiting professors. Comunalidad is a key framework of sociopolitical life in local communities that is expressed through five elements: relation with the earth, community assembly, service, collective work, and rites and ceremonies.

My Whiteford paper seeks to support applied anthropological research at three scales: the ISIA, organizations within the state of Oaxaca, and applied anthropology broadly. Most directly, the paper provides ideas about how the ISIA could restructure collaborations with visiting professors. I do this by 1) analyzing how visiting professors understand intercultural education and indigenous knowledge; 2) identifying trenchant challenges facing the ISIA; and 3) describing how comunalidad may help visiting professors engage with locally salient knowledge and ways of life. While the ISIA has integrated comunalidad into numerous elements of the university structure, it has not yet applied it to visiting professor collaboration.

Students, faculty, and community members prepare to welcome visiting bands and authorities to begin the town festival. Matthew Lebrato

Beyond the ISIA, my paper contributes to theorizing indigenous/non-indigenous collaboration in Oaxaca and in applied anthropology broadly. The concept of comunalidad was developed by two indigenous leaders, organizers, and anthropologists from Oaxaca—Floriberto Diaz Gomez (Ayuuk from Tlahuitoltepec) and Jaime Martinez Luna (Zapotec from Gueletao). They demonstrated that comunalidad is a way of thinking and living based on reciprocal social relations with human and non-human actors, which is widespread in indigenous and peasant communities in Oaxaca. I thus argue that comunalidad can serve as a point of departure—not only at the ISIA, but in organizations and networks across Oaxaca—to build a framework for productive, horizontal, and mutually beneficial collaboration. Furthermore, I aim to contribute to applied anthropology broadly by exploring how local epistemologies may help to establish horizontal collaborations between indigenous and non-indigenous actors. While I focus on comunalidad, similar concepts exist across indigenous America (e.g., the Andean notion of ayllu), which could be utilized according to the local context. My hope is thus to identify challenges facing indigenous/non-indigenous collaboration broadly and analyze some ways that local epistemologies may help overcome them.

Students repainting the classrooms during monthly tequio (collective work). Matthew Lebrato

Intercultural education is open to widely divergent interpretations of its mission, objectives, and content, which allows actors from diverse backgrounds to collaborate. I found that for many students and professors at the ISIA, comunalidad and other local forms of knowledge and practice are what give content and meaning to intercultural education. However, visiting professors did not often emphasize or even recognize comunalidad and local knowledge as important elements of the ISIA.

While different perspectives are essential to intercultural education, the power dynamics between visiting professors and ISIA core faculty and students can reproduce epistemological inequality. The ISIA is a small, rural, intercultural school with an entirely indigenous core faculty. The majority of students come from indigenous or peasant families, in which their parents have less than a secondary school education. In contrast, visiting professors, who teach approximately 50 percent of all classes, are predominantly from urban centers, are white or mestizo, enjoy an upper-class position, and hold graduate degrees. They also work at prestigious institutions, which occupies the lion share of their time compared to their collaboration at the ISIA. These diverse forms of prestige travel with professors when they visit the ISIA, allowing them to enjoy an outsider, expert status. From this position, the validity of their knowledge is rarely questioned or put in dialogue with other ways of knowing.

Students working to cut grass and vines during monthly tequio (collective work). Matthew Lebrato

In exploring these difficulties, I want to emphasize that visiting professors are generally supportive of the ISIA and intercultural education. Thus, I am not interested in pointing out ironic contradictions of their collaboration. Rather, I seek to reveal deep-rooted problems that intercultural education faces and propose how a locally salient epistemology, comunalidad, may help to mitigate these problems. If visiting professors are not required to learn about and engage with founding principles of the ISIA, such as comunalidad, then knowledge is hierarchized. That is, “western” knowledge is universal (it has the ability to travel to new contexts, such as the ISIA, where it remains equally valid), while indigenous knowledge is marginalized and localized (it neither travels, nor is it important in its local context for non-locals). As such, I argue that drawing on local forms of knowledge is necessary to establish decolonial collaborations.

Through interviews, conversations, and class observations with numerous visiting and volunteer professors, I identify three positions regarding intercultural education and indigenous knowledge that reproduce this epistemological inequality. The first are visiting professors who hold assimilatory tendencies. This perspective is demonstrated through visiting professors who believe that indigenous knowledge is not present at the ISIA or is “corrupted by modernity.” This perspective reproduces the false dichotomy of “indigenous tradition” and “western modernity.” Assimilatory projects—including prominently education—often use a circular logic that indigenous cultures have already changed so drastically that there is no other viable option except complete assimilation into the dominant culture.

Students and faculty at a university assembly. Matthew Lebrato

The second position views intercultural education as a utopian political project. My findings, however, point strongly in the opposite direction. Faculty and students at the ISIA attempt to create an educational project grounded in Ayuuk and broadly Mesoamerican conceptions of knowledge and social relations, rather than utopian ideals. Divorcing intercultural institutions from their concrete reality and foundational principles can marginalize the knowledge and objectives that intercultural education seeks to draw on.

The third position hierarchizes indigenous and western knowledge. My research showed that although visiting professors are sympathetic to the ISIA, many do not regard indigenous knowledge as knowledge, but rather as custom, tradition, or belief. This has the damaging effect of reproducing hierarchies in which the “west” has knowledge, science, modernity, and reason, while indigenous peoples have tradition, culture, custom, and belief. I argue that analyzing comunalidad as a system of applied social and moral knowledge is crucial for understanding and promoting the ISIA’s objectives.

After demonstrating these three positions, I sketch some ways that the ISIA could utilize the five elements of comunalidad to integrate visiting professors more fully. Some of the steps, such as encouraging visiting professors to read key texts on comunalidad to better understand the ISIA’s foundations, mission, and objectives are relatively simple. Even a small step such as this would help demonstrate that there are important Ayuuk and indigenous thinkers who have worked to outline principles of life in indigenous communities. Similarly, appointing visiting professors to cargos and comités (service positions in indigenous and rural communities) would integrate them into key community positions and promote their learning through praxis. This could occur largely through a discursive shift by reframing future collaborations in terms of cargos and comités. Other ideas, such as finding extra time for visiting professors to participate in collective work, although it would be an excellent way to learn about community structures through participation, would be complicated to implement due to their already full schedules.

As I argue, comunalidad is a reservoir—or in Floriberto Diaz Gomez’s metaphor, “the coals that lay beneath the ashes to revive the fire for the next day”—of Ayuuk knowledge and lifeways that could help foster decolonial, horizontal collaborations. Comunalidad is no magic bullet, but it is a promising local vision of life that could strengthen the connections that link indigenous and non-indigenous collaborators in a shared project.

Matthew Lebrato is a doctoral candidate at Indiana University, Bloomington and a Future Faculty Teaching Fellow at Indiana University, Northwest. His dissertation traces intersections between indigenous decolonization, Jesuit education, and neoliberal multiculturalism at an intercultural university in Oaxaca, Mexico. This essay is a summary of Lebrato’s winning paper for SLACA’s Whiteford Prize in Applied and Public Anthropology.

Cite as: Lebrato, Matthew. 2017. “Comunalidad and Collaboration.” Anthropology News website, November 2, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.651

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