September 2019
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Lydia A. Saravia, DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois, USA

I have been reflecting on research I conducted back in 2014 at a predominant Indigenous preservice teaching institution in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. The recent news in the United States has me thinking about the lessons I witnessed at a school that was created to train Indigenous students to become bilingual (Spanish and the Indigenous language of the community) primary school teachers. I labeled the lessons observed as curriculum of urgency (see Morales & Saravia, 2019). The curriculum of urgency stems from a curricular practice that celebrated indigeneity but also urged Indigenous students to continue the cultural practices of their community. These celebratory moments grew out of a culturally relevant pedagogical approach rooted in historical memory and in an understanding of the community’s sociopolitical position in Guatemala (Morales & Saravia, 2019).

Within these celebratory moments was the underlying fear of cultural and linguistic loss. I want to highlight the fear of linguistic and cultural loss as we think about the newly arrived Indigenous students in the U.S. classrooms. This linguistic and cultural loss are directly tied to the history of violence against Indigenous communities in Guatemala.

The research I conducted in 2014 focused on linguistic and curricular practices at an Escuela Normal Bilingüe Intercultural (ENBI). ENBIs are public institutions with the goal of training community members to teach the community children in a culturally responsive, nonsubtractive approach. In 2002, 22 ENBIs were created, one for each ethnic group in Guatemala. ENBIs were created as a result of the 1996 Peace Accords, an international document credited with ending a 36-year genocidal violent period against Indigenous, rural populations. The 1996 Peace Accords was an “attempt to address underlying causes of the conflict, place significant emphasis on human rights and provide some measures of redress for victims” (Mersky, 2005, p. 1). As such, in 2002, ENBIs were created in order to address the education of the Indigenous preservice teachers.

In 2014, it was evident that the predominant Indigenous administration and faculty were fostering an environment that celebrated indigeneity. Several times students were told that if they did not continue the practices, the culture would cease to exist. For example, during an interview with the psychology instructor, she expressed the following:“[E]s mi filosofía que hay que enseñar el idioma materno [y] los valores porque son base de nuestra cultura. Si no lo enseñamos se va perdiendo nuestra cultura. De aquí de unos ... 50 años será solo historia. [It’s my philosophy that we must teach our culture’s language and values. If we do not teach these, we begin to lose our culture. In … 50 years, we would become just history].” This fear of cultural loss stems from three primary historical and current sociopolitical events: (a) the history of genocide, (b) Guatemala continues to be a racist country, (c) many of the Indigenous communities have been affected by losing their youth to gang violence and by the youth migrating north in search of a better life.

Since 2014, the U.S. media has covered stories of the increasing number of unaccompanied youth from Central America migrating north. Unaccompanied youth are children under the age of 18 crossing the border without a parental figure. Between 2012–2017, more than 270,000 unaccompanied youth were apprehended and released under U.S. Government supervision (U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 2018 as cited in Crea, Roth, Jani, & Grace, 2018) and many of these children are Indigenous. When I read about parents and children being separated at the border and in detention centers, and about the unaccompanied youth arriving in the United States, I cannot help but wonder about the Indigenous cultural and linguistic practices that are in danger of erasure due to the pressure to assimilate to the normalized Latinx U.S. community.

By U.S. law, students are required to have a bilingual education. Titles IV and VI assert that all children, regardless of legal status, have a right to public education (Vidal de Haymes, Avrushin, & Coleman, 2018). The U.S. Supreme Court reinforced this right for undocumented children in Plyler v. Doe, “which held that states cannot … authorize local districts to deny the enrollment of these children” (Vidal de Haymes, Avrushin, & Coleman, 2018, p. 78). Most of the unaccompanied or newly arrived children who are enrolled in schools are placed in bilingual programs under a Spanish-English assumption or because that is all we have to offer students from Latin American countries. In a study conducted in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), researchers asked participants about how the city's public schools respond to the needs of unaccompanied youth, and a CPS district administrator responded that when possible, schools have tried to have Spanish speaking staff for the Latin American students. However, pairing newly arrived Latin American students with a Spanish-speaking staff member still assumes a Spanish-speaking child, which is just not always the case. For many newcomer Indigenous children Spanish is not their home language.

I should also note that prior to the unaccompanied youth and separation of migrant children from their parents, many Guatemalans living in the U.S. identified as Indigenous and spoke an Indigenous language in addition to Spanish (LeBaron, 2012). In 2012, roughly 500,000 of Guatemalan-identified individuals in the United States were Maya (LeBaron, 2012). Despite this information, little attention has been paid to Indigenous Guatemalans in education.

There has been a repressive history attempting to erase Indigenous languages in Guatemala. As the directora of the ENBI put it, “históricamente podemos ver que no hablaban, que les prohibieron hablar el idioma por la discriminación [historically, we see that people were not allowed to speak in their native language because of discrimination].” Today, systemic racism continues to exist and Indigenous people are the target of racism . Therefore, for the ENBI I observed, saving the culture meant making sure students learned and practiced the language; language preservation was a matter of cultural life and death. But what happens with the migration north, especially in such political times when those migrating are demonized?

In my observations, the curriculum of urgency asked students to save their language and culture and to be proud of their Indigenous identity. In the United States, I think we can learn from this study. Once students enter our classroom, we need to acknowledge the pluricultural and plurilinguistic context from which they come. In addition, we must also consider the possibility that our students might not be monolinguals and that their first language—especially for students from Latin America— might not be Spanish. What we do when we assert that students are Spanish-speakers is that there is a correct way to be Latinx and it affirms a correct linguistic use for Latinx students. Further, it continues the practice of erasing indigeneity from the Latinx diasporic identity.


Crea, T., Roth, B., Jani, J., & Grace, B. (2018). Unaccompanied immigrant children: Interdisciplinary perspectives on needs and responses: Introduction to special issue of children & youth services review. Children & Youth Services Review, 92, 1-3. doi:

LeBaron, A. (2012). When latinos are not latinos: The case of Guatemalan Maya in the United States, the Southeast and Georgia. Latino Studies, 10(1-2), 179-195. doi:10.1057/lst.2012.8

Mersky, M. (2005). Human rights in negotiating peace agreements: Guatemala. Working Paper. Review Meeting Peace Agreements: The Role of Human Rights in Negotiations.

Morales, P.Z., & Saravia, L.A. (2019) The practice of cariño for emergent bilingual students: Latinx students in the United States and Indigenous Guatemaltecos. In M. Pacheco, P. Z. Morales, & C. Hamilton (Eds.), Transforming schooling for second language learners: Theoretical insights, policies, pedagogies, and practices (pp. 237-256), Charolette, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Poppema, M. (2009). Guatemala, the Peace Accords and education: A post-conflict struggle for equal opportunity, cultural recognition and participation in education. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 7(4), 383-408.

Vidal de Haymes, M., Avrushin, A., & Coleman, D. (2018). Educating unaccompanied immigrant children in Chicago, Illinois: A case study. Children and Youth Services Review, 92, 77-88. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2018.03.046

Lydia A. Saravia has a PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Education. Currently, she is a faculty member of DePaul University’s Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse Department. Her research focuses on language rights, Indigenous rights, transnationalism, multilingual speakers, and English language learners, to name a few.
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