Education International
Education International

Defending Indigenous children’s righs to education

published 30 March 2011 updated 11 April 2011

Case study Argentina: interview with Epifania Galian

Shortly before the latest  spate of violent repression and displays of racism and intolerance surfaced against the Toba Indians of Colonia La Primavera, EI’s Argentinean affiliate member, CEA, secured an interview with Epifania Galian of the wichi people.

Galian is a member of Voz Docente and was CEA’s representative at EI Latin America Region’s second meeting on public education and native peoples, in La Paz, Bolivia. The latent racism and less subtle discriminatory mechanisms being used against her people are a common thread throughout her life.

How did your teaching career begin?

My career was a necessity for the community fathers. In their early years, aboriginal children who went to school did not make much progress, because we didn’t understand Spanish. Parents asked the governor to set up special schools for aboriginal children, and in 1982, the authorities finally began to train teaching assistants. However, a lot depended on the willingness and effort of those of us who became teaching assistants, and those teachers, who wanted to help break down barriers.

How were you able to break down barriers and become a teaching assistant?

Basically, it was because I was bilingual before starting school. My mother was wichi and only spoke her mother-tongue, but my father was from Salta and spoke Spanish. Although he spoke wichi to my mother and our community, he taught me Spanish. When I went to school, aged nine, which few indigenous children did because parents considered it a waste of time since the children did not learn anything. Some of the teachers realised that I could be one of the assistants they needed.

How was that early teaching experience?

Even at that early stage it all felt divorced from the rest of society. Translating the language had an almost immediate effect. The children from the communities began to get better at learning more quickly. The adaptation of content to our language was fundamental. This first experience in the school I studied at was very good because the aboriginal children felt happy, free, and more relaxed.

How did you get to be a ‘ MEMA’(teacher specialised in aboriginal teaching)?

Thanks to our progress, it was decided to build a centre for secondary school studies where teachers from communities would be trained. That was 1986. I went to the secondary school so was accepted as a MEMA. The situation in the school where I began to study was shameful. The conditions were terrible; we were short of everything, while discrimination and mistreatment was rife. There were head teachers that were clearly hostile, and would set us tasks that were completely unrelated to being a MEMA, such as chopping wood, cooking and cleaning. White teachers could take time off when they wanted but a MEMA had to be in their bed, suffering, before they were granted leave.

What are the best ways of addressing these problems?

By tackling them on several fronts is most effective. Trade unions can act to get inspectors to check on the experiences of native peoples, and can also act to raise awareness of cultural experiences.

By Pablo Biase, Confederación de Educadores de Argentina(CEA)

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 37, April 2011.