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A pilgrimage to Warisata

America’s shrine to indigenous education

Bernabe Rojas, Warisata's Director

by Roger Hamilton

From across Bolivia and beyond, people committed to the cause of indigenous education travel to the village of Warisata, near Lake Titicaca. This is the home of the Escuela Ayllu Warisata, the first school in Bolivia and very likely all of the Americas dedicated to training instructors to teach indigenous students.

One passes through the entrance, crosses a broad courtyard full of students, and then climbs an imposing set of steps past an Aztec bas relief (Warisata has a sister school in Mexico). A door opens into the office of Bernabé Rojas, Warisata’s long time director. He is bundled in a heavy denim jacket to keep out the cold.

In order to understand Warisata’s pioneering role, said Rojas, one must recall how things were in the early years of the century. As he spoke, staff members busied themselves with files and stacks of papers. Every so often an assistant would interrupt his story to lay a document before him, which he would sign with a flourish.

Years ago, he recounted, the region was under the control of large landholders hostile to any suggestion that indigenous people should receive a formal education. But in places such as Warisata that were not under the control of the patrones, native people contracted teachers to give classes under the cover of night.

Onto the scene came a young college graduate named Elizardo Pérez. Idealistic and dedicated to the cause of indigenous education, his mission was to found a rural school. In every community he visited, he met with opposition from large landowners. But not in the autonomous village of Warisata: there, the community members joined in building the school, hauling the stones, mixing the mortar, raising the beams. Even workers from nearby haciendas joined in, but only after dark.

Over the years, Warisata became the nucleus of 70 individual schools. But Pérez still was not satisfied. Although the teachers in his school were indigenous, they were middle class and had difficulty relating to the rural students.

So, in 1937, Pérez founded a new school in Warisata “to train Indian teachers for Indian students,” said Rojas. Students came from all over—Potosí, Santa Cruz, Oruro.

The school operated for several years, but once again, the large landowners rose up in opposition. They saw the school as a threat to the established order, even a center for communist agitation. The workshops where the students produced articles such as hats and textiles were closed, and gardens where they grew their food turned to weeds.

But after World War II, Pérez became Bolivia’s minister of education and the school flourished again, providing talent and inspiration for indigenous education programs across the hemisphere.

His story finished, Rojas turned to a young Spanish-language teacher, Policarpio Gutiérrez, who explained how Warisata is very different from traditional teacher’s colleges.

At Warisata, he said, the cultural background of the teachers is treated as a fundamental education resource. “Our students were born and raised in indigenous communities, and this is the foundation for the training we give them,” he said. In contrast, teachers destined for urban schools are given a generalized training without specific reference to a particular local culture.

The Warisata students learn to teach reading and writing in the indigenous language, respecting the symbols and imagery of the people’s religion. But it doesn’t end there. The teacher is expected to become a part of the community.

“The teacher who graduates from here must know the local people, social and economic conditions, everything,” says Gutiérrez. “He has to have this knowledge to do the rest of his job, which is to help the community.”

He explains, “The people might make pottery and textiles, which are inheritances that our ancestors have left to us. The teacher helps to identify ways to improve production and marketing, adding to the products’ value. Or maybe he finds that the community exports llama wool to Peru. He could help start projects to spin, weave and make products right in the community for export to the national or international market.”

It takes time to develop this kind of relationship with a community. In many countries, rural service is a requirement for newly graduated teachers, “almost as a punishment,” says Gutiérrez. But Warisata graduates are in it for the long term. They stay until the job is done.