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Jim McDermottApril 22, 2016
The students and staff of the Ayuuk Indigenous Intercultural University gather for one of their regular assemblies.

Deep in the waist of Mexico, on gentle plains at the foot of the forested Sierra Juárez, lies a small indigenous community known as Jaltepec de Candayoc. Warm and rainy year round, Jaltepec is a town built around coffee beans, corn and livestock. It is in a location about as remote as can be found today—six hours drive from the nearest big city and without consistent access to the Internet or even phone service.

And in this most isolated and unexpected of places, there is a university. More surprising still, though it has been in existence for 10 years, its mission sounds like a passage from “Laudato Si’.”

Universidad Ayuuk, otherwise known as the Ayuuk Indigenous Intercultural University, was founded in 2006 out of conversation between local people, regional organizations and the Mexican Province of the Society of Jesus. Based on what they learned from a regional study, the Society offered to start a school in Jaltepec.

The local people agreed. “But they wanted a school with certain characteristics,” remembers César Palacios, S.J., the president. Specifically, they wanted a university that would teach their children care for the environment, economic solidarity (through community organizing) and an appreciation for and promotion of indigenous cultures. As of 2010, 34 percent of people in the state of Oaxaca speak an indigenous language; 16 different indigenous cultures can be found just in this area and 62 throughout the country. Indigenous peoples make up over 21 percent of Mexico’s population.

The Wisdom of Community

So the Jesuits, in conjunction with regional organizations and the local community, began Ayuuk as a school specifically for indigenous people. Today they have 150 students, who come from all over the country and more than a dozen different cultures. Spanish is the shared language, but 13 different indigenous languages are spoken at Ayuuk. And the pedagogy for its three fields of study—sustainable administration and development, communications for social development, and intercultural education—taps deeply into indigenous practice and insight. “There’s knowledge in the community—the wisdom of the elders, the wisdom of the communities,” says Father Palacios. Areas like “our relationship to the earth, the knowledge of the human person, how you organize things—the university wants to bring that knowledge to the academy...to make it more accessible.”

But even more intriguing than its pedagogy is Ayuuk’s administration. Unlike the typical customer-service model of Western education, in which students’ main responsibility to their school is prompt payment of fees and respect for the school environment, Ayuuk is built on the indigenous practice of tequio, or “collective work.” As part of their life at Ayuuk, every student has a job related to the upkeep and development of the school. Cleaning the classrooms, tending the gardens—every student shares in the responsibility for the school. “Our students work for the institution and the institution works for them. That’s the idea of tequio,” says Father Palacios.

This co-op style practice extends to extraordinary degrees. When someone offered Father Palacios money for a new gymnasium, he put the question to the students. “I told them, ‘If you want the gym, you have to build the gym, because we don’t have money for workers.’

“And they told me, ‘Okay.’ And now we have a gym. They cut the wood, they cleared the space.”

Three times a semester the administration also meets with the student body both to hear their concerns and ideas and to seek their counsel. Father Palacios makes clear, this is not a pro-forma exercise: “Our decisions are made in these assemblies.” Participation is the custom of indigenous communities.

Preparing for a Global Culture

Each year Ayuuk has to raise between three million and five million pesos, roughly $300,000. That might not sound like much; one small grant from the U.S. federal government could keep it running for a decade. But “in Mexico it is not possible for the government to give money to private institutions,” Father Palacios points out. And the isolation of the school means it is not readily on people’s radars, either. In the end some funds are raised within the country, including from the other Jesuit universities of Mexico, and some come from donors abroad.

For Father Palacios, himself a member of the Wixarika indigenous community, the ultimate goal of the school is to prepare students for a “global culture.” This means development of practical skills but also that fundamental concern for others expressed both by indigenous culture and Pope Francis. “We need to have the tools, so the focus of our administration program is business, but it’s also care for the environment. For our communication program, it’s communication [skills], but also the social organization of local communities. For education, it’s teaching, but also learning indigenous languages and cultures.”

That global concern molds the religious identity of the school as well. “Our students come from various Christian denominations,” he says. “Because of our intercultural focus, we don’t have religious activities in our university but in the town.

“Everyone knows we are Catholic. But if we were to project ourselves as a private university just for Catholics, people would shy away,” he says. “We keep it open it to all and promote dialogue that is intercultural as well as interreligious.”

In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis calls for a “dialogue with all people about our common home.” The future of our planet is not the purview of any one group, but a reality to be formed by all of us, no matter what our nationality, religion or bank statement. “The Spirit of God has filled the universe with possibilities,” Pope Francis writes. “From the very heart of things, something new can always emerge” (No. 80).

In the little town of Jaltepec de Candayoc, Universidad Ayuuk offers an inspiring glimpse of that hoped-for future.

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