Pandemic deepens struggle of Mexico's indigenous villages

San Miguel Amoltepec Viejo (Mexico) (AFP) –


In the poverty-stricken mountains of southern Mexico, children can only dream of internet or television that would allow them to join millions of others following distance learning during the pandemic.

The coronavirus outbreak and its impact on education are just the latest chapters in a long history of marginalization of indigenous communities in the region.

Children across Mexico, which has one of the world's highest Covid-19 tolls, with more than 72,000 dead, began a new school year last month with remote learning via television aimed at curbing the spread of the disease.

But in the homes of San Miguel Amoltepec Viejo, a windswept village in one of the country's poorest regions, there are no such modern-day luxuries.

"There are no computers, there's no internet, there's no television signal and the electricity goes out when it rains," said teacher Jaime Arriaga.

When he could teach face-to-face classes, Arriaga stayed all week in the remote area and avoided the more than two-hour drive along a winding, sometimes-unpaved road from the region's main city, Tlapa.

Today, the 33-year-old visits every fortnight to bring educational material and meet with parents in the community 3,000 meters (nearly 10,000 feet) above sea level in Guerrero state.

"We have no other way," he said.

Arriaga watched from the doorway as 25-year-old Natalia Vazquez helped her daughter Viridiana do her schoolwork in their modest home while piglets grunted outside.

She whispered in the five-year-old's ear how to say hello in her native language, a variant of the Mixtec indigenous language.

- 'Worse off' -

Arriaga's classroom in San Miguel, where 22 children used to study, now serves as a warehouse or improvised dining room.

Instead, Celso Santiago's three children study in their house with wooden walls and an earthen floor, where chickens roam next to an open fire.

The 29-year-old farmer said he would try to make sure his children did not fall behind, but he worried it would be difficult.

"We have jobs and I can't be taking care of the children," he said.

"If they couldn't learn much from what the teacher taught before, now we're going to be worse off with this pandemic."

Illiteracy among adults makes home schooling an even bigger challenge, Santiago said.

"We're in an area that's highly marginalized and falling behind in education because many parents don't even know how to read or write," he said.

- 'No coronavirus here' -

More than two-thirds of indigenous Mexicans live in poverty.

In the municipality of Cochoapa el Grande, home to San Miguel Amoltepec Viejo, 82 percent of the population is indigenous and on average they finish only a quarter of basic education.

Some 200 people live in the village, where many houses lie empty, their owners having left to look for work in northern Mexico or across the border in the United States.

Although its lack of medical centers makes it highly vulnerable, the area has so far avoided a major outbreak of the coronavirus, helped by its remote location and sparse population.

Across Mexico, 8,563 indigenous people have been infected with the coronavirus and 1,249 have died, the government reported last week.

While the city of Tlapa has recorded 293 confirmed cases and 44 deaths, Cochoapa el Grande has registered only two cases and no deaths, according to official figures.

"Perhaps this area is still untouched and there are no infections," said Martiniano Pastrana, the area's educational supervisor.

But he still insists on warning the residents that the virus is real, something that he knows only too well because his father-in-law and brother-in-law fell ill.

Santiago believes that the villagers have stronger immunity because they eat what they grow themselves and not food that is "canned and chemical" like in the cities.

"There's no coronavirus here," he said.