Identity and dignity: Bolivia’s Minister of Decolonization talks education

June 1, 2015
Christine McKenna, student blogger at Congress 2015

As the Honorable Félix Cárdenas Aguilar stepped up to the podium, I placed over my ears a fragile pair of grey plastic headphones. As he began a lively address to the packed auditorium, a gentle female voice echoed in my ears, translating his words from Spanish and Aymara to the English I can understand. Aguilar is the Vice Minister of Decolonization in Bolivia, and he travelled all the way to the unceded Algonquin territory known as Ottawa to share with us his insights on reconciliation, education, and justice, building on the theme of reconciliation and the academy at Congress.

A member of the native Aymara population himself, Aguilar has spent much of his life and career fighting for the rights of Bolivia’s many indigenous communities, and was at one point imprisoned and tortured for his criticism of the ruling political state. These days, however, the country is officially known as the Plurinational State of Bolivia, and for the first time there are indigenous people such as Aguilar in positions of power. In his talk at Congress, he discussed how his home country approached the long process of decolonization and “de-patriarchalization” in an effort to develop a more just and pluralist society.

Aguilar suggested that a key element of this process is the recognition of indigenous “identity” and “dignity”—it is important to understand how the sexism and racism of colonial laws continue to affect society today, and to realize that, while education teaches us to view history through a specifically white, male lens, “there is not only one, single truth.” Speaking of “truth,” do keep in mind that this is just my interpretation of a translator’s interpretation of what he actually said.

One point I found particularly interesting was the idea that we need to “decolonize our brains,” which would in turn allow us to go even further and “de-patriarchalize” them. To do this, it’s necessary to pay closer attention to how many racist and sexist attitudes subtly inform our everyday habits. For example, Aguilar pointed out that the anthem sung at Bolivian schools every Monday morning is essentially saying “Thank-you Spain for invading and stealing from us!” He also discussed how the Christian religion brought over by settlers emphasized moral precepts that limited the social development of women and the poor. There was a great line in Aguilar’s talk that neatly summarized this idea, and it went more-or-less like this: “When they arrived, the Catholics gave us their Bible and said ‘close your eyes and pray,’ and when we opened them, they had our land and we had their Bible.”

Aguilar stated that decolonization is not about “revenge,” nor is it a romantic desire to return to the past—it’s about working toward a new paradigm of balance, where everyone can be different but have the same rights, and where settlers actually listen to what indigenous people have to say. One important learning area is the environment, a point that Aguilar emphasized well: “It’s not the colour of my skin that should scare you, it’s the colour of the water you’re drinking.”