Anthropology & Education Quarterly

Familia and Comunidad-Based Saberes: Learning in an Indigenous Heritage Community



This article explores how children and youth learned indigenous heritage saberes (knowings) through intent community participation in Nocutzepo, Mexico. The familia (family) and comunidad (community)-based saberes were valuable for skills acquisition, but most important for learning indigenous forms of belonging, responsibility, and integration into adult life. Understanding indigenous heritage philosophies of learning and familia and comunidad saberes can help expand educators' knowledge about the learning practices of indigenous heritage families and students in schools.

Recent studies in anthropology and education demonstrate that there is a need to better understand indigenous peoples' unique cultural backgrounds, learning needs, and educational experiences in both Latin America and in the United States (Anthropology & Education Quarterly Vol. 36, 2005, Vol. 40, 2009). By indigenous, I refer to people from self-identified, native-language speaking communities, but also those from indigenous heritage communities, who may, or may no longer collectively self-identify as indigenous (Bonfil Batalla 1987). San Miguel Nocutzepo is an indigenous heritage pueblo (pueblo meaning town, community, and people) in Michoacán, México, with a history of emigration to urban areas within Mexico and especially to the United States.

Based on a year long, 2009–2010, ethnographic study, in this article I will present insights about the organization of learning in everyday life in Nocutzepo. Specifically, I will focus on the skills and larger conceptual saberes related to familia and comunidad learned by children and youth through household economic practices. I will begin by exploring Nocutzepo adults' general philosophy of learning, as a basis for how learning is organized in the community, followed by broad examples of everyday household economic practices and the skills that children and youth acquire through intent community participation (ICP). Finally, I will present data that supports that the familia and comunidad-based saberes children and youth learned in Nocutzepo were important for learning indigenous conceptual understandings of belonging, responsibility, and integration into familia and pueblo (community) life. Understanding indigenous familia and comunidad-based saberes in communities with high rates of emigration can help Mexican and U.S. educators deepen their awareness and appreciation of the richness of indigenous heritage learning practices and of students' strengths and capacities as mature persons, capable of taking initiative and responsibility in their learning.

Indigenous Heritage Familia and Comunidad-Based Saberes

Drawing from theories of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) (Barnhardt and Kawagley 2005; Battiste 2002; Brayboy and Maughan 2009; Cajete 1994; Kawagley 1999; Okakok 1989; Smith 1999), and learning through ICP (Paradise & Rogoff, 2009; Rogoff et al. 2003, 2007), the concept of indigenous heritage familia and comunidad-based saberes, in this article, refers to complex “knowings” or “understandings” of the world, tied to familia and comunidad knowledge(s), but also encompassing larger social, natural, and spiritual well-being (Cajete 1994). Familia and comunidad are not literal Spanish translations of their English cognates, but represent continuously sustained, daily, complex, relational, and reciprocal relationships in family and community life (Kawagley 1999; Okakok 1989). Indigenous cultural practices are inherently participatory and connected to particular places of origin, people, and their natural surroundings (Cajete 1994; Rockwell and Gomes 2009). Indigenous people and cultures, simultaneously ancient and modern, preserve millennial ways of knowing, while negotiating and creatively adapting innovatively to changing social and material conditions (Bonfil Batalla 1987). It is these millennial ways of knowing and being that I refer to as indigenous heritage saberes.

Mercado (1994) equates saberes with Bakhtin's concept of “social voices,” or the dialogic ability to entertain multiple, often conflicting, discourses at once; thus saberes are complex and multiple knowings or understandings experienced within the milieu of everyday social and cultural life. Saberes is also not a Spanish translation of knowledge or epistemology, but, in accord with IKS, encompass a wide range of “knowledge(s)” including, but not limited to, epistemic, ontological, and axiological knowing(s) (Brayboy and Maughan 2009). Such knowledge(s) can be as broad and abstract as learning what it means to be a member of a comunidad, and/or as specific as learning how to count, seriate, or to predict the weather. Saberes encompass larger and broader knowings about the world and how to survive in it (Barnhardt and Kawagley 2005; Cajete 1994).

Battiste (2002:11) defines indigenous knowledge as “an adaptable, dynamic system, based on skills, abilities and problem-solving techniques that change over time depending on environmental conditions.” Saberes thus include skill sets, but also encompass a broader breadth of competencies that include ways of knowing and being in the world (Barnhardt and Kawagley 2005). Saberes are acquired as life-long processes and responsibilities that model competent and respectful behavior (Cajete 1994) and form part of familias' and comunidades' funds of knowledge (González et al. 2005) and cultural wealth (Yosso 2005). Saberes are learned through participation, with minimal intervention or direct instruction, a learning by “seeing and doing” (Battiste 2002). Similarly, learning through ICP is an active, participatory form of organizing learning that occurs through collaborative, coordinated cultural activities (Rogoff et al. 2003).

Rogoff and colleagues (2003, 2007) define ICP as a form of learning that occurs by observing and pitching in, with initiative and access to abundant community activities alongside more experienced and supportive peers and adults. While aspects of learning through ICP have been observed in indigenous contexts in the Americas (Rogoff et al. 2003, 2007), these are recognized as “indicative and not definitive” of the ways indigenous people organize learning (Barnhardt and Kawagley 2005:10). Learning activities in ICP are not generally organized as separate, step-by-step progressive behaviors but as authentic, coordinated practices, themselves assessments, encouraging children's contributions during participation endeavors with a high degree of acceptance of children's efforts (Rogoff et al. 2003). Through collective practices, “… children participate in the same activities of the everyday life of the community as do adults, contributing in real ways as they learn about their shared economic and social reality” (Paradise and Rogoff 2009:106).

Learning through observing and pitching in, or “side by side” learning (Paradise and Rogoff 2009), is more prevalent in societies in which children are integrated in the range of everyday adult community life (Lancy 2008; Peele-Eady 2011). Observation, listening-in, and participation with initiative are important in first-hand learning (Rogoff et al. 2003). Children's observations of adult activities have often been characterized as keen, long, and with intense concentration, an indication of active cognition, social, and emotional participation (López et al. 2010). Children in indigenous communities tend to be expected to take initiative and responsibility for participating in adult life (Bolin 2006). However, it is important to also note that even in indigenous contexts, such as with Mayan mothers in Guatemala, Chavajay (2006) found that mothers with more years of formal schooling used more school-like ways of interacting with their children such as by asking children more recall questions as well as offering more verbal explanations of activities being carried out. Learning through ICP in indigenous communities has thus been observed especially in families with less years of formal schooling (Chavajay 2006; Gaskins 2000). Lamentably, traditional formal school practices generally do not acknowledge the saberes or learning practices most familiar to indigenous students, families, and communities (Brayboy and Maughan 2009).

Research on Mazahua children in Mexico illustrates important aspects of the learning practices of indigenous familia and comunidad-based learning (Paradise 1994). Paradise and deHaan (2009) found that in the Mazahua adult–child, child–child interactions they observed at a local market in Mexico City, “adults do not explicitly organize learning activities or attempt to teach their children; it is generally assumed that children are capable of taking initiative and of gradually learning by themselves to take on adult roles” (197). Although keen observation and pitching in as forms of participation might be interpreted as an unorganized and laissez-faire way of learning from a formal schooling perspective, to the Mazahua mothers observed, it was a valuable form of tacit collaboration in which learning occurred through interaction (Paradise 1994). Nonverbal behavior and judicious use of speech are also observed in learning activities in other indigenous communities (Lancy 2008).

Learning through ICP in IKS, rather than being restrictive, is a broad base for organizing learning that leads to high degrees of learning specialization. According to Battiste (2002:11), “Indigenous pedagogy values a person's ability to learn independently by observing, listening, participating with a minimum of intervention and instruction.” Indigenous learning practices and ICP are thus dynamic and experiential, and view indigenous saberes as living processes to be absorbed and understood by community members throughout the life span (Battiste 2002; Brayboy and Maughan 2009). Indigenous ways of organizing learning, unlike the rigid, homogenizing, and increasingly standardized testing culture of schools, allow all children to exploretheir own unique capacities, learning styles, and pace of learning, and to develop their own expertise in the processes of acquiring their familia and comunidad's saberes (Battiste 2002).

As indigenous heritage people, like the people of Nocutzepo, continue to migrate to Mexican urban centers and especially to the United States, understanding how children and youth learn familia and comunidad-based saberes is important because such diasporic communities (Bhatia and Ram 2001), unlike previous im/migrant communities, “distinctly attempt to maintain (real and/or imagined) connections and commitments to their homeland and recognize themselves and act as a collective community” (2). In diasporic communities, children's contributions and responsibility to familia and comunidad remain important. Orellana (2009) highlights Latina/o immigrant children's contributions and responsibilities to households and communities in Los Angeles and Chicago, for example, as an often-ignored part of out-of-school learning in such contexts. Recent research (Martínez and Urrieta 2009; Urrieta and Martínez 2011) on U.S.-born transnational children's visits specifically to Nocutzepo reveal that some Nocutzepo families in Los Angeles have maintained meaningful personal, social, cultural, and spiritual ties with the home comunidad now for three generations.

Indigenous-Heritage Pueblos

European invasion decimated up to 90 percent of indigenous populations in the Americas (Stannard 1992). Subsequently, a hierarchical system of castas (castes) emerged, implementing economic exploitation, oppression, and violence targeting indigenous and African descent people through colonization in Latin America (MacLachlan and Rodríguez 1990). Indigenous social and cultural wealth and IKS were devalued, destroyed, or appropriated in this process (Grande 2004).

Mestizos, of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry, initially rejected by both groups as “illegitimate,” eventually came to occupy an intermediary social position above the “Indian” and below the Spanish in Mexican society (Taylor 2009). The rise of nationalism in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution elevated the status of mestizos. Nationalist propaganda, notions of modernist progress, state-sponsored schooling, and assimilationist indigenismo propagated a seemingly equal society, but with highly racist practices that continue to exploit and disenfranchise indigenous people (Taylor 2009). Multiple discourses on indigeneity eventually led to dichotomous thinking around who and/or what separates an indigenous from a non-indigenous person, and/or community (Grande 2004). However, since the 1994 Zapatista uprising, indigenous communities increasingly have begun to define and to politically protect the boundaries of self-determination and autonomy in relation to the Mexican state (Ceceña and Barreda 1998).

I attempt to trace the indigenous heritage of Nocutzepo to highlight indigenous continuity in saberes to pueblos that may or may no longer self-identify as indigenous, but that historically and until recently were considered so. With regard to Nocutzepo's history, Beaumont and Seler's maps of the Pátzcuaro Basin (drawn 1538–1539) show Nocutzepo in its current location (Gorenstein and Pollard 1983). Archival records refer to people from Nocutzepo as “indios” (Indians) and “naturales” (Naturals) throughout the 17th and 18th centuries (Enkerlin Pauwells 2001; Castro Gutiérrez 2004). Linguistic maps of the area indicate that Nocutzepo is situated within an area that saw decline in Purépecha language use between 1800 and 1940 (Ragone and Marr 2006). Oral history interviews with Nocutzepo elders in 2010 revealed that their grandparents “understood” Purépecha and that “Tarasco” (Purépecha) was spoken in Nocutzepo in the past. Ethnographic interviews also revealed that Purépecha dress was worn in Nocutzepo until the early 1940s. In 2010, most people in Nocutzepo did not identify as Purépecha due to language loss, but generally did acknowledge being “indigenous.”

The Study

My father is from Nocutzepo and I have visited Nocutzepo my entire life; thus, I entered Nocutzepo not only with my own personal history, but also carrying my familia's generational history (Urrieta 2003). I was not an unnoticed observer there. My often complex positioning as a familia member, pariente (relative), researcher, and U.S.-born person in the comunidad, sometimes made for easier access to people, conversations, events, and life-long relationships, while at other times my positioning led to rejection, and the embarrassment of not meeting or knowing all that was expected of me. This insider/outsider (Narayan 1993) positioning also often “excused” me in some comunidad members' eyes for my shortcomings. For that, I am grateful. Ultimately, this work was conducted with utmost respect to familia and to the comunidad.

In this study I focused my attention on indigenous identity cultural production, and children and youth's learning in out-of-school contexts. I conducted participant observation (Davies 2001) in community activities including family household and public daily economic practices, community and collective events and rituals, and religious activities. I volunteered at the local public library, where I worked on after-school activities with children ages 5–12. Such activities included playing games and, upon parent requests, English lessons and homework assistance. I also observed the local bilingual intercultural indigenous elementary school's (BIIES) cultural events throughout the year. I kept meticulous notes of my observations, my interpretations, and personal self-reflections using thick description (Geertz 1973).

I conducted unstructured and semistructured ethnographic interviews (Davies 2001), as well as life history and town history interviews (Luken and Vaughan 1999) with community elders, adults, youth, and children. I also conducted 21 highly structured parent interviews at BIIES. My research also led me to town, municipal, state, and national historical archives. Over 50 hours of video data, and over 6,000 photographic images were also collected. Documents from all sources, video and photographic data, interviews, and ethnographic fieldnotes have been continuously analyzed throughout the study. Initially, I used a thematic analysis (Boyatzis 1998) focused on indigenous identity, indigenous cultural production, and teaching and learning in non-school contexts. Later I also developed a folk taxonomy, a classification of everyday interactions and experiences to complement the initial themes (Miles and Huberman 1984).

San Miguel Nocutzepo

Nocutzepo is a pueblo of approximately 800 residents. Agriculture and animal husbandry, primarily for self-sufficiency, are the most important economic activities. Most families grow corn, beans, squash, and lentils in their ejidos. Ejidos are communal lands granted to communities through federal land reform laws. Agricultural surplus is often sold for cash or used to barter for other consumable goods. Hoping to tap into an expanding international export market, families with greater economic means and with the aid of U.S. remittances also grow avocado in higher elevation ejidos. However, violence and insecurity have made growing this coveted export a risky endeavor. The privatization of ejidos in 1992, in preparation for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), allowed for the sale of ejidos. People in Nocutzepo denounced being coerced into selling their mountain ejidos to wealthy avocado growers starting in 2004. This continued pressure to sell the land has led to kidnappings, hostilities (at gun point), and illegal lumbering that people in Nocutzepo attribute to scare tactics by both avocado exporters and narcotraffickers to run them off their ancestral lands.

Approximately half of Nocutzepo's men and women (including teenagers) also temporarily worked outside the community for daily wages. Men worked primarily in construction, women worked as domestics in people's homes, and in food stands, in nearby cities. Many women were also traditional artisans, producing embroidered textiles, which they then sold to artisan shops in nearby towns. The profits from these activities were minimal, and the work was involved and repetitive. A few older women also sold handmade tortillas in Pátzcuaro, and other women set up makeshift weekend food stands in Nocutzepo.

Emigration from Nocutzepo to Mexican cities, especially Mexico City, began in the early 1920s in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. Emigration to the United States began in the early 1940s due to the Bracero Program (Herrera-Sobek 1979). The Bracero Program (1942–1964) was a U.S.–Mexico binational agreement to import temporary Mexican guest laborers to work in U.S. agriculture and railroad construction during labor shortages. Nocutzepos (people from Nocutzepo) began a more steady and permanent stream of U.S. migration in the 1960s, and this has intensified since 1994. Family-migration interviews show that the majority of people who were born in Nocutzepo no longer live there, and a great number of them live primarily in the United States. According to the Mexican Census, Nocutzepo's population has not grown since the 1980s, likely due to emigration.

I will now focus on how children and youth were involved in family household economic practices in Nocutzepo. I will begin by exploring Nocutzepo adults' general philosophy of learning with a representative ethnographic example to illustrate that philosophical stance and the role of guiding adults in the learning process.

Echando a Perder (Ruining Things) and Guiding Adults

When exploring Nocutzepo adults' philosophical orientations on learning, most jokingly shared a dicho (saying) to explain how people learn: “Echando a perder se enseña la gente” [People learn by ruining things]. Adults' general understanding about learning was that in order to master tasks, mistakes would be inevitable. Because mistakes were an expected part of the learning process, adults' assessments consisted of aiding children by guiding or modeling the process of their expected contributions, often with little or no verbal explanation, rather than by reprimanding them for their mistakes and discouraging their participation. Consider the following representative example:

Daniela (pseudonym), age five, was regularly observed making small, awkwardly shaped tortillas that her mother Isaura cooked on a comal (clay griddle) over a fiery parangua (hearth). Isaura, usually very busy, seemed not to pay too much attention to Daniela as she usually struggled with the dough. Isaura would, however, once in a while say, “fíjate” (look with fixation) to Daniela, as she turned half of her upper torso toward Daniela while shaping a tortilla with her hands. Daniela would respond by looking at and imitating her mother's movements, until Isaura resumed her position facing the metate (grinding stone), and placed the finished tortilla on the comal. Every attempt Daniela made at shaping a tortilla ended up cooked on the comal, and Isaura would quickly offer Daniela more dough. On occasion when Daniela started to head out of the kitchen, Isaura would quickly say “toma” (take this) and would again hand her more dough. Even when Daniela's dough ended up on the dirt floor, Isaura cooked it and fed it to the dog and advised Daniela by saying “cuidado Dani” (careful Dani). Daniela's better tortillas were always placed at the top of the pile, and were the first to be eaten as Daniela watched smiling silently, thus rewarding Daniela for her effort and contribution and encouraging her to continue to pitch in to tortilla making.

There was a known purpose to everyday activities for children and teenagers in Nocutzepo, especially those that generated food for family consumption or that added to the family income. Adults usually did not punish children for trying to pitch in or for not performing tasks properly in those activities except in instances where severe losses were incurred or where children put themselves in considerable danger.

In this example, Isaura modeled to Daniela how to make the tortillas by turning toward her to show her how she handled the dough in her hands; she guided Daniela with her statement “fijate,” and by slightly extending her arms toward her while she shaped the tortilla. However, she also allowed Daniela space to explore with the dough herself when she returned to face the metate, as well as by allowing Daniela to echar a perder (ruin) the dough. Isaura managed to maintain Daniela's attention by keeping her busy, especially when Daniela tried to head out of the kitchen. Assessment was continuous in the process as reflected by Isaura's statement “cuidado Dani” (be careful Dani), indicating to Daniela that dropping the dough on the floor was not appropriate.

Guiding behaviors and a permissive attitude, such as Isaura's toward Daniela, encouraged children to continue taking initiative in adult activities as they improved their practice, with the understanding that each child would eventually figure out how to accomplish tasks “their way.” Indeed, women in Nocutzepo claimed to have their “own” individual tortilla style, and could sometimes identify who made the tortillas by looking at their shape, size, and girth. This example illustrates that learning in IKS and through ICP are not disorganized, careless ways to teach, but rather broad approaches for organizing learning that result in highly specialized, meaningful, lessons that meet each child's, the familia's, and comunidad's needs. Not learning was not an option; Isaura needed and expected Daniela to learn how to make tortillas, but the pace and “way” of that learning was based on Daniela's and every child's needs. I will now show how familia and comunidad-based learning occurred and highlight some skills acquired by children and youth in the process.

Familia and Comunidad-Based Saberes

Nuclear families formed the basic collective unit of belonging in Nocutzepo, but they did not exist outside of the larger concept of familia that included recognized extended kin, often acknowledged as parientes (relatives) beyond grandparents, aunts, uncles, and first cousins. Older familia and comunidad members could, if asked, trace back family lineage for several generations. Children's and youths' participation and obligations in household economic activities, like Daniela's, were common and expected. Children and youth engaged in adult collective household economic practices in gendered ways, which reflected the usual, but not impenetrable, adult gendered ways in Nocutzepo. Girls were generally observed participating in food preparation, artesanías (folk arts), traditional medicine, childcare, selling food, and participating in markets, while boys participated more in agriculture, animal herding, construction, and lumber (Lancy 2008).

Women of a wide age range were observed sitting, embroidering in small groups in the evening. Women and older girls were also observed buying, selling, or bartering at open-air Pátzcuaro markets. These activities allowed girls access to the art of regatear (a type of price negotiation) that involved verbal and performative skills for bargaining. Many girls provided childcare for their mothers and parientes who were involved in household chores or other economic practices. Nocutzepo was also known for its sobadoras, who performed a type of healing massage therapy. Girls were observed assisting sobadoras by handing them needed oils and herbs.

Boys, from an early age, were observed cutting, carrying, and feeding grass to cattle and other farm animals. Boys at the age of 8 or 9 were adept at horseback riding or driving guayines (modern form of a wagon with automobile tires pulled by a horse). Young boys helped older siblings or adults in herding cattle on horseback by chasing after them with a stick or by throwing small stones. Boys also observed and helped with cooking events that men performed like butchering, making carnitas (deep fried pork), chivo (goat), or borrego (lamb). Boys and especially youth also participated in construction with adult males.

Activities carried out in co-gender groups were also observed. During planting and harvesting season entire familias were out in the fields together. Several parientes would sometimes help each other and groups of up to two or three nuclear families, generally parientes or of some type of relation, were out working on the same field. Children usually pitched in to the activity with smaller tasks alongside adults, but were always observant of activities generally performed by adults, such as driving a tractor or handling an axe. Young boys and girls carried fertilizer in plastic buckets and used their hands to place fertilizer on the small corn plants. On one occasion (1/27/10) I observed three generations of a familia sitting in a circle cutting up pumpkins to remove the coveted seeds. This included the 83-year-old grandfather, two of his grown children, their spouses, and grandchildren as young as four years old.

Rarely did adults explicitly instruct children or teenagers in how to do something. Instead, they learned through imitation, observation, listening, pitching in, and doing activities in social and cultural context much like Daniela practiced making tortillas in the earlier example (Battiste 2002). From the many household economic practices observed it would be easy to list skill sets children and youth learned including alternative measurement and estimation for calculating space, size, distance, time, and for amounts. From embroidering, for example, girls learned shapes, old and new patterns (grecas), counting, seriating, estimation, and developed dexterity. From agricultural work and animal husbandry children learned about the weather, seasons, soils, grasses, insects, sustainability, and environmental awareness as in other indigenous contexts (Hunn 2008). Most importantly, they learned the survival ways of their familias and comunidad, many of these passed on from generation to generation, such as tortilla making. Skill sets, however, were not only what was learned. Children also learned responsibility through childcare, for example; patience and persistence through embroidering; and ultimately belonging through familia and pariente collaboration.

I will now focus on particular representative observations where children not only acquired skills, but learned larger conceptual saberes. Specifically, I will show how children and youth learned cooperative belonging, responsible coordination, and collaborative integration in familia and comunidad life. These indigenous heritage saberes were particular to Nocutzepo, but may not be uncommon in other contexts.

Cooperative Belonging

Individuals, regardless of age, did not exist in the larger community outside of an extended familia. Children were generally thought of as belonging to their parents but also to their grandparents and other familia members. Children learned from an early age to identify as, for example, “Juanito el de María la de Inés.” This identification indicated that Juanito was María's child and María was Inés's daughter, a typical way to identify familia relationships. As in other indigenous communities, rarely was a person identified as an individual without relation to family and community (Brayboy and Maughan 2009).

Through their contributions to household economic practices, children acquired from a young age a sense of cooperative belonging to familia. Cooperative belonging meant “being familia” by “doing the work” of belonging to the familia in both literal and symbolic ways. Familia relationships were not simply ascriptive, but required “work” to build, strengthen, and maintain familia ties, often in the form of cooperative labor and economic, emotional, and social support when needed. The concept of familia, often functioning more like a verb rather than a noun, was demonstrated and affirmed through action, mutual cooperation, and support of various sorts. Being familia was not nominative, but involved literally the work of belonging that began at an early age. For example, it was common for both girls and boys as young as four or five years old to run errands, identified in other indigenous communities by Lancy (2008) as the errand curriculum. Accompanied by an even younger child, such errands included delivering messages, food, or buying products at a local tienda (store). For example, on a winter morning, I witnessed the following (1/6/10):

Doña Mariana:

(addressing Anita, age 6, and Diego, age 4) ¿Adónde van hijos? Where are you going my children?


(without saying a word) hands Doña Mariana hand-made tortillas covered in a colorfully embroidered servilleta (cloth napkin)


Ahh, a eso iba. Ah that's what I was going to get.


smiling while holding Diego's left hand with her right hand


Son veinte pesos, ¿verdad? It's twenty pesos, right?


still smiling, nods yes by moving her head slightly up and down


hands Anita a wrinkled up $20 peso bill


takes the bill in her now free hand and looks at it, she then looks at Diego and without saying a word they both turn around and start walking back home


(calling out) Díganle gracias a su mamá. Tell your grandmother thank you.

Anita and Diego pitched in to a household economic activity by delivering tortillas to Doña Mariana. Their participation may seem minimal, but they were actively cooperating with other familia members in a way that demonstrated belonging. Doña Mariana identified their matriarchal trigenerational belonging to their grandmother, Doña Mercedes, who made and sold tortillas. Grandmothers in Nocutzepo were often called mamá (mother) and Doña Mariana refers to Anita and Diego's grandmother as mamá.

Both Anita and Diego also demonstrated belonging to each other as siblings. Anita guided her younger brother in running errands by holding his hand; physical contact was a common way to show belonging, especially in relation to age and affection. In Nocutzepo I observed affection frequently expressed through physical contact across all age groups, including amongst same gender adults. Anita, a more knowledgeable peer, guided Diego's behavior in learning not just for running errands and handling money, but also for learning cooperative belonging to familia. Keen observation, listening in, and third-party attention are important forms of participation in ICP and important indigenous learning practices (Rogoff et al. 2003); thus, Diego was not just Anita's companion. Diego observed keenly, listened in, and demonstrated third-party attention during the interaction precisely by being silent and observant. These forms of participation, often overlooked in formal schooling as passive or non-participation, according to Rogoff et al. (2003), protect a child's autonomy by not forcing a child at a time when he/she is most vulnerable as a learner. Diego will be expected to take the initiative to run errands in the future and will probably guide a younger child in learning how to perform this activity. Being familia was thus not just an honorific or descriptive title, but rather a complex relational and practical concept that implied a set of responsibilities that were constantly being expected and demonstrated by “doing” and “showing” familia ties through work. In this example, Anita and Diego were doing the work of being familia by running an errand for their grandmother. They also “showed” their familia ties at the comunidad level to Doña Mariana who recognized their trigenerational belonging to their grandmother.

Responsible Coordination

In addition to cooperative belonging, children and teenagers also learned to practice responsible physical and emotional coordination within familia and comunidad. Physical coordination demonstrated competency in managing well with others in limited physical and emotional space because notions of personal space in Nocutzepo ranged from very small to nonexistent. Emotional coordination involved children's and youths' consideration of others' social and emotional needs in relation to, and in addition to, their own; thus, their emotional needs were always in relation to others (Brayboy and Maughan 2009; Kawagley 1999). The following is a description of a Nocutzepo familia that sold food on Sunday nights. From the grandmother to the great granddaughter, everyone was busy preparing, serving, or delivering food, and they coordinated their activities responsibly physically, emotionally, and meaningfully to accomplish their collective goal.

The food stand had about twenty people standing around it because there were only 10 plastic chairs to sit in under the plastic canopy around 10:00 PM. About half of the people were eating, while the rest waited for their orders. It was lively as people engaged in conversations among themselves. The smell of burning firewood and fried food simultaneously filled the chilly air. Rosana, the mother, was busy making quesadillas out of fresh masa (corn dough), while her daughter Josefina (15 years old) made enchiladas on a large frying metal comal. Mamá Victoria (her grandmother) tended to the fire. Josefina moved quickly turning the tortillas fully dipped in red chili sauce with her fingertips in the boiling lard. She used her left hand to turn the fried tortillas over, while the other hand she used to dip a new handful of tortillas in the chili sauce and to fill the enchiladas with potato and carrots. When the enchiladas were ready she placed them on a plastic plate. She added fresh cheese, lettuce, and salsa to them, took a side step to the right, and handed them to a woman from Charahuén, who had been waiting quietly. Josefina then quickly moved back to her place by the fire to cook another order of enchiladas, when her mother without looking at her called out, “un tamal y un atole hija.” Without saying a word, Josefina looked at Mamá Victoria and turned the enchiladas over to her grandmother as she ran inside to get the tamal y atole. Ramón, the ten-year-old younger brother then arrived from delivering an order of food. He handed his father Esteban, who had just returned from the U.S., several coins. Irma, the oldest and married daughter, who was helping Rosana with the quesadillas, handed Ramón another styrofoam plate with food covered with aluminum foil. Irma said, “llévaselo a tía Juana.” Ramón took the plate and walked away. Meanwhile Julia, Irma's five-year old daughter slowly dragged a piece of firewood from inside the house and laid it beside Mamá Victoria's feet for the fire and then ran back inside to get another one. [fieldnotes 8/24/09]

This scene was observed weekly, and was a typical Sunday night for this familia. The example shows how seven people were not just cooperating in a familia household income-generating practice, but were also responsibly coordinating their activities in physical and emotional ways. Each member had tasks to perform, but was also flexible to alternate between tasks as did Josefina and Mamá Victoria when the occasion demanded. While participants' ages spanned 60 years, they all engaged in the same collective activity, physical, and emotional space with little age segregation (Rogoff et al. 2003).

The limited workspace (approximately 3 meters long x 1 meter wide) demanded responsible physical coordination. The familia always had many customers, and yet I never observed them bump into each other, drop food, or get overly upset at each other in ways that disrupted the flow of their collective interaction. Each member pitched in to the activity with a purpose, including Julia's dragging of firewood. During an interview (12/7/09) Josefina expressed her emotional commitment to the Sunday night activity, stating altruistically that she needed to help her familia, specifically her mother, even though she at times sacrificed her own entertainment:

yo sé que de ahí comemos y me necesita mi mamá. No sacamos mucho, pero sale pa' comer. Hay veces cuando hay bailes mi mamá me dice, “Véte al baile mija si quieres, nosotros a ver cómo le hacemos.” Y yo me pongo a pensar y digo, no, no la voy a dejar sola.

I know that that's where we get money for food and my mom needs me. We don't make a huge profit, but we make enough to eat. Sometimes when there are dances my mom tells me, “Go to the dance, we'll figure out what to do [without you].” And I think about it and say to myself, no, no I can't leave her by herself.

Because Esteban lived in the United States for most of Josefina's life and rarely sent money home, she learned from a young age of her mother's social and economic reality. In this context of economic hardship, Josefina learned to cooperate physically and through emotional commitment, to the familia's survival. Selling food on Sundays was this familia's main source of income because Esteban was unable to find a steady job and suffered from depression after returning from the United States. The Sunday night food sales were also a rather festive gathering place for townspeople where they chatted, joked, and shared a meal.

Because children are not segregated from parents' social, cultural, and economic worlds, Josefina, Ramón, Irma, and Julia learned to cooperate and coordinate, with physical and emotional responsibility, by helping to run the food stand. Coordination involved not just physical maneuvering in limited space but also an emotional commitment to familia. Responsible physical and emotional coordination in the comunidad was reflected in faena. Faena, a communal collective labor, according to comuneros (community members), was a duty and responsibility to the pueblo. Types of communal, often festive, labor have been observed in other indigenous communities (Bolin 2006). The familia Sunday night food sale resembled the faena, where responsible physical and emotional coordination was used for collective and communal goals, even when occasional tension surfaced among familia members.

Collaborative Integration

Children and youth also collaborated as a form of more mature integration into familia and comunidad. Collaborative integration refers to older children's participation in family economic practices without direct adult supervision, once considered competent enough to perform tasks on their own. Collaborative integration indicated adults' trust and approval for children's independent mature collaboration (Rogoff et al. 2003).

At around 1:00 PM (1/7/10) I entered Juan's store. At first I didn't see anyone inside because it was rather dark and the sun was very bright outside. Then I noticed Luna to my left. Luna is Juan's ten-year-old daughter and she was mopping the floor. She smiled and I asked if her parents were home (assuming I had to deal with an adult if I wanted to buy something). She said no, but asked me politely, “¿Qué se le ofrece?” When I said I needed breadcrumbs for breading meat she pointed to the packets on the Bimbo stand to my right. I asked her how much they cost and she said 8 pesos each bag. She wiped her wet hands on her t-shirt and moved behind the counter as I pulled two bags. I asked her, ¿cuánto es?, and she responded 16 pesos. I handed her a 20 peso bill and she gave me back four pesos and said thank you. Curious, I asked her if she knew the prices to all of the goods in the store and she smiled and said “casi” (almost). I asked her where her parents were at and she said, “Se fueron a Ario.” Amazed that she handled the store alone since Ario is three hours away driving distance, I asked, “Y tu estás solita?” She laughed and said, “Pos sí.” I then turned to walk out as she quickly went back to mopping the floor.

Luna, the oldest child, was integrated into the familia to a larger extent by handling the store for her parents while they were in Ario de Rosales. Luna's mother, Fátima, who usually ran the store, had just given birth to her third child so Luna took on more independent, unsupervised activities as a result. Prior to her sibling's birth, Luna was observed helping out at the familia's store by sweeping, mopping, or organizing merchandise, but almost always with an adult present. “Juan's store” had a wider variety of goods and was the most well-attended tienda in Nocutzepo, thus Luna's knowledge of prices and mathematics was impressive; however, what was most impressive was Luna's integrated collaboration to the familia's economic enterprise at the age of ten.

During the above observation, operating from a different conceptual stance, I assumed that in order to conduct a monetary transaction, I needed to deal with another adult. Luna, however, demonstrated more competency than I in handling this situation. “¿Qué se le ofrece?” literally translated means “What would you like?,” but a more appropriate translation would be “How can I help you?” Luna's use of the phrase, “¿Qué se le ofrece?,” suggested that she had carefully observed and acquired customary and respectful forms of address for elders, appropriate for the merchant–customer interactions typical in her parents' store and in the comunidad. After this observation, I frequently shopped at Juan's to observe Luna handling the store on her own after school. Luna was considered competent and mature, and was trusted by her parents to run and clean the store almost daily, and thus contributed to the familia's collective income. Luna's example shows children's changing participation over time, especially because prior to her youngest sibling's birth, Luna had a less independent role in running the familia's store.

Roberts (2007:7) asserts that identity is situated in community practices; thus engaging in the practices of a comunidad is “ ‘doing being’ of that community. Luna clearly demonstrated that she was collaboratively integrated to her familia as a trusted member. Her participation and performance in running the store was part of “doing being” a member of her familia and of the trust and approval they invested in her capabilities. Luna's collaborative integration is reflected in Nocutzepo's encabezado system. Encabezados are designated annually to lead the organization of pueblo fiestas, religious services, and church maintenance. Being an encabezado signals full integration into responsible adult life and is reserved mostly for married couples, as marriage is a marker of full adulthood. Rockwell and Gomes (2009:99) indicate that in indigenous communities “the internal criteria of belonging have been strongly rooted in honoring commitments to a local community.” Nocutzepo's encabezado system, a version of the cargo system, finances fiestas and fulfills other collective pueblo civic and religious duties and is common in indigenous communities in Mexico (Friedlander 1981).


Through side-by-side learning children in Nocutzepo like Daniela, Anita, Diego, Josefina, Ramón, Julia, and Luna contributed in real ways to adult shared economic and social realities (Paradise and Rogoff 2009) as they learned important daily skills and indigenous heritage conceptual saberes. In Nocutzepo, children were often aware of economic hardship and learned to cooperatively belong, to coordinate responsibly, both physically and emotionally, and eventually to collaboratively integrate into familia and comunidad life. Through cooperative belonging children like Anita and Diego learned from a young age that being familia involved active participation; thus, being a familia member had to be demonstrated through reciprocal labor, as well as economic, social, and emotional support. Being familia was not just an honorific title but literally involved cooperation, especially through work.

Through responsible coordination, children and youth like Josefina, Ramón, and Julia learned to maneuver, not just in limited physical space, including sometimes having several generations of familia members living in the same house compound or in close proximity, but also to organize their emotional commitments and needs around other familia members, and eventually around the comunidad's needs such as faena. Through collaborative integration, older children like Luna earned the trust to perform mature tasks that supported familia and comunidad efforts with little or no adult supervision. Collaborative integration demonstrated changing participation, like Luna's in the familia's store over time, that support greater developmental competency before the familia and the comunidad. Thus children and youth in Nocutzepo were held to different cultural expectations considered appropriate for that context (Rogoff 2003).

Children and youth's engagement in household economic practices in Nocutzepo was holistic and purposeful because activities were not decontextualized from familia and comunidad realities. Adults' generally permissive philosophy of learning allowed children to take the initiative, with the understanding and expectation that mistakes would be made in the process. Not learning was not an option. All children were expected to learn, but the initiative and pace of that learning was based on the child's, familia's, and comunidad's needs. Household economic activities were thus not divided in sequential steps as in school-style teaching, partly because adults and more knowledgeable peers did not guide the learning in this way, but mostly because learning in Nocutzepo was not artificial and flowed with the everyday aspects of life. Nocutzepo ways of organizing learning, unlike the suburban child who sells lemonade in the summertime to learn a lesson on capitalist entrepreneurship, were real, purposeful, and encompassed a totality of shared, lived experience (Brayboy and Maughan 2009).

Children were not segregated or excluded from participation in any collective event, even when that participation was intense. In fact when a young unmarried youth died in Nocutzepo in October 2009, children and youth were the protagonists in her burial rituals. In this case, children did not just learn skills, but also broader lived and living saberes about life itself that are ultimately not just important in Nocutzepo, but also in the context of indigenous emigrant familias and children who bring these saberes with them to new contexts, including to U.S. schools and classrooms. Saberes also persist as people from communities, like Nocutzepo, often strengthen these knowledge bases in their U.S.-born children through return home visits (Urrieta and Martínez 2011). Indigenous continuity within the context of migration, contrary to popular belief, thus often functions as a mechanism for successful adaptation in new comunidad contexts.

Educators working with indigenous heritage students and familias in Mexico and the United States can begin by recognizing the discrimination often targeted against indigenous people (Barillas-Chon 2010). Intra- and intercultural understanding is central to, and for, creating inclusive culturally relevant models of learning communities. Educators working with indigenous heritage students should also value the richness of the educational experience in everyday familia and comunidad life, including students' strengths and capacities as mature persons capable of taking initiative in their own learning as the children and youth in this study demonstrate. Most importantly, educators need to understand that IKS and learning through ICP are not careless and unorganized ways of organizing learning, but broad approaches for organizing learning that result in highly specialized, meaningful lessons that meet each child's, familia's, and comunidad's needs.

Indigenous heritage saberes and indigenous ways of organizing learning can thus provide educators with practical alternatives to the increasingly homogenizing and rigid ways of schooling. Formal schooling can incorporate IKS and learning through ICP as alternative, inclusive, and more permissive approaches to organizing teaching and learning that result in meaningful, contextual, and specialized learning for all students. This can be accomplished in part by embedding skills instruction within meaningful and purposeful community contexts and collaborative, communal activities that involve students and familias in authentic, rather than aesthetic, ways in schools and classrooms.


This study shows that the familia and comunidad-based indigenous heritage saberes acquired by children and youth in Nocutzepo were important for learning skills, but also for acquiring socially relevant conceptual understandings and behaviors related to familia and comunidad cohesiveness and well-being. Understanding how indigenous heritage communities organize learning, and the philosophical stance behind learning processes, can help expand educators' approaches to teaching and learning, as well as expand the learning possibilities that indigenous learning practices can offer all students. Saberes in communities like Nocutzepo, which is close to 500 years old, and the diasporic communities of Nocutzepo familias both in Mexican urban centers and in the United States, can inform the organizational aspects of meaningful school learning, not just for indigenous heritage students, but for all students. The challenge, however, is for educators and educational policy makers to take a personal and professional stance on pursuing transformative change.


  1. Acknowledgments. This ethnographic study was conducted with the support of a Fulbright-García Robles Fellowship, 2009–2010, and a College of Education Dean's Fellowship, 2010, at UT Austin. The manuscript was written with support by the National Science Foundation under Grant No.0837898 and was revised with support from a Summer Faculty Fellowship from the Center for Mexican American Studies, 2011, at UT Austin. This work does not reflect the views of the supporting programs and agencies, and any faults in this work are my own. Special thanks to Anthony Brown, Keffrelyn Brown, Ramón Martínez, and Beth Hatt for helpful comments and suggestions on this manuscript and to five anonymous peer reviewers. Mil gracias a San Miguelito y a la comunidad de San Miguel Nocutzepo.


  • Luis Urrieta, Jr. is Associate Professor of Cultural Studies in Education, Mexican American Studies, and Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.