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Intercultural Bilingual Education: Mexico

Diversity and inclusion in Indigenous schools through Mexico’s intercultural bilingual education model

June 6, 2023
Author: Laura Maria Rojas Morales

In the 1990s, Mexico implemented Intercultural Bilingual Education (IBE) throughout its education system to provide culturally and linguistically inclusive education for historically marginalized groups. The IBE aims to promote the use of Indigenous languages in schools, respect and recognition of Mexico’s cultural diversity, whilst increasing equitable educational opportunities. As of 2019, over 22,000 Indigenous schools adopted IBE, and progress was made in developing curricular standards for preschool and primary education.

Mexico has 68 ethnic groups and 11.8 million Indigenous peoples, of which 7.1 million people speak an Indigenous language (68 languages spoken by 6.1 percent of the total population).1 Ethnic minorities and Indigenous populations have faced a long history of discrimination and exclusion in the country.2 As of 2020, 76.8 percent of Indigenous-speaking people were living in poverty, while 47 percent experienced educational setbacks due to not attending formal education or not meeting educational levels expected for the age-groups.3 In the past, Hispanic-focused education had been employed to assimilate Indigenous groups into the dominant non-Indigenous culture, which resulted in the exclusion of native languages and knowledge systems within the education system, thereby diminishing the individual and collective identities of Indigenous peoples.4

In 1992, the national constitution was amended to define Mexico as a multicultural and multilingual country, providing greater participation to Indigenous groups in the decision-making processes concerning public expenditures, in determining their own development plans, and the ability to govern their own administrative and legal affairs.5 One year later, the General Education Law was passed, which promoted the linguistic plurality of the nation. In 1997, primary education aimed at Indigenous populations changed its designation from bilingual-bicultural education to IBE.

These transformations were generated in response to the claims of indigenous groups, academics, and pressure of the Zapatista insurgent movement that in the 90s demanded the recognition of Indigenous rights.6

Mexico adopted Intercultural Bilingual Education (IBE)7 as an official education model that includes and acknowledges Indigenous languages and cultures within the entire national education system. IBE comprises teaching Spanish and Indigenous languages,8 preserving the oral and cultural traditions of communities, promoting respect and recognition of Mexico’s cultural diversity, and providing relevant education to Indigenous, Afro-Mexican, and culturally diverse children of migrants and seasonal agricultural workers.9


Over the last four decades, IBE in Mexico has evolved and transformed.10 During the 1970s, the efforts of Indigenous educators, united under the National Alliance of Indigenous Bilingual Professionals (ANPIBAC) led to the integration of bicultural and bilingual education into the education system, which was aimed specifically at Indigenous groups.

The IBE policy includes the following strategies:

  1. Develop alternative IBE preschool and primary curriculum standards,11 which include pedagogic principles, objectives, educational materials, and teacher training for the instruction of native languages and cultural diversity.12
  2. Provide a program of assistance for Indigenous children, such as assistance with transportation to, and accommodation in, schools, meals, and scholarships for Indigenous children who require it.13
  3. Install Indigenous language and culture classes for primary schools to facilitate the learning of native languages and the cultural and ethnic diversity of the country.
  4. Strengthen school-community partnerships through the creation of intercultural dialogues (diálogos de saberes) to preserve and transmit oral and cultural traditions.14
  5. Strengthen research regarding conceptual frameworks, innovation techniques, program evaluation, and studies that contribute to the IBE education policies in the country.15

In 2001, the General Directorate of Indigenous, Intercultural, and Bilingual Education (DGEIIB in Spanish), part of the Mexican Public Education Secretary (SEP), was created to coordinate the incorporation of intercultural programs at all levels of the National Education System for the entire population. The DGEIIB works in collaboration with the States’ Local Education Secretaries— responsible for implementing educative plans and programs responsive to the particular needs and characteristics of its populations.16 In 2003, the Linguistic Rights Law was passed, which recognizes the right of the Indigenous population to bilingual education, regardless of the level of education or type of school attended.


The author is unable to identify information on the cost or financing of the policy. However, since its inception the cost has been covered mainly by national funds, and has received international aid and World Bank loans.17


In 2012, there were around 10,000 Indigenous elementary schools offering the IBE model to over 900,000 students—mostly Indigenous. By 2019, there were 22,766 IBE schools in Mexico. The SEP has produced over 500 free textbooks, readings, and didactic materials in more than 36 Indigenous languages.18 By 2019, the Indigenous Language and Culture class was implemented in nine of the 32 states in Mexico. There are also 19 intercultural secondary schools.19

The public university, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), created a higher education program to promote research on multicultural and multilingual diversity in Mexico.20 Additionally, 11 intercultural universities were established in rural areas in the country with Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. programs, with a bilingual and intercultural education approach that prioritizes Indigenous students.21

Between 1990 and 2010, the gap in middle school completion rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth inched closer, dropping from nine percentage points to just two. Research has shown that the increased availability of Indigenous IBE schools in the late 1990s encouraged many Indigenous parents to send their children to school.22

Despite progress, numerous challenges remain. There are still modest outcomes in high school completion and college-going rates for Indigenous and ethnic minority children. According to the 2010 census, only 14 percent of young Indigenous students have completed high school relative to 25 percent of non-Indigenous youths in this age group.23 Some explanations for this gap are the poverty rates affecting Indigenous populations, the poor infrastructure conditions of the schools attended by these children, and the insufficient preparation of teachers to meet their needs, among others.24

Studies have shown the need for more qualified teachers, as many are unaware of the policy or do not speak the same language as their students. Mexican scholars have also questioned the validity of majority-language national standardized tests for assessing language minority students’ skills and knowledge.25

In 2019, academics, activists, and public servants united to create the “Intercultural Agenda for National Education” to advocate for effective IBE for all, from basic to higher education. The group emphasized that in most cases, IBE remains predominantly focused on Indigenous children (mainly within Indigenous preschool and primary schools and intercultural universities).26 Schmelkes, a Mexican researcher involved in the movement, believes it is a mistake to not extend interculturalism 27 to all citizens as a means of addressing racism and inequalities, and to bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.28