Skip to main content
Student Profile

Cultural Barriers to Education Among the Tarahumara

by Ariel Marshall

Chihuahua, Mexico is home to the Tarahumara, an indigenous population with a culture rich in tradition that is struggling to maintain its unique identity, while taking advantage of educational opportunities offered by the dominant culture. The Tarahumara in Chihuahua number fifty thousand, occupy one-fourth of the state, and make up 81.3 percent of the indigenous-language speakers. No one knows exactly how long the Tarahumara have lived in the Sierra Madre mountain range, but the earliest human artifacts found in this region date back fifteen thousand years.

The Tarahumara speak Rarámuri and live in communities with houses far from each other and away from the town center, which generally consists of a church and a school. Immediate and extended families reside together on small plots of land, typically living in small, one-room log houses without running water or electricity.

According to the 2000 census, there is a large gap in the completion of basic education between indigenous groups and those who speak Spanish as their first language. Mestizos, or people who are a mix of Spanish and Indian descent, make up the majority of Mexico’s population and speak Spanish as their primary language. The educational gap is amplified in the Tarahumara, but existing research tends to focus on the inequality of education in Mexico instead of focusing specifically on inequalities and attitudinal barriers regarding educational attainment among a specific indigenous group.

Education has the potential to positively influence these groups and is one of the few ways for outside intervention to affect a culture; education is also a significant indicator of socioeconomic status. Studying education among the Tarahumara illuminated the cultural factors and attitudes that have contributed to the lack of education and extreme poverty.

Past to Present: Tarahumara and Education

From the time the Mexican Ministry of Education was created in 1921, substantial inequalities have been documented among students attending public schools. From 1988 to 1998, governmental programs aimed to combat poverty through better employment, creating specific goals to help education become more accessible, with the idea that better education would create better jobs. The most recent and successful government program was PROGRESA (Programa de Educación, Salud y Alimentación, also known as “Contigo” and Oportunidades), created in 1997 by then-president of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo. PROGRESA focuses on improving the health, education, and nutrition of families in the lowest 20 percent of income distribution. PROGRESA provides educational grants to children in impoverished communities. And today, one in five Mexicans is enrolled in the program.

Despite the efforts of PROGRESA and similar programs, primary education (ages six to fifteen) among rural children is still very limited. Not surprisingly, rural schools are poorly equipped and teachers ill-qualified despite efforts to narrow the gap. Among the Tarahumara, fully 60 percent of the community is illiterate. Educational attainment among them falls well below national and state averages.

Additionally, 60.4 percent of indigenous women have received no formal education in Chihuahua. This number is significant, as the level of education among mothers has a major impact on their children’s education. Though the number of males receiving no education is 42.6 percent, making a difference of almost 20 percent, women who begin school are more likely to stay in school, with a 21.3 percent dropout rate compared to the 34 percent of men who do not complete primary school.

Through interviews, I found that the reasons for this educational gap between the Tarahumara and the mestizos fall into five categories: lack of cultural understanding, working and absent mothers, poor implementation of government programs, a hierarchy of needs problem, and gender inequality.

Lack of Cultural Understanding

I interviewed Mauricio del Villar, a twenty-five-year-old mestizo man who works with the Tarahumara under the direction of his friend and relative Juan Daniel. Together, they strive to improve the lifestyle of Tarahumara communities. As a result, they are both experts on Tarahumara culture from an outside perspective. Del Villar has observed that local schools do not teach what would be useful for the Tarahumara to advance economically. Though they live mostly in farming communities, almost nothing about agriculture is taught in the schools. For information about agriculture, children rely on their parents as well as others in their community. Mathematics and sciences are taught in the schools, but the Tarahumara do not see any immediate relevance to either subject. Spanish is taught as well, a skill many Tarahumara consider useful. However, the effect of Spanish on their society is significant and viewed as potentially negative from a cultural perspective.


Working and Absent Mothers

Most mothers of indigenous children work away from home during the day. Armenda Lopez Carrillo, a preschool teacher in a colony in Cuauhtémoc, indicated that the mothers of the children she teaches start work before the children wake up and come home around five or six in the evening. Carrillo believes the long hours parents work away from home is the cause of the often low attendance rate of their children at school. Older children, especially girls, are expected to take on many of the mother’s duties at home. When we first entered the colony on a weekday in the middle of the afternoon, we saw only one or two adults the rest of the day, and many children are left to play by themselves.

Additionally, working mothers are not adequately involved in their children’s lives. Sanchez believes that many of the aggressive tendencies she sees among her young students is a direct result from the violence children watch on TV, when their parents are not home. Petra Olivas, as well as other primary school teachers at a school in Cuauhtémoc, believes that if the mothers were home more often and had more control in their homes and with their children, they could teach them the value of education, sex education, and marrying later in life.

Poor Implementation of Government Programs

Juan Carlos, an educated father of two primary-school-aged children, described his experience with several government programs. The problem, he said, is not with the programs themselves, but with their implementation. In his opinion, these programs were well conceived but lacked adequate funding. Carlos further described that there was adequate funding in the system, but corrupt government officials take so much money for themselves that there is not enough left over by the time it reaches the schools, “like the mafia.” Principal Bilma Sanchez reported that government programs are often good for establishing schools but do little to help with ongoing management. All of the teachers or professors interviewed mentioned a lack of materials and funding. This cultural acceptance of corruption continues to hamper program funding.

Hierarchy of Needs Problem

One common complaint among teachers is that children are too hungry to pay attention. Some schools provide a small breakfast of beans for the children for three pesos ($1 U.S. equals twenty-four Mexican pesos). When food is provided, the attendance goes up. Sanchez reported that sometimes the breakfast of beans provided by the school is the children’s only meal all day.

Gender Inequality

Although the 2000 Mexican census showed no difference in Chihuahua in the level of education attained by males and females, the teachers I interviewed believed strongly that there was in fact a gap in the education. They offered many reasons to explain a gender difference, because they observed an earlier dropout rate among females in their own classes.

Everyone interviewed agreed that schooling was equally important for males and females and that schools did not discourage either gender to attend. Gender inequality is due primarily to cultural norms in Tarahumara society. According to Olivas, if girls know how to read, write, and make corn tortillas, they are ready to be married. Young women are often married at about thirteen- or fourteen-years-old, sometimes following a pregnancy. Once pregnant, they dropout of school, because they need to start working in order to provide for their children. Their lack of educational training requires them to work at low wage jobs as their parents did, and the cycle of working parents unable to care for their children begins again. In the Sierra, the young men and women do not get married at all but live together as though they were married until they choose otherwise.

The tradition of marrying at a young age also has an effect on to what degree parents are able to help their children in their school work. If parents have only a few years of schooling themselves, they will not be in a position to help their children with homework.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Thus far, I have illuminated reasons for the education gap between mestizos and the indigenous Tarahumara. The goal of education for the Tarahumara people should be to better their quality of life, while allowing them to maintain their unique culture as much as possible.

The first step would be to build on existing programs, such as bilingual schools. Language influences culture, and culture and language influence the way people think. Bilingual schools have proven themselves to be effective in the past. Spanish would help the Tarahumara be more prepared to continue their education and get better jobs if they chose to integrate or work with the mestizos, while continuing the Rarámuri language would further cement their cultural identity.

Local leaders could be included in the process of writing the curriculum. An open forum between local, respected leaders and educators, where members of the community could come forward and make suggestions regarding what they would like their children to learn in school, would result in greater respect for their educational opportunities and help to make education a priority. The community may decide that it would be beneficial for a Tarahumara leader to participate in the classroom himself to teach the children their own history orally, as they have done traditionally.

It would also be important to augment the curriculum in such a way as to give Tarahumara children skills that would be useful to them in their everyday lives. For the Tarahumara in the Sierras, additional classes could include agriculture, animal husbandry, and basic health care. School calendars and class schedules could take into account agricultural seasons, when children would be helping their parents work in the fields. For areas where children tend animals during the day, evening classes would provide an alternative route to attaining an education.

Those who live in the colonias do not participate in agriculture nor animal husbandry, so their curriculum needs would be different and could address drug and alcohol awareness, childcare, family planning (to help prevent unwanted pregnancy and young marriage), and job training to help them prepare for work in the local economy.


To help the parents gain a better education, community classes could be provided. Again, the most effective and well attended classes will be those endorsed by community leaders and chosen by the Tarahumara people.

Additionally, better education comes from better educators. To make working in the Tarahumara communities more attractive to teachers, grants could be offered to anyone willing to teach in these areas for a significant period of time. There could be free educational training offered by the government to anyone from a Tarahumara tribe in exchange for returning to the Sierra or colonias to teach.

For any of these changes to take place, a change must occur in the government and in the people. A more transparent government with less opportunity for corruption will help keep the program funds for their proper use, as well as build trust in the people. But the people must also show their desire for better education, or government leaders will have no incentive to provide better services. In the interim, non-government organizations could get involved by teaching some of these skills mentioned (such as basic health and child care), as well as raise money for school programs that would not go through the current corrupt system.


The Tarahumara people of Chihuahua, Mexico, have a distinct culture that is not well studied, despite the size of their population and how close they live to the U.S. border. They are behind the mestizo population in their educational attainment, but I believe improved educational opportunities will enable them to function in society while retaining their distinct culture and values.

Marshall traveled to Chihuahua from 23 May to 11 June 2006 with BYU’s Sociology Department and Professor Tim Heaton.