Interculturalidad: Perspectives on Teaching and Learning about Latin America

By Paula Pereda-Perez

I never really questioned myself about being “Latin American”. In fact, while living in Chile, my country of birth, Latin America was one of those names that one would associate with United Nations reports or other international organizations; that is, a name given from outside to countries stretching from Mexico to the Southern Cone. To my knowledge and experience, those living in Latin American countries would refer to themselves variously as South or Central American, from the Andean countries, from the Southern Cone, etc. Ultimately, the existence of a single, unified region and identity would only become apparent when traveling and living abroad.

The first time I was confronted with the term “Latin America” was when I was in New Zealand as an overseas visitor filling out immigration forms. The forms asked one to identify their ethnicity, offering the following options: European, Maori, Asian, Pacific Peoples and MELAA (Middle Eastern/Latin American/African). To my surprise, in New Zealand, and for statistical reasons, I found I was grouped with people that I perceived so culturally, geographically and genetically distant from me. Thus began my slow realization of and desire to learn about the labels that people various parts of the world are ascribed to outside of their native lands, and sometimes within them.

Years later, as a sociologist, I was teaching Human Development at the Latin American Social Sciences Institute (Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales – FLACSO), an international academic organization operating in 13 countries across Latin America and the Caribbean. What I continue to learn from my MA students there is that to a greater or lesser extent, all Latin American countries carry the historical legacy of colonialism. This, of course, is nothing new, but what has been new is learning about the various strategies and ways in which diverse communities across the region work on developing their own identities and reshaping the idea of Latin America.

So when recently, as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning (CITL) at Boston University’s College of General Studies, I was asked to teach freshman and sophomore students about Latin America from a Latin American perspective, I found myself again asking what Latin America actually is. And moreover, whether there is such a thing as a Latin American perspective. To begin answering these questions, I proceeded from a perspective of interculturalidad.

As I went about preparing my lectures, it became apparent that I needed a critical, intercultural pedagogy to facilitate what I shall discuss as ‘epistemological delinking’ (see De Lissovoy, 2016). By putting into question the very notion of Latin America, my overall goal was to invite students to think otherwise, as the first step towards what the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2014) calls a ‘decolonization of thought’. After surveying the concept of interculturalidad, I will present an example I used in my first lecture to teach about Latin America to a freshman social science class from the perspective and pedagogic strategy of interculturalidad.


Like the concept of culture, there is no single, agreed definition or approach for interculturality. The most commonly known approximation to interculturality comes from the literature on education and intercultural communication. From this perspective, interculturality is “a dynamic process by which people draw on and use the resources and processes of cultures with which they are familiar but also those they may not typically be associated with in their interactions with others” (Young & Sercombe, 2010, p. 181).

A related concept to interculturality is multiculturalism, which expresses the awareness of the multiplicity of identities and cultures in a given society and the conflicts and possibilities to which this gives rise. As a concept and social policy, multiculturalism has its roots in Western countries (Walsh, 2008, p. 140) and reflects a cultural relativism that does not acknowledge the relational dimension of culture. Moreover, it is generally uncritical of the inequalities between cultures, including material inequalities, power relations, ideologies of difference and biopolitics. Within the logic of multiculturalism Argentine semiotician, Walter Mignolo (2005) points out,

the hegemonic principles of knowledge, education, the concept of the state and government, political economy, morality, etc., are controlled by the state, and below the control of the state the people have the “freedom” to go with their “cultures” as far as they do not challenge “the epistemic principles” grounding politics, economy, and ethics as managed by the state (p. 118).

Pluriculturalism is another concept related to interculturality, but as Walsh (2008) notes, is more commonly used in South America. Pluriculturalism reflects the particularity of the region, where for centuries indigenous and black populations have lived with white-mestizos and where miscegenation and racial mix have been significant.

Whereas the prefix “multi” denotes a collection of unique, unrelated cultures within a framework of a dominant culture, the prefix “pluri” indicates cultures that live in the same territory, but without deep, equitable relationships. Both multiculturalism and pluriculturalism are descriptive terms that acknowledge the existence of multiple cultures in a particular place, and stress mutual recognition, tolerance and respect (Walsh, 2008, p. 140).

Interculturalidad, on the other hand, is a concept that emerges from indigenous intellectuals and leaders of various social movements in South America to claim the existence of different cosmologies, ontologies and epistemologies (Mignolo, 2005, p. 117). As Robert Aman (2014) states, interculturalidad

“implies bringing about a new model of society through a different vision of development, nation, identity and territorialization; that is to say, a vision that is not dependent upon or structured by the imposition of one ideal society on another.”(p. 122)

Interculturality and interculturalidad are not only merely different spellings but carry different meanings. I choose the Spanish spelling to emphasize that unlike interculturality, interculturalidad leads to a critical approach to understanding relations between cultures and highlights the importance of acknowledging oppressive power dynamics in order to change them. It re-conceptualizes and re-establishes structures that bring about specific logics, practices and diverse cultural ways of thinking, acting and living in an equitable relation. Thus, interculturalidad suggests an active and ongoing process of negotiation and interrelation where what is characteristic and particular does not lose their differences, but have the opportunity and ability to contribute from this difference to the creation of new understandings, coexistence, cooperation and solidarity (Walsh, 2008, p. 141).

Interculturalidad is based on the recognition of both differences and similarities between cultures. As such it emphasizes respect for diversity and the right to equality as central aspects of human dignity. The processes by which cultures negotiate or communicate identity and confront difference are central to the experience of interculturalidad. The dignity of all people is a condition of interculturalidad, as dignity is a fundamental value in all cultures, religions and traditions, and is also a value that expresses what is specifically human. These two conditions make this value a universal aspiration.  A dignified life for all refers not only to the different cultures that inhabit the world today but even those who are not yet born, future generations with whom we have an ethical commitment.

The perspective of interculturalidad outlined is essential for preparing students for effective citizenship in a diverse society such as that of the United States and beyond. As noted by Ungar (2016) in a recent publication in Foreign Affairs magazine, in the United States the discourse on international and global issues has lacked historical context or deeper understanding. In fact, the author argues that many people in the United States have very limited knowledge about the rest of world and appear to be more disconnected from it that in the past. For Ungar, there is  “almost universal failure of the broader U.S. public to know and understand others, except through a military lens” (p. 112). To address “Americans’ ignorance of international issues and sensibilities” (p. 121), Ungar proposes to cross the threshold of awareness by “trying to understand how the world looks through others’ eyes” (p. 123) and “calls for a national education policy that recognizes the importance of international literacy and global awareness for the future of the United States” (p. 120).

The perspective of interculturalidad for teaching about Latin America, but also for teaching about any other culture or region of the word, I believe addresses the issues raised by Ungar. Using this approach would allow students to recognize new perspectives about their own cultural rules and biases by:

  • Understanding and acknowledging the existence of different cosmologies, ontologies and epistemologies and how they shape our understanding of the world and reality.
  • Understanding that categories such as gender, sexuality, class, disability, ethnicity/race, nationalism and other socially constructed categories are inscribed in themselves and others,
  • Being critically aware of how those categories shape their worldview and the worldview of other people, groups, and societies.
  • Being critically aware that those categories are not static nor have a reality in themselves but are systems of classification that change over time.
  • Understanding the ways marginalized and dominant groups define and express themselves, and the contexts in which these definitions are constructed.
  • Understanding how global forces such as imperialism, colonialism, religion, globalization, capitalism, and socialism have shaped ideas, groups, institutions, and the natural environment.

Interculturalidad: Teaching and learning about Latin America

In this section, I’ll present an example I used in my first lecture to teach about Latin America to a freshman social science class. At the start of the class, I began by asking a series of questions designed to interrogate the very notion of Latin America. Here I used the interculturalidad perspective as a pedagogical strategy to invite students into new ways of thinking about a largely taken for granted concept. To accomplish this task, I introduced categories such as territory, nation, identity, language, ethnicity as intertext. My intention was to create a disruption in the commonly associated discourses and narratives and a disjuncture of the space-time continuum about Latin America. Thus, I began my lecture in the following way:

What is Latin America? To begin answering this question, I would like to problematize the very notion of Latin America by raising the following issues: where is Latin America and who is Latin America? While the answers to these questions might appear self-evident, they are much more problematic than they seem. Let’s take the case of Europe and formulate the same questions. What is Europe? Where is Europe? Who are Europeans? The common sense answers will go as follow: Europe is a continent located in Northern and Eastern Hemispheres; Europeans are the people belonging to the ethnic groups of Europe.

Now, let’s consider the same questions again and attempt to answer them thinking of Latin America: What is Latin America? Territorially speaking, Latin America is not a continent, North America and South America are continents. Perhaps we can consider Latin America as a region, but this is problematic since not all countries from Mexico to the Southern Cone are considered to be part of Latin America. The countries that predominantly speak English, French or Creole are not usually seen as part of Latin America, i.e. Belize, Guyana, Suriname, Guiana and other French territories in North America, South America and the Caribbean. Thus, Latin America is not strictly speaking a geographical concept.

But, then where is Latin America? Latin America is in North America, along with the US, Canada, Central American and Caribbean countries and territories. Latin America is also in South America, where most countries speak Spanish and Portuguese, though some speak Dutch, like Surinam, others French like Guiana and others English like Guyana and the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands close to Argentina. I could also say that Latin America is in the US, where 55 million Latinos and Hispanics reside, and make up 17% of the total population. With the exception of Brazil and Mexico, the Latin American population in the US outnumbers the population of any other Latin American country (i.e. Chile 18m, Ecuador 16m, Argentina 43m, Colombia 48m, Venezuela 30m).

These considerations make even more problematic the attempt to answer the question of who are Latin Americans. We know already that Latin America is not a continent, nor even a region. Depending on the official language spoken, some countries and territories might or might not be considered Latin American, specifically those speaking French. And until now, we have not even begun to consider the native, the indigenes, the aboriginal, and the first nation. We have not yet considered the people that have lived in North and South America for centuries before the continents appeared on the map. Can the people from the civilizations of Olmec, Toltec, Teotihuacan, Zapotec, Mixtec, the Aztec, the Mayan, Inca, Moche, Cañari and many others in the continent be considered Latin American?

Currently in Latin American and the Caribbean, there are approximately 45 million people that belong to 826 indigenous peoples, many of whom are in Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, Bolivia and Ecuador. The indigenes make up about 8.3% of the region’s population. While the indigenous people in North, Central and South America might speak the official language of their country, for many their mother tongue is neither Spanish nor Portuguese nor French. In the region there is a vast array of languages and dialects that include: Aztecan languages (Mexico), Mayan languages (Belize, Guatemala and the southeast of Mexico), Quechua (Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru), Aymara (Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina), Guaraní (Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil) and Mapudungun (Argentina and Chile) to mention some. There are also a number of Creole/Pidgin languages, which are hybrid/simplified mixed languages. For instance, in Suriname and Aruba, Papiamento, a predominantly Iberian-derived creole language, is spoken by the majority of the population.

I wonder how it would be to ask the indigenes of Latin America, what is Latin America? Where is Latin America? Who are Latin Americans? What does Latin America mean and what does it represent? I suspect their perspectives and answers about the idea of Latin America would be very different from what is commonly assumed. For many of these peoples, most certainly Latin America equals colonization.

My proposal to address all those issues was to apply a critical ontology to the social history of America Latina. In other words, I sought to highlight how the very notion of Latin America is deeply rooted in a European worldview. European culture established its dominance in the social, political, economic and cultural foundations of the region under the logic of coloniality. Until the end of the 19th century, Spain and Portugal, but also Britain, France and the Netherlands, exerted a profound influence and control in the region. Since then, Latin America came to signify the territories that were under the control and influence of the European Latin countries in contrast with free independent Anglo America.

In the 20th century, as a result of the world wars, the balance of power over Latin America shifted to the United States. In fact, during that century Latin American countries experienced ongoing interventionism by the United States. In the 21st century, the war of terror beginning in 2001, with 9/11, and the financial crisis since 2007 have fragmented the geopolitics of power. In the new millennium, countries in the region, for the first time in their history, find space and time to begin developing their own identities and reshaping the idea of Latin America.

A critical ontology of Latin America thus means to recognize the dominant discourses and hegemonies that have permeated commonplace understandings of the region and how this has been represented. It also means an epistemic linking, by which we make explicit the paradigms and worldviews that shape our understanding and categories of thought. The way I articulated and explained these perspectives in the classroom went as follow:

Before 1492, America was not on any map, not even in the map of the Aztecs and Incas, simply because the word and the concept of the fourth continent had not yet been invented. The Spanish and the Portuguese, after realizing that they weren’t in Asia, but in an unknown land, named the entire continent and took control and possession of it.

Early Spanish explorers like Hernando Cortes, Juan Ponce de Leon and Hernando de Soto brought things the indigenous population had never seen before, such as horses, guns and diseases like smallpox. With no natural immunity to European diseases and no way to compete with the newcomers’ superior firepower, many native people died or were pushed out of their ancestral lands. This demographic catastrophe and the imposition of the system of imperial domination on native civilizations caused a radical transformation in the lives of indigenous civilization in the continent.

The idea of America was shaped in the XVI century, and subsequently, the ideas of Latin and Anglo America were shaped in the XIX century. In the minds of European and creoles of Europe descendent, America as a continent and people was considered inferior in European narratives. This idea was refashioned in the US after the Spanish-American War in 1898 when Latin America took an inferior role. Latin America would come to be seen as dependent and inferior to the United States. The concept of Latinidad an identity asserted by the French and adopted by Creoles elites to define themselves, would ultimately function to rank them below Anglo Americans, and yet to erase and demote the identities of Indigenous and Afro-South Americans.

A critical ontology of Latin America leads to its (de)universalization. We can begin this process by colonializing Latin American knowledge, and putting in the forefront that colonialism is what brought about the idea of Latin America.  The process of colonializing Latin American knowledge is essential to recognize that the notion is embedded in Eurocentrism. Which is nothing less than the idea that the history of human civilization has been a trajectory that departed from nature and culminated in Europe. But it also entails that differences between Europe and non-Europe are due to biological differences between races, not to histories of power.

Through an epistemic delinking from Eurocentrism, that is by delinking from the web of imperial/modern knowledge and from the colonial matrix of power, knowledge and knowledge-making can be decolonized.  Epistemic delinking, thus gives rise to a decolonialization of thought. This type of thinking recognizes and implements alternative ways of reasoning as a way to eliminate the tendency to pretend that Western modes of thinking are in fact universal ones.

Closing Remarks

To be sure, covering such territory in the space of a few lectures was a bold undertaking. I am certain many of these students had never asked or been asked such questions as “what is Latin America?”. Indeed, I myself had never pondered such a question until I found the label had been ascribed to me from the outside. As a foreign resident of New Zealand, not only did being ‘Latin American’ group me with the diversity of peoples from across the region, but also with the peoples of Africa and the Middle East – regions which undoubtedly have great diversity of their own. Such situations have the power not only to call our personal and cultural identities into question, but also can lead to the questioning of knowledge. From a perspective of interculturalidad, it was my aim to create space for the students to begin such questioning, because ultimately questioning is what allows us to view the complexity and plurality of realities.

Works Cited

Aman, R. (2014). Why Interculturalidad is not Interculturality. Cultural Studies, 29(2), 205-228. doi:10.1080/09502386.2014.899379

De Lissovoy, N. (2016). Education and Emancipation in the Neoliberal Era: Being, Teaching, and Power. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US.

Mignolo, W. (2005). The Idea of Latin America. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing USA.

Ungar, S. J. (2016). The Study-Abroad Solution: How to Open the American Mind. Foreign Affairs, 95(2), 111-123.

Viveiros de Castro, E. (2014). Cannibal Metaphysics (P. Skafish, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Walsh, C. (2008). Interculturalidad, plurinacionalidad y decolonialidad: las insurgencias político-epistémicas de refundar el Estado. Tabula rasa(9), 131-152.

Young, T., & Sercombe, P. (2010). Communication, Discourses and Interculturality. Language and Intercultural Communication, 10(3), 181-188. doi:10.1080/14708470903348523