Improving education about the Holocaust and genocide in Mexico

16 October 2018

Manolo E. Vela Castañeda is a professor in the Social and Political Science Department of the Ibero-American University in Mexico City. In December 2017, he participated in the International Conference on Education and the Holocaust (ICEH) that was organized by UNESCO and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Professor Castañeda took part in the conference together with José Luis Gutiérrez Espíndola from the National Institute for Education Evaluation and Úrsula Zurita Rivera from the Mexican branch of the Latin American Faculty of Social Science. Since then, the team has, with support from Yael Siman, professor at Anáhuac University in Mexico, worked to advance the institutionalization of education about the Holocaust and genocide in Mexico through the development of online educational materials and the organization of an international conference. The team is also preparing the application for an UNESCO Chair on Holocaust, Genocide and Mass Violence at the Ibero-American University. Professor Castañeda spoke to UNESCO about improving education about the Holocaust and genocide in Mexico. 

Why is it important to teach about the Holocaust and genocide in Mexico?

From an academic and educational perspective, the topic is unfortunately still underdeveloped in Mexico. For example, at the national level there is only one university course regularly offered on the history of the Holocaust, and one mandatory university course on genocide and crimes against humanity. Both courses are taught at Catholic universities in Mexico City. Therefore, we can observe a rather widespread indifference, if not misinformation, regarding the history of the Holocaust and the study of genocides among members of the Mexican society. Until now, this challenge has not been sufficiently addressed through the national educational system.

There is, however, a high relevance in teaching and learning about the Holocaust in Mexico, from a number of perspectives: 

From a Mexican, historical and contemporary perspective, it is important to address the dynamics of violence through education, for which education about the Holocaust and genocide can be a powerful tool. Today, violence in Mexico is an endemic problem, but it has also shaped Mexico’s past. For example, it is important to teach and study the crimes committed in Mexico during the Cold War as well as the violence related to organized crime that the Mexican society is facing today.

Education about the Holocaust can also encourage and inform the study of other genocides. Studying different experiences and historical events of genocidal scope, can offer a comparative perspective that can help us to understand the dynamics that can lead to mass violence and genocide as well as about the consequences for involved societies and following conflict transformation processes. Latin America has also been affected by instances of mass violence in the past, and it is important that they are taught and studied in Mexico.

Finally, it is important to teach and learn about the Holocaust in Mexico, to preserve the memory of the many survivors, who have searched for refuge from Nazi persecution in Mexico, or have other strong ties to the country. It is important to preserve and disseminate the memory of these survivors as well as that of their families.

Through our project, we are trying to combine all three perspectives and to put them into practice in the context of academic research and teaching as well as secondary education.

How do you hope to contribute to the institutionalization of education about the Holocaust in Mexico?

With our project, we aim to both strengthen academic research on the Holocaust and genocides in Mexico, as well as to promote teaching and learning about the Holocaust in Mexican middle schools. For this, we follow a two-track approach:

The first part of our project focuses on establishing an UNESCO Chair on Holocaust, Genocide and Mass Violence at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City. We are organizing a weeklong academic conference on Holocaust and genocide studies, mostly targeted at researchers and university students, in Mexico City in November. We will organize a series of lectures by Holocaust scholar Christopher Browning and other experts at a number of universities and research institutions in Mexico City. The whole conference will be held under the theme of “70+70” to mark the 70th anniversaries of both the UN Declaration for Human Rights and the UN Genocide Convention this December.

Additionally to this academic approach, we also work closely with the National Institute for Education Evaluation and the Ministry of Education to develop educational materials for 7th grade teachers about the History of the Holocaust and Second World War and which offer different perspectives about the Holocaust and its consequences. These materials will contribute to the curriculum that was designed in 2017 to develop historical thinking among 7th grade middle school students. As part of this new curriculum, students have to conduct research based on primary and secondary sources on life in ghettos and extermination camps during the Holocaust. Our educational materials will include audio-visual resources, such as survivors’ testimonies, and several thematic video clips that focus on different aspects of Jewish life in the ghetto and post-war family relations and reflections. Additionally, the educational materials will include two guides: one for the teachers and one for the students. This is the first time that new resources are produced for Mexican youth, which include both a historical and a citizenship focus.

Our resources will be published as open-access resources on the Ministry’s website, frequently accessed by Mexican teachers, by the end of this year.

It has been an opportunity for us to work with the Ministry of Education on this important topic and we see this project as a starting point for a hopefully more long-term collaboration, which will allow us to also integrate education about other genocides and contemporary violence into the national education system.

Looking at both tracks, the project offers us a great opportunity to engage the Mexican society and academic community with the topic of the Holocaust. At the same time, it allows us, the involved academics, to expand our field of expertise also to the field of secondary education and teacher training.

How has the support of UNESCO and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum been beneficial for your project?

We have tried to establish a research department on the Holocaust and genocide studies at the Ibero-American University for quite a while. Our participation in the International Conference on Education and the Holocaust (ICEH) and the support from UNESCO and the Museum has allowed us to refocus on this endeavor.

The ICEH inspired us to apply for the creation of an UNESCO Chair, which became an essential pillar of the project. The establishment of a UNESCO Chair would help us to increase the sustainability of our project would grant us a certain authority that can help us to legitimize our research. Additionally to increased legitimization, the partnership with such prestigious institutions like UNESCO and the Museum also increases the visibility of our work and it helps us to raise funds.

A first team of Mexican educators already participated in the 2015 ICEH. We have benefitted greatly from the work of this fist Mexican project, which had already started to advance teaching and learning about the Holocaust in Mexico through an academic-historical, memory-related, and educational approach. We continue this multi-focus approach and also work with many of their partners, while also reaching out to new ones.

It has been a great experience to work with both institutions and we are very grateful for their support.