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One of the most innovative popular-education projects in Latin America in the 1930s was the ayllu-school of Warisata, located near Lake Titicaca in the foothills of the eastern cordillera of the Andes. A creole educator with socialist leanings, Elizardo Pérez, teamed up with a respected Aymara leader, Avelino Siñani, and the indigenous community of Warisata to build an autonomous intercultural educational institution, despite the opposition of the local landlord class. The school was grounded in the collective organization of the traditional Aymara community (ayllu) and sought to go beyond the mere inculcation of literacy—which was the key focus of other educational efforts in the period—by linking education to productive communal labor and collective civic engagement. The school’s ethos was egalitarian and its democratic governance was based on assembly-style deliberation among elected council members. While the experiment stirred interest in Peru, Mexico, and the United States, Warisata was shut down in 1940, nine years after its founding. It was not only the return of conservative government under General Enrique Peñaranda (1940–43) that was responsible, but also ostensibly “progressive” bureaucrats in the Ministry of Education who were hostile to its culturally pluralist principles and who favored the incorporation of Indians into a modernizing nation as culturally assimilated “peasants.”

Elizardo Pérez’s passionate narrative of the founding, flourishing, and destruction of the school is tinged with the paternalism of a tutor writing about his pupils. Yet it is also a vivid first-person account, full of ethnographic texture, and it helped secure the school’s later iconic reputation. The Warisata experience was reclaimed by the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (mnr) in the 1950s, as part of its agrarian and educational reforms, and by the rising indigenous movement in the late twentieth century, as an example of rural struggles against the hacienda regime and the autonomous potential of the ayllu.

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