So many times they killed me, so many times I died

yet I’m still here, coming back to life.


Silvio Rodríguez, Like a Cicada


Although popular education -as a pedagogical concept and educational movement- has existed in Latin America since the mid-1960s, over the past ten years a wave of experiences, collectives, networks and educational activity has emerged in renewed support of this concept. It is important to note that this renaissance of popular education has also seen a renewal of its agents, content and practices.

In fact, the radical and revolutionary vigour of the 1970s and 80s saw a sudden dampening of its liberation-based political spirit during the 1990s, associated with the collapse of soviet socialism and the resulting avalanche of anti-leftwing ideology, the democratic transition taking place in various countries on the continent, the fall of the Sandinista government and the peace processes in Central America, and with new outbreaks of repression in countries like Colombia. The new political discourse that emerged and quickly took root championed the concept of liberal democracy. It was presented as the answer to the confrontation between capitalism and socialism and the only possibility for political organisation; after decades of fighting against authoritarian regimes and in their desire to rebuild their fragile democracies, many popular educators and civil society organisations welcomed this new political vision with open arms, refocusing their educational practices towards citizenship training.

However, the devastating effects of neoliberal economic policies (rising poverty, unemployment and inequality) soon became apparent, the legitimacy of transitional governments began to wane, political clientelism, corruption and mafia-esque practices spread throughout the region and crime rates and social tensions soared. In certain countries in the region, these circumstances led to the reactivation of traditional social movements (indigenous, rural) and the emergence of new political organisations (anti-neoliberal, environmental, youth). New leftwing parties or movements also emerged or regained support and some even gained power in local and national governments.

It is thanks to the rebirth of these social struggles, as well as the indignation, desires and hopes that they express, that popular education has once again come to mean so much to so many people and groups, becoming a key reference point for all political, ethical and pedagogical activity.  This rebirth, much like that of Silvio Rodríguez’s cicada, is clearly seen in the proliferation of popular education groups, meetings and conferences that have been taking place all over the continent.[2] Furthermore, after the bleak era of disenchantment and scepticism regarding liberating teaching systems in the academic world, professorships, courses, seminars and conferences on Paulo Freire and his legacy are popping up everywhere at public and private universities from the Rio Grande to Patagonia.

This renewed enthusiasm for popular education has also been acknowledged at the latest CEAAL assemblies (Cochabamba, Lima), which discussed and ratified the mandate for this platform and network of centres based on popular education to become a PE movement and for it to focus more decidedly on the social movements present in Latin America and the Caribbean; their new name, the Council for Popular Education in Latin America and the Caribbean, confirms this founding intention. Undoubtedly, this decision represents a historical opportunity for the Council to renew its vitality and legitimacy within the broad spectrum of social movements, collectives and social networks related to popular education.

Next, I will make a brief summary of the fields, participants and areas of activity in popular education, as well as outlining the changes in setting and emerging issues that currently characterise and challenge popular education practices.


Fields, participants and areas of activity

As an emancipatory educational activity, PE has been closely linked to other alternative currents such as liberation theology, alternative communication, feminism and Participatory Action Research. Thus, its participants and practices have been involved in other projects, processes and movements related to the solidarity economy, ecclesiastical and cultural dynamics and political processes aimed at gaining ground for and expanding democracy and citizenship. In order to assess the field of popular education in Latin America today, it is necessary to identify the variety of spaces, participants and practices accepted as such.

In its early days, the privileged area of PE was literacy and education for youths and adults, but it quite soon expanded to include training for the leaders of social organisations and movements (rural, popular, local), work in health issues, communication, gender, the environment and the solidarity economy. With the democratisation processes that began in the last decade of the 20th century, PE became involved in formal education, as well as in training for local participation, education for citizenship and human rights. Currently, emerging topics are coming to light, such as food sovereignty, agroecology, youth, interculturality, the rights of the LGBT population and community justice.

From the outset, due to its emancipatory mission, popular education practices have focused on populations considered as oppressed, exploited or discriminated, such as the inhabitants of rural areas and working-class neighbourhoods and other worker classes. Since the 1980s, “popular sectors” have been given specific faces: women, youths and Christian base communities; and with the expansion of its scope and perspectives for action, PE currently works with teachers and students at formal educational centres, youths, local leaders and authorities, the LGBT community and original and afrodescendent peoples.

PE focuses on activities involving training and education for people, groups and social organisations in the aforementioned topics, and through workshops, courses and campaigns, training for schools of leaders and in the production of educational and communicational materials. Some PE centres are also devoted to social and pedagogical research, particularly the so-called standardisation of experiences.


Current settings and challenges

This breadth and wealth in the field of popular education precedes and exceeds the space defined by the CEAAL; however, this continental network of more than a hundred PE centres in Latin America is a privileged setting in which to recognise the situations, tensions, debates and challenges in the field of popular education. Based on a review of La Piragua articles from 2002 to 2012 and my participation in numerous popular education spaces and processes in the region, particularly in Colombia, I will now summarise the setting and challenges facing PE today.

As I mentioned above, since the mid-1990s, the enthusiasm and optimism placed in liberal democracy after the fall of the dictatorships has been shattered in the face of the evidence of the disastrous consequences for society entailed in neoliberal policies. Two decades later, poverty and social inequality rates have skyrocketed in all the countries, and unemployment, insecurity and informality have become the dominating features of the labour market. In turn, plutocracy and corruption have exacerbated the crisis of legitimacy of governments and political parties.

In light of the breakdown of living conditions among the population, several forms of resistance and protest have been reactivated. The turn of the century brought an increase in diverse indigenous, rural and popular movements in countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina and Mexico. The World Social Forum, which has been meeting since 2000, expresses and brings together these airs of change, revolving around the motto, “Another world is possible”. Another expression of this overall nonconformity has been the rise to power of leftwing political movements. The oligarchical democracies that came to power after the dictatorships have begun to be replaced by leftwing or progressive governments in countries such as Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, Uruguay, El Salvador and Peru.

Sensitive to these transformations and emerging issues, and in their desire to ensure that they remain a critical and Utopian force, the CEAAL centres have recognised the following challenges since 2003, which were accepted as mandates and focuses for activity at their Assemblies in Recife (2004) and Cochabamba (2008) and affirmed in Lima (2012):


 1. Affirmation of PE within the emancipatory paradigms.

This concern is based on recognising its role throughout its history as a critical current and the need to update its political perspectives in light of recent changes in the global setting and neoliberal pensée unique. This challenge also brings to light a concern felt by some of the groups in the CEAAL regarding the political lines that guide their educational practices after a period dominated by liberal rhetoric.

A decade later, we can confirm that there is certain consensus as to the challenge set out by PE as regards the “emancipatory paradigms”. The first issue agreed upon is that of accepting the category of “paradigm” not only from an epistemological perspective, but also in a broader sense, as a cultural matrix through which social collectives read and relate to reality, in which subjectivity is essential. They are emancipatory, “if they make room for views that show their disagreement with the inequalities and asymmetries in the prevailing order, thus prefiguring a just, humanised society”.

The second is that when emancipatory paradigms are spoken of in PE, they entail a gnosiological dimension (critical interpretation), a political dimension (alternative option to said reality) and a practical dimension (guiding individual and group actions). Thus, in PE the renewal of paradigms means strengthening critical awareness and rebellious subjectivity. The third issue under consensus is that the emancipatory capacity is not a territory exclusively for PE, but rather, the latter is placed within a larger field of critical and Utopian currents such as philosophy, theology, ethics and the psychology of liberation.

The last issue under consensus is that EP has its own cumulative theory and practice that must be resumed and standardised, in addition to the experience of current Latin American social movements. In PE, there is not only an accumulation as a pedagogical current, but there is also knowledge through the practice thereof. The current (though not always recent) social movements in the region are also going back to protest repertoires and discourses, which they use to justify and focus their actions (such as the fight for dignity and quality of life).

2. Training of rebellious subjects and subjectivity through PE

Political, social, cultural and ethical alternatives to capitalism must be built through the reactivation and creation of imagination, beliefs, values, desires, thoughts and feelings other than those imposed by the system, and also by individuals and groups capable of standing up to these negative circumstances and acting independently to defend their own interests, identities and visions of the future. This has been the case in the melting pot of social struggles that have unsettled the old guard in the countryside and in the cities. In addition, popular education centres, groups, projects and practices have also seen growth in the recognition of the need to contribute to training in these critical, enraged and rebellious subjectivities and subjects for the variety of people, communities and sectors of the population that lead or could lead collective activities to transform this system of domination.

In recent years, educational strategies have been enhanced in the sense that they no longer aim solely toward the creation of a critical awareness, but also provide training in other sensitivities, desires, spiritual and corporal identities that bring about diverse and, at the same time, converging paths of resistance, emancipation and construction of alternatives. This is also evident in the expansion of methodological strategies that include narratives, journeys, aesthetic and corporal expression, in addition to dialogue, the use of participatory techniques and the collective building of knowledge.

3. Structuring of PE towards social movements and PE as a movement

From the outset, PE has been linked to organisational processes and popular movements that defend diverse demands for making living conditions more dignified. A discourse about the historical subject of social change, the affirmation of cultural identities and PE’s contribution to this subject was created in relation to these popular social movements.

However, since the mid-1990s, many centres and the secretary of the CEAAL itself, focused their energy on interacting with and exerting their influence on the institutions and public policies that were emerging in the democratic transition, neglecting their historical ties to base organisations and popular movements. The latter, in turn, experienced a reactivation process, their mobilisations highlighting the limits of the new democracies.

Within this revitalisation process, the popular movements recognised the importance of education, thus constructing pedagogical proposals that, while acknowledging the contributions of Freire and popular education, were based on new reference frameworks such as the pedagogy of the Earth by the rural community in Brazil, the rebellious pedagogy of the Zapatistas in Mexico and the indigenous community’s own education in Colombia. PE is beginning to return to and strengthen its ties with social movements in order to share the accumulated experiences, learn from them and continue building pedagogical thought and emancipatory educational strategies together.

4. Popular Education and the radical democratisation of life

The democracies that actually exist in this region have been characterised as “low intensity” and “restricted and restrictive”, given that they limit the exercise of citizenship to issuing a vote and seek to conceal unfair inequalities through the distribution of the wealth generated by society. Therefore, social movements and other expressions of civil society organisations emphasise the need to democratise democracy, to radicalise them by giving the power to rule back to the people and to integrate them by coordinating economic growth with social justice and the participatory exercise of governance. In this struggle to democratise democracy, citizen watch experiences, local democratic governments and groups seeking to participate in the reconfiguration of what is considered public and in the recovery by the public of government policy have proliferated.

PE, as democratic education, as education for human rights and as education for participation, has undoubtedly contributed to this democratisation process. However, progress has yet to be made in creating its own critical, alternative stance to democratic education and education for citizenship, beyond the hegemonic liberal frameworks.

5. Popular Education, fertile ground for diversity and overcoming all forms of exclusion and social discrimination

One of the key elements claimed by the Indian and Afro communities, women’s movements and movements in relation to sexual rights and diversity has been the right to equality in diversity, the right to respect for the differences that define identities and means of expression and personal and collective realisation. Through their struggle and demands, they have hit the nail on the head as regards the subordination and discrimination behind the logic of economic exploitation and political manipulation. They have gone to the root of the logic that denies human dignity, which prevails in Western perspectives of life and hegemonic cultural, religious and social models. They have placed the subject of everyday life on the stage of the political struggle and forced us to radically adjust our ways of constructing the social roles that we play and the social relationships we generate.

PE has been pushed to recognise these dimensions of human emancipation, these new expressions of the social and political struggle. Therefore, popular education practices are being adjusted by these new expressions and dimensions, forcing us to ask ourselves critically how much further we have to go on this road to building equality and overcoming all forms of discrimination.

[1] Colombian popular educator Lecturer and researcher at the National University for Teacher Training (the UPN in Spanish)

[2] I encourage you to search for “popular education encounter” on the Internet to give you an idea of how countries like Chile, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Panama and Colombia have experienced an increase in the number of this type of events.