In the chilly classroom, on a high plateau of eroded land and low clouds, the children chattered in a strange tonal language. Its fast, high pitch sounded oriental, almost like a song.

On the blackboard, teacher Jxalic Sanchez had written: tot, ixim, tzi. "It means father, corn, dog," he said in "Spanish. "They've just learned to read these words. Eventually they'll also learn them in Spanish, but that's too difficult yet."

The language was Tzotzil. Spoken only by the Tzotzil Indians, even neighbors like the Tzeltales, Zopues or Tojolables are not able to follow it.

Although Mexico is the world's largest Spanish-speaking nation, almost 11 million of its people -- about 10 percent of the total population speaks very little or no Spanish. And while one part of the country deals with satellites and oil tankers, these 7 million Indians have remained outside Western culture since it was first imposed by the Spanish conquerors 4 1/2 centuries ago.

Once the builders of magnificent towns, the Indians are now at the bottom of the soical ladder. Although they are officially considered to be a major segment of this country's cultural heritage, over the centuries they have been persecuted and studied, exalted and humiliated. Almost always, they have been driven off their lands into the mountains by white or Mexico's mixed-blooded majority, the Mestizos.

Yet no less than 73 different ethnic groups have survived, keeping their communities, value systems, traditions and languages.

In its efforts to bring bilingual education to 1:5 million Indian children this year, Mexico is confronting a problem infinitely greater than that of the United States, for examples, where the main bilingual debate centers on teaching in just one language, Spanish.

There are 58 Indian languages still spoken in Mexico, and 183 offshoots and dialects are mutually unintelligible.

But despite the linguistic tangle, Mexico's basic dilemma is similiar to that of the United States: Should minorities be forcibly absorbed by the dominant culture, or should their separate ethnic identities be preserved, if not reinforced by the government's education policy?

Since the Spanish crown ordered the extinction of the Indian Languages here in 1770, policis for coping with " the indigenous problem" have come and gone.Preservation has alternated with Mexcianization" since the 1910 revolution.

Luis Echeverria, Mexico's last president, turned the tables back to preservation. Promoting the Indian peoples as a source of cultural wealth, he increased the budget of the Indigenous Insitute tenfold and organized the first national congress of Indian peoples. iMany of the Indian tribes had no idea of each other's existence until they met in 1975.

Here in San Juan Chamula, in the south of the country where the largest group of Indian communities in the New World lives, the debate about "whither the Indians" appears very remote.

The poeple in this world of magic and malnutrition live by their own rules. They have nothing in common with the men in pin-striped suits and bulletproof cars who rule them from the capital. This tightly knit community of 5,000 has its own Indian authorities and an outsider is not even permitted to spend the night.

In the drab little school built across from a magnificent white church, Sanchez, a teacher for 28 years, explained why an educational system imposed from the outside world would not work.

"Teaching reading and writing in Spanish like we did before means nothing to the children. They just don't learn," he said. "Now we teach in their own language until sixth grade. By then they know Spanish and they can go on if they want."

In addition, Sanchez explained, the school years and the class hours of "the outside" and even the federally directed curriculum cannot be adhered to much of the time.

Underfed, if not suffering from malnutrition, the children fall asleep and sometimes faint in the class. "Sometimes the witch doctor tells the parents the children have 'el comel,' the disease of fright, which mean they have temporarily lost their soul," said Sanchez. "Until the soul is found again they can't come to school."

Many parents oppose school anyway, Sanchez went on, because they fear their children will acquire airs and newfangled ideas that will drive them away from home.

Other factors keeping Indian children out of school include the obligation to help if there is too much work at home or in the fields. In addition, here in the highlands of the state of Chiapas, almost half the Indian population migrates at least three months of the year to eke out a living laboring in the hot lowlands. "Sometimes half or more of my children are not here," Sanchez said.

The life of the bilingual teachers is difficult, even outside the strictly Indian regions. In areas were Indian communities border on mestizo lands local political bosses often see the teachers -- the only literate people in the communities who often are asked to help with problems bearing on the bosses' turf -- as threats to their power. Five teachers were killed in the nearby Mazatec region over the last three months alone.

But people like Sanchez, and his star pupil, the young school director Xun Perez, both of them Tzotziles, believe it is worth pressing on.

Especially in the last few years strong support has come from the National Indigenous Institute. With 114 branches around the country, the institute has a budget this year of $40 million to further bilingual education in Mexico's native languages.

Four radio stations have begun to broadcast programs in nine Indian languages with information on health, agriculture, and education and, for entertainment, local music and folk tales. Programs in another 22 languages are being prepared.

"We want to provide education," said Salomon Nahmad, national director of indigenous education. "Radio strengthens the Indians' identity," he added, nothing that "they're being bombarded by commercial radio anyway."

"of course their culture will change as a result," Nahmad said. "But cultures always change. We have no right to cut the Indians off."

Like other Mexican sociologists and anthropologists, Nahmad believes that now, with Mexico's oil boom and rapid industrialization looming, the preservation of its cultural values has become more urgent than ever before.

But there is also a widespread sense that this battle cannot be won. "Integrating the Indians means stripping them of their culture, breaking up their communities and incorporating them into the national proletariat," said Rodolfo Stavenhagen, one of Mexico's foremost sociologists. "That is the greatest danger we face -- to create a rootless consumer society of the kind other countries have come to regret."