When we got to Oaxaca last month, we found a city turned inside out.
Aside from the perpetual road work, the Juarez market was under reconstruction, with all its stalls and vendors turned out into the streets for business. As we walked through the zócalo Sunday morning, the maestros were setting up too. Spreading tarps out across the ground, climbing the wild fig trees with ropes to tie and stretch more tarps overhead for shade and raincover, and filling the plaza with hundreds of little two-person dome tents (all Ozark Trail), until every meter of the zócalo was thoroughly occupied—something between a giant spider web and a patchwork Christo installation—with encampments spilling out into the side streets and alleys.
This was May 15, day one of Mexico’s national teachers strike. And these, according to the CNTE (National Organization of Education Workers), were and remain the terms of the strike:
- Restoration of around 1,000 teachers fired for resisting education reforms.
- Immediate release of over a dozen teachers jailed on trumped up charges.
- Immediate suspension of reforms that would privatize public education.
- Suspension of punitive and vindictive assessments.
- Reasonable access for teachers to professional development courses and other resources.
Oaxaca is just one of the several places across the country where this is happening. That same morning, encampments were going up in the plazas and streets of Chiapas, Guerrero, Hidalgo, Michoacán, Mexico City, Morelos, Tlaxcala, Vera Cruz, Zacatecas, &c.
For us, this was a welcome moment of relief from the by-now septic politics and media coverage of our own presidential campaign. But the stakes are sort of similar to those of national debates on public education in the US—access, purpose, standardization, funding, privatization, etc. For example, over the next few months of US presidential debates, if you want to fill your bingo card, place a chip every time you hear some variation on the priority of “preparing students to compete in the global economy” (“STEM,” “assessment,” “standardization,” and so on.). Narrow, market-oriented reforms like this threaten to set the course for public education (K-12, higher learning, &c.) for at least the next generation, not only in Mexico and the US, but in a lot of other places around the world.
Here are links to some of the best discussion I’ve come across on the details of the reforms the Peña Nieto administration has been trying to mandate in Mexico:
Good, concise Truthout article from last October.
A couple articles David Bacon did for The Nation—“US Style School Reform Goes South” (2013) & “Why Are Mexican Teachers Being Jailed for Protesting Education Reform?” (last week)—go into a little further in depth on some of the background and history.
Great, recent Horizontal interview (en español) with Manuel Gil Antón on what the reforms propose to do, as well as what they fail to do.
María de la Luz Arriaga Lemus’ 2014 article “The Struggle to Democratize Education in Mexico” from North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA).
For the first month of the strike, while we were living in town, as the streets filled up with protesting teachers, students, and parents from across the state and region, and as police helicopters wheeled overhead daily, I was surprised by the almost complete silence in international news coverage. What little media attention the demonstrations did get outside of Mexico either glossed right over the basic concerns and motives for the popular resistance to the reforms, or fixated on an embarrassing and sensationalized story about the public shaming of some strikebreakers in Chiapas, which was picked up as a kind of scandal note in the British press. That’s it, and none with any further mention of the larger dynamics of the national reforms that Mexico is wrestling with.
That was until last weekend, when at least 10 people were killed north of town, most unarmed and shot down by federal and state police on a highway barricade. (Automatic rifles; tear gas; the governor had called in over 5,000 federal military officers to enforce mandatory instructor assessments, &c.) There are over 20 people missing (arrested/disappeared), and over 100 wounded.
Here’s Democracy Now’s subsequent coverage; Slate; New York Times; and a great, thoroughpolemic from Shirin Hess.
Of course, for the striking teachers and their unions, a lot of this is simply about pay. Resource allocation. Basic job security. According to those I talked with, teachers would all be moved to precarious 6 month contracts to be renewed—or not—twice a year.
Nobody seriously disputes the need for significant reforms to Mexico’s notoriously poorly ranked public school system. And of course the unions are not blameless here either; just as in so many parts of Mexico’s public sector, teachers unions are unfortunately not immune to corruption, nepotism, favoritism, co-option, &c. Jacobin Magazine, for example, ran an excellent, insightful discussion between Shane Dillingham and René González Pizarro about, among other things, some of the history and inner dynamics and tensions within and among teachers unions in Mexico.
But in the conversations I was able to have with several striking teachers, larger problems in public education generally, and in the reforms more specifically, really seemed outweighed all of this. One issue that came out every time was an overarching call for advocacy for the different communities (often rural, indigenous and quite remote) where they lived and worked. Especially advocacy for these families and children they serve, some of the most vulnerable people in the country.
Uneven access to and failure of basic public services, poor health/medical care, bad/nonexistent infrastructure, hunger, poverty. None of these problems are really separable from education, and until they’re taken into more serious consideration, especially in Mexico’s poorest southern states, education reforms fail. A couple of teachers I talked to from rural schools up in the Sierra Mixe explained how the reforms also fail to account for Mexico’s vast pluralism, ignore the different realities and needs of individual communities, and undermine local identity. In places like Oaxaca—with sixteen different indigenous groups, over twenty distinct languages, and so on—neoliberal reforms that mandate a standardized one-size-fits-all learning across the country, especially without investing basic resources, run aground issues of indigenous sovereignty, a kind of slow cultural genocide.
Here it’s also worth noting that:
The reforms were drawn up in the first year or so of Peña Nieto’s term, who evidently wasn’t too concerned with consulting professionals. (He appointed
a new education task force mostly from the ranks of high profile entrepreneurs, lobbyist types, private think tanks, and so on.)
These are being widely criticized as “corporate education reforms,” moving toward a privatization of public education, as the administration has done in other areas (oil, mining, etc.) since 2013.
The reforms also seek to eliminate escuelas normales (teachers colleges in poor, rural areas), which have also become bastions of critical thought, and associated by some with dissent. (Ex: The 43 students who were disappeared from Guerrero 2 years ago were studying at one of these in Ayotzinapa.)
They even amend the Mexican constitution to do away with free public education, guaranteed at least in policy since the end of the Mexican revolution 80 or so years ago.
While countering protests with military and police force, the Peña Nieto administration has continued running PR campaigns in the media (TV, radio, billboards, &c.) to denigrate and discredit Oaxaca’s teachers as lazy, corrupt, incompetent, dangerous, and otherwise contemptible.
All this comes exactly 10 years after the 2006 Oaxaca teachers protests that were met with state repression for 6 months, ending in the deaths of 30 or so people.
We had brought a group of college students to study for a month at the Autonomous University of Benito Juarez of Oaxaca (UABJO), whose campus ended up being stormed by federal police in the conflict 10 years prior. (While there, and with all this going on, we managed not to go into this particular detail too much with the students.)