Oaxaca Teachers Fight To Protect Students and Community From Reforms

Jeff Abbott August 15, 2014

Elena Lara of Oaxaca's Section 22 unveils a banner for reporters during the teacher occupation of Mexico City's main square. (Jeff Abbott)

On the morn­ing of July 31, the Oax­a­ca offices of Mexico’s rul­ing par­ty, the Insti­tu­tion­al­ized Par­ty of the Rev­o­lu­tion (PRI), were in chaos. Activists from Oaxaca’s Sec­tion 22 of the Mex­i­can Teach­ers Union stormed the premis­es, throw­ing com­put­ers and fil­ing cab­i­nets from the sec­ond floor to the ground as the pub­lic looked on. The teach­ers then set up camp in Oaxaca’s main square, Zoca­lo, an occu­pa­tion that has since last­ed for weeks.

The action was the lat­est maneu­ver from Mex­i­can teach­ers against the neolib­er­al edu­ca­tion reforms imple­ment­ed by Pres­i­dent Enrique Peña Nieto over the last year. Begin­ning in ear­ly 2013, Peña Nieto began pass­ing sweep­ing poli­cies that — among oth­er changes — reassert­ed gov­ern­ment con­trol over edu­ca­tion, tied instruc­tor pay to stu­dent eval­u­a­tion results, and restrict­ed the bar­gain­ing rights of teach­ers through­out Mexico.

On May 1, in recog­ni­tion of Inter­na­tion­al Work­ers’ Day, Sec­tion 22 teach­ers led oth­er dis­si­dent teach­ers unions of Mex­i­co on a four-month occu­pa­tion of the cen­tral square of Mex­i­co City. Police evict­ed the teach­ers in August 2013; they then moved to the Mon­u­ment of the Rev­o­lu­tion, where a camp still remains. After Con­gress passed Peña Nieto’s laws just a month lat­er, Oax­a­ca teach­ers revolt­ed again — and they’ve kept up the pres­sure ever since. The attack on PRI’s offices is just anoth­er inci­dent in the long line of unrest that has come with the party’s 2012 return to power.

Much of this dis­con­tent is root­ed in Oaxaca’s polit­i­cal and social cli­mate. As the most diverse state in Mex­i­co with a high indige­nous pop­u­la­tion, many Oaxaca’s stu­dents speak dif­fer­ent dialects or come from rur­al back­grounds. Because of this, teach­ers say, the pol­i­cy changes from the Peña Nieto admin­is­tra­tion are unre­al­is­tic and oppressive.

The reforms, says Luis Stal­in, Gen­er­al Coor­di­na­tor of Sec­tion 22’s research depart­ment, the Cen­ter for the Study and Devel­op­ment of Edu­ca­tion (CEDES 22), do not include the peo­ple in the vil­lages and communities.”

He points out that one major new pol­i­cy relies on wed­ding instruc­tor com­pen­sa­tion to stu­dent scores on Span­ish-lan­guage tests, which the teach­ers do not have the option of offer­ing in indige­nous lan­guages. This proves, he says, that the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment does not take into account the orig­i­nal peo­ples of Mex­i­co who do not speak Spanish.”

Oth­er aspects of the reforms, advo­cates say, such as three-strikes-and-you’re-out eval­u­a­tion rules and dis­ci­pline for instruc­tors who miss days of work, are also like­ly to neg­a­tive­ly impact Oax­a­can stu­dents, teach­ers and com­mu­ni­ties. All in all, advo­cates say, the poli­cies con­tin­ue Mexico’s lega­cy of colo­nial­ism by impos­ing the will of the cen­tral­ized state on its entire population.

Over the last decade, the teach­ers of Sec­tion 22 have been fight­ing to con­struct the best edu­ca­tion meth­ods for their stu­dents and for Oax­a­cans. As ear­ly as 2004, those involved with CEDES 22 had begun to dis­cuss what a com­mu­ni­ty-based, autonomous edu­ca­tion would look like for the state, going so far as to out­line a gen­er­al scheme in 2012. But the Sep­tem­ber 2013 reform pas­sages were a cat­a­lyst: It was then, the teach­ers real­ized, that action had to be tak­en quickly.

It was an emer­gency,” said Stal­in. We had to devel­op a plan in resis­tance to the government’s plan.”

Sec­tion 22 spent the next three months devel­op­ing an action-ori­ent­ed chal­lenge to the fed­er­al government’s objec­tive: The Plan for the Trans­for­ma­tion of the Edu­ca­tion of Oax­a­ca, which was released in Novem­ber 2013.

The gov­ern­men­t’s reforms only work for the cities” such as Mex­i­co City, says Cecil­ia Araceli Cruz Nico­las, a region­al coor­di­na­tor for CEDES 22. We can­not give the same edu­ca­tion for every­one [in Oax­a­ca], since it is not the same con­di­tions of life.”

As the New York Times point­ed out last year, Oax­a­ca ranks sec­ond-to-last among all states in infra­struc­ture … Being a teacher in Oax­a­ca means some­times hav­ing to trav­el for an entire day to reach your school in a tiny community.”

To com­bat this dis­con­nect, Cruz Nico­las says, We have cre­at­ed a bet­ter edu­ca­tion sys­tem; one that works for the communities.”

Sec­tion 22’s plan is inspired by the Brazil­ian edu­ca­tion­al pio­neer Paulo Freire, who argued in the 1968 text Ped­a­gogy of the Oppressed for the cre­ation of a par­tic­i­pa­to­ry, com­mu­ni­ty-based edu­ca­tion sys­tem that empow­ers and inspires crit­i­cal thought. In that vein, the teach­ers of Oax­a­ca have envi­sioned a method that puts the con­trol of edu­ca­tion into the com­mu­ni­ties’ hands, devel­ops a crit­i­cal under­stand­ing of soci­ety, and — unlike the government’s plan — reflects their diverse state.

Accord­ing to Cruz Nico­las, the plan aims to cre­ate a new form of learn­ing that allows the stu­dents to trans­form their com­mu­ni­ties and their futures.”

With­in the pro­pos­al, instruc­tors will solic­it input from Oax­a­can com­mu­ni­ties as to the best way to impart mate­r­i­al onto their stu­dents, as well as engag­ing par­ents and neigh­bors in the learn­ing process. They also hope to improve stu­dent and teacher access to med­ical care and food through the hir­ing of nurs­es and nutri­tion­ists with­in all schools in Oax­a­ca. And at a time when the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing of Mexico’s teach­ers is under attack, the plan acknowl­edges the cen­tral place of teach­ers in the edu­ca­tion process, and pre­serves their right as work­ers to col­lec­tive­ly bargain.

The teach­ers of Oax­a­ca view edu­ca­tion as hav­ing a rev­o­lu­tion­ary and eman­ci­pat­ing poten­tial. How­ev­er, they believe that in order to unleash that poten­tial and make change, edu­ca­tion must be par­tic­i­pa­to­ry, col­lab­o­ra­tive, and a non­hier­ar­chi­cal process.

Gen­er­al­ized, indi­vid­u­al­ized vision that tears the social fab­ric and vio­lates human dig­ni­ty, with­out the con­sid­er­a­tion of diverse cul­tures, cli­mates, and geo­gra­phies of the coun­try,” the proposal’s authors, who are not pub­licly named, write. Edu­ca­tion ought to be a cul­tur­al dis­course, and a lan­guage of possibilities.”

Of the 32 states of Mex­i­co, Oax­a­ca is the only one that has yet to rat­i­fy Peña Nieto’s edu­ca­tion reforms, thanks to Sec­tion 22’s con­tin­ued protests and a sym­pa­thet­ic state gov­ern­ment. In the past few months, teach­ers have worked along­side the gov­ern­ment to devel­op a state law that would both fund their autonomous edu­ca­tion sys­tem and pro­tect it from being affect­ed by fed­er­al reforms. Del­e­gates from Sec­tion 22 deliv­ered a draft of that State Edu­ca­tion Law (LEE) to Gov­er­nor Gabi­no Cué Mon­teagu­do on August 10. The law is cur­rent­ly work­ing its way through the State Assem­bly, and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Sec­tion 22 are opti­mistic that it will pass.

The teach­ers’ edu­ca­tion plan is yet anoth­er step in Sec­tion 22’s strug­gle to democ­ra­tize the edu­ca­tion sys­tem both with­in its state and the nation. It fol­lows in the lega­cy of the Oax­a­can upris­ing in 2006, when a teacher’s strike against the poli­cies of Oax­a­can Gov­er­nor Ulis­es Ruiz Ortiz evolved into a social upheaval that led to Juarez, a major Oax­a­can city, being occu­pied by fed­er­al troops. And teach­ers fear that even if they are able to suc­cess­ful­ly pass LEE and imple­ment their autonomous plan, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment will some­how man­age to over­rule them yet again to impose its reforms.

For the activists and teach­ers of Sec­tion 22, though, the threats that are cre­at­ed by the poli­cies go far beyond just edu­ca­tion; to them, the struc­tur­al reforms of Peña Nieto imper­il the entire coun­try. In advo­cates’ view, the poli­cies oppress the already col­o­nized com­mu­ni­ties of Oax­a­ca and fur­ther inten­si­fy the inequal­i­ty grip­ping the nation. 

The reforms affect every­one in Mex­i­co,” says an activist and affil­i­ate of Sec­tion 22 from Mexico’s oth­er teach­ers’ union, Nation­al Coor­di­na­tor of Edu­ca­tion Work­ers (CNTE), who asked to remain anony­mous. They are tear­ing the social fabric.” 

Jeff Abbott is an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist cur­rent­ly based out of Guatemala. He has cov­ered human rights, social moments, and issues relat­ed to edu­ca­tion, immi­gra­tion, and land in the Unit­ed States, Mex­i­co, and Guatemala. He has writ­ten for the North Amer­i­can Con­gress on Latin Amer­i­ca, Wagin​non​vi​o​lence​.org, and Upside​down​world​.org. Fol­low him on twit­ter @palabrasdeabajo
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