Blood and Education 

Negotiations between a teachers union and the Mexican government continue as a neoliberal education reform is violently imposed in the country

click to enlarge CNTE teachers and allies protesting Mexican government’s education reform on the streets of Mexico City on July 11.

MarÍa Inés Taracena

CNTE teachers and allies protesting Mexican government’s education reform on the streets of Mexico City on July 11.

Enrique Santiz begins to cry when he thinks about the last days of school with his students—all between 10 and 11 years old. He wonders about their future.

The mostly indigenous boys and girls come from impoverished small towns around the region of San Cristobal de las Casas in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. It's difficult for Santiz to let go of his adoptive 35-plus children—off to the hands of another educator who'll continue to mold their minds.

Santiz was born in a small village about 25 miles outside San Cristobal de las Casas. At age five, his parents sent him to live with an older couple in San Cristobal so that Santiz could go to school and hopefully build a better economic foundation than his parents could ever provide.

"My mom—she passed away two months ago—would say that when I was three or four years old, I'd tell her that I wanted to go to San Cristobal de las Casas to eat bread and shrimp," he says. It would have been a luxury. "[The couple] practically adopted me as their son. I stayed there. I graduated from high school...it was the eagerness to do greater things."

For many men and women in Santiz's community, attending school is a reality mostly only if you have light skin. Santiz's teachers sparked his awareness, and created a fire in him stronger than any social challenges that might've otherwise forced him down. He had to become that teaching force for other generations.

"The boys and girls, they see you as part of the family," Santiz says. "The hours we share together are beautiful. The ideas that I teach are not 'be a rebel against everyone and everything.' They are an analysis of their situation and what their future could be like.

"As a teacher, you have to explain that reality," he continues. "It is not influencing rebellion, rather giving them a vision for which to live by. 'How do you visualize yourself when you graduate high school?' From that reflection, they realize their social and economic situation. Based on that reality, they understand that they have to work harder."

He's been living in a teachers' union camp in Mexico City for nearly a month as a form of protest against the country's neoliberal education reform. His wife is also staying there.

It's a cloudy Friday afternoon in the middle of July. Santiz sits on a plastic chair eating recently-cooked refried beans and rice with a couple of compañeros. There are dozens and dozens of tents in the surroundings; a small living room in the middle of the camp with donated furniture and a microwave that serves as a coffee table. It's been uncomfortable to sleep on wooden pallets, protected only by a massive tent held together by rope and made of long, thick multicolored pieces of plastic fabric.

The camp is split into different states—Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacán, Chiapas and even Sonora.

It is day 23 for Santiz. He has been here since mid-June.

He is with his brothers and sisters—fellow educators—in what's been a months-long demonstration in Mexico City against the federal government's violent implementation of a 2013 education reform. The friction between the magisterial movement and the government has been burning for decades, though.

Three years ago, the Mexican Congress passed an education reform, without much input from teachers, students and parents. Opponents like the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, or CNTE—a union that was created almost four decades ago by a coalition of teachers in southern Mexican states—say this is an attempt by international financial organizations, such as the World Bank, to privatize education in Mexico. There have been protests ever since and it is reported that President Enrique Peña Nieto has spent millions on propaganda supporting the reform.

Government representatives have argued that in order to see true education reform, the process has to move from state and local hands to federal. CNTE agrees that an education reform is desperately needed, but this isn't one. The "reform" does not offer dignified salaries for teachers or replace all of the school books that have spelling, grammar and even scientific errors. A true reform, CNTE says, must be built from the bottom, up.

What has triggered much of the indignation is the implementation of a standardized evaluation for teachers. According to CNTE, the evaluation is mostly based on what knowledge there is about federal education standards and ignores the classroom setting—especially the relationship between the teachers, students and the communities. In the case of southern Mexican states, which have been marked by more intense poverty and violence than the rest of the country, the history of teachers in the region is characterized by their involvement in social activism that is critical of what they see as an oppressive government.

CNTE and allies say the evaluation justifies the firing of thousands of these teachers, stripping them from the union's protection. According to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada and other media, around 10,000 educators have already been fired for not taking the evaluation or for missing work to participate in protests.

On May 15, to put heavier pressure on negotiations between CNTE and the federal government, thousands of teachers caravanned to the country's capital. Thousands became tens of thousands.

The massive teachers' camp first occupied Zócalo, the main square in the heart of Mexico City. In February, a camp had also been set up around the Monument to the Revolution. They were forcefully removed by the police and eventually escorted to a more out-of-sight-out-of-mind section of the historic downtown, behind the Ciudadela—a market. On this Friday, a police helicopter flew over the camp at least twice.

Juana María Zebadúa was a teacher in Chiapas for more than two decades. She retired three years ago to take on an administrative role within CNTE, representing the San Cristobal de las Casas region. She's been in-and-out of the camp since May. "The powers are centralized," she says. "[The federal government] should solve the problems in our states and facilitate this bureaucracy. That is why we are here. Because the powers are here. Because the ones who are going to decide the fate of this reform are here. We want there to be free, secular education. It is a necessity to prevent its privatization."

Zebadúa and Santiz say the solidarity with the teachers is growing, despite news reports that pin teachers, parents and the rest of the country against each other. The camp overflows with food donations, clothes, medicine and even furniture. Residents come to drop off cooked food, pan dulce, coffee. There are doctors who offer free consultations for the teachers and university students who host reading sessions.

"What is happening is that we are not alone in this. [The government] has oppressed not only the teachers but everyone. There is consciousness because the suffering is in their own flesh," Zebadúa says. "They witness [the government] beating us, killing us. The people's attention is back on us."

Criticism against the movement intensifies with reports of thousands of children unable to attend classes and salaries paid to teachers who are protesting. In Santiz's case, he says he is not getting paid and that many teachers in his state left school material for students to keep up with assignments while the teachers are gone.

On Monday, July 11, CNTE and allies led a march in Mexico City as negotiations between CNTE and government representatives went nowhere. Around 5,000 people showed up. Last week, both entities met once again and no middle ground was reached, according to La Jornada. More talks are scheduled for July 21.

Santiz says they are willing to take the bullets because there is too much to lose if they give up. He talks about threatening phone calls, arrest warrants on false charges to apprehend teachers and the September 2014 mass kidnapping in Iguala, Guerrero of 43 male students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College. It is intimidation to kill the magisterial movement.

In mid-June, police brutally split up a teacher protest in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, leaving cars on fire, several injured, and at least eight people dead. The police had argued it was the teachers who instigated the violence, but videos and testimonies proved otherwise. CNTE demanded for international authorities to investigate who was behind the killings.

"The government isn't willing to listen," Santiz says. "The most shocking event I have witnessed is the killing of my compañero, right in front of me. I saw how he collapsed. If one falls, another 30 can fall. Someone who isn't afraid is not an emotional being."

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