Dispatch from Southern Mexico: Oaxacan Teachers Fight for Civil Rights for Indigenous Students

Daniel Lichtenstein-Boris

It was 7:30 in the morning, June 7, 2023. A charter bus next to the Zocalo, Oaxaca de Juarez’s central city plaza, dropped off teachers from a nearby town. Outside an old church in the cobblestone streets lined with restaurants and bars catering to foreign tourists, a group of students in black and blue gowns with flat square black hats gathered for a graduation photo. A few blocks away in the plaza outside the state of Oaxaca’s judicial and executive government offices, teachers’ union members set up tents, tied large tarps to trees and light posts, and began to set up their encampment.

The teachers’ union of Oaxaca was on strike. They would camp here for three days. I had met members of Section 22 of the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadoras de Educacion, or the National Coordinator for Education Workers, the reform movement inside the National Union of Education Workers of Mexico, around three weeks before in Mexico City on national teachers’ day. Their issues had yet to be resolved.

The strike was about low teacher pay, a lack of health and basic services for students, discrimination against indigenous Oaxacans, and bilingual indigenous education to keep the language and culture of dozens of indigenous peoples of Mexico alive. Teachers were on strike to demand the neoliberal education reforms passed in 2014 by the former PRI government of Pena Nieto be reversed and indigenous education and teacher training programs remain intact.

Oaxaca de Juarez is an old city of ornate cathedrals, stone walls of old masonry, and low two to four story buildings catering to foreign tourists. In the surrounding countryside, one can see small cinderblock homes interspersed between agave, bean, and corn fields on dusty dirt roads. A gold mine operated by a Canadian mining company sits twenty to thirty minutes outside of town, along a new two-lane freeway of freshly paved asphalt complete with new Pemex gas stations under construction. The gold mine extracts the mineral wealth of this poor southern Mexican state for a pittance, to be melted into jewelry for US and European markets. The new Morena government recently passed a new mining law to shorten mostly foreign companies’ mineral concessions and force them to share a small percentage of their profits with the indigenous communities displaced by poisoned water and cleared hillsides. It is being appealed to the country’s judiciary.

The valley of Oaxaca is flanked by lush green hillside forests and interspersed with farmland, flanked by green mountains with tall trees with moist leaves covering the placid terrain.

Oaxaca de Juarez’s city streets are covered in graffiti, “Gringo Go Home,” “Libertad para Presos Politicos,” Freedom for Political Prisoners and “Alto a la Repression del Pueblo Mapuche,” Stop the repression of the Mapuche people, an indigenous group in southern Chile. The names of the incarcerated and disappeared had been scrawled on city walls along with revolutionary slogans and the ample use of the letter A in black graffiti encased in a circle. Also, the symbol for woman, a circle stick figure, could occasionally be seen in purple spray paint on the tan and stone city walls.

One day walking through the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, a group of residents blockaded a major city street. The city’s municipal services had failed to restore running water for over a month. With average pay in the tourist center is between 150 and 300 pesos a day for 12-15 hours of work, or between 5 and 14 dollars a day, paying 20 to 40 pesos for a five-gallon jug of portable water to bathe, cook, and wash one’s clothes is incredibly expensive. They had stung banners across the road, and stood in the street, also blocking it with busses and trucks. A motorcyclist tried to get through, but women from the barrio forced the young man to turn around.

Two baristas at a local coffee shop commented on the cost of living in this relatively wealthy city in Southern Mexico’s Oaxaca province. The tourism industry has led to rapidly increasing prices. Rent, restaurants, basic necessities have skyrocketed in price. The tourism industry may provide some jobs for restaurants and hotels, but wages have not kept up with rising prices. “We cannot go to the United States.” There is a border wall, and those who do go to work in agriculture are on short term visas. But foreigners from the U.S. are free to travel and take over our downtown,” one young woman with a nose ring smiled at me, grimacing.

The week before the teachers’ three-day strike and encampment in Oaxaca de Juarez, a group of indigenous farmers gathered outside the government’s principal building here. Paramilitaries had expelled this group of approximately fifty families from their ancestral home. They had no farmland to plant for food and nowhere to live. They camped out in front of the government building, demanding justice. There was little police presence. Unlike at civil rights protests in many U.S. cities, riot police, teargas, armored vehicles, and rubber bullets were nowhere to be found.

The local paper, the Imparcial, has denounced recent community road blockades impeding economic development. The editorial column denounced the principal organizations responsible for radical rebel rousing and disturbing the peace and tranquility in Oaxaca. They included Section 22 of the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadoras de Education, CNTE, the Frente Popular Revolucionario, FPR, the Movimiento de Unificacion y Lucha Triqui, MULT , Antorcha Campesina, and Assemblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca, APPO.

The paper also denounced Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and the Morena political party for the outspoken Mexican President’s attempt to, in the paper’s words, “expropriate” a section of the country’s railroad from Grupo Mexico, whose owner German Larerra, worth 25 billion, is one of the richest men in Latin America. Grupo Mexico holds monopoly control, of many railroads in the country, similar to Warren Buffet’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe in the United States. Mexico did indeed seize control of a section of railroad a few weeks ago but gave Grupo Mexico the rights to another railroad route in return.

Grupo Mexico also owns several major mines, including the Cananea Copper Mine, one of the oldest and largest open pit mines in the world. Section 65 of the Mexican Mine Workers Union recently blockaded Mexico’s Route 2, which passes from Baja California east through the state of Sonora, protesting low pay at the Cananea Copper Mine. The miners shut down interstate commerce on this major roadway, demanding that Grupo Mexico enroll them in the country’s social security program so they could have health insurance and go to the doctor.

Maybe Mexico’s domestic and internationally based elite had a right to be worried, as the local Impartial Oaxacan paper exclaimed.

Morena won national elections in 2018 following wave after wave of mass protests against the extrajudicial killings of 43 student teachers from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero in 2014 during the administration of PRI president Pena Nieto. Following his victory, AMLO and Morena raised the minimum wage, including an extra increase for workers in the factory towns on the U.S. Mexico border where prices were higher than in the country’s interior.

In early 2019, foreign auto parts suppliers for Toyota, Ford, and General Motors refused to comply with the new law, leading to a wave of strikes at over 45 factories in Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. The factories, called maquiladoras, capitulated after months of unrest. One of the strike’s leaders, labor attorney Susana Prieto Terrazas, later won election to represent Chihuahua in the national legislature, despite her prior arrest and incarceration for supporting the fight to force companies to comply with the minimum wage increase.

Reading the Morena leaning newspaper La Jornada, news articles report on strikes in healthcare demanding better sanitation services, the mobilization of the teacher’s union in Oaxaca, community and campesino road blockades, and protests against the arbitrary imprisonment of farmworker leaders by Mexico’s conservative judiciary.

Outside Oaxaca’s main city square, a tent had been set up in perpetuity protesting the arbitrary imprisonment of William Garcia, a rural leader held in Oaxaca de Juarez without trial. Next to the tent, a banner strung up between two thick trunked tall trees displayed the signa of MULT, in red and green, with a red star. Gabriel Alberto Cruz Sanchez, Edmundo Reyes Amaya, Daniela and Virginia Ortiz. “Present them with Life,” the sign read. A quote was inscribed in memory of these men and women and all those who lost their lives for better conditions. “He who learns to live learns to die.” Seven women and men’s faces, angelic and radiant, looked down upon the plaza from the banner hung between those trees.

Indigenous vendors of arts and crafts lined a cobblestone park across from one of the Oaxaca de Juarez’s city center’s historic catholic churches. One vendor of bright handwoven textiles sold a book, Operation San Mateo de Mar, Chronicle of a Massacre, where led by the police chief, a lynch mob of 150 townspeople killed 15 indigenous Ikoot Oaxacans in a rural costal community, torturing and mutilating their bodies before burning them.

Fleeing both poverty and violence, millions of southern Mexicans have immigrated to Mexico City, factories on the US Mexico border, to work the berry fields in San Quinten, Baja California, and in the lettuce groves of Gilroy, and Salinas, California. Similarly, the labor of southern Mexicans, and their indigenous brothers and sisters from central and south America, pick fruit and vegetables and supply US consumers with low-cost produce in Oregon, Washington, Texas, Georgia, and Florida. Trafficked by coyotes working with farm labor contractors who smuggle them across the border and forced to work for one employer or be deported through the H2-A temporary agricultural visa program, Oaxacan and other Latin American immigrants sustain the United States’ agricultural industries.

The price to work for big US agribusinesses and multinational corporations on the northern side of the border wall can be steep. A Oaxacan would be immigrant I met was recently released by U.S. immigration and Customs Enforcement to Tijuana authorities with a burlap bag of belongings and a bus ticket, without even a few pesos to buy water on the four-day bus trip back. He had spent a year in detention after being captured by the U.S. border patrol.

In Florida, SB1718, recently passed by the Republican Ron DeSantis administration, will take effect July 1st. In addition to expanding electronic verification of employee’s proof of legal residency, the law in effect forces healthcare providers to question brown and black skinned Latin American and Caribbean immigrants as to their citizenship and legal status. Through fear and intimidation, the new law essentially shuts out undocumented immigrants suffering from workplace accidents in Tampa’s construction industry or heat stroke in the tomato fields and orange groves of central Florida from seeking emergency medical treatment.

In a day without an immigrant, reminiscent of the mega marches of 2006 and 2007 where millions of Latinos took to the streets across the country, tens of thousands of non-union Hispanic farmworkers, day laborers, restaurant workers, and skilled tradespersons went on strike June 1st, rallying throughout Florida to demand an end to racist attacks against their community, and for full citizenship, the right to vote, and political power. Even while accepting political donations from corporations profiting off low wage immigrant labor, Republican attacks on both Hispanics and African Americans have led to organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NACCP) and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) to issue travel advisories for black and brown skinned tourists in Florida.

Despite the new Morena government in Mexico City’s capital, things are still tense in the countryside. Two recent shootings of local farmworker campesino organizers by a paramilitary organization run by a Chiapas coffee cultivator business group has led to widespread outrage. The indigenous Mayan EZLN, or Zapatista National Liberation Army, issued a press statement denouncing these targeted assassinations signed by hundreds of internationally prominent artists, authors, and academics. The Zapatistas, still maintaining autonomy in the wooded hills of Chiapas, led an insurrection against the government on January 1, 1994, as the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect. The free trade agreement led to the mass dispossession of Mexico’s peasant farmers, as cheap genetically modified Monsanto corn flooded the countryside, driving down prices, and forcing rural workers to immigrate north. NAFTA not only hurt Mexican workers. The trade agreement led to mass layoffs of unionized white and black American factory workers throughout the industrialized Midwest, as multinational manufacturers moved south of the border to pay lower wages and pollute without consequences.

Today the Oaxacan teachers’ union camps in the city’s central square, demanding the right to bilingual indigenous education and student services to maintain the social structure and survival of Oaxacan communities thousands of years old.

I walked through the city center and began speaking with a group of teachers near a table where the executive committee and negotiating team members would meet.

The conditions in the schools need to be improved, Rangel related to me. “We had a hurricane recently, and we have schools with no roofs.” The laminated roofs blew off, and there have been no repairs. Many rural schools have no bathrooms, and there are few roads. On the coast, a school in Los Naranjos Esquipulas suffered structural damage in an earthquake in 2016. Today, in 2023, cracks in the walls and rafters still wait to be fixed. These are dangerous conditions for the children. The government says they will invest resources, but they haven’t arrived.

The director of a school in San Felipe Huautla de Jimenez who sits on Section 22’s executive committee, showed me paperwork he had laboriously compiled, detailing an estimate for repairs and maintenance of his school. In November 2020, it was estimated that repairs, including fixing drainage, a wall, and classrooms, would cost 22,737,033.97 pesos, or approximately, 1.3 million dollars. The construction project has not yet started. That is why we continue to organize. We are suffering. Our students suffer from many problems. There is wind, cold, and rain. Our area is very rainy. Teachers are fighting not only for themselves, but to secure additional funding for school construction and maintenance, which will provide jobs to low-income rural communities.

Rangel continued to describe his union’s demands, “We are demanding free breakfast for all children, and that they have uniforms. 90% of students don’t have school breakfast. Many are hungry while they are learning,” In the United States in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s civil rights organizations such as the Black Panther Party began to serve free hot breakfasts for black school children in U.S urban areas. The Black Panther Party collapsed due to the concerted effort of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, or counterintelligence program, but the United States Department of Agriculture’s school lunch program continues to this day. In Oaxaca, teachers want breakfast in schools.

“The government says they will invest resources in our communities. That’s why teachers are mobilizing.” School is expensive. There are uniforms, shoes, and breakfast. Many parents are day laborers and farmworkers. We want things for our students so their parents can afford to send them to school.

There is a real lack of teachers. 80% of schools lack a teacher, assistant, or a secretary. We need more rural teacher training positions, so more teachers can be trained to work in rural communities.

Teachers have been killed and disappeared. A leader of our union was killed in 2011. In Amoltepec, a rural community, a teacher was killed this year. We don’t know why. We want the government to investigate and bring the perpetrators to justice. There have been two femicides of female teachers in Oaxaca in the past month and a half. We want security, and not to have this increasing violence.

We are also asking the government to get rid of the 2014 education reform law. It attacks the rural normalist student teacher training program. The reform changed the process for professionals to become teachers. You no longer have to go to school, and only need to pass a test. They want to get rid of the normal schools, and to get rid of the pedagogy of how to teach students. “We need specialized teacher training so we can teach our own culture, our own bilingual indigenous education, our own customs, and to use pedagogies so that students will be able to learn.” Without teaching training, new instructors will not be prepared to teach course material in a culturally competent manner.

There is no internet in rural areas. How can we do zoom classes where there is no internet? We had to visit every school during the pandemic. The teachers have to walk. 80% of communities don’t have transportation. The teachers have to walk to communities to teach often. One teacher introduced himself to me. He had to walk 30 minutes to get to the community where he was teaching.

The socio-economic difference is huge. Families don’t have food. They want breakfast for children. There are a lack of hospitals and health services. The students get amenia from malnutrition.

There are two main programmatic demands of Section 22 of CNTE. One is regarding teaching pedagogy and methods. The second revolves around fair compensation that recognizes the hard work of teachers.

In terms of compensation, since the education reform law was passed in 2015, the government got rid of salary adjustments for additional certificates, training, and advanced degrees. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine driving price increases all over the world, CNTE also is demanding a fair cost of living adjustment.

Even in difficult conditions, teachers are effective at instructing the young. Many have advanced training, and use different techniques and methods using varied activities, study, and educational programs. Teachers in Oaxaca teach indigenous students’ community centric learning models. Indigenous education includes teaching students the original language of the student and incorporating their community’s cultural norms into educational curriculum. “We speak the language of the students.”

There 16 indigenous languages in Oaxaca alone; Náhuatl, Mazateca, Chinanteco, Mixe, Amuzgo, Chatino, Zoque, Chicateco, Popolaca, Chontal, Huave, Triqui, Chocho, and Ixcateco. Despite more than 500 years of colonialism, Mexico’s indigenous people have survived and continue to teach their children their own language, culture, customs, religious traditions, and moral values. Autonomous teacher training programs with culturally competent and community based customized curriculum train teachers the educational pedagogy and methodology tailored to the environment of students from the country’s original nations.  Through carefully tailored educational models, indigenous students continue to learn their own languages and history while also receiving the job and critical thinking skills to escape poverty and improve their family’s health outcomes.

Mexico’s integration into the global economy over the past thirty years has led to widespread disruptions of local customs and culture. Free trade with the United States has led to immigration and urbanization throughout Mexico, uprooting rural communities, and assimilating indigenous people into dominant western colonial languages and norms, whether Spanish or English, Catholicism or consumer culture. To ensure community survival, teacher reform movements around the world, including Section 22 of the CNTE in Oaxaca, and their sister organizations in Canada and the United States, such as the Caucus of Rank and File Educators in the Chicago Teachers Union, have fought for fair compensation, safe schools, adequate community resources, to ensure culturally competent instruction tailored to the needs of community schools.

Just as teachers in states like Florida have defended their right to teach African American studies in public schools against racist attacks from Republican extremists such as Governor Ron DeSantis, teachers in southern Mexico are fighting to teach students their own history as well. Frederick Douglas, who secretly learned to read by studying the Bible – a banned book for slaves in Baltimore, once famously said that “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”

I think the teachers of Oaxaca feel the same.

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