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Issue Date:  October 13, 2006

Community rallies around teachers

Crackdown on strike blows lid off pressure cooker in Oaxaca, Mexico

Letters from Oaxaca: First in a series


One of the many things I love about Mexico is its different relationship to time. While we of the North hold stereotypes about habitual lateness and a lazy way of life, another dimension of this relationship rings true. Oaxaca is home to a 2,000-year-old ahuehuete, the most ancient tree in the world. From the window of our apartment, we can glimpse the ruins of Monte Alban, an architectural masterpiece and astronomical observatory whose first layer dates from 500 B.C. And once when I asked a friend, Don Max, about his community, he began, “Our village was founded in 1581.” A sense of history -- and of ourselves as part of humanity’s successive waves of suffering and hope -- is much more present here. It helps to give a longer view.

These days, I find myself grasping often at this longer view. As lay missioners living and working in Oaxaca, my husband and I witness how a broad-based movement sparked by the public teachers’ union has met with repression from the state government. Any day now Oaxacans expect the Preventative Federal Police of the Mexican army to attack. Helicopters have been circling and troops have moved into position. Word of mouth says 3,000 men.

Rural states like Oaxaca have always been poor; the clinic where my husband works treats patients from areas with no electricity, potable water or other services. (According to which set of statistics one uses, up to 75 percent of Oaxacans can be said to live in poverty.) But now, small farmers must compete in a globalized economy -- or leave their farms. In Don Max’s village, schoolchildren do not aspire to be doctors or lawyers, but rather to emigrate to the United States. A secondary option is internal migration to one of the new settlements -- aka shantytowns -- surrounding urban areas. Along with Chiapas and Guerrero, Oaxaca is one of the three poorest states in the country. But it is also a state of great wealth: Oaxaca is one of five states with the highest percentage of indigenous population. Around two-thirds of the state’s people belong to one of 16 indigenous groups originating in seven distinct geographical regions. These regions come together in the yearly Guelaguetza: a celebration of song and dance that symbolizes a spirit of sharing and characterizes a whole way of life.

Each May for 26 years, the teachers’ union of Oaxaca (Section 22 of the National Educational Workers Union, commonly called the Magisterium) has routinely called for negotiations with the state government. May 15 is Teachers’ Day, and all month various workers’ vocations are celebrated. (Our children learned in school about the Haymarket martyrs.) This year the teachers’ demands focused on a rezonification process that would raise the living allowances for teachers working in remote areas. However, Gov. Ulíses Ruíz Ortiz did not sit down to negotiate -- he was away campaigning for his party’s presidential candidate. In an abrupt departure from custom, he sent a message instead: Go ahead, take over the city. So the teachers did. Starting May 22, the 70,000 preschool, primary and secondary school teachers took shifts staging a sit-in of the downtown area (roughly 50 city blocks surrounding the main plaza, called the Zócalo). They set up a radio station. They blocked entrances to banks, highways and government offices. Traffic -- already nightmarish -- became almost unbearable. Schools closed and classes were canceled until further notice.

Our next-door neighbors, the godparents of our twin girls, have three cousins who belong to the teachers’ union. While in town to serve their shift at the sit-in, they would come by for showers and a hot meal, their children in tow.

Early in the morning of June 14, three branches of armed personnel (municipal, state and ministerial police) entered the teachers’ encampment where some 600 men, women and children were sleeping. As dawn broke, police tore apart the makeshift encampment, destroying food supplies, bedding and other belongings. Tear gas was hurled from helicopters circulating over downtown. Rumors -- unsubstantiated -- spread that a teacher and two children had been killed. The teachers refused to be displaced. By midmorning, thousands more teachers and their supporters poured in from all over the state. They gathered 30,000 strong to retake the Zócalo. By noon they had kicked out the police.

Public response was immediate and overwhelming. Miguel Angel Vásquez de la Rosa of EDUCA, a community development organization, uses the metaphor of a pressure cooker: The repression of June 14 was what blew the lid. From a not-very-popular-but-tolerated strike, the teachers’ cause suddenly became the focal point for mass mobilization. At a day’s notice, a march was convened that drew 300,000 citizens to the streets. Sixty civil associations immediately joined to draft a statement condemning the government’s use of force. Parishes and neighborhoods organized food drives for the reestablished encampment. The Jesuit church downtown opened for first aid services and the base ecclesial communities started cooking meals for the crowds.

It was a guelaguetza not only of food, but of stories. With the civil associations at its core, diverse types of social activists -- women’s groups, indigenous collectives, workers’ unions, neighborhood and village organizations -- came together and learned of each other’s work. The teachers’ radio station had been destroyed June 14; students at the Benito Juárez Autonomous University put their station at the service of the movement. Suddenly the media was opened to ordinary people who wanted to express their opinions. Musicians wrote songs about the teachers’ bravery. Indigenous leaders gave bilingual discourses. Children called in to give encouragement to their teachers, and a slogan intended to slight the teachers (“Teacher to the classroom, not the sit-in”) backfired, with children now chanting the inverse “Maestro al plantón, no al salón.” The simmering discontent of the pressure cooker was uncovered.

To understand the reaction to the events of June 14, one must take a longer view.

Why the teachers?

Teachers hold a respected role in Mexican society, and are called by their title Maestro or Maestra even outside the classroom. They belong to the professional class but earn comparatively less than other white collar workers and often must make more sacrifices in their work. Oaxacan public schools in general are rundown and poorly equipped, and teachers often pay for classroom supplies out of their own pockets. Because towns are so remote, some spend weekdays at school and return home on weekends. Thus, they come in firsthand contact with the cultural diversity and economic poverty that characterize Oaxaca. Our friends’ cousins are Mixtecos, members of the fourth largest native Mexican group, who work in a village populated by people of African descent. Especially in poorer areas, whether urban or rural, the local school is not only a center of learning but of community organization. My husband’s health promotion team works primarily through schools.

But there is an even deeper symbolic value at play. Teachers are the bearers and transmitters of those struggles that make up a people’s longer view; they are what labor reporter David Bacon so aptly calls “repositories of the most progressive traditions” of Mexican history. They drill the ideals of Mexican Independence and the 1910 revolution into upcoming generations, and they prepare the beloved “fiestas patrias” in which these commemorations come alive. We recently attended an Independence celebration in a village Sept. 16. A student brought the audience to its feet with his recitation of an epic poem ending with the words, “Compadres de Satanás, dejan a mi gente vivir en paz!” (“Compadres of Satan, let my people live in peace!”)

On a national level, the teachers’ union has fought dearly for self-determination. On my first trip to Mexico, in 1989, I met teachers attempting to democratize the union. Their goal was to truly represent their members’ interests instead of being an appendage of the government. (What struck me most about this meeting was that they telephoned their office before leaving; enough of their colleagues had “disappeared” to make them cautious.) The National Educational Workers Union has earned its reputation as the most important union in Mexico. Before June 14, Don Max had been considering joining with other municipal presidents to request a court order sending teachers back to school. But after June 14, he changed his mind, putting it this way: “If the state government can treat the teachers’ union that way, how would it treat other organizations -- or those of us who are not even organized?”

Why Ruíz?

Another of the things I love about Mexican culture is the wickedly irreverent way people assign nicknames. Ulíses Ruíz Ortíz is known as the Mapache, Racoon, for its mask. He is widely believed to have stolen the 2004 gubernatorial election from the opposition candidate Gabino Cué. Whether or not this is true, discontent with Ruíz stems from many roots. Immediately after taking office, he embarked on a series of renovations of public landmarks, claiming that modernizing would benefit tourism. (He was wrong -- what tourist is not enchanted by the picturesque Zócalo with its green stone, the majestic old trees of the Llano Park, the street vendors with their brightly-colored handcrafts?) Downtown business owners banded together to protest, to no avail. Billions of pesos were spent. It seemed that having personal ties to the governor -- not professional skill -- was the criterion for the construction contracts. A project was begun to amplify one of the city’s main arteries only to discover that it disturbs a fault line.

Ruíz is also held culpable for assaults on the newspaper Noticias. For some 30 years, this opposition paper has printed noncensored reporting and viewpoints as Oaxaca’s foremost alternative press. Most recently, it openly supported Cué. On the very day Ruíz took office, thugs broke into the office. To date, there have been 10 attacks on Noticias. Staff have been beaten -- their lives threatened -- and equipment has been destroyed. Using the pretext of a labor dispute (which the workers themselves deny), police have tried to shut down the paper for more than a year, during which time Noticias has been printed from clandestine locations.

Most alarming is the number of local leaders who have been jailed, threatened, harassed, killed or disappeared in Oaxaca during the last two decades. Human rights activists set this number at around 35 people. Which leads me to a more somber observation about nicknames: Ruíz’s second-in-command is dubbed “Chucky” after the knife-wielding doll of a horror movie.

While the state government’s role in most of these cases is unclear, what is clear is that human rights abuses are rampant in Oaxaca -- and that these abuses accelerated under Ruíz and his predecessor. The independent Human Rights Network of Oaxaca has clashed repeatedly with the state government. Witness for Peace moved its office from Mexico City to Oaxaca last year. Oaxaca has registered 675 unsolved agrarian conflicts, usually territorial disputes or struggles for control over resources. Political violence has escalated between political parties. The procurator of justice seems unable to take cases in hand, and intrusion of narcotraffickers, who “buy” justice, further complicates the situation. In urban areas, the murder of women is disturbingly on the rise.

The indigenous human rights organization Flor y Canto reminds us that collective human rights exist along with individual ones. A group of indigenous small farmers had been staging their own sit-in on the Zócalo before the teachers, protesting the imprisonment of one of its leaders. Police claim that he had been harboring weapons; his community claims his real crime was resisting the appropriation of its natural resources. This story gave me a feeling of déjà vu. On my first trip to Oaxaca, in 1991, I met a group of indigenous small farmers camped out in the Zócalo to protest the disappearance of one of its leaders -- a professor.

At worst, the state government is perceived as culpable for human rights abuses; at best, it is seen as uninterested or incapable. So when Ruiz ordered armed forces into the Zócalo June 14, he was branded an “assassin” and the massive mobilization of unions, groups and organizations united under a single goal: to remove him from office.

Deirdre Cornell and her husband are Maryknoll lay missioners in Oaxaca, Mexico. This is the first of a series of letters from Oaxaca.

National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2006

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