For many, the September killings of three and disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College in the Méxican state of Guerrero has been profoundly painful and tragic. My feelings of outrage and despair are also deep because I was educated in one of Ayotzinapa’s sister schools. What many do not realize is that this crime was perpetuated by the Méxican government against students who had important social justice concerns and who were soon to become activist teachers. These rural teachers’ colleges are known for their progressive beliefs. I have always understood my role as a social justice teacher and community advocate because of my education at these schools. There are important political and historic aspects to the recent events that most people outside of México are not aware of.
The school these students came from, Ayotzinapa, is part of a vital and historic education system that was born out of the Méxican Revolution of 1910-1917. Because of the essential role that campesinos played in the success of the Revolution, the new government developed a plan to address the lack of education in the poorest rural communities all over México. Government-sponsored boarding schools were founded for grades one through normal schools (teacher colleges). Originally separated into boys and girls campuses, hundreds of thousands of México’s teachers have graduated from these schools. To this day, it is at these schools that the poorest citizens of México become well educated, learn of the inequalities and injustices in their society, and develop into engaged, justice-seeking teachers. These inspired teachers create awareness in their own impoverished students, which then becomes a threat to the government that seeks to keep its population passive and unquestioning.
If you visit any of these campuses today, you will see murals of figures such as Che Guevara, Karl Marx and Fidel Castro. Famous quotes cover the walls of the buildings. One of the most common of these is a combination of Che Guevara’s and Paulo Freire’s philosophies: “You cannot be a teacher without being a revolutionary.” This idea is foremost in the mind of the teacher who graduates from these schools, and even though some do not follow this principle fully, most do work for social change at different levels.
Upon graduation from the rural college, most teachers are sent to isolated communities that may take days to get to because of the lack of roads. Once a teacher becomes established, he/she decides the level of involvement desired in matters that affect the population. This may include trying to bring electricity, running water or schoolrooms to the village. Or the work may center around more political issues, such as taking land back from a local landlord or organizing the workers to demand better wages for farm labor. Recent struggles address neoliberalism and the corporate exploitation of natural resources.
In the 1960s and ’70s, México was shaken by social unrest and forceful actions by its student population. Angry and hopeful young people tried to bring change to a corrupt system of government. Soon it became evident that many of the leaders of this movement came from the rural teachers colleges. Two of the most famous leaders, Lucio Cabañas and Genaro Vázquez, were students at the same Ayotzinapa campus where the recent event occurred, and they were also killed by the government. There have been other similar tragedies over the years where students have been kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned and killed. It is a part of Méxican history that the world has little knowledge of.
Since the unrest of the sixties, the government has been closing many of the rural normal schools in an attempt to stop social unrest. Currently, only half of the original 29 schools continue to function. The most recently closed was El Mexe, in the state of Hidalgo, interestingly the state where the current Secretary of the Interior, who is heading the investigation of the Ayotzinapa crime, was governor. Another school, Mactumatzá, which is about to close, is located in the state of Chiapas, home to the Zapatista movement. It is easy to connect the closure in Chiapas to the threat of the well-organized indigenous movement.
As protests continue all over México and internationally, new evidence indicates that the federal government was indeed involved in this event. From the beginning, Secretary of the Interior Jesús Murillo Karam wanted a quick, shallow and misleading investigation. His report avoided any meaningful examination of the military and the federal police, who many believe were the true perpetrators of the crime. At the time of this article, independent investigators have been able to disprove all government versions of what happened. The parents continue to hope that their children are alive.
When I became a teacher in California, it was a natural extension of my background to get involved in the counter-militarism group Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities (www.projectyano.org). My low-income students were being exploited by JROTC, military recruiters and racist school administrators. I am proud of what my students have done to affect policy changes in San Diego City Schools, and I am inspired by them as they continue to voice their concerns in their communities. I am glad that the Méxican rural teacher tradition has crossed the border. “Maestro rural, orgullo nacional” (“Rural teacher, pride of the nation”) is one of the chants by hundreds of thousands who have protested in México City for the past three months.
Luis Villanueva, an activist Southern California teacher, gives understanding and background to recent events in México. He wrote this article while on a bus ride to and from México City, where he attended one of the many massive protests in support of the disappeared students.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (http://www.comdsd.org/).