I woke up at 5 am to check my twitter feed. I was sure that something would have happened overnight, as the teachers once again met with government official the night before. The government has been pleading with them to open the roads- that their actions are causing innocent civilians to suffer, with both imports and exports unable to make their way in or out of the state, these road blocks could easily cause the economy to collapse.
But nothing. I went back to bed. I woke up hours later and trying to plan what I might do for yet another day, in a hotel room in Tuxtla Gutierrez. I checked my twitter feed. A road had opened. I started throwing things in bags. Another road opened. I took a shower. I checked the news and saw that the teachers were now allowing individual cars to pass the road blocks. Nilo and I quickly headed out.
As I got on Highway 190, cars were backed up for 6 kilometers. It took me over an hour to make it those 6 kilometers, and I feared that I would once again be turned around, as I saw many cars jump the median and turn around. I finally reached the point in the highway where I had been confronted by that angry man a few nights ago. But there was no angry man, no downed trees, just a line of smiling teachers, on each side of my car, waving their bandanas as a signal for me to pass. I started to cry.
Tears running down my face, I smiled at them all, thanking them in both English and Spanish. Occasionally I'd see someone look at my plates, then look at me, and give me an even bigger smile. I wanted to jump out of my car and hug them, to tell them that I was a teacher, that I was against the reform too, that I was so proud of them for standing up, but so thankful that they opened the roads.
Here, in San Cristobal, there is still much evidence of the strikes, and of the violence in Oaxaca. I stood in front of a barricade today, where I took the photos below and, again, I cried.
"This is not a reform that has been preceded by any sort of serious diagnosis and certainly it has not consider teachers´s points of view. It is based exclusively on the policies and concrete initiatives mandated by the Organization for the Cooperation and Economic Development (OCED). These have been adapted in Mexico by a foundation called “Mexicans First”, which includes powerful corporations: The Mexican national TV empire (Televisa), the beer and refreshments businesses (Corona, Coca-Cola), Kimberly Clark, the paper monopoly, and the various businesses of Carlos Slim, the third richest person in the world. Don’t forget: Mexico is the 14th richest economy in the world, although more than half of its 110 million inhabitants live in poverty. So this is a reform that represents what big businesses think is necessary not to educate creative and socially responsible human beings, but to prepare students to become human capital. It is the reform of the rich.
It is a reform against the poor, including teachers of public schools. Teachers are a strong and well organized social force and a formidable obstacle to the educational plans of big business. And that explains the depth of the class confrontation. The teaching profession in Mexico is an off spring of one of the most important armed social movements in Latin America in the 20th century. The State recruited hundreds of thousands of sons and daughters of poor peasants, of workers, and low income employees and educated them in public Normal schools especially created for that purpose. They teach reading, writing and counting, but also teach indigenous communities, peasants and urban workers on how to defend themselves as well as their right to live in an independent country, free from their colonialized past and from subordination. In a nation of poor people, the poor created the conditions for the education of the poor and did this backed by an ideology of social progress. Understandably, teachers of today see the reform of the rich as a fundamental threat to the idea of education that has sustained the country for a century, and they also see it as a personal threat of exclusion. Neoliberalism has changed the State but, as is very visible, not the needs of the majority of the people in the country. Colonization and subordination to predatory free trade agreements is at its height.
To demoralize and corral teachers, the instrument of choice is standardized evaluation. It’s very useful to create a climate of fear with exams that decide who will be fired or excluded from teaching and relegated to administrative duties. A single standardized test designed in the cosmopolitan capital of the country, is being applied to the vastly different groups of teachers of a variety of regions and cultures of the country. Just to give you an idea, Mexico has about sixty different original languages, and the desert and cold mountains of the north of the country are radically different in society and economy from the rain forests, rivers and ocean towns and cities of the south, and the gigantic capital. A single exam cannot capture this diversity, nor the diversity of teaching strategies and teaching knowledge that every region and culture requires. As has been proven in other countries and in Mexico, this type of exam will specially eliminate teachers who are women, poor, or who are most distant from the values, culture and vocabularies of the center of the country. It it is a tool for demobilizing protesters.
Evaluation only works as an omninous threat if teachers do not have full labor rights. In Mexico all workers, including teachers, were protected by an article of the constitution (Art. 123) that establishes the basic framework of labor rights (the right to strike, the right to belong to a union, to bilateral negotiation, and protections in the case of firing or punishment proceedings, and so on). To remove this obstacle, the education Reform began in 2012 with a constitutional change that removed teachers from under the umbrella of the above mentioned Article. As a result, the aggressive Law of Professional Teaching Service now adds seven reasons for firing a teacher, and for which the union could not intervene. Article 65 of the law is a good example. It states that if the authority considers that a teacher has done something wrong (whatever it may be), he or she will be notified and then given ten days to gather proof of innocence. And unilaterally, the authority will decide the sanction. The law also states that if after three rounds of evaluation a teacher repeatedly appears as “unfit” he or she will be automatically and permanently removed from teaching or even fired, without Union intervention. Furthermore, if a teacher refuses to participate in the test, the punishment is the immediate separation from the job. By the way, tens of thousands of defying teachers refused to submit to the standardized test and now some have been fired.
All this is only against public teachers. The changes introduced to the General Law of Education made it clear that teachers from private schools would not be touched. They will be evaluated and then invited to continue their training, but will not be sanctioned no matter how many evaluations show they are “unfit”.
What is happening now? First, increased repression. The long years of resistance have been harsh and difficult. Some teachers have been apprehended and are held practically as political prisoners, many others are being sought by the federal police, there have been two teachers killed and repression against teachers takes place in a country where political murders and disappearances are common, like the case of the 43 students teachers from Ayotzinapa. But nevertheless, these years have had a substantial impact on the fate of the reform. It is true that the government has won the constitutional and legal battles, but every time they try to apply the law to fire teachers, there are strong protests in the streets, highways are blocked, schools closed, specially in the southern states. Clearly big corporations and government deeply miscalculated the determination of teachers.
Second, the search for alternative proposals for education. For years teachers have been working on the creation of an alternative, a sort of educational reform of their own. This is something that has to do with change within schools , but in some cases, like in Oaxaca, it has gone as far as constructing an initiative for an alternate local law on education. This experience reinforces teachers bonds, creates a strong link of schools with the communities and cannot easily be destroyed. Even in Mexico City, for example, the laws of the reform are not applied to teachers of an alternate secondary education system created in 2000 by the City government. Since it will severely damage the alternative nature of this system so far authorities do not dare to confront teachers to force them to submit to evaluations and other aspects of the new laws. In the City, other similar models, like the City University will also vehemently oppose the reform even if its faculty by law will not be directly affected.
Let me finish by mentioning Monterroso, a Guatemalan author who wrote one of the shortest stories in world literature. The story says: “And when he woke up, the dinosaur was still there”. Every morning for the past four years the Mexican Government officials and the corporate reformers wake up only to see that the dinosaur is still there, protesting. And we shall win."
-Professor Hugo Aboites
This is not the first time I've been stranded in a hotel room, unable to go more than a block or two from the hotel. The first time it happened was in Nouackchott, Mauritania, when the government was suddenly overthrown. I had just gotten back from a three week trip to the US, and had gotten to the capital city the night before. I woke up that morning to go to the bank, and on my way out the door I received a panicked call from my father asking me if I was ok. My father, in the United States, had known about the coup before I did. Shortly thereafter I received a call from the Peace Corps, telling us that we could not leave the hotel, that there had been a coup d'etat.
I turned on the tv, and saw tanks driving down the street in front of the bank I had almost gone to.
The coup was peaceful, and we were all pretty thrilled to be "sheltering in place" in an air conditioned hotel in the capital. I had no money money for a few days, and lived off the teryaki beef jerky and haribo gummi bears that I had brought back from the US. I remember praying that we might get evacuated from the country, and that my two year stint in Mauritania would come to an early close. However, after three or four days, we were all sent back to our sites.
That was the beginning of the end of my time in Mauritania. I got back to my site, to find that my host sister had been badly burned by oil from the cooking stove. She was in constant pain, and my host parents medicated her burns by rubbing them with charcoal from the fire. I could not convince them otherwise, and could not bear to see her in such pain. Ramadan started a few weeks after that, and my misery increased. I holed up in the the regional capital for much of Ramadan, playing endless games of scrabble. Each and every time I went out to my village, I could only last a couple days, then I'd come running back to the regional capital for a week.
At the end of November, I made the sudden decision to quit. I knew and still know that I made the right decision, but I still have dreams that I decide to go back to Mauritania, to finish my service.
However, that is impossible, as the Peace Corp in Mauritania did end up evacuating all the volunteers about six months after I left, and has not opened since. Peace Corps discovered that there had been some activity by Al-Queda in Mauritania, and that volunteers were being "suspiciously" spied on in certain cities.
But enough about Mauritania. Here, in my hotel room in Mexico, I have no gummi bears or beef jerky. I think this is the one time, I've felt lonely this whole trip, and doubtful of my ability to do this. I wish the same friends I had "sheltered in place" in Nouakchott, were here in Mexico with me now....
I've spent the day checking my twitter feed- the only thing I follow is the autopistas chiapas, which is giving updates on the road closures. I've also made a bit of progress on my Spanish. I've been making flashcards with phrases relevant to road closures, and strikes, and every hour or so, I go practice what I've learned on the hotel staff. The concierge thinks that the closures will last for three or four days, but I think her guess is as good as mine.
I called the embassy this morning, who said it was fine to stay here and wait, and that they also were not sure how long the roads would be closed for. Thankfully, the lady who is hosting me in San Cristobal has been super gracious, and extended her house to me "whenever I can actually make it" there.
There is a long, long line of people waiting for gas across the street at least 4-5 blocks, along with a line of people extending down the street. I've never been so happy to have a full tank, parked in a guarded garage below the hotel. I think I'm going to go withdraw some money and buy a lot of water. I'm not anticipating that either of these things are actually necessary, but I think that's what you do when you see a long line of people wanting gas.
And yes, I am still smoking.
I bought a pack of cigarettes today. I quit smoking a little more than a year and a half ago.
The drive to San Cristobal was incredible- once you get into Chiapas State, it's like entering a little jungle. Absolutely beautiful, and good roads too. I thought nothing of today's drive- it was all on cuotas (well maintained toll roads) and I only had about 7 hours of drive time to reach San Cristobal de las Casas.
However, once I was spit out of the jungle, I came over a hill, only to see that there were miles of semi trucks backed up. I was able to sneak around them, and as I came to a police officer with a road block, and asked him if it was ok, he happily waved me on.
I knew as I drove on that something was definitely not ok. There were no other cars. For at least three miles. I came over another hill to see a tree laying across the road, with a small fire burning next to it.
Teachers in Mexico strike almost every year, right about this time. I was in Mexico City about three years ago as they protested in the Zocolo. But this year is different, especially here in Chiapas and also in Oaxaca, and the protests are just as, if not more extreme than they were ten years ago.
But, wait, in this story, I'm still in my car, next to a downed tree, and a fire. So I wait for another car to come, and then I follow it. Just about everyone else in Mexico, has a better idea of what to do in this situation so I just follow them.
I follow them down dirt roads, with people waving old t-shirts, to guide the way. I give an old lady 10 pesos, and ask if this is the way to San Cristobal. She says yes and wishes me a safe journey. I drive my Subaru through a small river, making the sign of the cross before doing so. I finally, end up on the highway, right where I'm supposed to be.
But, no, the story does not end there. Another five miles down the road, I meet another roadblock- this one not guarded by police telling me that it's ok, but by an angry man who tells me to turn around.
"Perro, Yo neccissito a San Cristobal...."
He laughs, and says no, not today.
Part of me wants to say, "Yo soy una maestra," like the fact that I'm a teacher might make them part like the sea. Or the police would overhear and come beat me down.... Instead, I turn around and start driving back into the city of Tuxtla Gutierrez. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I don't know what to do, other than stop and cry. And I can't do that. So instead, I buy a pack of Marlboro Reds. I smoke one, and try to think. I search for a hotel. Holiday Inn Express? They might speak English, and have a better idea of what to do.... I enter it into maps, light up another Marlboro Red, and start driving.
Clearly, this was not a good choice, as I can immediately tell the main protest is in the heart of the city, just a few blocks from the Holiday Inn Express. There are tents set up for blocks, people have graffitied nearly every sign, with things like down with the reform, etc. Again, I light another Marlboro Red, and I turn around.
I pull over at then nicest hotel I see. I pay 700 pesos for myself, and an additional 300 for Nilo. I take Nilo out for a walk, buy 3 beers, and bunker down for the night, where I am currently typing and waiting for some tacos to arrive.
I feel better after a beer. All feels normal inside my little hotel room, and I can now focus on what to do tomorrow. I've been in contact with my air bnb host, who has given me a twitter link to the protests and road closures. She gave me two alternative routes, one of which is the "libre", a toll free, but poorly maintained road, but I assume that it is also blocked. And another route that would take me four hours out of the way.
I honestly think that things will probably escalate tonight and that the "federales" will bust up the protests. From what I've read online, the protests have already caused a gas shortage here in Tuxtla, but also in San Cristobal and Palenque (which makes me hesitate to take a back road, if there is no guarantee of gas), and I know the government will not tolerate that.
It makes me think about the sacrifice that these teachers are making in the face of an unjust system. They are risking their lives to be heard. Would I do the same?
I'm going to smoke another Marlboro Red, take a swim and call it a night.
Say your prayers that the teachers and federales can make peace, and that I can get to San Cristobal tomorrow without incident.
I'm Lauri. Teacher for nine months of the year, vagabond for the other three. I've traveled to France, Russia, West Africa, SE Asia and all over the US. This summer I'll be driving to Mexico with my little dog, Nilo.