Oaxaca’s Diversity at Odds with Mexico’s Education Reforms

Last week, students of Oaxaca, Mexico protested the new education reforms recently passed by Mexico’s new president Enrique Pena Nieto.  President Nieto has been very busy lately enacting new reforms.  Many international media have been hailing the education reforms as being a positive thing for the country, since Mexico’s public school system is largely seen as a failure, and the national teacher’s union as being too powerful and led by a notoriously corrupt leader.

But in Oaxaca, Mexico’s poorest state, students have a different perspective.  They challenge the government’s decision to apply blanket reforms to all of Mexico, a country that is extremely socially, culturally and economically diverse.

Last Tuesday, students from the Coordinadora Estudiantil Normalista del Estado de Oaxaca (CENEO), a school that trains teachers to be, were protesting the reforms in a unique way to demonstrate this diversity.  In a “socio-cultural demonstration” they called it, the students organized a day of dances, songs and poetry from the many different ethnicities in Oaxaca and performed them in the main square of Oaxaca city for all to see.  Through these performances, they showed that Mexico is not a homogenous whole and the government’s decision to apply standardized reforms across the country will ultimately hurt Oaxaca students.

The state of Oaxaca deals with unique issues.  It is one of Mexico’s poorest states and has 16 different indigenous populations – more than any other state in the country.  It’s speculated that these cultures have been able to survive here because of the area’s rugged mountainous terrain, which essentially isolates communities. Because of this isolation, they’ve largely been able to maintain their language and certain customs and traditions.  Consequently, many of these areas are also very very poor rural areas, and lack basic infrastructure.

Clearly the needs of students in Oaxaca differ greatly from the needs of students in Mexico’s capital, for example.

“The reforms are going to change the curriculum in all Mexican schools to make more IT and communications classes mandatory, but in Oaxaca many students come from villages that don’t even have electricity,” Laura Vazquez told me Tuesday.  She also shared several other concerns.

As it stands, students in Oaxaca only go to school in the morning or the afternoon, but the new reforms will force students across the country to go to school eight hours a day.  This might not seem like much to ask from a Western perspective, but when kids’ basic nutritional requirements aren’t met they don’t have the energy or the ability to focus in classrooms for such a long period of time.  Also, many children help their families by working and bringing in an extra income.  This is evident in Oaxaca city where among the beautiful, colonial architecture and tourist-filled streets children as young as eight (or younger) approach strangers and try to sell them crafts, souvenirs and snacks.

School for four hours a day is feasible, but school for eight hours a day is not.  Many worry that the immediate alternative would be to simply not attend.  In the short term, when faced with the choice of sitting in a classroom all-day or trying to find your daily necessities of food and money for your family, which are you expected chose?  The implication, of course, is that the new reforms will perpetuate the poverty cycle in Oaxaca.

In celebrating and showing off Oaxaca’s diversity, the CENEO were also offering an alternative form of protest.  Vazquez said that they were trying to get away from the usual methods of protest such as large marches, or blocking off roads, which in general angers the public.  Instead, she said, they tried to offer cultural programming and set up information booths around the square in attempts to educate the public on current issues.

But Oaxaca is also known for being a very politically outspoken state.  The city of Oaxaca itself is renown for the violent teachers strike of 2006, where police opened fire on peaceful protestors that resulted in 17 deaths.  Dissenting voices here generally still identify with the classic forms of resistance, through force and revolution.  The day prior to the CENEO demonstration, teachers and cab drivers gathered in the same square to protest the same government reforms.  They stood under banners of Lenin, Marx, Engels and Stalin and posters of silhouettes of men holding rifles and ammunition.  Police in full riot gear waited on side streets, just in case – what waiters in the square told me was a normal occurrence in the city.  Though they stand for the same issues, the CENEO in this instance was offering a peaceful and inclusive alternative form of resistance.

The CENEO understand the short-term necessities of Oaxaca families and are concerned with the long-term consequences for the people of Oaxaca.  This is something the centralized Mexican government does not understand, or refuses to see, because they have a different view of short-term realities.

High school and primary school teachers in Mexico have been largely protesting these new education reforms because they call for yearly standardized testing – what the teachers say is government’s attempt to patronize and delegitimize their profession to eventually have the excuse to privatize education.  This is ultimately the same process the government took with the electricity industry a few years ago, which is now private.  Not only will this raise the price of education, but the main concern is that it will result in thousands of teachers loosing their jobs.

But the teachers in Mexico don’t exactly have a glowing reputation either.  Not only has the union leader made international headlines lately for being arrested on counts of embezzlement, but the union itself is seen as much too powerful in Mexico.  Phantom teachers – teachers who are legally employed and collect a salary, but who never show up to work – are said to exist in large numbers, and buying your way into the profession is supposedly quite common.

Many question why Elba Esther Gordillo, the leader of the national teacher’s union, was arrested now of all times.  It’s been known for years that she’s corrupt, politically influential and has even been suspected, but never accused, of several murders.  Some say that this is a sign that the new Mexican government is determined to take back power and enforce the rule of law again in the country.  Others say that this was a distraction that was meant to preoccupy people’s minds so that the government can more easily pass controversial reforms, ie/ the education reforms and changes to the state owned oil company, Pemex.

In any case, on the 26th of February, Nieto signed into law the new reforms, making some happy and optimistic for the future, and ignoring the voices of many others.  The decision was made by a government that seemingly refuses to acknowledge it’s own social, cultural and economic diversity, but ultimately to appease the global conditions that force it to do so.

The dissenting voice in Oaxaca may not be as political powerful, but it is persistent, socially tough and culturally fruitful.

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