Mexico's Student Rebellion
The startling front-page photos of sixty-eight Hidalgo state riot cops held captive in their underwear by enraged townspeople here, after the police had stormed a local Normal School and hauled off hundreds of rebellious teacher trainees, is hard evidence that despite the federal government’s February 6 take-back of the national university (UNAM) to break a ten-month-long strike, Mexico’s student rebellion is far from over. Instead, it is spreading into the most volatile corners of the land.
Trouble at the Luis Villareal Normal School — better known as “El Mexe” (“spider” in the language of local Nnanhu Indians) — erupted in early January, when the student government “expelled” the school’s director for failing to account for state funds, and demanded that Governor Manuel Angel Nuñez provide 200 additional scholarships for poor farm youth who aspire to become teachers. The Governor responded by cutting off food, water, and gas to El Mexe, a boarding school (internado). On January 10, Nuñez compounded the crackdown, closing El Mexe and ordering students to enroll at the National Pedagogical University in the state capital of Pachuca. But those who did so (about a third of the student body of 450 young people, mostly women) are reportedly being held as virtual prisoners in a Pachuca dance hall, where authorities keep them isolated from their still-striking classmates and even their families.
Faced with the state’s intransigence, the majority of El Mexe’s enrollees emulated their contemporaries at the UNAM, hung out the red and black strike flags, and along with their parents, occupied the Normal School. Demonstrations and marches followed. In the past month, nearly a thousand students and teachers have been detained by police — including 700 normalistas from neighboring states who traveled to Hidalgo to stage solidarity rallies, and whose “deportation” [sic] Nuñez ordered after riot police dislodged them February 18 from the esplanade of the Pachuca government palace. The police were then dispatched to evict strikers from El Mexe.
Breaking down doors in a pre-dawn raid, the cops beat, gassed, and arrested 351 young people before neighbors in the adjoining farm community of Tepatepec could organize to repel the aggression. An angry throng soon marched on the school, taking sixty-eight police officers prisoner, forcing them to disrobe, and parading them two kilometers to the central plaza of the municipal seat of Francisco Madero, where they were submitted to a “public judgment.” (Such public judgments in Hidalgo towns like Huejutla have sometimes led to lynchings.) After many hours of angry accusations, townspeople finally agreed to exchange the nearly naked policemen for the students detained that morning. But eight student leaders remain incommunicado in maximum-security penitentiaries around Hidalgo.
The pattern of escalation at El Mexe bears striking similarities to the denouement at the UNAM. Like fired UNAM rector Francisco Barnes, Governor Nuñez, who took office last fall, promised “excellence in education” but trimmed subsidies destined for El Mexe, radicalizing already frustrated students who eventually called a strike and took over the school. At both the UNAM and the Normal School, state and federal governments controlled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) sought to pin the blame for the student revolts on the left-center opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and in both cases, the government eventually resorted to police violence to subdue the strikers and recover the installations. Although authorities insisted that police were unarmed in both instances, parents at El Mexe displayed fifteen automatic weapons that red-faced state officials later conceded had been brought along as “back-up” in case the confrontation got out of hand. One father of an arrested student who would only identify himself as “El Pueblo” hypothesized that the weapons had been planted at the Normal School to justify terrorism and sabotage charges against strikers (as has been done against arrested UNAM students).
Despite their parallel struggles, there are pronounced distinctions between the UNAM, a sophisticated urban university, the largest and oldest in all of Latin America and universally known as the nation’s “maximum house of study,” and the lowly El Mexe, which is at the bottom of the country’s educational barrel. Mexico’s seventeen surviving rural Normal Schools are remnants of the nation’s 1910-1919 revolution — indeed many were established on the grounds of confiscated haciendas. El Mexe was founded in 1926 to combat illiteracy among the landless campesinos in whose name the revolution had been fought. The Normalista Movement reached its apogee under President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40) when “red brigades” of trainee teachers were sent to rural communities to teach reading to farm families and to spread the gospel of socialist education. Normal School students formed the Mexican Federation of Socialist Campesinos and Students (F.E.C.S.M.) in 1935 — El Mexe’s students are still required to be members. At school assemblies, El Mexe students still intone the old Communist hymn, “The Internationale.” The walls are adorned with giant heads of Che Guevara, Lenin, and Stalin. A banner at the entrance way to the campus reads: “Welcome, Comrades: The People Are Disgraced Wherever Young People Do Not Make the World Tremble.”
Once labeled “Bolshevik kindergartens” by a governor of Chihuahua, the normales remain hotbeds of revolutionary thought, sometimes breeding armed struggle. In 1965 Arturo Gámiz (a Normal School professor) and a band of young rebels attacked an army garrison in Chihuahua, an assault that initiated years of guerrilla struggle all over Mexico. Other prominent Normal School graduates include the Guerrero state guerrillero leaders Genaro Vazquez and Lucio Cabañas. Cabañas is a former F.E.C.S.M. director who graduated from El Mexe, and whose Party of the Poor fought a seven-year war against the Mexican government that ended in 1974 with Cabañas’ death. In the aftermath of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre (over 300 killed) during another UNAM strike, half the nation’s then thirty-five Normales were shuttered, as alleged breeding grounds for subversion, by President Gustavo Diáz Ordaz.
The participation of the campesinos of Tepatepec in the El Mexe confrontation exemplifies the organic connection between farming families, their communities, and the Normal School system, says agrarian economist Luis Hernández Navarro. “The Normal Schools are one of the few ways for the children of poor farmers to advance socially,” Navarro affirms, adding that “the expectation of social mobility [that becoming a teacher implies] is not just an individual act but one which involves the whole family and the community.”
Many prominent politicians, including PRI honchos as well as radical social activists, are El Mexe graduates. Among them is Martiniano González, the P.R.D. municipal president of the town that includes Tepatepec. “The government has been trying to close down the school for years,” he says. Both González and Navarro view efforts to liquidate the Normal Schools as part of the continuing decapitalization of Mexican agriculture, a process that also includes slashes in the guaranteed crop prices, a moratorium on bank credits, and the privatization of the ejidos (towns organized as rural communal production units). Once a major corn producing state, Hidalgo now sends tens of thousands of undocumented workers into the U.S. migration stream every year. Indeed, González muses, his municipality is largely populated by women these days, because so many husbands, fathers, and sons head for El Norte.
The diminishing farm population has made the Normal Schools expendable. “It is not cost-effective to train teachers to work in rural schools, where they may have only four or five pupils,” argues Hidalgo’s education secretary Jaime Costeira, himself a Mexe graduate. Similarly, in Oaxaca, a heavily Indian state with twelve Normal Schools in operation, teachers union spokesperson Alberto Guzmán reports education officials are considering closing down the training schools because of a surfeit of primary and pre-school teachers. Despite government claims that Mexico has too many teachers, education at all levels is not flourishing. Only 49 percent of all primary school students go on to secondary schools (compared to 98 percent in the U.S.). Of those who do, most never graduate: according to the Mexican Atlas of Demographics, the dropout rate grew by 600,000 between 1992 and 1997. Despite their precarious situation, the students at El Mexe are part of the elite — only 14 percent of all high school enrollees enter higher education systems, and a minimal 0.46 percent are enrolled in post-graduate studies. Meanwhile, on the ground floor, illiteracy is increasing — the demographic Atlas lists an increase of 126,000 analfabéticos in the five-year period covered. In Chiapas, 53 percent of the state’s 1.4 million indigenas cannot read or write.
The hundreds of out-of-state normalistas “deported” by Governor Nuñez are a sign of spreading solidarity, as the tightly-knit F.E.C.S.M. mobilizes to support the beleaguered students of El Mexe. In Oaxaca, 14,000 students and teachers held a 24-hour walkout to protest the crackdown, and Normales in Guerrero, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Tamaulipas have staged similar protests. The Amilcingo Normal School, near revolutionary martyr Emiliano Zapata’s birthplace in Morelos, is another flashpoint, as state authorities seek to transfer the students and close up the troublesome school. Similarly, normalistas in San Marcos, Zacatecas who recently confronted President Ernesto Zedillo with their demands, had their school temporarily shuttered.
Meanwhile, the strike at the UNAM sputters fitfully around the fringes of the sprawling southern Mexico City campus, as all faculties begin to function at full capacity following the February 6 take-back by the Federal Preventative Police. Nearly 300 members of the General Strike Council (C.G.H.), classified by the courts as “dangers to society,” remain locked down in Mexico City federal penitentiaries. Daily demonstrations demanding the students’ release continue to snarl traffic, but none has come near the proportions of the massive 140,000-strong march three days after the police invaded the UNAM campus.
Out in the provinces, state universities in Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa, and Yucatán have been momentarily shuttered by solidarity strikers. Educational strife is expected to accelerate during the coming months, as rebel primary and secondary school teachers strike for increased wages and benefits in a dozen states, in an annual campaign that culminates May 15, National Teachers’ Day. That will be just six weeks before a presidential election in which the nation’s growing teacher-student revolt is sure to be an issue.
John Ross, a high school dropout and author of the forthcoming “The War Against Oblivion: Zapatista Chronicles (1994-2000),” reports regularly for the Observer from Mexico.