Walking the tents and talking to the teachers, I could not escape a sort of deja vu. My memories moved backwards to the transformation of Eastern Europe's educational system under the Soviet block.
There is a Czech documentary, which details the thoughts and ideals of those who took over the schools in a small town, after the Great War. "We will build a new society," they proclaim. They re-write the textbooks. At a chilling moment, the documentary displays a banner in front of the school auditorium: "Those who are not with us, are against us."
There was a type of naive, almost childish enthusiasm in such moments. Mexico's teachers, as much as they oppose the PRI and support Mexico's left and poor, seem critically unaware of their history, what made them what they are.
The deep irony here, the knot that is so hard to untangle, is that they are not "unions" per se. In Spanish they are called syndicates-- syndicadoes-- a word which reminds one of the mafia.
They are, undoubtedly, an appartus created by the PRI and it's long, semi-communist, semi-collective, but in the end and utmost, authoritarian rule. A rule and regime, which in the end felt that the descendents of the conquistadores must rule Mexico, and often, that Mexico's native people's were not fit to be part of government-- or to have education.In some villages, the members of the teachers' syndicado are certainly well paid-- in comparison, at least, with those in poverty around them. They show up when they want. Corruption at the top of the largest teachers' syndicate, the CNTE, has run so amuck that a President, Esther Gordillo, was recently asserted for embezzling funds.
The story of Mexico's education system and its problems, cannot be unfolded in simple terms. Many parts of Mexico's ruling class did respect and value native cultures; but many, perhaps the majority, did not. Some tried to educate; many or most, did not, and viewed Mexico's indigenous populations as inferior. Native rule, versus rule by the descendents of the conquistadores, has been a recurring trope of Mexico's political history.
Whereas the Soviet Block's educational system viewed and treated and exploited pupils primarily as "workers," Mexico's history has been more diverse. There is a sense in which the educational system was never meant to work very well, because the "natives" should not be educated.
The elite descendents of the conquistadores in many
regions, in hushed tones, are often referred to as
"untouchables." They have millions of dollars, and
"friends" within all the institutions-- while many native families,
live on less than $75USD per month. There is a history
of impunity, wherein the very few with wealthy, have
been able to do anything-- exploit, rape, murder-- the
poor, without consequence. Such crimes are simply not
And for the few, where labour is cheap, and the population without much in the way of skills, life is good. Even in the relative prosperity of Mexico City, there is a seemingly endless supply of uneducated labour, for a dollar to two an hour.
The official PRI-government statistics say that 96% of the population of Mexico can read. They also say that about 95%, is employed. Everyone knows better.
Mexico's public educational ideology, has been one of "humanism." Its elites, and its burgeoning middle class go to private schools, often organized by Western institutions; more recently, to college in the US or Europe. The poor, go to the maestros, Mexico's teachers, the public education system.
There, at one level, they are told they are all
the same, equally valuable, they can read and develop themselves as they
wish. There's something appealing to this; as well, it aligns with the many of the values of Mexico's native cultures.
Yet a reality is, few have time to show up to school, in what has been a largely agricultural, subsistence economy. Another reality, mentioned above, and to which the left-wing teachers gathered in the Zocalo seem unaware: the syndicates to which they belong, which protest reform and change today, have long been an organ of the PRI's electoral apparatus, even recently.
The implicit deal: be a party member, deliver loyalty and votes, and the PRI will pay you, and you can do what you want. Teach what you want. With no evaluation. Of course, the pay was always, relatively low-- but more, than those living in abject poverty around you.
In this sense, for many decades the PRI described itself as "leftist" and "communist" or "socialist" and proclaimed its solidarity with the people-- while, at the same time, it maintained the power of the conquistadores' families, and the associated industrial monopoles and oligarchies, -- the few, who extracted resources and wealth from the many, held near-absolute power, and eventually, have stalled Mexico's path to growth and liberalisation.
The basic conditions of this rule changed over a quarter-century ago, with the establishment of Mexico's Democratic Front, which became the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). With this split the PRI became viewed as the authoritarian right-wing, and the teachers mostly spit left to the Democratic Front-- except, of course, that their leaders remained beholden to, and vote-deliverers for, the far more powerful PRI.