Mexico’s Teachers Fight Neoliberal ‘Reforms’


Mexico City.

In the fight against brutal, cutthroat neoliberalism in Mexico, teachers have long been on the front lines.

Ten years ago, they led the way in the southern state of Oaxaca. What began as a limited teachers’ strike transformed into a massive movement, known as the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), that led to the occupation of the capital city. [See my article, “Day of the Dead, Ghosts of the Conquered,” 12/15/06 TPP] Recently, Mexico’s teachers have been fighting to defend the very institution of public education.

This has put them at the greatest risk of violence. Two years ago, 43 education students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, disappeared, in an attack that many link to the government. The victims were part of the “normalismo” system, long a bastion of rural education here. President Enrique Peña Nieto has been pushing for sweeping changes that would do away with this system, turning education into a monetized commodity.

Backed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and US Agency for International Development (AID) and pushed through Mexico’s Congress with little debate, the reform changes Mexico’s constitution to implement a corporatized model of education. In the immediate context, it kicks the poor while they’re down. Teachers and schools are subjected to nationwide, standardized testing, which excludes much of the country. The tests focus on an urban, Spanish-speaking model, ignoring the cultural context of Mexico’s native cultures and rural communities.

The people of southern Mexico have the most to lose. States like Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Chiapas are largely indigenous, speaking dozens of native languages and keeping ancient traditions alive. In Oaxaca, the culturally relevant “alternative education plan,” using curricula based on the students’ cultural context, is in the crosshairs. One teacher from Oaxaca put it succinctly:

“In the US, David, your native people are protecting their sacred land from a pipeline. Our native cultures are in the same fight — it’s a fight for survival.”

The reform combines the worst of cutthroat capitalism and inefficient government bureaucracy. The standardized tests were developed by people with little to no classroom experience. When teachers “fail” the tests, they can be replaced with any person who has a college degree, regardless of whether they have even studied education.

The reform is part of a bigger move toward letting the market decide who the haves and have-nots are. In 2006, the miners’ union was attacked. In 2009, the electrical workers’ union was disbanded by the government. Peña Nieto has been pushing for the gradual privatization of PEMEX, the state oil company.

“I owe everything I have to public education,” says one lawyer who grew up in a low-income neighborhood of Mexico State. “Do you think my parents could have paid to put me through college, with my dad repairing washing machines and my mom cleaning houses? For millions of people who grew up poor like I did, free public education is the only hope we have for a better future. And now they want to take that away from us.”

Teachers across the country have raised their voices. María Teresa Lechuga, a professor from the Mexico City’s UNAM university, says that the misnamed “Educational Reform” doesn’t modernize Mexico’s educational system. “Just the opposite. It represents a step backwards in history, rolling back everything we fought for over decades. They want to take away the most legitimate right any people can lay claim to: the right to participating in humanity’s shared knowledge, to be an active, creative agent in society.”

“A true measure of reform,” says retired professor Arturo Ramos, “would not attempt to justify budget cuts and limit public education. It would have to start by recognizing education as a fundamental right of our nation.”

The CNTE, an independent movement acting within the official teachers’ union, has led the fight against the reform, organizing marches, protests, and strikes. The government has fought back. Many union leaders have been detained without charges, and thousands of striking teachers were fired.

Many of these resisting teachers went to Canada and Quebec this August to share their stories. Before heading to Montreal for the World Social Forum, they took part in the 12th biennial conference of Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL). Hundreds of non-tenured university professors from Canada, Mexico and the US gathered in Edmonton, Alberta, to share resources and strategies.

In a general sense, the professors all realized how much they had in common — every year, fewer of their colleagues have a secure, full-time job. In Canada and the US, more than half of university professors are precarious part-time workers. In Mexico, the figure is closer to 80%.

“It’s indicative of the commodification of higher education,” says Glynnis Lieb, one of the COCAL organizers from Edmonton. “This lack of respect is internalized by students as well. How can students feel optimistic about their future prospects, if they see their professors working at fast food restaurants to make ends meet?”

Dougal MacDonald, another Canadian professor, says that the precarious position of his colleagues across North America makes them easier to exploit. “At the same time, however, the increased exploitation is leading to greater resistance. We are fighting to defend our job security, our fair wages and benefits.”

At the end of the conference, the COCAL attendees signed a statement of solidarity with Mexico’s teachers, unanimously supporting them in their struggles against government-backed violence. It couldn’t have come at a better time — the struggle is becoming increasingly bloody here.

Oaxaca brings news of new arrests and deaths on a weekly basis. Union leaders have been harassed, beaten, and jailed. In June, 1,000 militarized police evicted striking teachers from the state capital, wounding and detaining dozens. In the town of Nochixtlán, at least six were killed when an encampment of protesting teachers was broken up by police. Father Pablo Andrés García Cruz, a priest in Juchitán, has led prayers for peace in Spanish and in the native Zapotec language.

When I was in Oaxaca last summer, the teachers were on the front lines of a movement to contest fraudulent regional elections. The mountains of the Cañada region felt like a war zone. A local schoolteacher told me at the time, “we’ve got the Mexican Navy docking in the nearby city of Jalapa. Military helicopters are flying over Tenango. It’s like something you’d see on the news, in a country like Iraq. Only here, it’s our own military that’s doing the invading.”

Adding insult to injury, Mexico’s president invited Donald Trump to visit this past August 31. The internet erupted in memes, depicting the pair as the dunces of “Dumb and Dumber.” Many teachers I spoke with weren’t surprised. “Peña seems to have the utmost disdain for our nation,” one said. “Why wouldn’t he welcome in the most hateful figure of US politics?”

Thousands of Mexico’s teachers refuse to back down, however. As Lilia Abarca, a teacher from the CNTE labor movement, said during her speech at the World Social Forum in Quebec, “this struggle has cost us a high price. We’ve paid with our blood, with the lives of our dead comrades. But we’re going to keep fighting back.”

David J. Schmidt, a freelance writer and multilingual translator, splits his time between Mexico City and San Diego, Calif. He is the author of several books in English and Spanish, including the recent series on his work with coffee farmers in southern Mexico, Into the Serpent’s Head. He can be contacted at or via his website,

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2016

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