“Wa-chu, wa-chu, wa-chu, wa-chu.” A fat wren sat on a pine branch outside the President’s window. Suddenly it completed the phrase: “Wa-chu want? Wa-chu want?”
“Impossible”, thought the President with surprise. “Little birds don’t talk to me, like they do to that stupid ass in Venezuela.”
“Wa-chu want?”, rattled the wren once more.
“If I take too long, maybe she won’t ask again”, he thought, and quickly: “I want Mexico at peace, and Mexico with quality education.”
“Wa-chu…? I thought you were going to ask for something for yourself”, said the bird clearly all of a sudden. “In that case, you would have been given anything. After all, you are the President. But since you had the wisdom to ask for your country, let me say…. For now, you can only have one of the two. But if you choose well, and act with bravery, effort and leadership, then the one you choose can help you achieve the other. For now, they are opposing forces. Later, one will fortify the other. Now, tell me, which one do you prefer? As you decide, keep in mind that the battle is in Oaxaca.”
Oaxaca is the state where 53% of Mexico’s indigenous population lives. For a third of its citizens (more than a million), Spanish is a second language, and 5% don’t speak Spanish at all.
There is a long history of struggle in Oaxaca. In the northern mountains the Mixe people were never conquered by Zapotecans, Aztecs or Spaniards. The craggy geography of the western Sierra Madre reinforced the fierce independence of the Mixtecs, the People of the Rain. The Zapotecs, inhabitants of the Oaxaca Valley, resisted the attacks of the Aztec emperor Ahuizotl in their invincible fortress city of Guiengola, which dominated the Isthmus of Tehuantepec from the heights.
Many of the Oaxacan peoples didn’t succumb to Spanish conquest until 1550. The isolation of their territories preserved their fierce independence until it finally could protect them no longer. After that, isolation permitted the most brutal tactics ever used by conquistadores, mostly unbeknownst to the rest of the colony. Mountain hamlets were overcome in surprise attacks and the men were shackled and branded with hot irons. Caciques and other leaders were put to death by burning, hanging, or were eaten alive by dogs.
In 2013 (a year for which we now have published information on income and expenditures) the Federal Government provided 95% of the total revenues of the State of Oaxaca. Of the gross budget expenditures, 57% was destined for social development, and two thirds of that went to education, constituting the largest line item. But state educational services are not at the service of the students. Since 1992, when Governor Heladio Ramirez handed over the keys to the state education authority IEEPO to the teachers’ union leadership. Today, 98% of IEEPO personnel are unionized and you can’t move a single desk or hire anyone without the union leadership signing off on the move, and the union designates the State education authorities. Instead of passing education laws in accordance with the Federal Education Law of 2013 as bound by the constitution, the State Legislature is currently considering the passage of an alternate law promulgated by the CNTE teachers’ union. In addition to legalizing the control the union already wields over teachers, the initiative includes union control over parents, students and their communities by a requirement that all funds for community development projects be channeled and approved via “school collectives”.
Education in Oaxaca is currently the source of social and economic wellbeing for teachers and union functionaries. It is no longer a means of socioeconomic mobility for students. Oaxaca has the lowest levels of student achievement and highest dropout rates in the nation. And teachers insist on closing schools at the drop of a hat.
Currently the federal government is negotiating the application of the Education Law of 2013 with CNTE representatives in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the disturbances of 2006, detonated when the teachers’ union, as usual, ended the school year early in May with a strike and a list of demands. The governor, Ulises Ruiz, tried to remove striking teachers from the central plaza by force. Over twenty citizens died due to confrontations between strikers and police, and the traditional Guelaguetza folklore festival was canceled that year. The tourist seasons were lost, putting artisans, hoteliers, restauranteurs, musicians, tour guides, taxi drivers, street vendors and thousands more out of work.
Up to now in negotiations with CNTE leadership, the federal government has recovered control of the educational budget but conceded (in contradiction to clear mandates of the 2013 Education Law) teaching positions to graduates of state teachers’ colleges without having to pass the federal professional qualifying exam, which many can’t pass due to their own lack of educational opportunities. The government also agreed to continue paying everyone on the union-approved payroll, including CNTE organizers and those who don’t work at all (called “aviators” in Spanish because they only touch down on payday). This again casts doubt on whether young, talented Oaxacans will ever have access to educational opportunities like those that helped propel Benito Juarez to the Presidency.
Mexico in peace or Mexico with quality education? The battle is in Oaxaca.