Mactumactzá in the Crosshairs

Friends and family march to demand the release of the 95 normalistas of Mactumaczá brutally detained on March 18th.

By Tanalís Padilla*

The protest of the students of Mactumactzá and its repression by the government of Chiapas shows us once again the precariousness under which the rural teacher training colleges subsist. The trigger for this conflict was the insistence by the educational authorities on administering the admission exam virtually even though the socio-economic condition of the applicants makes it extremely difficult for them to have access to a computer or the Internet.

On May 18, when the normalistas took over the toll booths on the San Cristóbal-Tuxtla Gutiérrez highway to demand an on-site exam, the police arrested 74 women and 19 men who have been charged with the crimes of rioting, gang membership, robbery with violence and attacks on communication routes.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urged the government to investigate the excessive use of force against the students who have been sent to the El Amate prison. From the beginning, the detained students denounced sexual aggressions such as touching and stripping. In various parts of the Republic, including Mexico City, students from the rural normal sister schools have mobilized to demand their freedom. Members of the National Coordinating Committee of Education Workers have also raised their voices in protest of the arrests and expressed their solidarity with the rural teachers’ unions. On May 21, Olga Sanchez Cordero, Secretary of the Interior, informed that the Secretariat and the SEP were in dialogue with the government of Chiapas so that the detainees could carry out their criminal proceedings in freedom.

It goes without saying that the protest of the rural normalistas and their repression by the State is nothing new. But this latest episode takes place under the urgent conditions that Covid-19 has exposed on a global scale. If the neoliberal model of the past four decades had already decimated the social infrastructure, the health crisis has further damaged entire sectors of the population. For affluent groups, technology has been a tool to continue their work in times that require social distancing. For others, it has accentuated the historical social inequality. Instead of recognizing this reality, there is an insistence from above on proposing– and imposing– technological answers to social problems. When, with their protests, the normalistas call attention to this inequity, the response is the traditional repressive machinery.

This should not be the case, especially at a time when, also from above, there is talk of the 4T. The rural normales (teacher training colleges) were created out of a project of transformation . The Mexican Revolution, the 1917 Constitution and the reforms that were implemented in the 1920s, but especially during the 1930s, restructured the political, economic and social system of the country. The agrarian reform, oil expropriation, labor rights, and the massive construction of schools, represented a redistribution of wealth that during the Porfiriato had been concentrated in a few hands or bled out to foreign capitalists.

The transformation process was arduous and depended on the mobilization of the masses whose strength was the channel to counteract the power of capital. Let us not forget that the trigger for the expropriation of the oil industry in 1938 was a strike by its workers. When the British and U.S. companies refused to recognize the workers’ rights, President Lázaro Cárdenas intervened in their favor by declaring the expropriation.

A similar process occurred with the agrarian and educational reforms. Many of the expropriated haciendas were seized thanks to the initiative of the peasants who invaded land and demanded its redistribution and delivery as ejidos. They demanded not only land, but also schools and teachers. Sometimes the teacher arrived earlier and led the organizational process. The communities built rustic little schools and from there demanded recognition and the necessary resources from the State.

The system of rural normales, which in 1936 had 35 schools, had the reasoning of coordinating these reforms on a national scale and consolidating the transformation project. It is not surprising that a revolutionary ethic has concentrated there, manifested in the repeated demands of the students for their class rights.

How to assert these rights before a State that over the years became not only indifferent, but hostile to their demands? The way the rural normalistas found was collective organization and mobilization. It is a process that begins not with the seizure of toll booths, road blockades or truck hijackings; the actions so condemned by the media and the well-to-do, so concerned with the protection of private property.

The process begins with education, not the formal education they receive in the classroom, but the conscientization education that since 1935 the Federation of Socialist Peasant Students of Mexico has been concerned with imparting to each generation of normalista students. This has several components: to clarify that their place in the normal is a right, not a gift from the government; to make known the accumulation of aggressions that historically the rural normal schools have suffered; and that only with the mobilization of the student body-even with risky actions, have they managed to survive.

The rural teacher training colleges have been under siege since the revolutionary process came to a halt in 1940. If we are really talking about a Fourth Transformation, it is a normality that must change.

* Professor-Researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Author of the book Después de Zapata: El movimiento jaramillista y los orígenes de la guerrilla en México, 1940-1962 (Akal/Inter Pares, 2015).

Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada on Sunday, May 23, 2021 https://www.jornada.com.mx/2021/05/23/opinion/017a2pol English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee and re-posted with permission by Schools for Chiapas.