One Hundred Years of Normal Schools

“True civilization will be harmony of men with the land, and of men amongst themselves.”
Mural of Diego Rivera in the Secretary of Public Education Building, Mexico City.

Note: The history of the creation of Las Escuelas Normales in Mexico, and the repression against them is intimately tied to the peasant struggles for land and freedom and for autonomy. We deeply appreciate the immersive histories shared by Luís Hernández Navarro.

Here are a couple stories telling of the recent struggles of the Mactumactzá normal in Chiapas.

by Luís Hernández Navarro

Whitewashing the past, de-radicalizing it, polishing the sharpest edges of its emancipatory episodes has been a recurrent obsession of our modernizing elites. In his infinite hatred of progressive educators, Octavio Véjar Vázques, head of the Secretary of Public Education (SEP) between 1941 and 1943, ordered the demolition of a wall of the central building, in which the captin was found: In honor of the rural teachers who have fallen in pursuit of the ideal of socialist education.

A decorated brigadier general with a pistol on his belt, an admirer of Benito Mussolini, he fought socialist education, promoted the “school of love,” sought reconciliation with the Catholic Church and persecuted rural teachers. On the wall that he destroyed were written the names of teachers who had been sacrificed by the Cristeros1 and hacienda owners2: female teachers who had been raped, educators who had been murdered, impaled and mutilated.

He canceled the mixed normal boarding schools (1943), because it encouraged degeneracy between boys and girls, almost at the same time in which, in Mexico City, a loincloth was placed on [the statue] of Diana the Huntress. And he opposed bilingual education, as he considered it an obstacle to national unity.

The damage that the official caused to rural normal schools was devastating. A relevant figure in the history of education in the country, Mario Aguilera Dorantes, tells that maestro Rafael Ramírez began a meeting of inspectors with the Minister saying, “Mr. Secretary, there among the teachers is a document that you should know about — they say that for the new León Toral3 with a dagger in his hand, is Véjar Vázquez Octavio who killed the rural schools.”

The idea was to take away from the rural normal school its mission of conscientization, its commitment to the community, its role as a promoter of agrarian reform, its lay vocation. It was intended that the teachers who graduated from these schools would stop committing themselves to social transformation. They did not succeed.

Diego Rivera, Secretary of Public Education Building, Mexico City.

The rural teacher training college emerged a century ago. On May 22nd, 1922 the first one opened enrollment on Benito Juarez 106, in Tacámbaro, Michoacán, just one year after the founding of the Secretary of Public Education. Francisco J. Múgica governed the state. Teacher Isidro Castillo says, “I founded it. Nobody wanted to rent us the house, due to the pressures of Bishop Lepoldo Lara y Torres, who was a Cristero. He was a very demanding and negative priest who was in conflict with us. After five years of being there, I finally got it; Ignacio Chávez’s father rented it to me.”

“That day we were few students, but the school began to work. I, who had been in the elementary school, settled in with the sixth grade group —we carried the benches and set up the room. I got the building, I procured the furniture for it.” The first class had 16 graduates. 

The turbulence that accompanied its birth also accompanied its development. In May 1923, the first student strike in the institution broke out, in opposition to the naming of a director with no  standing. In 1925, the school temporarily separated from the SEP and was rescued by the University of San Nicolás de Hidalgo. In 1926, to the cry of ¡Long live Christ the King!, teacher Moisés Zamora, a graduate of the normal school, was hanged from a tree and stabbed. Religious fanaticism and poverty forced the school, once again dependent upon the SEP, to move to Erongarícuaro, on the banks of Lake Pátzcuaro. Later, it moved to Huetamo. In 1949, it was moved to the former hacienda of Coapa, in the district of Tiripetío, to become the Vasco de Quiroga Rural Normal School, a boarding school for women.

When, as revenge for their participation in the popular student movement of 1968, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz in 1969 ordered the closure of more than half of the existing rural normal schools, the school of La Huerta, in Michoacán became a secondary school for young women, and the boys that studied there to become rural teachers were moved to Tirpetío. Under the weight of political harassment and repression, the Federation of Socialist Campesino Students of Mexico (Fecsm) languished for three years until in 1971, a student strike of more than 22 days in Tiripetío relaunched the movement. 

The woes of the normal schools did not remain there. The list of grievances suffered appears to have no end. As a repeat of the campaign against the rural normal schools headed up by Véjar Vázquez in 1941, just in 2021, the Secretary of Education in Michoacán considered, with federal authorities, closing the normal school due to vandalism and delinquent acts frequently committed by a group of students. 

From Tiripetío (and from La Huerta) graduated leaders like Francisco Javier Acuña, key to the creation of the Political-Union Liberation Movement and the CNTE in Michoacán. A proponent of a proposal for construction of power by the masses, Javier understood that this was the germ of the new power. Javier died in the final moments of 1999, in an unexplained automobile accident. According to his compañeros, his death was a blow that stopped or hindered many processes thereafter. 

Diego Rivera, Secretary of Public Education Building, Mexico City.

The SEP has no memory. 100 years since their emergence, rural teacher training colleges, beginning with Tiripetío, suffer from age-old problems that are not being addressed. Today, as yesterday, they are victims of stigmatization. A century ago they were accused of being schools of the devil, now nests of criminals. However, beyond the demonization, neither the communities nor the student teachers will allow them to disappear, as Véjar Vázquez wanted 80 years ago. They are here to stay.

This article was published in La Jornada on April 26th, 2022. English translation by Schools for Chiapas.

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  1. The Cristero rebellion, between 1926-1929 was a popular uprising of peasants against stringent state restrictions on the Church under President Calles. The ensuing strike by the Church, and cessation of its services created widespread panic amongst the faithful, who with the tacit approval of the Church, mobilized the energy of a generalized discontent that had been brewing into violent uprising against the State.
  2. Among the discontented were those whose prosperity and power would be affected by the rural and agrarian reforms of the Revolution, such as large landowners and the Church. While some of the Cristeros were indeed peasants, it is thought that counter-revolutionary forces merged interests with those defending their faith.
  3. José León Toral was a Roman Catholic who assassinated General Alvaro Obregón, then president elect of Mexico, in 1928. Witnessing the reforms of the new secular state following the Revolution, León Toral was reportedly involved in the Cristero Rebellion.
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