Threat of Closure Circles the Normal of Mactumactzá

Normalistas of Ayotzinapa and Mactumactzá march with torches in Mexico City with the parents of the 43 [disappeared] students of Ayotzinapa to demand the releaso of the students held in the El Amate penitentiary. Foto: Isabel Briseño
This is a struggle for the survival of the Normal de Mactumactzá, tells one normalista1 who protested for the admission exam to be with paper booklets and pen. At the center of his story is the impoverishment of the indigenous communities; and he describes the sexual abuse that Chiapas police committed against his fellow students.

Text: Daliri Oropeza

MEXICO CITY – “We want the Normal to continue to exist for many more years,” says the student teacher from Mactumactzá.  The specter of closure of the rural normal school haunts the classrooms. The recent repression by the government of Rutilio Escandón and the violent arrest of 95 students has awakened it.

A young student who experienced the police operation in Chiapas tells of his reasons for the struggle and describes what his classmates experienced with the sexual abuse by the police. At the center of his story is the situation of poverty in the indigenous communities. 

The 74 women detained in the El Amate prison were conditionally released, but are subject to trial, must sign in every 15 days and cannot participate in civic mobilizations.  The 19 male normalistas are still imprisoned in Cereso 14 in the municipality of Cintalapa. 

Despite the fact that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) became aware of the sexual assaults against the 74 detained students and urged the federal government to investigate the excessive use of force by the police, the government of Chiapas has ignored the exhortation.

The same has happened with the call from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Office in Mexico (ONU-DH) to the authorities of the state of Chiapas to guarantee due process and respect for the human rights of the persons detained in the context of the student protests of the Rural Normal School. In particular, to investigate the allegations of abuses on the part of state public servants. Far from responding to the human rights organizations, the authorities have intensified the aggression by criminalizing the normalistas and accusing them of being manipulated by external provocateurs. 

What is it that motivates the students of this school to fight for the right to education and a school, and that today is at the center of the national political debate, and has led organizations such as the IACHR and the UN Human Rights Council to express their concern about the situation of the young people? This interview tries to answer this question.

The specter of the digital divide

The rural normalistas are demanding an on-site exam written in a paper booklet with pen and pencil instead of on the computer or an remote online test that the authorities want to impose.  The scarcities that exist in the communities of Chiapas, from the lack of connectivity to the absence of computers, mean that many young people aspiring to enter the normal do not know how to use digital resources properly. This is described by the normalista interviewed. Giving an exam on a computer is tantamount to condemning them to not being able to enter the school.

That is why they protested. Because in the face of the authorities’ stubbornness to make the admission exam online, they want a fair admission process and that those who need it can get in.

The government of Chiapas responded to the demands of the young people by closing the dialogue. The students mobilized. The state police detained 93 normalistas: 74 women, and 19 men on May 18 while they were driving around the highway toll booth. The grenade launchers were already waiting for them. When they began their protest, the Chiapas police did not even ask them their motives, they just began the beatings and arrests.

The students of the rural normal  of Mactumactzá have been demanding for several months that the boarding school be kept open, that there be more public resources, that the Normal once again have, as in past decades, a boarding school for its students to live in (the then governor Pablo Salazar closed it in 2003); they ask for food, school practices, transportation, maintenance of facilities and school celebrations.

In August 2020, the government of Chiapas received the petition of the normalistas with academic, productive, sports, material and political demands. The authorities responded that “working groups will be formed.”

The first rupture 

May 12, 2021 was the first protest of normalistas after the Chiapas Secretary of Government and the Secretary of Education broke off the dialogue, due to the refusal of the normalistas to take the admission exam online.

That day the state police threw tear gas at them as they were giving a public press conference. This was one day before the march which kicked off the national congress of the National Coordinating Committee of Education Workers (CNTE) in Tuxtla Gutiérrez.

The normalistas, according to the testimony of this student who asks to remain anonymous, could not explain such savage repression against them, until they were informed that that day there was a meeting of the governor with his cabinet in the Government Palace. The toll of police violence was not minor: at least eight students were injured with burns and beatings.

There are between 1,000 and 1,500 files on average to enter the school per school year. The academies are made up of no more than 150 students. The Normal makes filters to ensure that those who need to study and have no other way to support their education can enter.

Arbitrary detention, sexual abuse and repression

What is at stake now in the Normal de Mactumactzá? How did the protest arise?

The main detail at stake is that the Normal de Mactumactzá is ‘rural’, here you don’t pay tuition, you don’t pay enrollment, you don’t pay for books, nothing like that, on the contrary. Within the institution we have a dormitory, dining room, uniforms, didactic material, everything to study. We realized that, for one reason or another, the Government of the State of Chiapas did not want to publish or refused to issue the call for new students.

It is aimed at people who otherwise would not have the opportunity to study. The main thing for us is that the admission exam be done in person and not virtually. That was our demand from the beginning: that the announcement be published, that the admission process be carried out in person and that the exam be written in a booklet with pen or paper.

Last year the exam was in-person but online, mixed throughout the city, several points were set up for this purpose, the computers were placed there. There was an internet connection and the students had access to the exam in Tuxtla Gutierrez.

But during the exam the connection was very unstable; in fact the system had failures, and many classmates had their exam cancelled in the middle of the exam. Or, since they do not know how to use a computer, it was very difficult for them to do it. So, they could not finish the exam on time and when the time was up, the test was cancelled.

That is why we demanded that this year it should be in booklets, as it was previously handled. From the beginning, the state Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Public Education of Chiapas, issued a resounding no. They did not agree at any time. Not even to the part that it should be done like last year, they want everything online.

They say that for this year the whole process has to be online: handing in the files, exams, answers, and that even each of the comrades who wanted to enter the normal by their own means had to get a computer or tablet.

Our demand is fair.

From the beginning, we made a commitment that all pandemic health measures would be respected. 

But at the beginning of May, the dialogue was definitively broken off. They told us not to bother to communicate with them because they were not going to respond or even attend to us.

Those of us who study there, it is because we really need it. If Mactumactzá did not exist, we could not study, we could not study anything else, we could not have access to a school.

Did you witness the violence and sexual abuse against the female normalistas?

I saw that the irregularities began the moment the compañeras were detained, with verbal harassment… even before they could take away their telephones, they communicated to tell us that the police were touching them with the pretext of checking if they were carrying other things… and they took their belongings. With that pretext they were touching them. From that moment on, they began to threaten that they were going to sexually abuse them.

When they were inside the state prosecutor’s office, the compañeras were also forced to strip completely naked in front of the police. In front of male police officers. The compañeras denounce that at that moment the policemen touched them again.

In fact, when they manage to see the compañeras, they point directly to one policeman, who constantly told them that they were going to rape them.

The compañeras were not allowed to see anyone… It easily took 72 hours before they were able to get in to see them. Some of the women were beaten. One of them has burns, and she did not want to say how she was burned or by whom. They are afraid because they were locked up. Most of the comrades were beaten.

March of Normalistas in Mexico City.

A demand and its response

What is it with the government, why did it respond to you like this?

We are certain that the government’s response is so vicious because we always raise our voices, we are the first to stand up when something is not right. We are always in support of other organizations. We always do community service, we go out to distribute food, to distribute food, to distribute sweets to the children.

We bring cultural services to various parts of the country and when something is not just we speak out.

This is a constant struggle against the government of Chiapas for the survival of the Normal de Mactumatzá.

Often we are attacked. They take away the economic resources for the cafeteria or other resources so that nobody enters the school.

At the Normal, besides studying and working, we receive orientation, we learn what the lives of politicians are like, and that is why we know what is not right and what the government is doing. We are attacked by the government because they don’t like it when we say things to their faces.

The truth is that we have received support from many organizations not only within the State of Chiapas, but throughout the Mexican Republic. We have even seen support from abroad. We have seen support for the teachers’ colleges, and that is what we are seeking: that this problem does not remain confined to Chiapas.

Our fellow students with the Federation of Socialist Campesino Students of Mexico (FECSM) have shown great solidarity with us from the Normal de Mactumactzá. We have received support with food supplies from each of the normal schools. Some brothers and sisters came to Chiapas. We support each other in different ways, but the support of each one of the teachers’ colleges is always present whenever one of them has problems. We also have a good relationship with the National Coordination of Education Workers, they were also present during the repression.

We want to make this known to all of society so that they can really see the injustices that have been committed in Chiapas.

A history of struggle

Do you see the possibility of closing the normal like during the government of Pablo Salazar Mendiguchía (2000 to 2006)?  There is a history of struggle…

We were afraid that what happened in 2003 would be repeated, when the cafeteria was taken away from the School, the boarding school was taken away and other supports were taken away.

Over the years, little by little, these benefits have been recovered. Even today the boarding school has not been restored 100%, we still have shortfalls in the infrastructure of the dormitories.

Everything that has been won, has been won through struggle. The government has not given us anything as a gift, we have won everything through hard work and effort.

And each one of us, when we entered the School, they shared memories with us and we identified with that struggle. We know how much was shared with our comrades who were there at that time. We know and understand what the compañeros who studied in 2003 went through. Now we are experiencing  a similar situation.

We are experiencing something similar to what happened in 2003. We identify strongly with the struggle for our right to education. 

It seems that it is still not clear to the Secretary of Education that they have to enforce access to education. It wants to privatize our education because with this question of making the process online, we know that those who are going to pass the knowledge exam are those who live in the cities, who have a house, an internet connection, those who have a computer.

Why study and defend the Normal de Mactumactzá?

Those of us who are in the Normal de Mactumactzá are there because we truly have a calling. We see the reality where each of our communities is. We are from different parts of Chiapas and neighboring states. 

We see and live every day of our lives how the education is that reaches our communities. That is why we are training to be rural teachers. 

We as rural teachers are charged with bringing education to every corner of Chiapas. And not only education. We are also trained in production; we learn and practice cultivation of the land, which we carry from birth because we are campesinos. At the Normal we practice it, we perfect it, we are also trained in the cultural aspect through the Rondalla, we have the marimba club, the norteños club, the dance club, we also have sports clubs, soccer, swimming. 

This helps us to have a more complete education and when we are teachers we can take all this to each of our communities. We can take a higher quality education to our neighbors, to our cousins, to all those who live in a rural community, which is where we are assigned when we graduate.

There are compañeros who see in Mactumactzá an opportunity to better themselves. Because it is the only way they can prepare themselves or have access to a better education, a better quality of life.

Our demand is that the call for new admissions be announced because we want the people who are going to enter the Normal to be people who need it. We want the Normal to continue to exist for many more years.

This article was published in Pie de Página on May 29th 2021.
This English interpretation has been re-published by Schools for Chiapas.

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  1. Literally, student teachers, normalistas are rural and often indigenous students of limited resources attending rural educational centers to become professional teachers. The Normal schools are boarding schools born out of the Mexican Revolution to broaden education into the countryside. They have carried the revolutionary spirit throughout their history and are frequently threatened by cuts to resources.
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