The following is condensed from an interview with Gloria, who works with the autonomous, indigenous schools created by the Zapatista movement. Gloria originally came to Chiapas in 1995 as a “peace camper” – observers sponsored by international human rights organizations to monitor improper military activities and human rights offenses.
A retired teacher from Mexico City, Gloria has also done literacy training among villagers displaced by the military and paramilitary groups. She currently works out of Oventic.
Gloria was interviewed by Larry Miller, a Rethinking Schools editor, and the interview was translated by Dennis Oulahan, a bilingual teacher in Milwaukee.
Q: Can you give some examples of the conditions facing Mayan students?
In a community called Xolep, there were no paper or pencils where I taught. I started by drawing figures in the dirt. We then taught letters by forming them with sticks. One day students brought flower petals to shape the letters.
When we were able to gather enough money for notebooks, we gave them to the students and asked them to report the next day to the tree where we were holding school. All the students came in unison the next day, having cleaned their clothes and groomed themselves. They proudly filed under the teaching tree, notebooks tucked under their arms, feeling that they were now officially students.
At one point in Xolep, I had a five-year-old student come to school wearing only a t-shirt. The next day he came to school completely naked. We had a selection of clothes donated to the community and this boy picked some. The next day he showed up in red flannel long underwear, buttoned up to his neck, dripping with beads of sweat, and with his notebook tucked under his arm. He was ready to make use of the education his community was proudly offering its children for the first time.
The value of education is understood by young and old alike among the Maya of Chiapas. It is seen as a major step in ending the 500 years of oppression faced by the Mayan people.
I had an incident here at Oventic that reminded me of the seriousness and political nature of our efforts to educate Mayan children. I was holding a gym class with 50 students on the basketball court. Each was bouncing a ball. Suddenly all balls stopped bouncing and all the students ran and hid. I then heard the sound of airplanes. When the military airplanes left the area, all of my students came out of hiding and just began bouncing the balls again.
Q: What are some of the essential components of the Maya culture?
Historically the Mayan culture has been based on respect for the earth and animals, respect for elders, and spirituality. Communities are often very tightly organized, with the elders acting as advisors who set the standards for the individual community. The Zapatistas, in their organizing efforts, pay close attention to these structures in holding discussions and in making decisions. It is actually a very democratic process.
The Zapatista communities relate everything they do to the fight for freedom and equality, a concept we call Zapatismo. If you visit a service here at the church in Oventic you will see that the mass combines Catholicism with liberation philosophy, a view that the salvation of the soul is very much connected to improving life here on earth.
Q: How is the teacher training at Oventic organized taking into account the Mayan culture?
The teachers that are being trained were chosen by each of their communities. Their goal is to combine the system of Zapatismo (the struggle for freedom and equality of all people) with the ways of Mayan culture. The Zapatista approach to education is very compatible with the education philosophy of Paulo Freire [the late Brazilian educator known for his “pedagogy of the oppressed,” which intertwines learning with the struggle for social justice.] The teacher is not all knowing, but instead is both a teacher and a student. The teacher realizes that students will best understand concepts when the teacher and students work together. For example, at the school in Oventic, there is a plan to teach animal husbandry by actually raising stock. The techniques used will combine the traditional methods that students have learned from their communities with newer techniques learned from scientific advances.
Q: How have you combined your teaching in the communities of Chiapas with the program of the Zapatistas?
I use the basic principles of Zapatismo when I work in these communities. Zapatismo is the idea that oppression, injustice, and exploitation should be opposed where ever they exist. We must unite a worldwide movement to end injustice. We should support each other’s freedom movements until we create a safe and fair world.
For example, the leaders of the EZLN have shown support for rights of oppressed people in the United States They have also endorsed the demand for equality of gays and lesbians. Earlier this year, Subcommandante Marcos issue a statement supporting the demand for the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the political prisoner on death row in Pennsylvania.
Can you please explain the idea behind the Aguascalientes of Chiapas?
In 1914 there was a meeting of revolutionary forces involved in the Mexican Revolution. It was held in the city of Aguascalientes, which is northwest of Mexico City. Here revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata united around a democratic program, that if instituted would have led to a free Mexico. Of course we know that the accords of Aguascalientes were never realized and we see the results in Mexico today.
The EZLN has led the creation of five Aguascalientes, like Aguascalientes II here in Oventic. They are free territories built in the midst of Maya communities that provide resources, healthcare, and schooling. They are unarmed, nonmilitary zones within regions where the Mexican army is waging low intensity warfare. Here we can hold open and free cultural and political discussions and events, sports and social events.
The army occupied and destroyed the first Aguascaliente in Topeyac. They thought they had defeated the EZLN. But in response the Zapatistas established Oventic in 1995 and another four Aguascalientes by 1996. There are actually six Aguascalientes: five in Chiapas and a sixth in our hearts.
Today the threats against all of the Aguascalientes continue. The police and army presence is constant. The national newspapers and the Chiapas papers tell daily lies about the work of the Zapatistas. I just recently saw a headline from the main newspaper in San Cristóbal de la Casas that said the EZLN is ending its construction of schools and other infrastructure in the Mayan communities. Yet here you are helping to build and prepare to open the middle school at Oventic.
Q: What can U.S. citizens do to support the Zapatista work in Chiapas?
First, do not be intimidated by the threats of the Mexican army and government. Keep sending caravans to Chiapas to display solidarity with the Zapatista movement. Keep coming as peace-campers. The powerful and rich of Mexico do not want international incidents. Your presence in Chiapas provides a valuable service to our struggle. Help us build our institutions. Celebrate our successes with us and show the bad government and army we won’t be intimidated or turned back.
It is also important that you oppose US imperialism’s role in Mexico. The United States supplies the Mexican military with planes and guns and the training of its officers at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. And of course it is important to fight for the freedom of US workers and oppressed people.
Last but not least, the Mayan communities need material and financial support. We are building our own institutions and infrastructure but the communities are very poor.