By Christine Eber and Ana Cristina Vázquez Carpizo
Christine Eber and Ana Cristina Vázquez Carpizo met in Chiapas, Mexico through their work with the Maya Educational Foundation which provides scholarships to Maya students in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. From their conversations and those Christine had with students, they wrote this piece about impunity in Mexico and the forty-three disappeared students from the Ayotzinapa College of Guerrero, Mexico. To protect the identities of the two young women who inspired this essay, they are identified only by their first names.
“Forty-three, forty-three…please, it can’t be. They’re my compañeros.”
This was all that Dori could say when she heard of the forced disappearance of forty-three students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Normal School of Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, Mexico. Dori is a student in Mactumactzá, a college in Chiapas in the same federation as the school that the disappeared students attended. Just two weeks previous to the kidnapping of the students, she met some of them at a gathering at another federation school in Panotla, Tlaxcala. One of the young men who befriended her there was among the missing.
Almost a year has passed since the 43 students traveled to the city of Iguala on September 26th to raise funds to participate in an annual march commemorating the 1968 massacre of 300 student protestors in Mexico City by government security forces. On their way to Iguala, the 43 young men were kidnapped by local police and drug cartel gunmen. Six other students were murdered and one nineteen-year-old student was seriously wounded and is still in a coma.
Recently, the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts reviewing the incident in Iguala, revealed that the clothing found on the buses transporting the students was never made known or available to the families and lawyers of the students. Also, video footage of the students’ detention was destroyed. The families have taken their outrage to the international stage by touring university campuses throughout the United States. On September 26, 2015 they will offer their testimonies at New York University at the International Tribunal of Conscience of Peoples in Movement and a delegation of mothers of the disappeared boys plans to meet with the Pope.
The disappearances and murders of the students remain unsolved, not unusual in Mexico where more and more bodies are being uncovered in mass graves, and murders, kidnappings, and other human rights abuses go unpunished. On July 22, 2015 the University of the Americas presented The Global Impunity Index which analyzed information from 193 members of the United Nations. Of the 50 nations included in the study Mexico ranks second among nations with the highest levels of impunity, just below the Philippines.
According to figures given by Mexico’s own authorities, only 1% of crimes in Mexico are punished.
I first met Dori several years ago when I was in Chiapas visiting students who receive scholarships from the Maya Educational Foundation. Dori grew up in a poor Chuj Maya community near Mexico’s border with Guatemala. Her grandparents fled Guatemala to escape the violence of the war. Dori’s parents stressed education for their children and encouraged her to go on in school past sixth grade, unusual for indigenous girls in Chiapas. Today, with the help of a scholarship, Dori is training to be a primary school teacher.
This past February, I visited again with Dori and several other normalistas, students who attend normal colleges. Not surprisingly, the 43 young men of Ayotzinapa were on all the students’ minds.
I asked them to talk about the case of Ayotzinapa and the challenges and hopes of youth in Mexico. I was struck by the strong connection the students maintain with the Ayotzinpa students, both those disappeared and still studying in the college. They see them as their brothers and don’t want the world to forget them. Dori explained to me that the federation’s charter states that if one school has a problem, it is a problem of all the schools. For example, on August 6, 2003, a decade before Dori was a student at Mactumactzá, the state government sent in bulldozers to raze the school. The students of Ayotzinapa came to help their fellow students during this crisis.
Immediately after they learned of the kidnappings, the students in normal colleges in Chiapas and throughout Mexico organized delegations to travel to Ayotzinapa to lend support. Most if not all schools in the federation suspended classes while students took to the streets of their towns and nearby cities to hand out leaflets and request donations for food and other needs of the students and families of the disappeared. At the end of the day, they poured out their sorrow and rage to their roommates and families.
Ana Cristina Vázquez Carpizo
As a Mexican, it is deeply grievous for me to accept and live with the terrible impunity that exists in my country, accompanied by corruption at all levels.Ayotzinapa, our greatest agony, is not the only or the last instance of impunity. After the disappearance of our boys in Iguala, the nation has been confronted with several other cases of unprecedented violence from the Mexican state against the civilian population.
To Ayotzinapa must be added the massacres of Tlatlaya (two months before Ayotzinapa), Apatzingan, Ostula, Tahuato, and Zacatecas; the murders of journalists (more than 80 have been killed in the last decade and 17 are missing); countless kidnappings; at least 250,000 Mexicans displaced by violence; and hundreds of thousands of orphans and widows.
This dramatic scenario is complicated by the inexplicable enrichment of many members of the political class; influence peddling and conflict of interest that characterize the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto; and daily violations of the rule of law by political parties, businesses, and authorities alike.
Given this reality, ordinary Mexicans – unarmed and vulnerable — face the utter cynicism and shamelessness of those charged with safeguarding the law. They distrust their nation’s institutions and have little hope that things will ever change.
Students have paid a high price for their activism in Mexico since the founding of the rural teachers colleges in Mexico during the presidency of Lázaro Cardenas del Rio (1934-1940). Cardenas sought to democratize access to education as a means to build a more just and equitable society. Among his measures were: combating illiteracy; supporting rural education and indigenous education; and encouraging technical education. These measures reinstated the mass education plan implemented by the Mexican state after the revolution in the 1920s.
An important part of mass education was the creation of rural normal schools, one for each of Mexico’s 31 states, as well as the Federal District. Normal Schools in Mexico are responsible for training primary education teachers and are regulated by the State, in accordance with Article Three of the Constitution of the United Mexican States.
The rural normal schools sought to bring education to the people, an idea which José Vasconcelos, Secretary of Public Education from 1920-1924, implemented in his “crusade against ignorance” which sought to incorporate indigenous people and campesinos into the national project that the revolution had envisioned.
While Vasconcelos did not see the value of building upon the rich cultures of Mexico’s diverse peoples, his efforts ensured the continuance of the post-revolutionary policy of supporting mass education. One of the focal points of this policy was training teachers to serve in rural areas.
The Rural Normal School of Ayotzpinapa was founded in 1926 by two teachers, Rodolfo A. Bonilla y Raúl Isidro Burgos, under the auspices of the Secretariat of Education (SEP). Rural normal schools such as Ayotzinapa put into practice the conception of education as a right of all citizens.
Rural normal schools have faced serious challenges to survive, initially because the federal government did not appropriate sufficient resources to support them. But, after Cardenas left office in 1940, federal and state government hostility toward rural normal schools intensified. Officials viewed these schools, and in particular the school of Ayotzinapa, as hot beds of insurrection and rebellion.
Tension between Ayotzinapa and the State escalated after Lucio Cabañas Barrientes and Genaro Vazquez Rojas, both graduates of the school, led two major guerrilla movements in the state of Guerrero during the 1960s and 1970s.
Today only seventeen rural normal schools exist in Mexico. The administration provides little funding to these schools. Normal students must raise much of their own food and make regular trips to nearby towns to solicit donations for their school supplies and other basic needs. Meanwhile, the government depicts them as hooligans and the schools as bastions of resistance to its economic policies aimed at industrializing and privatizing the economy.
Many of the students and parents of Ayotzinapa fear that the government would like to privatize or close down their school and other normal schools, based on its depiction of these schools as obstacles to progress.
Christine and Ana Cristina
The normalistas we’ve had the privilege to know in Chiapas are dedicated to their schools which they see as offering one of the only paths available for a dignified life for themselves and their families. They are passionate about their chosen careers and are as far from hoodlums as we can imagine.
Yet, their lives hang in the balance as their nation’s leaders turn their backs on them. The state’s neglect of the nation’s poor and indigenous youth is enough of a tragedy without the tendency to criminalize them for being victims of the structural violence of poverty and racism.
The state has not been able to characterize the 43 young men of Ayotzinapa as criminals due to a worldwide outcry against their disappearance and the tireless efforts of their parents and siblings to demand justice. But it is all too common in Mexico to frame poor young men and other victims of violence as little more than social trash, thus justifying their detention, disappearance, or murder.
The United States does not treat its youth much better, with its preference to fund wars instead of schools and its legacy of terror against youth of color, based on a presumption that they are somehow guilty of something, just by being black or brown. But it’s difficult to imagine that if 43 students disappeared in the U.S. that their abductors would not be found.
In the context of widespread cynism, corruption, and impunity, the attitudes and actions of the normal students and other Mexican youth who struggle for justice are all the more remarkable.
Yet, mainstream media and popular culture in both Mexico and the United States ignore or discount these young people as unimportant actors in their nation and instead focus on entrepreneurs and billionaires who they depict as the world’s saviors.
This attitude leaves little room to support and uplift the youth of both nations who seek not to make a lot of money, but to serve the nation’s neediest.
Elsa a normalista about to graduate from Jacinto Canek Normal school in Zinacantán, Chiapas shows the passion to serve and the capacity to persevere that she has developed through her education. While we see students such as Dori and Elsa as the hope of Mexico, Elsa places her hope in the children she teaches:
“I’ve learned that to be a teacher isn’t just to grab a piece of chalk, stand up in front of children, and transmit knowledge to them. That’s not what it is. We normalistas, from our indigenous ways of thinking, have another idea. Our perspective is that we don’t only go to teach, but to wake up our people, wake them up to the slavery that exists in the world, especially in the country of Mexico. We see the salvation of our nation in the children. More than anything [our work] is to raise their consciousness to achieve a true transformation in this world. That’s what we’re trying to do, what we need to do.”
Christine Eber is Professor Emerita of Anthropology, New Mexico State University and former board president of the Maya Educational Foundation in Massachusetts. Ana Cristina Vázquez Carpizo is a historian and director of Amigos de San Cristóbal in Chiapas, Mexico.