The disappearance of 43 students of the rural Teacher Education School (Rural Normal School) in September 2014 in Ayotzinapa has deeply touched the heart of Mexican people. It has awaken global solidarity, and has shaken Peña Nieto’s Government. The context in which this takes place is important: a context in which the right to education in rural areas has always been at risk, and a human rights crisis that has gripped in the country over the last decade.
The reality of education in rural areas in Mexico questions the spirit of the country’s Constitution. Its Third Article says that the state and the local authorities should offer free and secular education from preschool to higher education, to support the harmonious development of each individual’s range of capabilities. This purpose also entails an encouragement to love one’s own country, to respect human rights, and the development of a consciousness of international solidarity, independence and justice.
In line with this precept, the General Law of Education states in its second article that “all the inhabitants of the country, have the same opportunities to access the national educational system” as if statements represented realities. On the other hand, multicultural Mexico is a patchwork in which coverage and quality of education are unequal.
The Rural ‘Normal Schools’ were created in the 1920s to offer initial teacher education in rural areas, where the needs of the people constituted the ends of education. Almost from their creation, they were co-education (for both young men and women) boarding institutions that offered grants to their students. They were ‘schools for the poor’ and their resources were always insufficient, because their existence was not a priority for the federal government. This contributed to the fact that Rural Normal Schools were characterised by their tight links with local communities and by their embracing a self-government organisation with relative autonomy.
The programmes offered by these institutions supported the notion that social leaders were developed in their classrooms. From the onset, Rural Normal Schools embraced principles that resemble Freire’s ideals: no to book-based education, yes to practice, community based and collaborative learning and teaching. Things were neither ideal, nor easy, but the search for new ways of working and learning seemed promising. This tendency had a peek during the 30s, and more importantly during Lázaro Cárdenas’ government (known as a government of ‘socialist education’). In this decade, the links to technical agricultural education increased (the two types of education were merged into one single institution), as did the links to the communities in which the institutions were immerse. Rural Normal Schools offered not only hope to peasants, they also represented real opportunities for individuals and for rural communities. Eventually, most of the students became teachers in rural areas, who actively participated in the development of social life. In addition to this, Rural Normal Schools became centres that offered services to their communities, and constituted bridges between local life and the emergent capitalist society.
The decade of the 1940s was marked by changes in policy and confrontations. In the name of efficiency and modernisation, the curriculum for Normal Schools was homogenised in the country regardless of their urban and rural character. Rural Normal Schools were split from agricultural education and rural life, and coeducation disappeared i.e. young men and women were no longer taught together. The government wanted to reduce the influence of teachers in their local communities, and many students were accused of being ‘comunist’ and expelled. Students, and in some cases communities, resisted these changes and in Ayotzinapa, for example, a strike was repressed by the government. During these years, Rural Normal Schools were marginalised from the educational priorities of the country.
Conflicts in the Rural Normal Schools increased in the 50s and 60s, partly because there was a constant fight for resources, but also, students were active in support of diverse social movements. Activism in each Rural Normal School, along with power relations in each province, led to a differentiation in the development of each centre. Interestingly, while most of the teacher students were women in Normal Schools in urban areas, in Rural Normal Schools, the majority were men. Some students in these centres became members or supporters of guerrilla movements. The Normal Rural School ‘Isidro Burgos’ in Ayotzinapa has been associated with rebellious struggles for social justice and two well known guerrilla activists studied in their classrooms: Genaro Vázquez and Lucio Cabañas. Rebelliousness has been the response to continued abuse of power and repression. After the conflict of 1968, in which students were killed in Mexico City, several centres were either transformed in secondary schools or closed.
In recent decades, Rural Normal Schools have maintained a tradition towards community work and social justice. For this reason, they have been threatened with disappearance as a consequence of government decisions. For example, the quota of students enrolled in each school has been limited. Teacher students have resisted, with strikes, occupations, roadblocks for their right to education, and in turn for children’s right to education in rural areas.
Whilst there has been a violation of the right to life of the 43 student teachers from Ayotzinapa, made manifest by their disappearance and the lack of information produced and communicated to their families, rural communities are still demanding their right to education, the absence of which is to them another violation.
The 43 students were preparing to attend a demonstration that commemorated the killing of students in 1968 in Mexico City. This was part of their struggle for better conditions in the Rural Normal of Ayotzinapa. In the last instance, they were defending their right to education, and the right to education for children in rural areas. They were detained and later were made to disappear. Their families and communities have led a tireless quest to find them, with little empathy from the authorities. However, their plight has been heard and supported worldwide as global shows of solidarity since Sept 2014 to date testify.
In a country with over 22,000 forced disappearances since 2007, the heart of the Mexican people is full of indignation. The 43 represent the straw that broke the camel’s back.
More about the students' disapperareance:
Born in Mexico and based in London, Mabel Encinas works in the fields of education, psychology and art, with a particular interest in the role of human emotions in social life.
She has been a member of the Latin American Perspectives in Education Society (LAPE), the Latin American Recognition Campaign (LARC) and the Latin American Workers Association (LAWAS). Mabel has organised two Latin American Cultural Weeks on ‘The Practice of Freedom’ in honour of Paulo Freire (London Biennale 2010) and ‘Dialogues: América Latina’ (2012).
She is a poet and writer, member of the Hispanic American Women’s Literary Memory Workshop and the Spanish and Latin American Poets and Writers (SLAP).
Mabel holds a BA in Education and Psychology, a MA in Educational Research (Centro de Investigación y Etudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional in Mexico) and a PhD in Education and Psychology (Institute of Education, University of London). Mabel has been a lecturer and has undertaken educational research and development in a number of institutions, both in Mexico and the UK.