Oaxaca: Education as a Means of Resistance

By the end of my time in Oaxaca, I was proud to tell Taxistas that I lived on Fraccionamiento la Noria, sobre la Mitla. The week had brought so many physical and emotional challenges on our group, and arriving to Cenobia and Viri’s house was always a pleasure. Here we’d have time to decompress, relax, and reflect on the days we’d shared. I start this entry with a huge and humble Gracias to the family that accepted us into their home and shared so much. Their stories, their smiles and laughs, their cute kids, and their willingness to sit down to talk over coffee always felt rejuvenating and personally made me feel closer to home.

SURCO and a brief history of APPO’s Oaxaca and beyond

Our first day began with an introduction to SURCO (Servicious Universitarios y Redes de Conocimientos en Oaxaca, A.C.) with Oliver Froehling. SURCO is a non-profit grassroots organization in Oaxaca focusing on education and consultation for Oaxacan activist and organizations, as well as international participants interested in food and water sovereignty, environmental issues, indigenous rights, and community-radio and video, in hopes of creating an international network invested in creating worldwide change through dissemination of local knowledge and experiences. Oliver talked about the Comite de la Defensa de Tierra y Territorio, and explained that twelve organizations are mobilizing and working on land rights issues with surrounding communities. He also described the local efforts focused on the self-empowerment of communities through the use of community-based radios and television stations, operating regardless of governmental licenses. Oliver mentioned that there is a debate surrounding the issue of airwaves and frequencies and who owns them, since they’ve technically been there since before the radio was invented.

We learned about RASA (Red Autonoma para la Soberania Alimentaria) which started in 2008 to promote urban agriculture, the value of agricultural skills brought by campesinos, and the sharing of agricultural knowledge. Oliver explained that Oaxaca is one generation or less from the countryside, and people seeking jobs in the city have brought along their agricultural skills that usually go forgotten. RASA attempts to remind campesinos of the agricultural wealth and knowledge they bring to Oaxaca city. RASA was created in response to the food crisis of 2008, which brought tortilla prices to an all-time high, making it almost impossible for campesinos earning just a few cents a day to purchase their staple food, in an already devastated region affected by free-trade.

More recently, the prices of the egg have increased sixfold, once again making it impossible for Mexican families to afford yet another staple food. According to Oliver, the price of a carton of eggs went up to about $6 dollars, which is in most cases more than many Mexican workers make in one day.
RASA has not only been on the frontlines of addressing the crises first-hand along through “farmer to farmer” trainings, but they have promoted discussions about inequality and marginalization in Mexico through the economic disasters.

We also learned about the APPO (Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca), created in 2006 after the teachers were brutally apprehended during an annual strike in May of that year. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, then the governor of Oaxaca, called for the dismantling of the teacher’s occupation in city’s center square after 23 days of protest; this resulted in a violent square-off between police and protestors, comprised of teachers, students, and community organizations. After the violence in 2006, tourism in Oaxaca decreased and their economy felt a huge impact. The movement was then broken as the federal government cracked down on organizers and used intimidation tactics to subdue activists.

Education as a Means of Resistance

Oliver was a great lecturer and shared a bit of his own story and journey to this work. In 1994, as NAFTA had just been implemented and EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional) he was searching for a topic for his dissertation. He arrived in Mexico to do research and never left . He spoke on the intersection of activism and academia, and the need for more “public intellectuals.” I’d struggled with the relationship of activism and academia throughout my time in college, as I’d hear students and professors theorize social justice, while others demanded out on the streets. I wondered what the use of academia was in a movement that required more people willing to demand justice through political and social action, and even more how my late nights at the library were contributing to any movement. I still struggle with these questions, but listening to Oliver talk about spreading knowledge and ideology through the use of history and analysis reminded me of the importance of education within activism.

Education became a central theme in our trip, from visiting el Centro de Desarollo Comunitario Centeotl in Zimatlan, Oaxaca, and CEDICAM (Centro de Desarollo Intergral Campesino de la Mixteca “Hita Nuni” A.C.) in Nochixtlan, Oaxaca. Similarly to RASA, both Centeotl and CEDICAM focused on valuing and retaining local knowledge/skills, and capacity building through farmer to farmer learning and escuelas de campo. Both community organizations focus on lessening dependencies on outside resources through agriculture, however Centeotl also works with campesinos to bring income to families through the production and sale of amaranth products. CEDICAM focuses on training and educating community members on sustainable agricultural practices which require little to no additional money to start, not only allow them to sustain their own families through farming, but also to empower them in making their communities look like they want them to through the use their own skills.

At CEDICAM we met Eleazar Garcia who is a promoter and local indigenous campesino that has been active and an integral part of the organization for over ten years, doing everything from family outreach, to delegations, agricultural trainings, and reforestation projects. He explained that CEDICAM values the skills of the people of the region because the indigenas have been growing maiz for over 9,000 years; something incredible worth knowing and praising. He explained that the region is called Mixteco, meaning “Land/Nation of the Rain,” and that stories tell of a time that the region was filled with vegetation and life. Eleazar continued that the land had been destroyed by poor agricultural habits, limestone burning, machinery and fertilizers, as well as goats that were brought into the region and destroyed soil as well as plants.

Eleazar explained that it was possible to bring the soil back to life, but it would take dedication and hard work. He explained that another reason for doing this work was to create more opportunities for self-sufficiency, so that families would not have to migrate elsewhere to find livelihood. This is a challenge however, because as Eleazar explained, fixing damaged soil and land takes months, even years at times, and migrating still seemed like a more viable means of survival for many struggling families.

Eleazar’s discussion made me think about the meaning of “gente del Maiz,” and the parallel between maiz and the peoples of Mexico; both have been around for thousands of years, both have adapted to all climates and conditions, both come in all different shades, colors, and sizes, and ultimately, both are tied to many products consumed by the world. Eleazar talked about maiz being an integral part of life, and using the parallel mentioned above, I was reminded of the crucial role that Mexican immigrants and corn have played for the US for decades. Immigrants have been the back bone of industries like agriculture, hospitality, etc, and without their work, the US economy would have floundered ages ago. At the same time, corn has been the base of so many products consumed in America, from gasoline to potato chips and cooking oils, and even beauty products. Eleazer’s work educates campesinos on the importance of their work and existence in order to consolidate the necessary power of the communities constantly victimized by governmental, military, and financial institutions, for change.

As Eleazar explained, there is an importance in valuing and learning the cultures from the Mixtec region, along with their skills and histories, and their ability to survive for centuries by maintaining corn as central to life. Their history of resistance is the foundation of today’s struggle against huge corporations like Monsanto and Maseca. I was reminded here that education is part of the process of mobilization; that people must understand where they came from, where they stand, where they are headed, and where they want to be. Eleazer also explained that through their farmer to farmer education, they are not imposing changes that can become undone, they are concretely showing people how these changes are beneficial and people naturally gravitate towards the new ideas. Education in activism and organizing creates the space for analysis and understanding of the larger systems at work, reflection on previous resistance strategies and their successes and failures, and planning on future tactics and actions. Through education these organizations are able to discuss with campesinos about the current state of their communities and the tangible efforts that can be taken to challenge those conditions.

– submitted by Erik Martinez


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