dorset chiapas solidarity

January 1, 2017

EZLN asks scientists to form schools within its territory

Filed under: Women, Zapatistas — Tags: , — dorsetchiapassolidarity @ 8:17 am



EZLN asks scientists to form schools within its territory


marcos-sin-military-capGaleano walking around at “The Zapatistas and ConSciences for Humanity.” Note the absence of his military cap and shirt.


By: Angeles Mariscal

“We want to learn and do science and technology in order to achieve the only competence that matters: that of life against death,” members of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) pointed out at the inauguration of the meeting with scientists from different countries who came to Chiapas to meet with members of the insurgent group.

The gathering named The Zapatistas and ConSciences for Humanity put out a call to Germany, Canada, Chile, United States, Spain, Israel, Paraguay, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Brazil and Mexico -some members of the National Investigators System -, who will debate with the Zapatistas the work of the scientific community facing the social, economic, political and environmental crisis derived from the capitalist system.

“Scientifically are there studies about whether one can live without capitalism? What is the scientific or non-scientific explanation of why money was invented? Scientifically, can you explain to us the principles of neoliberalism? Scientifically, can you explain to us why capitalism prepares certain crisis every so often to reactivate its economy? What are the ethical principles?” These are some of the questions that the EZLN’s political and military leader, Subcomandante Galeano, asked during the inauguration.

For ten days scientists from diverse fields will debate about this and other themes, “as a start for watching and walking what to do in the world in which we live,” explained Subcomandante Moisés, who in the name of the General Command of the EZLN considered that scientific research and discoveries have been used as an instrument for the accumulation of wealth: “the rich changed the destiny for which it was created, gave it another use, for their convenience.”

“Our survival is in our hands, or the other construction of a new world (…) We Zapatistas, we’re here now as your pupils, your students, your apprentices. We don’t conceive knowledge as a symbol of social status or a measure of intelligence (…) We don’t want to go to the university, we want the university to be erected in our communities, to be taught and to learn together with our people.”

The insurgent leader threw out a challenge to the scientific community to share their knowledge with members of the EZLN. “The question that moves us, the scientific curiosity, the zeal to learn, to know, comes from a long time ago, so long ago that scientific calendars don’t have a count (…) we don’t want to go to big laboratories and scientific research centres in the metropolis, we want them constructed here. We want schools built for the formation of scientists, not workshops disguised as schools, which only teach the functions of work at the service of capitalism (cheap and poorly qualified manual labour). We want scientific studies, not just technical studies. We want to learn and make science and technology to gain the only competence that’s worth the effort: that of life against death.”

“We cannot delegate to others the work that corresponds to us as complete human beings, Subcomandante Galeano stated.


Originally Published in Spanish by Chiapas Paralelo

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

[Administrator’s Note: Official EZLN communications from “The Zapatistas and ConSciences for Humanity” are very long and, therefore, are taking a long time to translate]

Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

Posted by Dorset Chiapas Solidarity




April 6, 2016

Dismantling neoliberal education: a lesson from the Zapatistas

Filed under: Indigenous, Zapatistas — Tags: , , — dorsetchiapassolidarity @ 5:50 am



Dismantling neoliberal education: a lesson from the Zapatistas



The non-hierarchical education of the Zapatistas cries dignity and suggests that the suffering of the neoliberal university can be withstood and overcome.

Levi Gahman



I’ve said it before—in contrast to those traditional stories that begin with ‘Once upon a time…’ Zapatista stories begin with ‘There will be a time…’

— Subcomandante Galeano (formerly Marcos)


Excerpted from Levi’s chapter ‘Zapatismo versus the Neoliberal University: Towards a Pedagogy against Oblivion’, in the forthcoming book The Radicalization of Pedagogy, edited by Simon Springer, Marcelo Lopes de Souza and Richard J. White.


The story of the Zapatistas is one of dignity, outrage, and grit. It is an enduring saga of over 500 years of resistance to the attempted conquest of the land and lives of indigenous peasants. It is nothing less than a revolutionary and poetic account of hope, insurgency and liberation—a movement characterized as much by adversity and anguish, as it is by laughter and dancing.

More precisely, the ongoing chronicles of the Zapatista insurrection provide a dramatic account of how indigenous people have defied the imposition of state violence, oppressive gender roles and capitalist plunder. And for people of the Ch’ol, Tseltal, Tsotsil, Tojolabal, Mam and Zoque communities in Chiapas, Mexico who make the decision to become Zapatista, it is a story reborn, revitalized and re-learned each new day, with each new step.

It is with this context in mind that I provide a brief overview of how the Zapatistas’ vibrant construction of resistance offers hope to those of us struggling within-and-against the neoliberal university.


Power was trying to teach us individualism and profit…We were not good students.

— Compañera Ana Maria
Zapatista Education Promoter

Before we dive too deeply into things, I have a confession to make. I have absolutely no faith whatsoever that the academic status quo will ever be reformed. Audre Lorde tells us that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” while Emma Goldman notes that “the most violent element in society is ignorance.” Most universities, after all, were assembled using an ignorant master’s racist and patriarchal logic. That is, the academy was broken to begin with, and remains that way.

Hence, when it comes to the existence of any entity or institution that emerges from the colonizer’s mind-set, like neoliberal education, I agree with Frantz Fanon, who states that “we must shake off the heavy darkness in which we were plunged, and leave it behind.”

In short, neoliberalism, the world’s current “heavy darkness”, must be cast out, and the universities in which it is being taught must be pummelled into ruin. And despite the fact that such a comment may seemingly be replete with cynicism and despair, it is actually deeply rooted in yearning and hope — for resistance.

When speaking of “resistance” one must tread lightly because it is, indeed, an intensely contested term. Resistance can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For this piece then, I draw from (what I feel is) perhaps the most fertile and most evolved source of resistance that exists — the Zapatista insurgency.

The analysis that follows is thus informed by the Tsotsil (indigenous Maya) concept of sts’ikel vokol, which means “withstanding suffering.” And when resistance is defined in this manner possibilities blossom. Possibilities that resistance can mean empathy and emotional labour, as well as compassion and mutual aid, regardless of one’s calendar and geography… or even university.


3The basis of neoliberalism is a contradiction: in order to maintain itself, it must devour itself, and therefore, destroy itself.

— Don Durito de la Lacandona
Beetle, Knight Errant

Neoliberalism is a force to be reckoned with. Globally, it is exacerbating dependency, debt and environmental destruction on a widespread scale through the proliferation of free trade policies, which slash the rights and protections of workers, environments and societies alike.

On a personal level, it convinces people that individualism, competition and self-commodification are the natural conditions of life. Consequently, civil society is compelled to accept, through manipulative capitalist rhetoric, that the world is nothing more than a market in which everything, and everyone, can be bought and sold. The misery of others, then, is deemed to be merely collateral damage of an inherently bleak and fragmented world. Chillingly, higher education is not immune to such malevolent tendencies.

The debilitating effects that neoliberalism has on higher education have been written about at length. The pathological obsession on generating income that university administrators (and even some faculty members) give precedent to (in lieu of encouraging critical thought, self-reflection and praxis) is also well documented.

Less attention, however, has been paid to the psychological injuries inflicted upon people by the disciplinary mechanisms of the neoliberal university, like scholarly rankings, impact factors, citation metrics, achievement audits, publication quotas, pressure to win prestigious grants, award cultures, getting “lines on the CV”, and so on.

If one listens to colleagues or friends working in the academy, it will not take long to hear stories of acute anxiety, depression and paranoia, as well as feelings of despair, non-belonging and hopelessness. Life in the neoliberal university has thereby become a proverbial “death by a thousand cuts” — just ask any mother working within it.

One of the most disconcerting, and overlooked, products of neoliberal higher education is how students are treated by it. “Learning” now consists of rote memorization, standardized tests, high-stakes exams, factory-like classroom settings, hierarchical competition amongst peers, the accumulation of massive debts to afford rising tuition costs, and patronizingly being scolded that “this is what you signed up for.”


Students must navigate this neoliberal gauntlet while also simultaneously being pressured into enthusiastically performing the grotesque bourgeois role of “entrepreneur” or “global citizen”. Paulo Freire said there would be dehumanizing days like this.

Without question, neoliberalism has launched a full-fledged assault on the mental health of faculty and students alike, not to mention the well-being of heavily-exploited, contracted, typically non-unionized workers in the food service and maintenance sectors of many universities. These nearly impossible circumstances are often the only choices many have in simply making a go of it in life. And a situation in which it is compulsory for people to discipline and punish themselves, as well as others, into becoming hyper-competitive, self-promoting functionaries of capitalism is — as a Zapatista education promoter so vividly put it — olvido: oblivion.


The battle for humanity and against neoliberalism was and is ours, and also that of many others from below. Against death — We demand life.

— Subcomandante Galeano
(formerly Marcos)

It should be pointed out that the ongoing project of Zapatista autonomy is the direct result of indigenous people’s self-determination, as well as their decision to engage in highly disciplined organizing against a neo-colonial elite. More pointedly, the Zapatistas sacrificed themselves to make the world a better and safer place.

Fittingly, one of the most widely seen phrases scattered across the rebel territories of Chiapas reads: Para Todos Todo, Para Nosotros Nada (“Everything for Everyone, Nothing for Us”). In the face of global capitalism, such a statement is as profound as it is humble. It explicitly foregrounds cooperation and selflessness; virtues the Zapatistas have integrated into their autonomous education system.

As indigenous rebels, the Zapatistas astutely refer to state-sanctioned schools and universities as “corrals of thought domestication.” This is due to the emphasis that government-legitimated institutions place on coercing students and faculty into becoming docile citizen-consumers. The Zapatista response to the prospect of having to send their children into such hostile learning environments was open and armed revolt.

Thus, on January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) rekindled the spirit of Emiliano Zapata’s revolutionary call for Tierra y Libertad(“Land and Freedom”), cried ¡Ya Basta! (Enough!), and “woke up history” by taking back the land they had been dispossessed of.

Given their foresight and actions, one cannot help but be reminded of anarcho-communist geographer Peter Kropotkin, who in 1880 stated: “There are periods in the life of human society when revolution becomes an imperative necessity, when it proclaims itself as inevitable.”

4In successfully liberating themselves from belligerent edicts of the Mexican government (el mal gobierno, “the bad government”), the Zapatistas now practice education on their own terms. They are not beholden to the parochial oversight of managerialist bureaucracies like many of us in neoliberal universities are. On the contrary, Zapatista teaching philosophy comes “from below” and is anchored in land and indigenous custom. Their approach is best illustrated by the duelling axiom Preguntando Caminamos (“Asking, We Walk”), which sees Zapatista communities generate their “syllabi” through popular assembly, participatory democracy and communal decision-making.

These horizontalist processes advance by focusing on the histories, ecologies and needs of their respective bases of support. Zapatista “classrooms” therefore include territorially-situated lessons on organic agroforestry, natural/herbal medicines, food sovereignty and regional indigenous languages. Given the geopolitical context of their movement, then, Zapatista teaching methods constitute acts of decolonization in and of themselves.

This leaves one wondering if the neoliberal academy might learn a thing or two from the Zapatistas in regard to endorsing both indigenous worldviews and place-based education as essential to any program of study. And even given the depth and breadth of the Zapatista’s “curricula,” the goal of their rogue pedagogy can be summed up as trying to instill one thing: a capacity for discernment, which they foster through Zapatismo.


Liberation will not fall like a miracle from the sky; we must construct it ourselves. So let’s not wait, let us begin…

— Zapatista Pamphlet on Political Education

A kind and good-humoured education promoter explained the notion of Zapatismo to me on a brisk and fog-blanketed weekday morning in the misty highlands of Chiapas. In describing it, they noted: “Zapatismo is neither a model, nor doctrine. It’s also not an ideology or blueprint, rather, it is the intuition one feels inside their chest to reflect the dignity of others, which mutually enlarges our hearts.”

Additionally, as loyal readers of ROAR’s Leonidas Oikonomakis will recognize, Zapatismo is also commonly comprised of seven principles:

  1. Obedecer y no Mandar (to obey, not command)
  2. Proponer y no Imponer (to propose, not impose)
  3. Representar y no Suplantar (to represent, not supplant)
  4. Convencer y no Vencer (to convince, not conquer)
  5. Construir y no Destruir (to construct, not destroy)
  6. Servir y no Servirse (to serve, not to serve oneself)
  7. Bajar y no Subir (to go down, not up; to work from below, not seek to rise)

These convictions guide the everyday efforts of the Zapatistas in the building of what they refer to as Un Mundo Donde Quepan Muchos Mundos (“A World Where Many Worlds Fit”). Zapatismo, then, can also be thought of as the collective expression of a radical imagination, the manifestation of a shared creative vision, and a material liberation of geography.

5What it gives rise to in terms of pedagogy are possibilities for establishing respectful methods of teaching and learning that champion the recognition (and practice) of mutuality, interdependency, introspection and dignity.

These non-hierarchical/anti-neoliberal facets of Zapatista teaching are evident in the grassroots focus they take. Local knowledge is so central amongst their communities that many of the promotores de educación (education promoters) often come from, and remain in, the same autonomous municipalities as the students. There are no sessional contracts and teachers are not disposed of after only a few months on the job.

In the spirit of equality, Zapatistas maintain neither hierarchical distinction nor vertical rank amongst their “faculty members.” Everyone is simply, and humbly, an education promoter. This jettisoning of professional titles and institutionally-legitimated credentials highlights how the Zapatistas are able to thwart assertions of ego/hierarchical authority and abolish the competitive individualism that so often corrupts neoliberal universities. Fundamentally, they are unsettling the rigid boundaries dividing “those who know” from “those who do not know” — because there is nothing revolutionary about arrogance.

7Even more radically, the Zapatistas incorporate gender justice (like Zapatista Women’s Revolutionary Law), food sovereignty, anti-systemic healthcare, and queer discourse (like using the inclusive terms otroas/otr@s,compañeroas/compañer@s, and so on, as well as “otherly” as a whimsical and respectful compliment) into their day-to-day learning.

They also do not distribute final marks to signify an end to the learning process, and no grades are used to compare or condemn students. In these ways, the Zapatistas underscore how education is neither a competition, nor something to be “completed”. These transgressive strategies have essentially aided the Zapatistas in eradicating shame from the learning process, which they deem necessary because of just how toxic, petty and vicious neoliberal education can become.

To conclude, the academic status quo is punishing — and must be abandoned. Neoliberalism has hijacked education and is holding it hostage. It demands ransom in the form of obedience, conformity and free labor, whilst also disciplining the curiosity, creativity and imagination out of students, faculty and workers. The neoliberal university itself is sterile, negligent and conformist; as well as suffocating, lonely and gray.

Collective resistance is exigent because we need a new burst of hope amidst such a “heavy darkness” — and Zapatismo nurtures hope. Not hope in an abstract sense of the word, but the type of hope that when sown through compassion and empathy, and nourished by shared rage, resonates and is felt.

Zapatismo gives rise to the kind of hope that comforts affliction, enlarges hearts and wakes up history. The kind of hope that causes chests to swell, jaws to clench and arms to lock when others are being humiliated or hurt — regardless of whether it be by individual, institution, system, or structure.

Zapatismo cries dignity and suggests the suffering of the neoliberal university can be withstood and overcome, because truth be told, neoliberalism is not an ominous, panoptic master — it is simply a reality. And realities can be changed — just ask a Zapatista.



February 26, 2015

On visiting the Zapatista community of Oventic

Filed under: Zapatista — Tags: , — dorsetchiapassolidarity @ 1:59 pm


On visiting the Zapatista community of Oventic

Tom Murray
Workers Solidarity Movement

Last November, I took part in a week-long language school at Oventic, Chiapas.[1] I spent the week living and learning with two US-based comrades – Laila, a tattoo artist and socialist/feminist from Memphis, and Michael, a housing rights activist from Baltimore – alongside the wider Zapatista community of Oventic. Our ‘guides’ for the week were our neighbours – Natalio and Paloma as well as Stephanie (who was learning to be a teacher) and Efrain (a linguist, philosopher and educator all rolled in to one). These were the people we met and spoke with every day. What follows are some reflections recorded along the way.

On the Zapatista community

Oventic is located high in the mountains of Chiapas. It is hard not to feel small beside the great mountain ranges and underneath such a vast sky. The mornings are usually bright, clear and full of bird song. In the evening, fog rolls down the hills and shrouds us in a damp mist. By night, it is pitch black except for the stars. Life here, surprisingly, is very ordinary and, equally surprisingly, very special. In the mornings, from my privileged bunk bed, I can hear the sounds of a day to day routine beginning – men and women getting up before dawn, clothes washed by hand and hung on lines, the low singing of those getting ready for work in the fields and always the running and laughing of children. The work of the village is work but work in common, shared and collective. People talk with one another slowly and leisurely. The children are almost always playing.

In the evenings, when work is long over, there are sports and games on the basketball courts. One evening, we attend a community meeting in a nearby classroom where Efrain plays social movement media clips on a laptop and projector, showing news of the disappearance of the 43 student teachers of Ayotzinapah and the protests of dignity and rage overflowing Mexico. Another evening, Michael and I join the community assembled on the basketball courts and help bag and store the corn that the village will use to make tortillas. There is singing as we finish. Later that night, the three of us visitors take part in a music session where the community sang the Himno Zapatista along with many rebel and folk songs, including some Irish ones (my contribution).

On Corozonar, Bats’i k’op and Listening Zapatistas do not ask one another the Spanish ‘como estas?’, but rather the Tsotsil ‘k’uxi jav o’on’ – not ‘how are you?, but rather ‘what is your heart telling you?’ This is one example of how language can emerge from (and shape our understanding of) a place or world. It also shows the emphasis that the Zapatistas place on listening – listening to our own hearts (corozonar) and to others’. Natalio explains to us that many Zapatistas use an indigenous language or ‘bats’i k’op’ (which translates as ‘real words’) to talk to one another. He emphasises at various points the need to live in the real world.

At the end of my stay, when Laila, Michael and I take the bus back to San Cristobal, we are bombarded with advertising for Coke and Pepsi, PRI and PAN, as well as the local radio chatter. Michael says it feels a bit like stepping out of the real world and back into ‘The Matrix’.

How are you like a tree? Where are our roots?

In our first conversation, Natalio, Stephanie, Michael and I read a story about Napí, an indigenous girl who likes to dream of another world in which she can fly with the birds of the forest. At one point in the story, we are told how Napí’s mother, soon after Napí was born, buried her umbilical cord at the roots of a great tree, in keeping with local Mayan custom. We are invited to reflect on how Napí understood the world as a child, as part of a family and a community and as part of her natural environment.

Natalio then asks us, ‘what happened to your umbilical cord?’ He suggests that this question of ‘where are our roots?’ is a question for life. If we want to grow upwards and outwards, we must find and grow roots – in our communities and in our environment. Later, Efrain suggests that finding our roots in a community is a means of recuperating and recovering our personality from capitalism in a ‘nosotr@s’ or ‘we ourselves’, or in intersubjectivity.

What does the earth mean?

The land is seen as La Madre Tierra, the fountain or source for all flora and fauna, for all our lives. Natalio tell us that there are many words for land. There is ‘balumil’ which is the entire world; ‘osil’ which is the land in which families live and work; and, in between, ‘lum’ or ‘jteklum’ which is the community’s territory and practices. He explains that the Zapatistas cannot live without land. In the history of the indigenous, being without land meant being without any rights or recognition or dignity. So as to conquer the locals better, the ranch barons divided indigenous communities into ‘mozos’ (those without land) and ‘valdios’ (those workers with a little land). Today, the Zapatistas allocate small plots of land to families where they work as equals and share resources.

What does work mean? We all go to a milpa or small hillside plot one morning. We help clear the overgrowth from the small plants or aloes that Natalio’s family cultivates. My academic hands are not used to using a pick or hoe; they blister quickly. After a short time, working together, we have managed to clear away quite a bit of the grassy overgrowth. Natalio then suggests we stop and we do. As we walk back, he explains that Zapatistas don’t work to a schedule but rather work until their bodies tell them they should stop.

As we develop this idea, Natalio explains that there are many words for work. A’mtel is human work, all those activities for yourself, your family, your community that you decide to do. Pak k’ak’al approximates those activities that you do and hope to receive something similar in return. P’iju’mtasbail – is a local word for working in common, as a brother or sister. These are all forms of real work. The third form is ‘Kanal’. This is unreal work in which you are not acting for yourself. Instead, you have a boss and there is a process of control from above; you do not have options or choices. People who are exploited in this way are termed ‘jkanal’.

What does education mean?

The Zapatista experience of state education – in which visiting teachers came occasionally and often proved violently disciplinarian – taught them that the state did not care about their children’s education or their future. This form of education based on writing and book-learning dates from the Conquest and is described as ‘el chan vun’. Today, the Zapatistas share a different form of education or ‘chanu’mtasbail’ in which all the community and the natural environment take on the role of ‘teacher’. Our classes are held in the same spirit. They involve a series of questions or videos or stories in the mornings that we are then invited to reflect on in the afternoon as we take part in other activities in the community. We then write some reflections and discuss these the following morning.

Do you consider yourself an anti-capitalist? Please explain why.

One sunny day we are taken across a river and to the top of a nearby mountain ridge where we sit in a circle in the shade of the pine trees. Efrain lays out seven cards each stating a Zapatista organising principle. He emphasises that these are not a model to be applied but more like ‘guides’ that emerge from the indigenous way of seeing and living. These are:

To propose, not to impose
To represent, not to supplant
To lower, not to elevate oneself
To serve, not to serve oneself
To obey, not to command
To convince, not to win
To create, not to destroy

The Zapatistas share a broad understanding of what it means to be anti-capitalist. In the Sexta Declaration, they side with the ‘humble and simple people’ of the world who are looking and struggling against and beyond neoliberalism, seeking dignity. Efrain says that an indigenous word ‘chulel’ captures the living quality of life, all the life force or energy involved in the earth, in one’s own life, even the potentialities latent in objects and things. Capitalism is a destroyer of ‘chulel’, of nature and of community. It promotes an extreme individualisation and dehumanisation. The Zapatistas are on a path or a way of true living, emerging out of and realising chulel.


The Sexta Declaration and many (many) more Zapatista communiqués are available at and

Efrain suggested that I read Carlos Lenkerforf, who has written on Mayan languages in ‘Los Hombres Verdaderos’ and ‘Cosmovision Maya’, or Sup. Marcos (Yvon le Bot), ‘El Sueno Zapatista’. He also recommended the journalistic pieces written by Herman Bellinghausen in the newspaper, La Jornada.

In terms of anarchist writings, Murray Bookchin’s The Ecology of Freedom, a terrific analysis of the ecological and democratic sensibilities of organic communities, resonates with some of the ideas presented here. Articles by WSM members who participated in the Zapatista Encuentros are also available. Finally, I recently interviewed Gustavo Esteva on the links between the Zapatistas and today’s social movements’ resistance in the ‘zombie time’ of capitalism.

[1] This was a rare opportunity. The Zapatistas started limiting outsider involvement to prevent government or military informers infiltrating and undermining their communities. They recently opened the language school as a means of enabling outsiders to demonstrate solidarity, of spreading the Zapatista word, of generating some revenue for the communities, and of providing the communities with a soft form of protection from military incursions. About a third of the Mexican army has been stationed in Chiapas since the Zapatista uprising of 1994. International solidarity networks play a role in limiting the army’s violence.





January 5, 2014

Educate in resistance: the autonomous Zapatista schools

Filed under: Zapatista — Tags: , — dorsetchiapassolidarity @ 9:27 am

Educate in resistance: the autonomous Zapatista schools

By Angélica Rico


Post image for Educate in resistance: the autonomous Zapatista schools
Zapatista education crosses wide areas of alternative knowledge and being, and offers a space where collective knowledge is aimed at social transformation.



The first surprise when you get to the Zapatista community of Cintalapa is the contrast between the beauty of the Lacandon Jungle and the Mexican federal army checkpoint, set up outside the ejido.

For the Zapatista children it seems normal that their little bags are reviewed at the checkpoint, or that they are asked questions when they go to the fields with their parents. They have lived through this their entire lives. The adolescent girls seem to be upset that the soldiers look up and down or yell things at them. So the lives of children in the Zapatista territory of tseltales remain full of contradictions.

These are children living between resistance and death, children who attend and together with their parents and siblings build up the autonomous education of the Zapatistas; a form of education based on their own needs and supported by the community through popular assemblies and collective work.

The Zapatista project of autonomy is more than a political and economic proposal for local, municipal and regional self-governance. It constitutes a broad-based social and cultural initiative, of which education is a core element. As a socializing space, the school reproduces culture, practices and discourses; but it can also generate change and resistance, not only in the form of education, but in the subjects themselves, in their forms of community organization and their family relationships.

Although there are differences between municipalities, Zapatista autonomous education is conceived as a university of life. Its objectives and contents arise from the experienced problems, and the possible solutions, through reflection and collective participation.

How it All Began

In 2001, the Zapatista families of the Autonomous Municipality in Rebellion—Ricardo Flores Magón decided to take their children out of school in the Mexican official education system, which did not respect their culture and their history, and which did not teach the children their rights as indigenous peoples, forcing children to forget their indigenous languages and speak only Spanish. Some teachers openly criticized the EZLN and Zapatista families during class, punishing and harshly beating the children, shaming them for being indigenous peasants.

Needless to say, these forms of everyday cultural and physical violence gravely hurt the children, who in many cases returned home crying that they no longer wanted to go to the school of chopol ajualil (bad government). This direct experience of the children is one of the main reasons why the communities decided to organize their own autonomous education project called True Education — a dignified schooling system where both teachers and children are respected.

The 117 communities in the municipality each decided to include the children in the struggle, and removed them from the public schools. At the same time, they began to form autonomous education centers, whose teachers were democratically elected by their communities and trained by experienced external trainers like biologists, historians, agro-ecologists, journalists, engineers and some students in the Municipality Training Center.

Themes and Challenges

The thematic axes of this form of autonomous education are the basic Zapatista demands for democracy, freedom and social justice, as well as the specific needs identified by each village, which have to be resolved through direct democratic assemblies.

The curriculum of the official schools is not removed entirely by the Zapatista schools, but is re-signified through local symbols, so that national and international heroes share space with Indians, the history of the Spanish colonizers is taught side-by-side with the history of the Tseltal, and the values of individualism, competition, consumerism and private property are seriously questioned and replaced with values like the community and solidarity.

The challenge for autonomous education is to turn the community into a classroom and to incorporate a formal system of Tseltal education, where children learn about planting and harvesting seasons, traditional festivals or about the oral tradition, in order to combine schooling with an indigenous upbringing. Promoters of True Education are not only trained to teach children literacy, but also acquire political-pedagogical tools to help instill the germs of a critical consciousness in the minds of the children:

Our education is about having a dignified struggle and one heart, so that we can walk together in the same direction. We believe that education is not only about teaching literacy and numeracy, but also about solving problems between our peoples, how to defend ourselves, about our history and how to keep on fighting.

— Hortencia, Tseltal promoter of True Education

The teaching and learning methods in these schools help children to develop a different way of seeing themselves in relation to their immediate reality. Unlike other — official — indigenous schools, they are taught to think of education as inherently political; they are taught how to fight, to take care of their environment and to take pride in defending their indigenous culture and land.

At the autonomous school, we speak Tseltal and we can say whatever is on our minds without any punishments (Gloria, 11 years old).

I like the autonomous school because they respect my word and the teacher doesn’t say ugly things (Julia, 9 years old).

We can play and learn about our rights, and we know what the government does against our communities (Manuel, 12 years old).

Autonomy and Gender

Zapatista education allows children to identify themselves with the project of autonomy. They are fully immersed in the construction of a social and political reality while keeping up with the values of the movement, which is acquired in school and is reinforced thanks to the social and political activities in Zapatista territory. The autonomous school is a place of reflection where children say what they feel and think while constructing their own autonomous identity.

Almost half of the students at the autonomous school are girls, which is curious in an indigenous community: since they are young, girls have to help out at home, care for younger siblings or collect food in the mountain. One reason may be that teachers tend to be more flexible with attendance and punctuality, so that the girls can bring their siblings to the classroom.

From twelve years on, male youngsters can actively participate in the public and political life of the community and of the municipality, in sports and autonomous events. For female teenagers, however, it is virtually impossible to participate in these types of events — only in exceptional cases in which either the mother or the father has a political position that allows them to build other kinds of relationships:

When my sister Margarita was 14 years old, my mom decided to take her out of school because she needed to help her with my brothers. She cried a lot. My mom told her that it was not necessary to study since she will get married anyway (Laura, 10 years old).

In the autonomous education system, boys and girls learn about the “revolutionary laws of women” and how to appropriate certain principles and values to be able to transform their family and community life. Girls learn about their rights and how to make decisions, and they are actively engaged in Zapatista organization. Instead of getting married at age fourteen or fifteen, girls decide to become promoters of education, health or human rights, to be part of political committees or become insurgentas, as it does not involve a radical break from community ties.

Autonomous education is an opportunity to form a different type of socialization, arising out of different ideas and practices of gender relations and collective identity. As such, it is not limited to the political, social and cultural spheres: it crosses wide areas of alternative knowledge and being. Zapatista schools are places where collective knowledge is aimed at social transformation.

Angélica Rico is a journalist and holds a Master’s in Rural Development from the Autonomous Metropolitan University at Xochomilco. She served as a war correspondent (1994-’99), was responsible for cultural, educational and productive projects at the Cultural AC communities in Tzeltal, Tzotzil and Ch’ol of the Highlands and Lacandon Jungle (1999-2009).

With thanks to ROAR Magazine:


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