by Mary Ann Tenuto, Chiapas Support Committee
We teach the history of our ancestors and their relationship to the rich,” an experienced municipal authority in Polhó told our March 2010 delegation in response to a young activist’s question about how history is taught in autonomous Zapatista schools. That rapid and straightforward response summarizes an important principle underlying autonomous education: it is based on and made specific to the experience of the indigenous Zapatista peoples of Chiapas.
Autonomous education has now functioned inside Zapatista Territory for fifteen years. Starting from an analysis of what they wanted and didn’t want their children to learn, the Zapatista communities gradually developed their teaching materials and began to give formation to teachers, called education promoters in the autonomous education system.
During five visits to Zapatista territory in 2009 and 2010, different members of the Chiapas Support Committee (CSC) have had the opportunity to discuss autonomous education with its promoters and coordinators in the region encompassed within the Caracol of La Garrucha. Education promoters gave our March 2010 delegation an amazing presentation, describing how they teach in San Manual County. We were somewhat surprised to learn that San Manuel had 52 communities, 900 primary school students and only 22 schools. The same lack of schools also exists in other counties in the La Garrucha region. They asked us to support their regional education projects.
The recent presentations on autonomous education were not this writer’s introduction to the concept. An education coordinator met with us in Francisco Gómez seven or eight years ago to tell us why autonomous education was needed. “The teachers in government schools taught the history of the oppressors, not the history of our ancestors. They were paid for teaching 5 days per week, but they only showed up 2or 3days per week. They spoke only Spanish while most of the children spoke only their mother tongue: Tzeltal.”
In August 2010 several of us traveled to Chiapas and visited the Good Government Junta in La Garrucha to work out an agreement for an education project. We talked to 20 or so education promoters from the 4 counties in the region. The Junta’s current policy is that all projects must be distributed equally among the four counties. We reached agreement in principle with the promoters and the Junta to finance an education project that would be put in writing and would have the regional assembly’s approval.
The project description we received was to finance the following: the construction of 5 new schools and remodeling of some existing schools in San Manuel County; and the construction of 5 new schools in Francisco Gomez County. It also includes furnishing all the schools with supplies for students and teaching materials and supplies for the education promoters. The project’s total cost is more than $30,000.00. The Chiapas Support Committee approved the project unanimously, so it’s now time to start the work of raising the money.
The Sun’s Little Seed
For those of us who visit the Zapatista communities regularly, it is amazing to watch the construction of autonomy side-by-side with the low-intensity war against the indigenous communities in resistance. This includes the construction of an autonomous health care system, collective economic production and the autonomous education system. As Zapatista autonomy evolves, the education model also evolves. The new model in the La Garrucha Region is called Semillita del Sol (Little Seed of the Sun). It is based on the idea that education is for everyone in the community, without regard to age.
The promoters teach in four basic areas: mathematics; language; history, and life environment. These areas are taught starting from the 13 Zapatista demands. When the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN, its initials in Spanish) rose up in arms on January 1, 1994, declaring war on the Mexican government, it made 13 demands: work, land, shelter, food, health, education, independence, liberty, democracy, justice and peace. It also demanded that the Mexican Army be withdrawn from its territory and an end to the plunder of natural resources on indigenous lands. In other words, the four areas are addressed from the living reality of indigenous people who struggle and live in resistance.
The education promoters told delegates that the region currently has three levels of learning. “On the first level the students learn to write and draw; on the second level, to understand the Zapatista demands, and on the third level they manage texts, communiqués, denunciations, government strategies, the situation of why we struggle and the construction of autonomy.” Only the first two levels are functioning now. The four basic areas are taught on each level.
Constructing autonomy is, in part, learning by trial and error, or learning by doing. Learning how to best meet the needs of the communities in the region is ongoing, ever changing, evolving. This is true with respect to education, as well as health care and production. Those of us who walk with the communities in this process are also evolving and learning while we accompany the construction of autonomy.