By RICARDO CASTILLO
A major theme among candidates in the ongoing Mexican presidential electoral campaign is the huge political squabble over education.
And it seems only natural that education be the top topic of discussion since today Mexico celebrates the 100th anniversary of the declaration of Teachers’ Day or “Día del Maestro.” It was conceived during the drafting of the historic 1917 Constitution, when most of the congressmen drafting it were former, mostly rural, teachers. Then-President Venustiano Carranza signed the bill into law and it is indeed the official day for those who shout it out on a daily basis in the nation’s classrooms. The bill went into effect on May 15, 2018.
What do we have 100 years later in terms of teachers? An obvious answer is that there is a “system” run from the Mexico City-based Public Education Secretariat (SEP), which boasts over 2 million classroom employees divided nowadays into two-main unions: The National Education Workers Union (SNTE) and the splinter National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), which is regionalized in the southern states of Michoacán, Guerrero and Oaxaca and the southeastern states of Chiapas and Tabasco along the Guatemalan border.
In the past few years, the difference between the SNTE and that CNTE has been that while SNTE leaders have accepted President Enrique Peña Nieto’s “Education Reform” that went into effect in 2013, the CNTE has been protesting against it since the beginning. They spent the years of 2014, 2015 and part of 2016 nearly stationed in downtown Mexico City, blockading streets, which, of course, won them great unpopularity among Mexico City residents, and rightly so.
The CNTE teachers also turned their protests into road and railway blockades, which wreaked havoc in the merchandise traffic logistics. The teachers, however, wanted to be heard, even at the risk of getting hated by those affected and, again, rightly so.
The demonstrations have toned down in the years of 2017 and 2018, but in the end that does not mean that they have tempered their main complaint against the Education Reform’s demand that all teachers be tested as to their teaching competence.
In terms of presidential hopefuls, they are certainly bringing the issue into the fray. Last Saturday, May 12, National Regeneration Movement (Morena) candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, also known as AMLO, held a raucous gathering in Guelatao in the State of Oaxaca. Guelatao is a national monument town because it is the birthplace of the nation’s first Indian president, Benito Juárez.
The one promise that AMLO made to the crowd, which was made up mostly of teachers was that he would derogate President Peña Nieto’s Education Reform. The cheering was deafening. This is exactly what they wanted to hear from the candidate.
Out of the five presidential candidates, only AMLO has committed himself to making radical changes to the education system and has promised to “let the teachers decide what education is.” More cheers. It was like giving children ice cream on a hot day.
The other four candidates, for the most part, have remained aloof from the problems the teachers have on a daily basis and at best offer to keep the current status quo.
Needless to say that AMLO’s promise to the teachers is seen as a threat by the Peña Nieto administration. He’s trying “to destroy” what it wrought, but, then, it didn’t give the CNTE teachers what they sought, which was to participate in drafting the national educational standard.
In terms of education, the teachers see the nation as “two Mexicos,” with the southern and southeastern states CNTE represents – around 200,000 members – as the backward part of the country. They contend, perhaps rightly, and at least AMLO agrees with them, that they need a different education system to cope with ethnicity differences as the great majority of the population is of Indian descent.
The rest of the nation, where the SNTE rules, is educationally standardized with only regional differences that are not seen as a hurdle to the advancement of the nation as the southern and southeastern states are, where many a child comes to school without a meal in her/his belly. That’s more or less a daily fact. Those are the truly poverty stricken states of Mexico.
Ironically, the presidential candidates do agree in one thing. That is that without education the nation will not progress and the key instrument in education is not the program, but the teachers in the classrooms.
To them, our best loving hug today.
As an extra bit of info: AMLO will be in San Miguel de Allende on Tuesday, May 15, for a rally at El Jardín’s main plaza at 6 p.m. His subject? You guessed it, teachers and education.