|Book: Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca|
ZNet Book Page
Publisher: PM Press
“People are angry. They are tired of asking for justice, tired of asking for respect for human rights,
tired of corruption, tired of being tricked, and tired of being manipulated and denied their basic rights.”
Is it a crime to bear witness? Diana Denham and Laura Böök pose this simple yet compelling question in the first pages of Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca. This question stuck with me and resurfaced as I read the stories of individuals who witnessed and/or were subjected to brutal violence and criminalization at the hands of the Mexican government in an effort to suppress the social movement that germinated in the state of Oaxaca in 2006. Teaching Rebellion is the product of the combined efforts of Diana Denham, members of C.A.S.A. (Collectives of Support, Solidarity, and Action), and the individuals whose stories readers will likely become absorbed by.
Teaching Rebellion begins with a brief yet helpful summary of the history and the events that contextualize the mass mobilization of people in the spring of 2006. The book then proceeds as a compilation of first-person narratives and stunning photographs that provide an intimate look at the experiences of a diverse cross-section of the actors involved in the movement. Readers learn that the Mexican state of Oaxaca is the second poorest in the nation despite its bountiful natural resources, which contribute to a successful tourism industry that lines the pockets of the rich while nearly three-quarters of the population live in extreme poverty. Oaxaca’s sixteen distinct indigenous ethnic groups make the state one of Mexico’s most culturally diverse, and these particular populations are the hardest hit by poverty.
The Mexican government’s lack of support for Oaxaca’s traditional agricultural economy, coupled with the far-reaching and asphyxiating stranglehold of trade agreements such as NAFTA, have left millions of Oaxaqueños with little hope regarding their ability to survive in their communities. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of Oaxaca’s residents migrate to the U.S. with dreams of escaping the destitution they face at home. Cognizance of the grossly disparate worlds of the rich and the poor has also spurred people into action and created a legacy of social revolt. In fact, Oaxaca’s memory of resistance reaches back 500 years to Spanish colonization and the ever-growing realization and indignation that racism was at the heart of the apparent ease with which indigenous peoples were exploited, discarded, and murdered.
Mexico was under the control of one political party, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) for 70 years until the election of Vicente Fox from the PAN (National Action Party) in 2000. However, the PRI’s long and repressive history in Mexico has allowed it to “[maintain] its hegemony in Oaxaca through an intricate system of social and political domination” (p. 28). Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, the PRI member who became the governor of Oaxaca in 2004 amid accusations of electoral fraud, ran for office on a campaign slogan that promised intolerance of democratic rights: “Ni marchas, ni plantones” – no marches and no sit-ins. It is this enduring environment of state-sponsored violence and intimidation that has encouraged generations of Oaxaqueños to refuse apathy thereby creating a rich history of rebellion that continues to inspire and move both young and old alike. Unfortunately, the PRI has retaliated by escalating its “repression of social organizing and criminalization of dissent in recent years” (p. 28). According to Teaching Rebellion, Oaxaca presently holds the number one spot in human rights abuses in Mexico.
The teachers of Oaxaca are adamantly vocal about demanding justice and critiquing the government. The effects of Oaxaca’s high poverty rate are reflected in the state’s broken system of public education. Consequently, for many years the teachers’ union has held a plantón to improve the quality of education. Thousands of teachers gather in the zócalo, or central plaza, that lies in the heart of Oaxaca City to make their voices heard. According to Eleuterio, an indigenous elementary school teacher, the goals of their yearly sit-ins are to draw attention to the needs of students, teachers and the schools. Whether or not the teachers strike depends on whether the government concedes to some of their demands.
On May 22, 2006, over 20,000 teachers followed tradition and held a peaceful sit-in at the zócalo. During this time teachers also organized several Megamarches that brought out hundreds of thousands of Oaxaqueños who demanded the removal of Oaxacan governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. What made a significant difference this year rested in Ortiz’s outright disregard of democratic rights and desire to squelch any semblance of opposition. Keeping true to his promise of “ni marchas, ni plantones,” Ortiz shortly ordered the state government to descend upon the teachers’ sit-in. On June 14, 2006, the teachers were forced to flee after being attacked with teargas, helicopters, and firearms.
Rather than silence the teachers, the government’s repressive tactics strengthened teachers’ resolve and generated popular support for teachers. The government’s actions engendered a call to action for all to rise up against state-sponsored oppression. The Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO) was born from this public outcry and included over 300 unions, social organizations, indigenous communities, collectives, neighborhoods, and student groups who would no longer be silenced. Megamarches that drew nearly half a million participants from all corners of Oaxaca vividly demonstrated that the people would no longer tolerate Ortiz and publicly demanded his removal. The effects of this mass mobilization were far-reaching:
“… the movement that surfaced in Oaxaca took over and ran an entire city for six months starting in June 2006…People across the state began to question the established line of western thinking that says communities can’t survive, much less thrive, without the intervention of a separate hierarchy caring for its needs. Oaxaca sent a compelling message to the world in 2006: the power we need is in our hands.” (p. 27)
Like squares on a quilt, there are several themes that run throughout the first-hand accounts in Teaching Rebellion that are woven together to create a rich tapestry of what this grassroots mobilization meant to the people of Oaxaca and a few international observers who came to bear witness to the unprecedented events that unfolded. The interviews that were transcribed and translated demonstrate that this social movement did not have only one face or one source of motivation, and thus it symbolized different, yet equally powerful, things to those involved.
Empowerment, solidarity, dignity, conscientization, improvisational organizing, autonomy, and resistance are among the most gripping and salient themes that spoke to me as I became engrossed in the first-hand narratives of hope and courage. The voices of a child, a maid, a graffiti artist, an indigenous teacher, a religious great-grandmother, activists, a medical student, a Catholic priest, a journalist, and an indigenous woman, are present among the 23 testimonies that animate the struggles of Oaxaqueños. Some of these actors had no history of participation in social demonstrations whereas others were experienced activists. The stories in Teaching Rebellion illustrate how the nature of the grassroots movement provided room for individuals to be involved and contribute in a wide array of meaningful ways. I believe it is this flexibility that it allowed to truly become the peoples’ movement.
Oftentimes individuals say, “I’m just a ____”, be they parents, teachers, janitors, children, construction workers, or artists. The conditioning we have experienced as a result of ideological hegemony and oppression has led us to conceive of our abilities in a restricting and static manner that effectively disempowers us. Our self-concept is thus frequently limited by what we perceive we only are today rather than expanded by dreams about what we can be tomorrow. The beauty of Teaching Rebellion lies in the inspiration, courage, and love that people found in one another and informed their desire to address injustices amid a turbulent environment. The narratives are tales of power generated and shared from the bottom up. Most significantly, many of these stories shed light on instances in which everyday people learned the importance, value, and power of rebellion, whether it was armed resistance or peaceful disobedience.
Teaching Rebellion is thus a valuable tool for teachers to use with students to discuss and problematize notions of participation: Who can participate? Who sets the guidelines for “legitimate” participation? How can we negotiate our own terms for participation? Speaking from my own experience, one tends to believe that one must possess a pre-determined amount of knowledge or experience before one can get involved and effect change. This book clearly demonstrates that such thoughts prevent us from fighting for social justice. Historically marginalized student populations are especially vulnerable to believing that our voices do not matter and must consequently topple significant barriers before becoming fully engaged in the struggle for a just world. As Freire would say, it is important to recognize and accept our “unfinishedness” in order to move forward. The following quotes from the book exemplify the power that lies in the heart and determination of one individual once we begin to see ourselves as historical actors:
- David: “Daily life, as part of the poor and exploited peoples of Mexico, has been all the political schooling I’ve needed to motivate my participation in this social movement and at the barricades.”
- Ekaterine: “When I started to see the situation, it made me feel like going out into the streets to defend their rights, to stand up for people who really are forgotten. The government acts as if these people didn’t exist, as if they weren’t a part of us.”
- Hugo: “…I felt in that moment that it would have been a crime to hang back, to remain silent about the violence unfolding. As a human being, an artist, as a friend of a fallen compañero, as a citizen of the city, I needed to make my voice heard and express my position.”
- Silvia: “I had begun to feel increasingly absorbed by the realities around me, and found that I was no longer able to see myself as an outside observer looking in on the problems…I felt that to gain a deeper understanding I would have to get involved.”
Another striking element that emerges from the narratives is the visibility and participation of women in this rebellion. Whether done unconsciously or deliberately, the photograph employed for the book cover alludes to the involvement of a large number of women. The striking photograph is of a young woman with an eyebrow ring who is wearing a baseball cap and a bandana covering the lower half of her face. The cut-out of a hand and a star are superimposed on this image, perhaps in reference to the demonstrators pictured in the book who painted their hands white and wrote “PAZ,” or peace, on the palms of their hands and held them up in protest before the police. The authors of the preface observe that, “Not only were women the pillars of support on which the movement rested (it was women who, night after night, fed people at the barricades, the plantón encampments, and other occupied public spaces), but now they were also protagonists in a way that no one could ignore” (p. 20-21). Indeed, the stories presented in Teaching Rebellion beautifully depict the possibilities for mobilization that became open to everyone in the fight against oppression.
This book also begs the questions: What is it going to take here, in the belly of the beast, to inspire people to rise up against the systems of oppression that have domesticated individuals in order to create a mass movement dedicated to uplifting and empowering one another? How can we learn from the struggles, victories, and setbacks of the Oaxaqueños to strengthen our resolve and refuse apathy as educators and citizens? Diana Denham and the C.A.S.A. Collective attempt to help readers begin to consider these and other questions by providing a study guide and suggested activities that are meant to enrich the reading of this text. Readers will also benefit from the Chronology of the Popular Uprising, Historic Context, and Glossary that are included as supplementary items. The title of a book by Alice Walker comes to mind as I contemplate the underlying message of Teaching Rebellion: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”