The Schools From Below
"A non-institutional education,
where the community is the educating subject"
by Raúl Zibechi
Caracol Morelia, Chiapas, Mexico
Translated by Joe Parker and Vilma Villela
There will be a before and an after the Zapatista school. A recent one and those that are to come. There will be a slow impact, diffuse, which will be felt in some years but which will impact the life of those below for decades. What we lived was a non-institutional education, where the community is the educating subject. Self-education face to face, learning with the heart and the body, as a poet would say.
It’s about a non-pedagogy inspired in the farming culture: select the best seeds, scatter them in the fertile ground and water the soil to produce the miracle of germination, that is uncertain and can never be planned.
The Zapatista schools, in which more than a thousand of us set foot in autonomous communities, was a different mode of learning and teaching, without classrooms or blackboards, without teachers or professors, without curriculum or grades. The real teaching begins with the creation of a climate of kinship among a multitude of subjects instead of dividing educators with power and knowledge from naïve students that need to be inculcated with knowledge.
Among the many things learned, impossible to summarize in a few lines, I want to highlight five aspects, perhaps influenced by the opportunities that we come across in the southern part of the continent.
First is that the Zapatistas defeated the social politics of counterinsurgency, which is the mode adopted by those above to divide, co-opt, and subjugate the communities that rebel. Next to each Zapatista community are communities affiliated with the bad government with their cinderblock houses, who receive vouchers and hardly work the earth at all. Thousands of families succumbed, which is common across all the areas, and accepted gifts from those above. But what is notable and exceptional is that thousands of others continue forward without accepting anything.
I know of no other process in all of Latin America that has been successful in neutralizing such social politics. This is the greatest merit of Zapatismo, succeeding with a militant determination, political clarity, and an inexhaustible capacity to sacrifice. This is the first teaching: it is possible to defeat such social politics.
Autonomy is the second teaching. For some years we have heard discourses on autonomy in diverse social movements, some certainly valuable. In the autonomous municipalities and the communities that make up the Caracol Morelia, I can attest that they constructed an autonomy of economics, of health, of education, and of power. Or we might say an autonomy that comprises all aspects of life. I don’t have the smallest doubt that the same success is found in the other four Caracoles.
A couple of words on economics, or material life. The families in the communities don’t have contact with the capitalist economy. They hardly have contact with the market. They produce all their food, including a good dose of protein. They buy what they do not produce (salt, oil, soap, sugar) in Zapatista stores. The family and community surplus is saved as earnings, with a basis in coffee bean sales. When necessary, for health or for the struggle, they sell a few head of cattle.
Autonomy in education and health is seated in community control. The community elects those who will teach their boys and girls and those who will care for their health. In each community there is a school, and in the health center are working together midwives, bone doctors, and those who specialize in medicinal plants. The community sustains them, the same way they sustain their authorities.
The third teaching is related to collective work. As one of the school guardians (or companions) said, “Collective work is the engine of the process.” The communities have their own lands, thanks to the expropriation of the expropriators, which unavoidably took place to create a new world. Men and women each have their own work and their own collective spaces.
Collective work is one of the foundations of autonomy, whose fruits are often poured into the hospitals, clinics, and primary and secondary education to strengthen the municipalities and the good government committees. Nothing of the great amount which they have constructed would be possible without the collective work of the men, women, boys, girls, and elders.
The fourth question is that of the new cultural politics, which is rooted in family relations and is diffused throughout Zapatista society. The men collaborate in domestic work that continues to fall to the women, caring for the children when the women leave the community for their work as community authorities. The relations between parents and children are of caring and respect, in a general climate of harmony and good humor. I did not observe a single gesture of violence or aggression in the home.
The vast majority of Zapatistas are the young and very young, and there are as many women as men. The revolution cannot be carried out without many young people, and this is not disputed. Those that govern obey, and this is not disputed. Working with the body is one of the other keys of the new cultural politics.
The mirror is the fifth point. The communities are a double mirror: where we can see ourselves and we can see them. Not one or the other, but both simultaneously. We see ourselves watching them. In this going and coming we learn by working together, sleeping and eating under the same roof, in the same conditions, using the same latrines, stepping on the same mud and getting wet in the same rain.
This is the first time that a revolutionary movement has realized an experience of this type. Until now teaching by revolutionaries reproduced the molds of academic intellectuals, with a stratified above and below, frozen. This is something else entirely. We learn with our skin and our senses.
Finally, a question of method and the form of work. The EZLN was born in a concentration camp which represents the vertical relations and the violence imposed by landowners. They learned to work family by family and in secret, innovating the mode of work of the antisystemic movements. Each time the world appears to be a concentration camp, their methods can be very useful for those of us set on creating a new world.
Originally published in Spanish in La Jornada, 8-23-2013
About Raúl Zibechi (Bio written by Joe Parker)
Zibechi’s comments below on the Zapatista movement’s newest phase builds on his extensive experience writing about and participating in Latin American social movements since the 1970s. After participating from 1969-1973 in the Uruguayan Revolutionary Student Front, he was forced into exile with many other activists in 1976. In the 1980s he began writing about Central American liberation movements for various newspapers in Argentina and Uruguay, and he now does political analysis for La Brecha (Uruguay), La Jornada (Mexico), and the America’s Program. He won the José Marti Journalism Award for his work as a journalist. He is also the author of several books, including two essay collections recently translated into English (Dispersing Power, 2010; and Territories in Resistance, 2012).
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