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Breaking the Ideological Hold

Zapatista Response to Mexico's
Bilingual Program in Chiapas

by Roberto Flores
Los Angeles, California

Overview of the Zapatista Response: Transnational Context

Mexico, a neoliberal capitalist country and a product of globalization, is characterized by growing inequality and diverse social classes whose interest, necessities and demands are not only different, but in some cases, diametrically opposed. By definition, Mexico's economic disparity cannot exist without the existence of social, political and cultural inequality (Ponton, 1989). It is estimated that at present 40 million of its 100 million population live in dire poverty. Only one of these classes has dominance and appears as the supreme arbitrator in a scenario of constant contradictions. The dominant class, who is principally but not exclusively represented by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), controls the state and maximizes its use to intervene in the social political life of the country in order to insure its perpetuation. Mexico's Education and Language Policy has historically been seen as one of the principal institutions through which the state puts forth its point of view and ideology (Ponton, 1989; Heath, 1986; Pineda, 1996).

In Chiapas, the institution of Bilingual Education administered by the Secretaria de Educación Pública (SEP) has played a key role in the domination, exploitation of the indigenous people and in the repression of their struggle for social justice. For the last 30 years, in particular, in the face of growing inequalities and suffering, the PRI's institution of bilingual education has been used to create consent and conformity through the inculcation of state ideology.

On January 1, 1994, a small but well-organized group of Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolabal, Mam, Zoque, Lancandon, Mixe and Chol Indians, all from the Mayan language group, calling themselves the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, (EZLN), rose up in arms. In the Zapatista declaration of war, Neoliberalism is identified as the main target and source of their extreme impoverishment and marginalization and adequate bilingual indigenous education, devoid of the ideology of the state, is one of the 13 original demands and goals (Primera Declaración de La Selva Lancandona, Jan 1994). In response to neoliberalism and the particular educational need, the Zapatistas have developed an alternative educational autonomous pedagogy that is defined and administered by the indigenous communities and which is independent of the ideological impositions of those in power.

The neoliberalizing of Mexico's economy and the increase in the role of the ideology of the state has had a direct impact on the deterioration of government sponsored bilingual education. The restructuring of Mexico's national economy by the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the adherence to the General Adjustments on Trades and Tariffs, (GATT), North American Fair Trade Agreement, (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) has created what economists are calling a "neoliberal" (new liberal) national policy. The main objective of the Neoliberal Project is to carry out a plan (micro-managed by the IMF) designed to; 1.) Liberalize Mexico's Market by opening up the consumer and investments markets as well as increase the possibility of buying up the productive forces 2.) Make Mexico's macro-economy solvent and 3.) Insure that México is able to pay back the IMF loan. The IMF and WB plan is normally referred to as an "austerity program" and without exception dictates currency devaluation, privatization of national industry, layoffs, down sizing and general cutbacks in social services and in public education. For Mexico as well as for other neoliberal projects, austerity programs have so far meant the devastation of the micro-economy and of all aspects of the quality of life for the majority of citizens.

The drastic decline in the quality of life brought about by increasingly stringent austerity programs has elicited responses such as the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas and the Ejército Popular Revolucionario (EPR) in Guerrero, Oaxaca and Morelos. In addition to these two better-known groups there exist 26 other self-proclaimed armed groups throughout México (Jan 1997, La Jornada). Mexico's historical and principal structures for the restrain of potential armed self-defense and the proliferation of civil societal organizations for resistance, have been the ideology of dominance and military force (Flores, H., La Jornada, 5 de Octubre, 1997; Pineda, L.O., 1994).

The Zapatistas consider Neoliberalism as the root cause of deterioration of the Bilingual system in Chiapas affecting it on three levels; cutbacks in funding, an increase in ideological intervention through the bilingual teacher and through the use of disruptive military and paramilitary force. Cutbacks due to austerity are hurting an already severely destitute and discarded Chiapas bilingual school system. As economic and political conditions worsened during the ë70, the state intensified its manipulation of the bilingual teachers giving them the role of caciques (political bosses) and ideological agents (Pineda, 1994). The 2,000 plus Zapatista communities are presently surrounded by 70-80 thousand troops and it has become routine for the Army to set up their main headquarters and Army supported prostitution houses at the local school building. This is a common occurrence given the close working relationship between bilingual school teachers and the state.

In an exclusive press conference, in Mexico City, U.S. world-renowned educational critic, Michael Apple, discusses with La Jornada Newspaper reporter Lilia Rubio (11 de Julio, 1997) the negative impact of globalization on education.

"Before the neoliberal wave that engulfs the world, educational systems have entered into a reactionary state. Before the lack of resources, overcrowded classroom, the reduction in 'functional literacy,' the lack of relevant education, education is considered a total failure, because it refuses to prepare students to be more productive, to reduce unemployment and to solve the problem of poverty and the loss of competitiveness, all to ostensibly return to a common culture and make the schools more efficient in order to satisfy the needs of the private sector. ... This transformation is against egalitarian norms and values. Although hidden in neoliberal discourse, in essence cultural and political democracy is seen as one of the principal reasons for the economic crisis. The reactionary part is better said by Kenneth Eaker, Secretary of Education and Science from Thatcher's government, who evaluated close to 10 years of rightist efforts in education saying 'finally, the era of equality has ended.' He only needed to say "about time!" (La Jornada, 6/11/97).

Global and U.S. Importance of the Zapatista Response

In the U.S., social political and economic restructuring is visible in run away shops, plant closings, a restructuring of the pay scale, union busting, a pattern of reversals of social reforms that had been won previously, particularly in the late '60s and early '70s. A commensurate increase in the construction of prisons has been imposed by the state perhaps to accommodate an increase in the unemployment of Blacks, Latinos and working class Whites. Among the reversal are numerous cutbacks in education, the anti-immigrant proposition 187 or the California Constitutional Rights Initiative, the anti-black and anti-poor "Welfare Reform Act," Proposition 209 or the Anti-Affirmative Action Initiative and anti-bilingual initiative, Proposition 227. This reversal trend strongly suggests a hardening political position on democratic rights and signals the closing up of traditional democratic mechanisms for reforms (Ehrenrieich, 1997).

The response from U.S. movements for social justice in the U.S. to the impact of global changes in the political and economic context has, for the most part, been defensive and reactive. Consciousness about this reactive mode and a yearning for a deeper and clearer analysis has begun to shed light on the precise nature of neoliberalism. There is also a simultaneous international discussion and initial analysis taking place on the effectiveness of traditional methods of struggle for change, such as, armed struggle on one end of the spectrum and electoral politics on the other (Corro S., 31 de mayo, 1998; Black Radical Congress).

The Zapatista central thesis is that only through the massive, organized participation of civil society can there be profound structural change (Cuarta Declaración de La Selva Lancandona, 1996). A Zapatista corollary is that the legal and legislative methods to system-changing as well as armed struggle are no longer appropriate, effective nor viable as strategic and primary components of an overall approach for profound change (Marcos, Comunicado, 6 de junio, 1995). The Zapatistas, through their extensive communiqués, assert that neoliberalism is a political economic system characterized by the closing up of traditional methods of bringing about reform.

In this new global context, as hard won reforms are being taken away, one by one, U.S. activists for social justice are currently critically examining the past and current methods utilized in the struggle for permanent, irreversible and incorruptible reforms (Black Radical Congress, 1998). The Zapatista alternative autonomous model becomes invaluable in this period of global regrouping and reflection. This model comes at a time and as a result of a desperate search for a social justice strategy that aims at permanent profound change. In part, the value of looking at the particular struggle for autonomous education comes from the fact that in this struggle for an alternative intercultural-bilingual education, all the essential elements of both the Zapatista and the PRI-State strategies are revealed. Through an in-depth look at the historical developments of the bilingual program in Chiapas and the Zapatista Autonomous alternative, others struggling for justice can learn how to sharpen strategic as well as tactical approaches.

A new global system of oppression backed by overwhelming military force begs of all social movements an appropriate, proactive and non-violent model for resistance, justice and change that transcends national borders and promotes global change through a corresponding transnational strategy. Because of the global context, the study of the Chiapas struggle for bilingual education can lead us to examining the viability and applicability of all or parts of the Zapatista response, as a model for profound national and international structural changes. The struggle is particularly attractive because autonomous intercultural-bilingual education in Chiapas offers an organized way to transition into a proactive mode of struggling, resist the impositions of state power and systematically break the hegemonic ideological structural hold of the state.

Review of the Literature

Zapatismo's Eclectic (Post Post Modern) and Post Critical Theory Base

Zapatismo, although primarily indigenous in world view, is theoretically eclectic, new, and unifying. Precisely because of this eclectic synthesis, Zapatismo was not only able to unite Tzeltales, Choles, Tojolabales and Tzotziles but also united Jesuits and other clergy aspirants of Liberation Theology. "In addition, as if this were not already enough, Zapatismo united diverse left tendencies whose fragmentation was legendary..." (Bentancourt, 1998 p.84). Zapatismo's approach to education is similarly heavily based on an indigenous world view that is implicitly critical (Lenkersdorf, 1996) and also encompasses and combines aspects of Constructivism, as well as classical Critical Pedagogy/Transformative Education, Cooperative Learning, Culturally Responsive Pedagogy/Culturally Sensitive Instruction methodologies as delineated by Lavadenz and Martin, (1996). The eclectic synergism of the Mayan rebels puts it in a theoretical category of its own; which I refer to as "Autonomous Theory." Autonomous Theory moves from critical theory to action (praxis) based on broad responsibility for the whole. Autonomous Theory, necessarily, involves moving from the "victim" state to a position of intersubjectivity by moving from objects of history to the main actors (Lenkersdorf, 1966). A Zapatista woman interviewed in Ben Eichart's film "Zapatista" (Big Noise Production) says it best; "It is autonomous because we the people (that are not government) are now taking responsibility for ordering the world and because we profoundly believe that the answers are in us."

The Zapatista autonomous response validates the basic tenet of Resistance Theory that whenever an educational institution is set up for the perpetuation of the dominance of a class or group there is resistance that comes in the form of overt rejection of the teacher authority, refusal to learn the prescribed way or dropping out (Lenkersdorf, 1996). For over 500 years the Indigenous that today make up the Zapatistas utilized natural cultural mechanisms to educate and resist the government's education (Lankensdorf, 1996). The Zapatistas through building autonomy have focused on the creation of liberated spaces (communities) that allow for the systematic development of participatory democracy that then serves as a counter-hegemonic neutralizer.

James Tollefson, in his book Planning Language, Planning Inequality, (1996) instructs us that educational and language policy has always been defined and dictated by the economic systems and by the dominant classes. It is also a Zapatista premise that all institutionalized practice begins and is defined by the class or group in power. Zapatistas agree with Critical Theory proponents that education (of any form) is one of the main institutions utilized to prepare and socialize people for their life roles. Zapatistas' testimonies accuse and intellectuals verify that PRI education is "the government's education used to control our lives and to teach us not to have a voice". (Encuentro en Oventic, 5/97; Pineda, 1994; Lenkersdorf, 1996.) According to the late Pablo Freire "all pedagogical choices concerning curriculum development, content and material, classroom processes and language use are inherently ideological in nature, e.g., they reflect the interest and point of view of the specific cultural group that dominates" (Freire 1985). While bilingual education at an earlier point (under the control of INI) was considered a progressive reform, today the bilingual institution under the control of a corrupt state, is a corrupt bilingual institution (Encuentro en Oventic, 5/97).

Autonomy moves from a Marxist economic analysis and Post Marxist critical analysis into an analysis of a new stage of capitalist development of neoliberalism or global corporativism and recognizes that the contradictions and excesses of this new stage Capitalism are even greater than the last. While the U.S. is armed with all the most modern weaponry and technology, the notion of democracy has reached new heights of development and global recognition. While transnationalism builds money-making suprastructures, the nation-state's pillars of representative democracy, party system, decision-making power have all but disappeared. Transnationalism is much stronger yet much weaker than Imperialism. In this sense Zapatismo is both Post Critical, Post Post Modern and Post Post Marxist.

In response, the Autonomous method does not focus on reforming nor on overthrowing a corrupt system but instead concentrates on building a new one. Zapatistas' main goal is the creation of autonomous community spaces within which participatory democracy dominates and a process of conscientizacion allow for the development of its own pedagogical paradigm. The Autonomous model aims to build protected spaces that are incubated from the destructive ideology of those in power to allow for direct democracy to create an autonomous pedagogy. A basic premise of the autonomous model is that autonomous education cannot exist outside of the context of the autonomous community. There is a dialectical relationship between the two in that autonomous education is part of building the autonomous community and the autonomous community helps to develop autonomous education. A corollary to this premise is that the autonomous community is interdependent with the autonomous municipality and the municipality interdepends on the autonomous region, etc. In this global context, where dependence is absolutely necessary, transnationalism is natural enemy to autonomy. It is no coincident that the Zapatistas rely so heavily on international (global) support and protection to their peaceful approach.

Historical Background

It has been nearly 500 years since the indigenous people of Meso-America were "conquered" and made colonial subjects of the Spanish Empire. Since 1514, the indigenous populations of Mexico have endured the domination of at least 4 major types of political-economic systems; Colonial, Feudal, Capitalist and now Neoliberal/Global. Each one of these systems has had particular political and economic goals and corresponding institutions to accomplish its main goal of reproduction (Tollefson, 1996).

All these systems have been based on an unequal distribution of wealth and power. Perpetuation then simultaneously meant developing and holding a delicate homeostasis consisting of exploitation of the under classes, of manufacturing consent of the under and middle classes and of at least appearing to moderate the excessive indulgences of the upper classes. In all of these systems the institution of Indigenous Education has played and continues to play a major facultative role in supporting that balance and in the perpetuation of those in power (Heath, 1979; Pineda 1985). Educational and Language Policy from the seat of power was always "objective," "neutral," veiled as disinterested and non-ideological. (Pennycook, 1995 )

Shirley Brice Heath, in Telling Tongues: Language Policy of Mexico: Colony to Nation, (1972) traces the ideological influences inherent in bilingual education in Mexico, needed to carry out the perpetuation of those in power. In a study of bilingual programs done primarily in State of Oaxaca, Ricardo Cruz Andres is emphatic about the racist and condescending ideology that Mexican bilingual educational systems project through its aim of taking the Indian out of backwardness and bringing them into civilization. (Cruz, 1985)

Each one of these systems eventually went to such excesses in their addictive exploitation and plunder of the lower and middle classes and of the natural resources that each exploded in bloody and violent revolutions. New classes replaced the old and utilized revolution as an opportunity to regroup and once again begin that cycle of exploitation. The new form included cosmetic and real reforms but the essence was always the same; the exploitation of the working classes, the peasantry and the especially the indigenous by the dominant classes. It is no surprise that the oppressed of the oppressed or the indigenous of Mexico are the ones who have supplied the blood to be spilled for an end to systems based on exploitation and oppression (Primera Declaración Lancandona, Jan 1, 1994).

Colonial Period

During the colonial period hundreds of proclamations were passed by the Spanish Crown to assure that the Indians would be "educated" to become (good and obedient) servants of the Crown. Castellanización or Hispanizization was essential to accomplish her goal of an expanded empire with "one culture and language and one faith" (Heath, 1975, Maurer, 1980). The lack of trained personal and the covetous nature of the colonizers led the crown, early on, to put the education of the indigenous under the auspices of the Church. The Frailer, however, were not as concerned with Hispanizization as they were with religious conversion, and their methods, while no less racist and impositionist, resulted in the inadvertent saving of the vernaculars (the indigenous languages). The Frailer definitely had many notions of the indigenous culture as pagan, inferior and even diabolic (Maurer, 1980)


By 1800 the economic and political inertia had pushed the country into an apartheid and cast system consisting of (in order of cast) the wealthy Iberians, the Spanish descendant but Mexico born Criollo, the mixed Indian and Spanish Mestizo, the mixed Indian and black mulatto and the at the very bottom the Indigenous and the Black. A combination of Criollo and Mestizo resentment toward the extreme arrogance of the Iberian classes and nearly 300 years of indigenous slavery led to the War of Independence in 1810. Indigenous Education during this period of National Construction had as its main goal the "integration" of the indigenous into the nation-building project. This education encouraged the assimilation into the mainstream and looked at the culture and languages of the indigenous as inferior and therefore conditioned integration with assimilation.

The Modern Nation

In 1910 the indigenous and peasantry that comprised 60% of the population once more rose up in arms, this time against the Porfirista regime that knocked Mexico out of balance by offering it as an open market for the use of foreign interest in particular the United States and Europe. In 1929, the revolution victors instituted the Partido Revolucionario Institucional and began what is today the longest one-party rule known as the "perfect dictatorship". In the early 1920s, Jose Vasconcelos, Mexico's first Secretary of Education, and a world renown philosopher promoted a racist vision of this relatively new nation, that has affected Mexico's view of itself as a monocultural, as "Raza Cosmica" (basically, the Mestizo melting pot). Naturally, the goal of indigenous education continued to be to integrate them into the nation.

Whether the euphemistic rationale was: "bringing Religion and God to the heathens," "civilizing the savages", "assimilation the indigenous into the mainstream of national life," "integration", "acculturation", or more recently, "bringing the indigenous into the modern world", it ultimately meant the ethnocentric and racist imposition of culture (world view), language and religion and through them the ideology for consent. Educational Policy was key in the maintenance of that delicate homeostasis.

Fortunately, the nation's racist tendencies kept them from allocating money for indigenous education and many of the indigenous people had the wisdom and sense of resisting Mexican educational efforts by isolated themselves (doctoral thesis; Modiano, Heath). This survival strategy was particularly noticeable in Chiapas were the Promotores Culturales programs had little or no success.

During the Lazaro Cardenas (1932-1938) regime he began an intense alphabetization program. These were the early Promotores Culturales whose method included holding off the introduction of Spanish until the indigenous pupil learned how to read and write in their native tongue. (Heath, 1972).

It wasn't until 1951, partly due to the impetus of Mexico's President, Lazaro Cardenas and partly to the efforts of several anthropologists, Alfonso Caso and Fernando Benitez being two of the most noted, that México for a historic moment realized that there was value in Indigenous culture and Worldvision. In 1954, the Instituto Nacional Indigena, (INI) initially, a quasi-autonomous state institution, was established with the primary task of providing bilingual education through the use of Indigenous bilingual teachers. Indigenous centered education proved to be great success throughout the country, particularly in Chiapas where it was concentrated. Unfortunately, all things that bring about equality and justice seemed to be short-lived in systems where inequities reign.

Promotores Culturales

One of the early chroniclers of the Promotores Culturales was Nancy Modiano and it is through her work that we get a sense of the quality and value of Bilingual Education. In her book, La educación Indigena en Los Altos de Chiapas, (1973), Nancy ethnographed a comparative study that conclusively proved that the Promotores Program administered and headed through the relatively progressive Instituto Nacional Indigena, (INI), had superior results in Spanish fluency than the Federal bilingual immersion schools. Modiano's 1964 study showed that the Mestizo teacher, who on the average had more teacher preparation, used an immersion method (amazingly similar to what Ron Unz proposes) and spent 4 times as much time teaching Spanish than did the Promotores. The Promotores, who were indigenous and who only had limited knowledge of Spanish, only spent one hour on Spanish a day, (as opposed to four). Modiano's study is probably the first scientific study, which demonstrates the superiority that mother-language based bilingual education has to offer. There were unsuccessful attempts to use this classical study to discourage the Federal Government from consolidating the Bilingual Promotores Schools under the general auspices of the Secretaria de Educación Pública (SEP).

By the 1970's, after the INI provided education was taken over by the PRI's Secretaria de Educación Pública, it became increasingly clear that indigenous education was once again being used as a tool to controls and subjugates the indigenous populations. The PRI-government bilingual education continues to be a powerful ideological mechanism with the main objective of teaching indigenous populations how to conform to the status quo of ever more extreme domination, abandonment and suffering.

In her 1983 book titled Los Maestros Bilingúes y la Estructura de Poder Politico en los Altos de Chiapas 1970-1976, Luz Olivia Pineda offers her first of several analyses of how national policies and politics of power are exhibited through the educational system. Pineda was particularly interested in the participation of the bilingual teachers in the structures of power (Pineda, 1983). In 1989 Luz reexamines the state of the bilingual program and detects that it has seriously deteriorated under the general purview and charge of SEP. In her 1993 work titled Caciques Culturales: El caso de los maestros bilingúes en los Altos de Chiapas Luz Olivia Pineda makes a detailed analysis of the ideological and political role that many bilingual teachers had agreed to take up. In chart 1, (page 17) Luz Olivia shows how the ideology leads to political behavior and participation. In this case one can trace the natural and expected transfer of bilingual teachers to the political realm. This had, over time, developed an upper echelon within the indigenous communities, damaged the respect for the bilingual teacher role held by the early Promotores and finally led them to defend the status quo through "elected" positions and appointed posts within the official government.

This new type of caciques were essential for the containment of the indigenous resistance and when the uprising occurred against their collective will they stood as bulwark paramilitary force against the alternative revolutionary change. Many of these bilingual teachers have been identified as key and essential organizers of the death squads and paramilitary groups and some identify them as main players responsible for the massacre of Acteal, where 46 people were murdered. (Comunicado del 16 de Septiembre, 1997)

Autonomy: Breaking and Resisting Ideological Structures

Many of the bilingual teachers that never gave into the ideological and political pressure became Zapatistas and committed themselves to the development of autonomous education free from dominant ideology and to education based on competency and quality and not on ignorance and manipulation. (Pineda, 1990, Encuentro en Oventic sobre el desarrollo de la educación bilingúe, 1996, El Navigante, Fecha desconocida.) In their own words, "Indigenous education should be bilingual and intercultural, should use the indigenous languages and should be concientizadora and liberating for both men and women" (Proceeding of The National Forum on Indigenous Culture and Rights, 1996). It is a well-known fact that many of the comandantes in the Zapatista Army as well as in the Comité Clandestino Revolucionario Indigena (CCRI) were previously bilingual teachers. Two of the most notes are Comandante Tacho and Mayor Moises. In the words of the CCRI, "Indigenous education should be bilingual and intercultural, should use the indigenous languages and should be concientizadora and liberating for both men and women" (Proceeding of The National Forum on Indigenous Culture and Rights, 1996).

Autonomous Communities: Mother of Autonomous Education

Autonomous education can only exist within the confines of a politically autonomous community, where the community has full political control and not in an open context, where the ideology of the state freely interferes through and with all its powerful forms. Adelfo Regino Montes, leader of the National Indigenous Congress describes autonomous indigenous education as communal education, understood as that process of teaching-learning conceived and developed from the community in accordance to its interest and particular culture, harmonized with national priorities and recognizing Mexico's cultural diversity. (Montes, 1997).

The Zapatista uprising brings to the fore the direct confrontation of indigenous people who had been relatively isolated and marginalized for 500 years and a new global system that is taking exploitation and suffering to new heights. It is a world showcase that is utilizing a unique method of struggle to challenge the hegemony of world corporativism and its approach is particularly evident in the area of reconstructing education.

In summary, the Zapatistas have taken praxis based on Marxist, Critical theory, combined it with an indigenous worldview, applied it to new conditions and have pushed to a higher level of theory and practice. The Zapatista autonomous model has systematized and made viable the autonomous classroom implicit in Pablo Freire and other critical theories by providing a nurturing context and connection with other similar social and political incubators. They have taken the autonomous classroom and protected it in the autonomous community where it can be developed, implemented and supported by its creators, the entire autonomous communities. The Zapatistas have thus solved the paradox of perpetuating the system albeit all the intentions of changing it. The Zapatistas demonstrate a profound understanding of the ability of the Capitalist State to contaminate and quickly absorb any liberating and progressive reform and turn it around into a weapon against social justice.

Population and Setting

In 1992, Chiapas (the southern most state of Mexico) together with the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Hidalgo are considered the poorest by the World Bank and the most likely to have social unrest (Chiapas en Ciphers, 1997). Over 40% of the population lives on 4,000 pesos ($50.00) yearly income and 20% of the work age population has no income at all. (La Opinion, 5/5/98). In contrast to the immense poverty Chiapas is rich in timber, oil, cattle, coffee production and hydro-electrical plant producing 70% of Mexico's electricity. Chiapas has a total population of a little over 3.2 million. Out of a total of 111 municipalities, half of them (55) are Autonomous municipalities, 39 of which are completely under the Zapatistas and 16 with parallel governments in contention with the PRI-governments. Within the state boundaries of Chiapas exist at least 9 different ethnic and language groups that include Tzotziles, Tzeltales, Tojolabales, Mames, Zoques, Lancandones, Choles, Kachikeles and Mixes.

In Chiapas there are 1 million school age children of these only 72% are actually attending school. Chiapas has an overall illiteracy rate of over 50%, 63% for women and 30% of the population never went to school (Chiapas en Ciphers, 1996 p 35). In Chiapas two thirds or roughly 2 million inhabitants are indigenous. It has the highest infant mortality rate and 73% of families in Chiapas can claim a death of one of their children this compared to 4% for Mexico overall. The two main causes of death are malnutrition and tuberculosis.

This picture, of dire poverty, makes the World Bank prediction that it was in Chiapas where an uprising was most likely an obvious forecast. The uprising has had both positive and negative impacts on the population. On the one hand, the indigenous Zapatistas were able to create up to now 55 municipalities where the Zapatistas are creating their own educational system. On the other hand the conflict zones are surrounding by at least 70,000 regular army troops. There are 11 paramilitary groups operating in the state of Chiapas, many of them organized and led by bilingual teachers. In the northern municipalities, paramilitary groups have murdered at least 500 persons, in the last 30 months alone. There are, at least, 17,000 unarmed Zapatista villagers who have been displaced (run out of their communities) by paramilitary groups. At least 300 bilingual teachers have been displaced due to the conflict. Many of these are operatives of one of the paramilitary groups.


Neoclassical analysis of history would have one believe that political and ideological structures do not exist and what matters is the decisions of individuals (Tollefson, 1996). The Zapatistas base their practice on the premise that government education historically followed the government's historical plan that was not oriented nor informed by the practices and goals of the indigenous people but represented the interest and goals of the political economic system.

Three Dimensional Organizing : Infrastructural Building

Within some 2,000 autonomous communities, the indigenous Zapatistas are taking proactive steps in developing the type of indigenous education that they feel they need now. Not only are they unwilling to wait for the Federal or State government to implement this type of education, but consider a reliance on the State to be an oxymoronic approach, since the state by definition is inherently incapable of creating and producing a pedagogy for dignity. Notwithstanding its inefficiencies, unwillingness, and ignorance, the state would like to see the indigenous dependent on a state that occasionally throws crumbs at them (Primera Declaración de la Selva Lancandona, 1994).

The heart of Zapatista approach is to take proactive initiative and to develop internal reliance with the aim of building infrastructures within the communities in the ultimate form of autonomous parallel governments. The autonomous method contrasts to the approach taken by many well-intended reformers who in an isolated (their classroom only) manner attempt to change their classroom conditions; curriculum, environment, books, etc. This individual approach does very little in terms of solving the problem at most they tend to treat the symptom. The Zapatista approach to change exhibited by their approach to education stands in contrast to "activists" who dedicate their life to changing the nature of systems of educational inequality through electoral and legislative means. The Zapatista method does not deny nor ignore the benefit of symptom treating or system changing attempts and may even involve themselves in this activity but they do it as a way to develop a third and principal sphere of activity; Infrastructural building.

Zapatista thought informs us that symptom treating and system-changing activities without the main activity of infrastructural building is in fact perpetuating the status quo. If one treats the symptoms of a faulty system without ever getting to the roots then one is involved in a form of perpetuating that faulty system. Similarly if one changes the system just enough to give the same system another lease on life, allowing it to absorb or co-opt the change then one is again involved in the perpetuation of that system. Zapatismo proposes that civil society go a step further and develop the infrastructure that allows autonomous free zones to define and build an alternative system of governance that for a time will co-exist with the old. This bottom-up development is something that the dominant system is incapable of carrying out, without it being at the cost of its own demise. It is in the interest of the dominant system that one not ever imagine that civil society can be involved in developing its own parallel government and infrastructure. This interest is projected and adopted by us daily, it is part and parcel of the curriculum of educational systems.

This dominator's ideological influence is so pervasive and effective that it is exhibited even in the forms of resistance and struggle for justice. The symptom-treating, system-changing activities are universally present in movements for social justice. Methods of struggle for social justice, as demonstrated in the struggle for the mere right to bilingual education in California, exhibit symptom treating and legislative system changing strategies but also exhibits the tendency toward the Zapatista proposal of infrastructural-building. That autonomous tendencies need to be complemented by the overall building of an autonomous community that would include its own micro-economic projects, and an autonomous political structure.

Application of Autonomous Pedagogy in the USA

Daily, in the Barrios and Ghettos of the U.S. everyone struggles but they do so as individuals. Daily we struggle for a just education, with teachers and principles, daily we struggle with our bosses at work or with our union bosses who don't work. At best our struggle is through an organized effort, an organization of parents, workers, students or teachers. But seldom have we gone beyond community or city-wide organizations to the level of self or autonomous government. The Zapatistas are proposing that we take critical theory to its logical conclusion. If the dominating state's purpose is to perpetuate itself then why should we expect it to reform and do otherwise?

Roberto Flores: In Chiapas, Roberto Flores did research on the "Feminine Factor Within the Zapatista Movement." Beto is a life-long activist for human rights, and is now working with others on facilitating and developing the concept of "autonomy" as a method of rebuilding through structural development of oppressed communities. Beto's work on autonomy is aimed at supporting the development of a strategic alliance with the Zapatista communities and the development of a long term strategy for social justice through infra structural change.

Published in In Motion Magazine September 18, 1998.