Interview with an Education Promoter from the autonomous, insurgent zone of Oventik (“Caracol II”)


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translation by London Mexico Solidarity Group


Interview with an Education Promoter from the autonomous, insurgent zone of Oventik (“Caracol II”)


Note about translation choices: (1) “El caracol”(or plural '”los caracoles'”literally means 'snail(s)', but in Zapatista terminology “Los Caracoles” designate cultural and adminstrative centres autonomous Zapatista territory in Chiapas, Mexico. A rotating body of community chosen representatives gather in 'Caracoles' with regularity to oversee community programmes for the villages in their district. The Zapatistas have their own autonomous health-care, education, food, and governance systems. Zapatista communities do not accept any federal, state or local government programmes or personnel.


(2) “Mandar obedeciendo'”/ Lead by obeying: A guiding principle of Zapatista autonomous organising is 'lead by obeying' (mandar obedeciendo). A community selects a “Caracol” representative who will serve an appointed time on the governing body for the district. During this time other members of the community contribute to the maintance of their 'Caracol' representative's family, thus freeing the representative to focus on administration of community life the with the security that her/his family's basic needs are being met.



This interview took place informally in one of the purpose-built community dining halls for the Second Meeting between the Zapatistas and the Peoples of the World that was held in the autonomous, insurgent Zapatista community of Morelia. The education promoter interviewed Don A. (his true identity can't be revealed for security reasons), is a former teacher in the national education system, and isabout 70 yearsold. (He also didn't want us to reveal his age, the big flirt!) His humility is easily seen and reflected in his words, but I must also add he has a charisma and emtional quality in his expression that makes one tingle.


It's worth mentioning in this introduction and for the record that for me personally this interview was an honour and proved to be one of the highlights of the meetings. Speaking of his life apart from the interview I got to know the details of how his life formed around popular movements. Don A. was part of the teachers' union movement in the 1950s, 60s and 70s – including being present at the Tlatlecoco massacre where in 1969 the Government gunned down hundreds of protesters. He was part of the democratic-arm of the CNTE (National Coordination of Education Workers), which split over corruption and the hierarchial SNTE (National Union of Education Workers). He was also part of other (secret) more revolutionary movements which visited Cuba and met with Che Guevara himself and the military leadership of the Cuban State that had overthrown Batista years earlier.


I would like to give special thanks to Mendiazabal Lucero, of the Collective “Mexicans in Resistance in Barcelona”, for help in preparing the questions, introducing me to Don A. and making it possible for me to conduct this interview.


Morelia, Chiapas (Mexico) 25 July 2007


Q: Is there cohesion within the content of the subjects taught in “Los Caracoles”? For example, in history or politics do they teach the same things in the different “Caracoles”?


A: Generally, the first thing taught is the history of each community which is done by consulting the community elders. Then the history of the municipality, then last the state, country, continent and the universe. It places great emphasis on children knowing the history of the community, of the place they come from. These stories are not in textbooks and they are very special. Besides the official history always leaves some things out that they don't want people to know.


On the political side, they teach the philosophy of the Zapatista movement. It explains in simple words and their own language all the key Zapatista concepts like 'lead by obeying'. In Oventik we use Spanish and Tzoztil in the classes. We also look at the current situation and critique it. Why are they so poor, how has that situation come about?


Q: So is there unity?


A: I'm not sure if there is unity in all “Los Caracoles” because the people themselves are different depending on the zone, the weather and the general conditions. Additionally each “Caracol” has its problems, such as here in Morelia where the situation with the paramilitaries is very delicate, with occassional aggressions, but in Oventik the situation is not as difficult.


Q: Yes, for example, we have heard the municipality of Lucio Cabañas where about two months ago paramilitaries kept threatening the community, right?


A: Well, I do not really know much about the Northern Zone. I can speak more about the number two “Caracol”, Oventik. But it is true according to the information we receive there are conflicts in the area.


Q: But in Oventik nothing like that has happened with paramilitaries in a long time, right?


A: Paramilitaries occasionally threaten us, especially when the weather is bad, like when it's raining. They take advantage of the bad weather to force everyone to gather together in one place. But the people abandon the “Caracol” and take refuge in specific sites in the mountain which exisit for this purpose, and are not disclosed to outsiders.


Q: For you, what makes the Zapatista education project different from the national one? What are the main features that make this project unique?


A: Here teachers use pedagogical ideas like those of Paulo Freire, from Brazil. Well, actually, some education promoters have read his ideas and apply his thinking, even if it's unconsciously. There is no requirement to follow Freire's model. It is about raising children's awareness, not just teaching them things. So, besides teaching them things, the teachers also make the children aware of the struggle and their economic and political condition. In this sense, our teaching looks like Paulo Freire's. I would dare say that utopia, which in most cases is an unobtainable dream, is becoming a reality in the Zapatista zone through our different projects (education, health, autonomy in general, etc ...)


Q: That was actually my next question. If you applied libetarian pedagogical knowledge like that of Paulo Freire or a similar type?


A: Actually, there are similarities, but we never tell the children, for example, that we are using a particular model, nor do we talk about Paulo Freire or other teacher-scholars. The thing that interests the education promoters the most is that the children are aware of their situation and feel free. They also repsect their way of dressing and expressing themselves. We make no distinction between pupils who know more and those who know less, between clever and slow children. Nor is there a sense of individualism, it is a collective education. We aren't looking for the personal growth of individuals but the growth of the collective. The students who have great ability feel compelled to share with others who need help. There are no contests or competitions to see who does a better job. That doesn't exist here.


Q: So, it sounds like this system avoids competition and promotes sharing and solidarity...


A: Yes, exactly.


Q: Apart from the economic problems, the lack of resources, what are the main problems facing the Zapatista educational project?


A: There are many problems. The greatest is the insecurity and distrust that create fear when we know that at any time paramilitaries can enter the village. That is a constant threat.


Another problem is that the promoters are learning as they go along, they haven't specialised nor do they have teaching techniques. They learn everything on the fly, and go on asking and learning.


Q. That was in fact also the answer to another question. What kind of training do education promoters have?


R: In the “Caracol” of Oventik, for example, a secondary school was built for the purpose of training education promoters. They gave it this name because of habits and customs. There were others who preferred to the name "Cultural Center for Promoters' Learning” or something like that, but the majority knew after primary school comes secondary school, so they gave it that name. However the purpose of the school is to prepare promoters. At first, it was only for the preparation of Education Promoters, but now it also trains Health Promoters, Cooperative Promoters, Communication Promoters, etc ...


Q: It is a training destined towards autonomy? ¿Does that fall within the circle?


A: Yes, exactly.



Q: I also undestand that you sometimes receive external training support. I have heard of a volunteer who goes to the “La Garrucha” zone for a week or so every three months with the goal of helping the promoters, is this true?


A: Yes, we have in Oventik what we call "accompaniers". They are not called education advisors because we have the idea that there's no one who knows a lot and no one who knows nothing. This accompaniment is mutually beneficial for the promoter and the “accompanier”. This seems to me to be a more democratic idea than levels like this is the one who knows, and this one doesn't know. No one teaches anyone anything, what we do is share knowledge.


Q: I've noticed that you Zapatistas are very careful with the use of your words, for example using the word “promoter” instead of “teacher” and now with the definition of "accompanier”.


A: Yes, it emphasizes that there are no hierarchies and that people are more or less the same.


Q: So, language helps to flatten the system?


A: Yes, for example, children always refer to the promoter by name and don't call him “teacher or professor” and similarly the promoter never calls the children “students”. A personal relationship is built, as between friends. The promoter doesn't see the children as ignorant, but rather as colleagues who need help in order to accomplish their studies.


Q: How many years have you been working with this project?


A: I came to Oventik in April 2001 more than six years ago. In 2002 I was accepted as an Education Promoter. For some time before that I was in the school library, which was a new thing for the communities, they didn't know what a book was.


Those are new things that they had never imagined existed but now they are learning about them: libraries, computers, the Internet, etc. Before this books were just objects to them. Now they know about books, and that books have a purpose, with an author, an index. They analyse and know books. It's a lot of work because it's not easy.


Q: I guess that you are very careful about the selection of books in the library and you don't use state textbooks.


A: Actually, books edited by the State are used, but not as textbooks but as reference or support books. For example to get biographical information or to find geographical information.


Q: Since you say that everyone learns, what have you learned from these years? What has this experience given you?


A: It has given me a lot. I came here with the bourgeois city idea that I was going to to teach or share my knowledge and it has proven to be the other way around. I am the one who has learned the most, and not only in educational level, but about life: about collective life, and the organisation that they have. For me it is a very good experience and for this reason I am still here. I am living and enjoying my last years with pleasure. I am not waiting there in the city with certain comforts.


Q: Would you say that in the city there is more alienation, and here in the rural areas there is more a sense of family and community?


A: Yes, of course, all that. There is also a lot of respect. As Eduardo Galeano said one

time, "the Zapatistas are the men and women who have helped me grow." I also say the same thing. They have helped grow and have that peace of mind that being useful gives you. I feel useful, and I feel happy to be here.


Q: And what delights you most after all these years? Is it the progress of a student?


A: Well, I wouldn't talk about a personal level of satisfaction. I am pleased to be contributing and that some “compañer@s” who have gone through secondary school now are authorities and promoters. People who only three or four years ago were in secondary school, I now see working in their communities as promoters or as members of the Council or some other authority. This is uplifting because you see that how quickly they learn and that day by day they are learning with ease. I feel a real admiration for them and I feel great pleasure to bear witness to these developments.





















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