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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

Teachers in Rural Oaxaca: Fighters for Justice

from the Aug. 24, 2022 Bulletin

unions indigenous peoples art and culture education

René Oswaldo González Pizarro teaches in the indigenous public education system of Oaxaca, Mexico. He was born in the mountains of Oaxaca as part of the Ayuuk nation, known in Spanish as the Mixe people. A graphic designer, González co-founded the Colectivo Zape, a group focused on social issues. His activism has had him working on everything from posters and murals to graffiti and digital art to being a General Assembly delegate for Sección 22 of Oaxaca’s teachers’ union.


What made you want to be a teacher?

It’s in my DNA! I’m Ayuuk and grew up in a poor mountain village in Oaxaca. Both my parents taught. Education in México, ever since the 1917 Constitution, has been free through middle school. The government provides for the school building — one room in our case — and utilities and teachers. But the government doesn’t pay for supplies.


I remember a kid in my class who had just a stub of a pencil with no eraser that he kept using until it just became too short to hold. My parents bought materials for their students out of their own salaries. I was amazed to find out later, when I went into the city and saw a private school, that they had toilet paper and soap!

My parents took me to my first demonstration when I was still a kid in the 1980s. Living in the small villages, teachers knew the needs of their students, their neighbors. These teachers made social demands — free textbooks, free lunches, free pencils!


The teacher group you support, the CNTE, formed in opposition to the SNTE, the government’s favored teacher union. Why?


The SNTE, a “company” union, has historically been tied to the PRI, México’s long-time governing party. 

The CNTE came out of the radical movement of the 1970s, inspired in part by the 1968 student rebellion. CNTE’s biggest early victory — forcing the resignation of a SNTE president — came in the 1980s.


That victory proved short-lived: An equally undemocratic bureaucrat replaced the president and kept the position for decades! But the CNTE stayed within the SNTE and did not disband. It continues to push internally for union democracy, and people know it externally for its militancy in insisting on better benefits for teachers and their communities. 

CNTE’s Section 22 in Oaxaca, one of the group’s strongest sections, has become widely known for its militant actions. In a number of demonstrations over the years, teachers and their supporters have given their lives — but we don’t give up.


The famous/infamous CNTE-led strike of 2006 had a major impact. 

Photo: SubVersiones

Yes. In 2004, a newly elected authoritarian governor in Oaxaca began ruling with a mano dura, a hard hand. At the time, I hadn’t yet become a teacher. I was working in a graphic arts collective.


Every year on May 1, Workers’ Day, teachers in Oaxaca hold a demonstration and bring a list of their demands before the government. On May 15, Teachers Day, they hold another demonstration and set up encampments — technically illegal — in the central square, the zócalo. They begin negotiations and wait for the contract to get settled.


In 2006, on June 14, the police attacked the annual teacher encampment with tear gas and bullets. My sister and brother, both teachers, got me and said, “Let’s go to the zócalo to protect the encampment!” The attack enraged local people. They flocked to the zócalo and took it back, and the struggle soon broadened from a teacher union action to a social movement. The federal police under Vicente Fox then moved in with massive force, killing 17 and injuring hundreds. By December, the government had broken the strike.

Teachers would go on to work hard in 2006 for the progressive presidential candidate, Lopez-Obrador, but his defeat led to a sense of failure, and the teachers moved away from electoral work. The CNTE today still does not engage in electoral activity. They believe change comes from grassroots struggle by the rank-and-file.


Earlier this month, Oaxaca saw two indigenous Guelaguetza festivals, one official and one put on by the CNTE. How did CNTE become involved?


The many indigenous nations of Oaxaca — we have 16 different indigenous languages — have had since before Columbus a tradition of gathering together, picking flowers, and performing rituals.

Photo: Guelaguetza 2022, Daniel McCool

 In 1932, the government decided to make this tradition an official event and turned it into a showcase of different dances and costumes. The indigenous festivals have become more and more a money-making tourist attraction, with tickets sold on the internet. They’ve became unaffordable to native Oaxacans.


After the 2006 attack, the still defiant CNTE activists decided to take back the Guelaguetza by doing one themselves, “for the people.” They see the protection of culture as necessary for a relevant and meaningful education.

The alternative Guelaguetza Popular resists the government’s appropriation of indigenous culture, and graphic art blooms on the streets of Oaxaca, a vibrant center for the arts. One cheeky art poster this year even read “Death to bourgeois tourists”!


The demonstrations and strikes you’ve been part of have been local to Oaxaca. How much do you think international solidarity matters?


My eyes opened after 2006. I took photos of the tear gas canisters and the rubber bullets lying on the ground after the police attack. They were made in the USA. Later, I saw photos of the same items used against demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri who were protesting the murder of a young black man. And then I saw photos of the same items used against Palestinian demonstrators. 

We’re struggling against the same forces. I’ve been able to talk with teachers on strike in Chicago and New York. Wow, I thought to myself, teachers striking in the US! That doesn’t happen in the movies! With solidarity, we can all keep struggling.