Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Teachers' Strike Follow-Up

I've spent the past couple days relaying questions to my contacts. I greatly appreciate their patience as I ask them to repeat information, clarify statements, give me examples, and share some tricky details about pay. Here are some insights parents, teachers, friends, and neighbors shared with me:

1. The Status of the Planton
Per my friends and the Oaxaca Study Action Group, the teachers will return to the classroom on Monday. The government is in negotiations with the teachers' union regarding its many demands and grievances. My teacher friends say the process is transparent and public in regard to their pay, benefits, and issues pertaining to the school. However, union officials may receive extra money that is not part of the public process.

2. Teacher Pay
Ah, the big question. According to my contacts, new public school teachers make between 200 and 250 pesos per day (the current exchange rate has that equaling $18 to $23 per day), or 4,000 to 5,000 pesos per month ($340 to $425 per month). As teachers stay in the system, they earn an extra 20 pesos per day ($1.70). Teachers work a six-hour shift, plus additional meetings, weekend obligations, training, parent meetings, etc. If they work a second shift with a second group (with each group having around 40 students in the primary grades), they get extra pay. In this case, they may work up to 12 hours per day, plus meetings. They often end up paying for classroom materials and do pay for their own photocopying costs.

3. Union Power
I asked two sources about teacher participation and potential coercion within the union. According to both sources, Section 22 is a democratic union, markedly more so than the national teachers' union with which it is associated. Every teacher gets a vote and teachers must vote pertaining decisions regarding their contracts and strikes.

4. Rich vs. Poor
I have surveyed more people regarding their opinions of the teachers and the strike. The poor and working class continue to express their support while the expatriates, tourists, and business owners are furious, just full of vitriol. One interview subject said to me, "I have never met an American that supported the teachers." An expatriate said to me, "I have never spoken with anyone that supported the teachers." Both of these comments point to the value of listening to people in the neighborhoods rather than the zocalo hotel owners, restaurant owners, parents of children in private school, and foreigners who, as one of my Oaxacan interview subjects put it, "depend on the disparity between Oaxaca's and America's economies."

Saturday, May 28, 2011


'Tis the season for the annual teacher's strike and "planton," basically a sit-in, camp-out that goes for several days in and around the zocalo. What this means, invariably, is that I get entangled in many, many arguments in May and June. It seems that many expatriates, middle-class people, tourists, and wealthy people do not support the teachers. Say what?

So this year I did my research. I went to my neighborhood public schools. I interviewed public school teachers and their children off-site. I interviewed parents of children in public school, many of whom are greatly inconvenienced by the yearly strike because it affects their work schedules. I read the fliers and the pamphlets, though not the local newspapers which I do not trust as reliable sources. I read the articles and analysis at the links in my Oaxaca Study Action Group political news group. I wanted to know what the people around me thought about the presumptions of the petit bourgeois, foreigners, politicos and so on. Here are some of the arguments. To my sources, please forgive any awkward translations of your poetic and well-reasoned Spanish and Spanglish.

Complaint 1: The teachers are well-paid already.

This one is hard for me to even stomach. Public school teachers in Oaxaca have up to 40 or 50 kids for a half-day, and many have another set for another half-day. Teachers reported having to purchase basic supplies for the classroom and using their own money for photocopying primary curricular materials. Also, from the Latin-American Herald Tribune:

"The decision to go on strike was made Saturday after SNTE Local 22 members
decided that state officials had not made satisfactory concessions in
negotiations, union leader Azael Santiago Chepi said.

The teachers plan to occupy the main plaza in Oaxaca city, the state

The union is not making any pay demands, focusing instead on educational and
social issues, Chepi said.

Teachers want better uniform allowances for students, computers in all of
the state’s elementary schools and electricity in all schools, the union
leader said.

Union members also want officials to find Carlos Rene Roman, a teacher who
disappeared on March 14, Chepi said."

Complaint 2: The teachers' union is corrupt.

Every poor and lower-middle-class Mexican I interviewed scoffed at this comment. They point their fingers at the much larger force of corruption in Oaxaca society, the PRI (which has managed to keep keys to offices, important documents, and major funds out of the hands of the new ruling party). My favorite Oaxacan anarchist echoed what my husband Steve said, "The dead bodies aren't piling up because of the teacher's union. The PRIstas were deadly."

A Oaxacan grandma added that the wealthy and politically powerful like to confuse the issues, blaming the teacher's union for skimming or causing problems when small factions that have nothing to do with the teachers are at fault. On this issue, I'm less clear because I did not understand the examples she gave. There are a lot of abbreviations in Oaxacan political lingo!

Complaint 3: The zocalo is ugly.

This complaint has many permutations, including:

The teachers hurt local businesses.
The teachers scare tourists away.
The teachers cost the city money by striking.

The people I interviewed--and I should underscore that I did not interview people who own businesses, except those who may open up their garage to sell used clothes or serve a daily meal--could give a damn regarding these issues. Oaxaca and its neighbor Chiapas are the poorest states in Mexico. When it comes down to workers (teachers) fighting for basic rights against the major political machine, my neighbors know who has their best interests at heart.

My radical anthropologist buddy had another way of putting it, "It's time to break shi* up." I agree--when you have propaganda for your mainstream journalism, a government that funds dance festivals instead of access to clean drinking water, and an entrenched wealthy class that does everything it can to maintain the status quo, where do you turn? Block the streets, sit in the zocalo, make speeches, pass out pamphlets, fight the good fight! Viva la huelga!

Monday, May 23, 2011

More Taller Colibri

I've been getting lots of messages and questions about our school project. We are definitely continuing next year, under the same excellent maestra Suzanna. This year's final project is underway. In addition to fishing, gardening, cooking, hiking and Friday field trips, the children are doing an integrated Legos unit.

We have a 40-lesson unit that combines math, science, writing and critical thinking skills to create simple machines and other constructions with Legos. In the first week, this unit was so outstandingly successful that, when I went to pick up the kids, no one moved from their places. They continued working, ignoring my reminders that the school day was over, that they could come back the next day.

On a personal level, this unit has sparked so much creativity around the house. Max found an old pirate ship model that you build from cardboard puzzle pieces and devoted three hours to consulting the instruction manual and creating a three-dimensional ship with a cabin and bridge. Genevieve has progressed in her fine motor skills from using larger Duplo blocks to using standard-sized Legos. And me, I'm a fan of the new Ninja legos. So beautiful, so timely with Kung Fu Panda II coming out.

For more snapshots of daily life at our experiential Oaxaca school, check out Steve's Taller Colibri blog.

Onto another great school year.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

41 going on 42

That way of describing an age "going on" always seems sadder when I think about Jenny. There's this expectation to it--you're going on, after all--and then she didn't. Or maybe I feel she's in constant "going on" mode, but never arriving.

Today I remembered something funny Jenny told me. She was in class and a professor made a sarcastic comment, which was met with silence. The professor said, "Well, that's a Pintoresque silence."

Jenny all-out guffawed (as those of you who know her can imagine, she was a big laugher) and repeated it for everyone's enjoyment, "Pintoresque silence!"

I doubt you'd find a Jenny character in a Harold Pintor play. Almost any other playwright would work. I like to think of her as the lead in a Greek chorus, rolling her eyes and scatting about the drama mamas onstage.

Jenny's birthday is this May 27th, going on to something, somewhere, just not where I can find her.