True Education: Indigenous Feminism and the Fight for Autonomous Education

“In reality, since we are in La Realidad, ‘Democratic Teachers’ is an unnecessary redundancy. To be a teacher is to be democratic. Those who aren’t democratic aren’t teachers; they scarcely attain the rank of dog-riding cowboys.”

-Subcomandante Marcos, La Realidad, 1998

In 2003, a teacher friend and I traveled to Mexican state of Chiapas to spend the summer with EZLN, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.  That summer, the Zapatistas were celebrating the formation of Oventic as an official caracol, or Rebel Autonomous Zapatista Municipality (MAREZ).  

The formation of the caracoles was the reason my teacher friend and I were there.  He was a member of R.A.T, or the Revolutionary Anarchist Teachers, and both of us as educators were interested in learning about models of autonomous education that were constructed entirely outside of official state interference.

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We were also hoping to see Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, the philosophical leader of the Zapatista movement (although the group claims no official leader), as well as Comandanta Ramona, the “petite warrior”, one of EZLN’s actual commanders and co-constructor of the “Revolutionary Women’s Laws”, which promoted women’s rights as inextricable from Zapatista Liberation.

For those unfamiliar with the Zapatistas, they are a left-wing political (and former militant) group based in the state of Chiapas, Mexico.  The Zapatistas, made up largely of indigenous Maya people, emerged publicly in 1994 as a response to the NAFTA agreement, essentially declaring war on the Mexican state for its neoliberal, capitalist imperialism that exacerbated the gap between the rich and the poor while continuing its centuries-old policy of exploiting the indigenous people and territory of Mexico.  

The Zapatista rebellion of 1994, however, was as much a women’s rebellion as it was an indigenous one.  Comandanta Ramona led the January 1st, 1994 insurgence in Chiapas, her face covered in a black balaclava, armed with M-1 carbine weapon many would later comment seemed bigger than she was.  Ramona was famous for yelling the words; “Enough is enough!”.

Sidenote: I always wondered if Dead Prez rapper M-1 took this name because it was the weapon of choice of the Zapatistas and other Latin American revolutionary groups that fought for autonomy and self-determination.  HMU if you know!!

While little is known about the life Ramona led before becoming the commander of an Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 6.21.31 AM.pngindigenous liberation movement, in his book, Our Word is Our Weapon, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos writes of Ramona, “In December 1984, not yet twenty years old, she arrives in the mountains of the Lacandon Jungle, carrying the marks of the whole history of indigenous humiliation on her body. In December 1984 this brown woman says, ‘Enough is enough!’ so softly that only she hears herself. In January 1994, this woman and several thousand indigenous people do not just say, but yell, ‘Enough is enough!” so loudly that all the world hears them…”

Marcos makes a reference to Ramona “carrying the marks of the whole history of indigenous humiliation on her body” and draws a symbolic parallel between the body of a woman and the body of land that the Zapatista people fight for.  The humiliation of this indigenous woman, and the land of her ancestors, is the violence enacted upon them, both in physical form but also in the form of lack of self-determination.

The Zapatista rebellion of January 1994 brought the announcement of not just the new Revolutionary Laws, but also the Revolutionary Women’s Laws.  These ten laws required that women not only be seen as equals in the revolutionary cause (this was law number 1) but also that women have complete social, economic, sexual, reproductive and physical health autonomy.  It was also made law that women have the same to right to education afforded men.

But what kind of education were indigenous children receiving?

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The impact of colonialism and later, globalization, on Mexican education, was predictably oppressive.

According to journalist Angelica Rico; “In 2001, the Zapatista families of the Autonomous Municipality in Rebellion decided to take their children out of school in the Mexican official education system, which did not respect their culture and their history, and which did not teach the children their rights as indigenous peoples, forcing children to forget their indigenous languages and speak only Spanish. Some teachers openly criticized the EZLN and Zapatista families during class, punishing and harshly beating the children, shaming them for being indigenous peasants.”

It was clear that the fight for autonomy and self-determination in Zapatista communities was going to need to include autonomous education, or “True Education.”

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She continues; “…the challenge for autonomous education is to turn the community into a classroom and to incorporate a formal system of Tseltal education, where children learn about planting and harvesting seasons, traditional festivals or about the oral tradition, in order to combine schooling with an indigenous upbringing. Promoters of True Education are not only trained to teach children literacy, but also acquire political-pedagogical tools to help instill the germs of a critical consciousness in the minds of the children:

Our education is about having a dignified struggle and one heart, so that we can walk together in the same direction. We believe that education is not only about teaching literacy and numeracy, but also about solving problems between our peoples, how to defend ourselves, about our history and how to keep on fighting.

— Hortencia, Tseltal promoter of True Education

My friend and I didn’t get to hear the poetic and passionate speeches of Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos or the quiet ferocity of Comandanta Ramona, but we did get to experience the influence that indigenous feminism had on the formation of the caracoles and the adoption of the “True Education” or autonomous Zapatista schools created in the Zapatista Municipalities.

And as we ready ourselves for Spring Break and the ending of the year once we return, I wonder what we would consider a true education, for ourselves and our young people and when will begin to ensure we all receive it.



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