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Yesterday I boarded a plane from Salt Lake City and prepared to head home to San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico and I was worried. It had nothing to do with my incredible fear of flying and everything to do with the fact that I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d actually be able to make it home from the airport in Tuxtla Guttierez to San Cristobal.
You see, over the last month or so things in Chiapas and the neighboring state of Oaxaca have taken an interesting turn.
The teachers in Mexico are up in arms. Depending on who you talk to they have every right to do so or they’re royally fucking things up and are putting innocent people in harm’s way. Roadblocks are the name of the game these days and life for many people in Oaxaca and Chiapas has changed dramatically. Major highways are shut down and while the protestors are generally letting personal vehicles through, commercial vehicles are sitting idle for days while their cargo languishes, unable to get to the stores and markets in the region.
Wal-Mart is even contemplating closing all of its Oaxaca stores because they simply can’t get their products to the store shelves.
Things in Oaxaca turned violent a few weeks ago as protesters and federal police clashed over the blockades. The presence of the federal police in both Oaxaca and Chiapas is astounding in its numbers, but as the federal government takes their time and mulls how to properly address the situation the roadblocks remain and travel is severely restricted.
So why are the teachers so incensed? Again, that depends on who you talk to. To keep this as succinct as possible, the federal government wants very badly to implement measures to reform the nationwide education system. This includes assessment tests of the teachers to ensure they’re qualified for the subjects they teach. The educators are protesting this fact which appears to most outsiders to be ludicrous. Why wouldn’t they want to prove their qualifications?
Again, it depends on who you ask, but some sources claim that the teacher’s union is as corrupt as other aspects of the rest of Mexico, and since many teaching positions are bought or inherited through the union some of these teachers may lack a college degree or proper training, therefore they can’t pass the tests. Others claim that the government in placing unfair expectations on the teachers and is unwilling to assess the situation on a case by case basis.
While the bulk of the roadblocks and clashes are taking place in Oaxaca, Chiapas is following suit. Tuxtla is bearing the brunt of these roadblocks and the city is on virtual lockdown. Most major roads within the city are blocked by protesters around the clock and while the federal police are there, it seems they’re not yet ready to forcibly remove the blockades and begin mass arrests.
Other roads throughout the state of Chiapas are blocked and these include the access points to some of the major tourist attractions in Chiapas, such as Agua Azul, Palenque, and Lagos Montebellos. Reports have surfaced of robberies of tourist busses at Agua Azul and the road in and out of Palenque has been plagued by robberies for months. This has resulted in a sharp decrease of tourists in the state and crushing revenue losses for the hospitality industry.
The highway between Tuxtla and San Cristobal has been left open during these troubled times but a few days ago a road block popped up. It was this that concerned me as I booked my ticket home. Alerta Chiapas reported that a detour was in place ensuring that traffic could pass despite the hassle. But how long would that detour remain?
Yesterday as my flight began its approach to Tuxtla and I gazed out the window at the lush green landscape that comes with the rainy season I wondered what I’d find on the ground. Would a taxi be able to get me home? I bought my ticket with no fuss and as I climbed into the taxi I asked the driver about blockades. He replied with “solo un bloqueo poco” and seemed unconcerned. However, as we exited the airport road for the highway I was relieved we were turning right, as the left lane was choked with cars, a small crowd of people, and makeshift roadblocks fashioned of old tires.
When we were nearly to San Cristobal we left the highway and began the detour around the roadblock. It added about thirty minutes to the trip but I made it home safe and sound despite the crowds of people marching in San Cristobal and the mile long line of cars behind them. Then as we passed Avenida Insurgentes, one of the major streets in the central part of San Cristobal, there was a tent city blocking the road. However, this tent city wasn’t erected by teachers; the health care workers are striking too.
Workers across the country are showing their solidarity with the teachers and expressing their dissatisfaction with the Mexican government as well. Health care workers marched in Mexico City to oppose reforms proposed by the government. It seems that just about everyone in Mexico has reached their breaking point and how the government will respond remains to be seen.
So what’s the takeaway from all this?
I’ll never claim to be an expert on politics in Mexico, or any place for that matter. What I’ve presented here is comprised of information from local and national news outlets and conversations I’ve had with local Chiapanecas. My own opinions color everything I write so some might disagree, but that’s okay. After all, I am a foreigner here and I’ll always defer to the Mexican people, as they know their country better than I do.
But I do see a situation the Mexican people are passionate about and a government that is scrambling to find a solution.
But I also don’t see that solution as one that will happen soon or one that will be acceptable to the many people involved.
And in that way, we are all these Mexican people, are we not?
Thank you for you essay. I’m also an American, so I don’t know the whole story either, but I do follow politics in general, and Mexican politics as well as our own. Approaching the story from a more left-leaning position, I can say that historically, this region of Mexico has a history of activism against neo-liberal governmental policies (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiapas_conflict), which is what the “education reform” actually is; the effort to implement strict policies that are hiding a conservative agenda in plain sight. I think it’s much like our own country’s agendas, so if you haven’t understood the greater implications of say, the Chicago Teachers’ Union recent day of action, you might miss the nuances to this. Or the fact that Hillary was recently booed at a rally of teachers when she said that public and charter teachers need to come together. That doesn’t sit well with the working class, since education is being used as a propaganda tool by the elites. It’s a class issue, which in American we’ve been taught doesn’t exist, so we are largely blinded to these kinds of issues. This is about inequality.
The Mexican government was stunned by the success of the Zapatistas back in the 90s, and doesn’t want a replay of that incident.
This is also connected to the government’s apparent complicity is the disappearance of those 43 students. This horrendous crime has been covered up, so the people are protesting corruption and non-accountability. It’s a bit like our police brutality stories.
I know you didn’t plan to write a political story, but unless you understand the politics, this will just look like a scary situation. I think we’re looking at a collective questioning of neo-liberal politics and the effects of capitalism over hundreds of years. It’s time we did it too.
Cate Brubaker says
Hi Crystal! Thanks so much for your insightful reply. You’re right, I didn’t want to delve too much into politics that I don’t fully understand so I know this piece is lacking a lot of backstory. However, in the interest of brevity I chose to write it as it appears. My intention is certainly not to instill fear, but it also is a tense and sometimes scary situation.
Have you read the book Bordering on Chaos? It’s my go-to resource for all things Chiapas and Mexico as a whole to a certain extent. It’s a brilliant book and I recommend it every chance I get.
Thanks again for reading!
Thank you, Cate, for your recommendation. No, I haven’t read it. I’m not as well-versed on the region as I’d like to be, so your book sounds like I’d enjoy it immensely. I’m trying to sell my home, and have thought a lot about traveling in Mexico, perhaps moving there. I have a lot of admiration for someone like you who is brave enough to have done it. I look forward to reading more on your site, as well.
Happy travels. Stay safe.
Interesting. Thank you Cate for enlightening me a bit about what’s going on. And I’m glad you made it home safe.