Who are Mexico’s ‘normalistas?’ – by Paula Chouza (EL PAÍS)

This article was published by El País on 17 October 2014.


-This Revolutionary-era collective has mobilized against the disappearance of 43 student teachers

Thenormalistas’ make up one of the best-organized movements among Mexico’s student collectives. Socialist and assembly-driven in orientation, the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural School – where the 43 disappeared students were taking classes – has its own combative history.

This educational center accepts students from the poorest parts of the country and operates as a boarding school. It describes itself as an institution “shaping free, well-rounded people, dignified representatives of the teaching profession.” The definition of a ‘normalista’ is nothing other than student teacher. Yet in the Revolutionary origin of these schools one can sense that the collective has battled successive Mexican governments over the course of many decades. Currently, Ayotzinapa’s student teachers frequently protest by blocking streets or commandeering buses. To fund their activities (for food or student practicums to remote communities) it is common to see them at highway tollbooths, faces covered, collecting box in hand, asking drivers to make a donation.

The ‘normalista’ schools, the educational centers that provide professional teachers with an undergraduate education, were born during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 when the country was still mostly made up of farmers. José Vasconcelos, rector of Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) and Minister of Education from 1921 to 1924 embarked on an educational crusade using rural teachers. He chose them because they were the figures that could widen the spread of the spirit of the Revolution. “He attempted to give Mexicans a sense of their country. The teacher taught reading and writing and how to make soap or undertake carpentry work,” explains historian Lorenzo Meyer. “It was a difficult time. In the 1920s teachers were being treated badly. The Cristeros (Catholics in arms against the Revolution) did not accept them and ended up killing or mutilating a great many of their number.”

Problems arose when Mexico stopped being rural and the government ceased being revolutionary: “These schools had a left-wing, radical outlook, so much so that they wanted to close them. But that proved no easy task because they provided the only opportunities for people from the countryside.” Two of Mexico’s greatest guerrilla leaders of the 1960s and 1970s came from the Raúl Isidro Burgos school: Genaro Váquez Rojas and Lucio Cabañas. The students still venerate them. Cabañas was the teacher who organized and aided peasants by defending their rights. He began the armed group, the Partido de los Pobres (the Party of the Poor). Guerrero suffered military and political repression during the so-called Dirty War of the 1960s and 1970s Even today, in the local mountains, you can come across townships that have some of the country’s lowest human development indicators.

Normalista’ schoolswere born during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 when the country was still mostly made up of farmers

In 2013, passage of the Peña Nieto government’s educational reform law sparked fury among students and teachers who took to the streets in several of the Republic’s southern states. Protests were especially virulent in Guerrero. Among other measures, the government introduced a system of periodic evaluation for teachers. “The absence of guarantees in the transparency of the assessment process was one of the top complaints of the protesting ‘normalistas’,” says Instituto Politécnico Nacional professor María Eugenia Flores. Given the weakness of the National Educational Workers Union (SNTE) – Latin America’s largest – whose leader, Elba Esther Gordillo, was under arrest, the National Coordinator for Education Workers led resistance to the government’s plans. The reforms were passed and the PRI presidency had successfully gauged the teachers’ pulse.

In the past, a ‘normalista’ student could teach in a public school after finishing secondary school (today they must attend a baccalaureate school or the equivalent form of preparation for university) and at the end of their four years of education they would automatically obtain a permanent teaching position. Now there is competition for these positions and it is no longer possible to inherit a one. “Previously there was a lot of competition to get a spot [in the normalista school]. Now the interest is a lot lower,” Flores said.

In the past week, ‘normalista’ students from Ayotzinapa have joined with those from Michoacán and other Mexican states. The unceasing uproar in the students’ assemblies stands out against the authorities’ silence: as of the date of this writing they still do not know the whereabouts of the 43 disappeared ‘normalista’ students.

Journalist Paula Chouza reports from Mexico for El País. Follow her on Twitter @pchouza. This article first appeared bearing the title Desaparición de estudiantes en Mexico: ¿Qué son los normalistas mexicanos?” available at at: http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2014/10/17/actualidad/1413568451_060339.html.

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons. The MxJTP has a Facebook page: like it, here.



About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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