I’m in Mexico City. I arrived a couple of weeks ago and will be here until mid-August. I’m enrolled in a Spanish class at the UNAM, Mexico City’s enormous free public university, and I’m staying in a very gentrified neighborhood called La Condesa, in an apartment that is a bit of a dump, but it’s working out ok.
Learning Spanish has been a goal that I’ve intermittently felt committed to since 1979. As it happens, I’ve had many experiences in Spanish-speaking countries, and living in the Mission with a Mexican wife gives me lots of regular opportunities to be in Spanish speaking situations. Still, in spite of all that, I have always had a lot of trouble speaking, and my comprehension is very unreliable, going from 25% to close to 80% at times. After my visit to Chile in March/April of this year, I finally broke through a persistent ceiling and found my tongue. It doesn’t mean I don’t speak very garbled Spanish, but at least I can generally make myself understood and I can usually understand what people are asking of me. Now I’m in a Basic 4 level class, and once again am face to face with the task of memorizing long lists of verbs and conjugations, something I started to do 36 years ago when I was in a Spanish program at SF State, but haven’t really tried to do since then.
So far, after two weeks with four to go, I’m feeling happy about my progress. I still can’t come up with the correct verb forms most of the time, but I do feel more in the moment and capable of interacting with people as needed. I also have to face the fact that I’m actually not that extroverted when it comes to just walking up to total strangers and talking to them.
We took a walk to the center of town a couple of days ago and accidentally found ourselves passing through riot cops and giant metal barricades. After we emerged from that (they were all lounging around and nothing was “happening” at the time) we found ourselves a couple of blocks later in the midst of a sprawling tent city of striking teachers from all over Mexico that have gathered in the area to pressure the Ministry of Education and to demand that the neoliberal program of education reform be rescinded. It was interesting, though I didn’t get into any conversations as we wandered around amidst the many tents and small tiendas.
Since arriving I’ve been following the movement of teachers in the excellent local newspaper La Jornada. There have been daily blockades in many Mexican states, from Oaxaca and Chiapas to Nuevo León and Michoacán. In Oaxaca there was another massacre in a town called Nochixtlán where a half dozen teachers were gunned down, apparently by goons employed by the former governor of the state. The teachers movement is complicated by the fact that there are two unions claiming to represent them, the state-run, top-down SNTE, and the independent union that most of the active teachers are affiliated with, the CNTE. It is the latter that is camped out in Mexico City over several square blocks.
I am far from expert about the struggle underway, but clearly the teachers are demanding the rollback of the neoliberal reforms that have been established by federal law. The reforms subject teachers to testing and suspend their labor rights under previously established labor law, typical of neoliberal, market-inspired reforms. The CNTE doesn’t recognize the negotiations that are underway between the Ministry of Education and the SNTE, and are involved in their own three-part negotiations with subordinates of the Education Minister. The blockades have stopped major highways in many parts of the country, and clearly the government is backtracking and trying to find a way to wait the movement out, or to offer minor concessions that don’t affect the deeper attack on teachers, but the teachers are so well organized and so well informed, it seems unlikely that the Mexican government will be able to avoid re-doing the entire package of educational reform. For now, it’s a high tension game of negotiations and direct action, fascinating to see.
I saw in the paper a few days ago there was going to be a book launch for a new book called “Mexico Armed,” by Laura Castellanos. I went to the event at the publisher’s offices at the edge of Colonia Roma, where two rooms were jam-packed with over 100 attendees. It was extremely interesting for me, and happily, I felt I could understand nearly everything, even the jokes! So a real sense of progress. The discussion by the four different speakers, including the author, emphasized that the sclerotic Mexican political system had again and again met civic protest with violence and that it was state violence that preceded the emergence of armed struggle groups in Mexico in every instance covered in the book, over 30 different examples between 1943-1981.