<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
 English | Español November 19, 2017 | Issue #41


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An Autonomous School, Zapatista Style, is Born in Michoacán

The Efren Capiz Junior High School, a Communal Victory


By Amber Howard
The Other Journalism with the Other Campaign in Michoacán

April 7, 2006

The lakeside town of Zirahuén, Michoacán, in central Mexico, had no junior high school. This meant that the local children had difficulty passing the exam necessary to enter high school. To continue their education they had to leave town or drop out altogether. So the people petitioned the government for a school. For over 18 years they asked the secretary of education to help them build a junior high school but, instead, they received a “tele-school” (in which the students are seated in front of a TV screen to receive their classes). Finally, the community took the problem into its own hands.


Marcos with Evita Castañeda, the widow of Efren Capiz, in Zirahuén
Photo: D.R. 2006 Amber Howard
The creation of an autonomous school by the townspeople of Zirahuén is one of the first projects of their autonomous municipality formed in 2003. Its modeled after the self-governance in communities in the state of Chiapas, by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, in its Spanish initials). When Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos visited Zirahuén last Tuesday and Wednesday, he praised the town’s autonomous school. He cited it as an example for the “national rebellion” that his six-month tour — now at the halfway mark — through of all Mexico seeks to construct. This is the story of how an autonomous school was born…

In August 2003 without funds nor permission from the government, with their own resources, the people of Zirahuén started their own school. Originally named Emiliano Zapata, after the famous Mexican revolutionary, the school was recently renamed in memory of a legendary political activist. Efren Capiz who passed away last year in Michoacán, was a celebrated attorney, poet, and co-founder of the Indigenous National Congress. “The school had no permit to operate, but we invited two teachers to work there anyway. We told them we couldn’t pay them but they were ready to help the community,” explained Marisela Alvarez Tinoco, one of the founders and first teachers at the school. The entire first year of the school the teachers did not receive any salary at all. “We felt like we wanted to give the community what it deserved,” commented Alvarado Tinoco.

The townspeople recount a challenging journey over the last three years. Without any help from the government, everything comes out of the community’s own pocket with a little assistance from sympathetic teachers’ organizations. For example, the school itself is held in a fixed-up old government building that was literally falling apart. “We still haven’t finished the construction for the building,” lamented Marta Trinidad Ramirez, a teacher in the public grade school who volunteers her time in the afternoons to the autonomous junior high. The school still lacks a roof on the gym, and spaces for its workshops. The teachers are rarely paid on time. Their paychecks generally come after six months of work instead of every 15 days. Even still, the teachers offer breakfast and lunch to their students, paid for out of their own salaries. “If the child isn’t well fed, his brain doesn’t learn. If they can’t get food at home, we give it to them.”

School days stretch from 8 am to 5 pm. Morning classes, include math, sciences, English, and psychology. After the lunch break, students take advantage of the technical training that their school offers them: an opportunity to learn a trade, to develop a skill. The Efren Capiz school offers workshops in jewelry, carpentry, sewing, fashion design, metalwork, and art. “We give them an opportunity to sell the work produced from their artistic abilities,” mentions Antonio Rojas Medina, the director of the school. “This is the difference between our school and the official school. We take it to the next level of in terms of art and technology.”

The school’s first class – eighteen students – will graduate in July. One of them, Magali Hernandez , 15, exclaims, “I feel sad! We were in the first group and now we aren’t going to get to come here anymore.”

One of her fellow students, Mauricio Orozco Jimenez, expressed a slightly different point of view: “I’m excited! If there wasn’t a school, we wouldn’t have been able to continue studying.”

Both students are planning to continue their studies in a high school in another town and feel as though they will have a lot more opportunities because of graduating from this school. “We can keep studying,” said Magali, “or we can start our own business.”

At the core of the school’s curriculum is the survival of the Purépecha indigenous culture. “We have included humanities such as regional dance, language, painting and music. We believe in rescuing the culture,” says the school’s director, Rojas Medina. The namesake of the school, Efren Capiz, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. The community wants to pass on the vision of Capiz, a man dedicated to the struggle in defense of communal lands, to its children. “Efren Capiz believed that we have to show the children how to respect our rights as Mexican and indigenous peoples,” explains Juventino Ventura, a law student who grew up in Zirahuén. Another interesting facet of this school is that every year the community evaluates it and is given the chance to express what it wants to see change and what it wants to keep the same. “We work without any permission from the government. The community is the only voice that matters,” explains Alvarez Tinoco.

This school is a powerful example of what can happen when communities unite to create what the government neglects to provide. Recently all 65 of the students were tested as part of an evaluation of local schools. The Efren Capiz junior high school came in second place among others in the region, surpassed only by a private school. “Next year,” Alvarez Tinoco assured, “We are going to win first place.” The goals of this school run deep and speak to visions of a greater Mexico overall. “We want to form conscientious Mexican citizens that understand their culture, their roots, that conserve the land.”

“We have to struggle,” is the message that the former schoolteacher learned from the Zapatistas and what made this school transform from dream into a reality. “We don’t have to wait. We have rights. We have to enforce them. Don’t wait for them to tell you yes. Don’t wait. Just do it, what the community needs. We aren’t going to settle for the crumbs that the government gives us. We deserve the entire loaf.” She speculates that if the government doesn’t start paying them on time, they will have to mobilize with the community so they can be heard. “They like it when we make noise, if not, they don’t hear us.”

Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos, visiting this town on April 2 and 3, praised the autonomous school as a model for others to follow, “This school rose up from below, by the hand of the community, its strength and with local money. That is what we need to do to this entire country.”

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America