Flags and banners multiplied all this past week – green representing hope, white for unity and red for the blood shed by the heroes of Mexico.
The Zocolo, or Main Plaza, in Oaxaca is the heart of the city and state’s celebration of Mexico’s independence from Spain more than 200 years ago. Officials assemble there for the official “grito,” replicating Father Hildalgo’s 1810 cry for revolution on the eve of Diez y Seis de Septiembre.
But as the festooning of buildings increased, so did underlying levels of tension.
One was created by weather – both hurricane and tropical storm heading in from both the Gulf and the Pacific coasts threatening to dump enormous deluges of water on the city. Somehow, the two storms seemed to have knocked each other off course, only leaving clouds and scattered showers over Oaxaca in their wakes.
Two bullets dodged, but the remaining one was more explosive than the fireworks that lit up the sky last night.
Teachers. Teachers were occupying the Zocolo and were one step ahead of the government.
At first, I didn’t even notice as we wandered in their midst crossing the Zocolo because, well, they just looked like teachers. The more observant Mister noticed that some of these teachers had wooden sticks at their sides (We didn’t snap their photos.).
On Friday, teachers strategically parked buses to block intersections around the Zocolo, backing up traffic for blocks and resulting in the honking of many horns. The Mister pointed out those traffic jams might not engender enthusiasm for their cause.
And then, Saturday night, they made the simple procurement of ice cream seem fraught with danger. On the west side of the plaza in front of the Basilica de la Soledad, several truckloads of police were donning flak jackets. The basilica behind them was beautifully illuminated, and the booths of the neverias on the east side of the plaza usually are packed with families. Instead, only one vendor of ice cream was open. Spooky. We quickly made our purchase of a cup of tamarindo con chile and headed off in a different direction.
And their cause? Displeasure with a sweeping new educational reform bill President Peña Nieto signed into law. Since I write about food more than politics, I’ll let Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald explain some of the effects of this law:
Peña Nieto signed into law an education reform law on Sept. 10 that introduces nationwide teacher evaluations, increases classroom hours and significantly reduces the powers of the country’s powerful teacher unions.
Until now, under a 1963 law, Mexico’s 1.5 million-member National Teachers’ Union, SNTE, selected 50 percent of the country’s teachers, while the remaining 50 percent were appointed by the government.
This generated a corruption-ridden system in which many teachers were paid despite not showing up for work in years, and retiring teachers sold their lifelong jobs for as much as $10,000 to people without qualifications.
Under the new law, which has triggered violent protests by a dissident leftist teachers’ union, both aspiring and current teachers will have to go through a national evaluation test. Aspiring teachers will have two chances to pass it in order to be hired, while the 1.2 million existing teachers will have up to three opportunities to pass in order to be allowed to continue teaching or to be promoted.
Mexico’s education reform was passed in Congress after growing public discontent over the fact that Mexico consistently ranks last among Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development member-countries in the group’s standardized PISA tests for 15-year-old students.
One of Peña Nieto’s first moves after taking office was putting SNTE leader Elba Esther Gordillo behind bars on charges of embezzling $200 million in union funds. For the past 25 years, she had been one of the country’s most powerful political figures.
Some of the union members are not appreciative of the President’s reform efforts, which led to a showdown on the Zocolo. The government issued an ultimatum that the teachers must abandon their occupation of the Zocolo by noon.
We kept our distance, needless to say, ears peeled for sounds of violence.
But some sort of compromise was reached; the teachers left for another park, leaving the grito tradition intact.
The boundaries of the Zocolo were fortified by hundreds of police and machine-gun-wielding soldiers (whose photos we opted not to take). Families wanting to enter the Zocolo for the evening celebration were required to pass through metal detectors.
We passed on by and headed up the hill to raise a glass of mescal and watch the fireworks from our patio overlooking the city.