Escuela Normal Rural
Raúl Isidro Burgos de Ayotzinapa
Let's sow the seed of freedom in the virgin field of the heart of young people…
The duty is to teach our students to be free.
- Raúl Isidro Burgos
Normal schools, created to train high school graduates to become teachers, arose out of the idea that teaching, or pedagogy, was a science which could be taught and learned like any other scientific discipline. The purpose of the normal school was to establish teaching standards or "norms," hence its name. Early normal schools in Mexico were established in cities: Oaxaca (1824), San Luis Potosí (1849), Guadalajara (1881), and expanded during the Porfiriato, the presidency of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911).
One of the most significant triumphs of the revolutionary struggle in Mexico was the right to education. The Constitution of 1917 established the responsibility of the State to grant a free and secular education. Under this framework, what was previously accessible only to the privileged minority was now expanded to reach the rest of the population. The agrarian origin of the Mexican revolution demanded a complete reform in the countryside and rural normal schools would be fundamental instruments in this process. The forty schools that were established provided education, food, and housing to the impoverished sons of campesinos from indigenous and rural communities, and offered a curriculum that fostered social justice, political activism, and critical pedagogy. The teachers themselves were conceived as social leaders whose lessons would inform citizens of their rights and legitimize the new government, thus making them a firm link between the abstract ideals of the new national project and material benefits, such as access to land. The work of rural education was intended to advance the new social model in which there would be neither rich or poor, and all working individuals would enjoy all the advantages of life.
The seeds are sown
Born in Cuernavaca in 1890, teacher and poet Raúl Isidro Burgos was appointed director of the Conrado Abundes Regional School of Tixtla, Guerrero in 1930, replacing its founder, Rodolfo A. Bonilla. The normal school, founded on March 2, 1926 of originally 27 students, had no building of its own. The municipal authority of Tixtla granted the new director 19 acres of land from a former estate of Ayotzinapa, a hamlet in Tixtla meaning “the place of turtles” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Because resources to build the school were non-existent, Raúl Isidro Burgos secured a personal loan and donated the funds to begin construction of the facilities. Teachers and students also contributed part of their salaries and scholarships. On March 14, 1932, Raúl Isidro Burgos organized the transfer of the educational institution to the land where peasants, students, teachers, and the director himself were responsible for placing each of the stones that gave life to the school that bears his name today: Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos de Ayotzinapa. The collective effort that was carried out for the construction of the rural normal became a fundamental principle of its culture and identity, and is symbolically very important because it demonstrates the extent that education was a process that was erected from below.
Life emerges and flourishes
The presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) was a period of great importance for rural education, both for the resources he dedicated, and for the constitutional reform that declared that the education provided by the State should be of a socialist nature. It was during this six-year period that the rural normals took on a Marxist-Leninist ideology and experienced great momentum as they became increasingly linked to the material transformation of the people and acquired several of the characteristics that define them until today. These included requirements that the normalistas were of peasant and / or indigenous origin, the promotion of a cooperative system, an identity linked to the cultivation of the land and the implementation of norms that would foster social leadership in the students. A system of self-government was promoted in which the students were engaged in key aspects that directed the institution; an ideal that sought to foster democracy and make future rural teachers genuine social leaders. Through committees, general assemblies, and special commissions, students felt their will in many of the institutional standards and participated in productive tasks.
In the rural normal, the years of the socialist school coincided with the deepening of important progressive processes that, unlike the socialist education model, which was repealed in 1946, would continue to endure until the present time.
At the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College, students can choose to study for degrees in primary education, primary education with a focus on intercultural bilingualism, or physical education. The school functions according to five basic principles, assuring that each student acquires the comprehensive education necessary to address the social conditions and needs of the rural communities they will serve after graduation:
The academic, which focuses on the preparation to become teachers of young children within rural and indigenous communities. Each year 140 students are admitted to the four-year program: 100 degrees are offered in Primary Education, and 40 in Primary Education with a Bilingual Intercultural Approach. Part of their training includes classroom observation in isolated communities across Guerrero.
The cultural, which offers instruction in traditional dance and music; there is both a marching band and a rondalla.
Sports and physical training, including soccer, basketball, and swim teams.
Agriculture and livestock; the planting and harvesting of crops in order to sustain the school, including corn, marigolds and velvet flower. Students sell the crops they harvest, and often give away corn to local families, who, in times of hardship, also support the school. Students care for horses, cows, chickens and other animals, and learn related skills in workshops for leather-working and carpentry.
Political and ideological training is the beating heart of Ayotzinapa. The mission of rural teachers is to be men of conscience; to teach people about injustices, inform them of their rights, and to act as community organizers.
Prospective students must pass both the academic entrance exam and the socio-economic requirements. Once accepted, staying in the school is not a simple matter. Tuition and board are free; the state government provides a meal budget that only amounts to a few dollars per student per day, which usually means a diet of eggs, rice, and beans. The school does not have a travel budget or a sufficient transportation system for students. For decades the students have practiced a controversial method of securing transportation: they stop commercial passenger buses and inform the driver and all on board that the bus would be commandeered for “the educational purposes of the Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos de Ayotzinapa.” While many passengers, drivers and bus company executives loathe this practice, they and the police tolerate it, albeit begrudgingly. Students do all the cleaning, tending, and a large part of the cooking. The first-year dorm rooms are windowless concrete boxes with no furniture. As many as eight sleep to a room, laying out cardboard and blankets for bedding. First-year students must complete a testing period, which serves as an introduction to the way of life at the school, and of the rural teacher. Their heads are shaved and they work in the fields as part of a service requirement; they weed, plow, plant and harvest fields belonging to the school and to neighbors in the surrounding community, and are also in charge of taking care of the school’s livestock. The labor is designed to teach students the meaning and value of working as a community, for the community.
The majority of students who went to Iguala on the afternoon of September 26, 2014 were first-year students who had just made it through the testing period. They had joined the Ayotzi brotherhood where students share deep respect and responsibility for one another and are affectionately called by their nicknames. They were prepared to begin their studies in pursuit of their dreams, which for many students is to return to their villages and plant the seed of knowledge in the inquisitive minds of younger students.
The struggle for survival
It is important to highlight that the students of Ayotzinapa who were attacked in Iguala on September 26-27, 2014, were commandeering buses so that they could travel to Mexico City in order to commemorate the forty-sixth anniversary of the massacre of Tlatelolco, an act of State repression during the 1968 student movement. On October 2, 1968, demonstrating university students were cornered and brutally massacred in a planned attack by the Mexican army in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. When the shooting stopped, hundreds of people lay dead or wounded, as Army and police forces seized thousands of surviving protesters and dragged them away. Following the massacre, rural normals were occupied simultaneously by the Army and security forces. President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz closed down fifteen out of the remaining twenty-nine schools, with the unfounded excuse that the rural normals only served to promote violence and give birth to guerrilla fighters. During the 1970s the climate of persecution and repression against Rural Normal schools was maintained because of their links with insurgent political movements.
A remarkable number of leaders committed to social transformation have emerged from the ranks of the Ayotzinapa normalistas, an important indication of the power of education to raise awareness. During the ’50s, Maestro Othón Salazar, led the teachers’ movement, and in 1957 founded the Movimiento Revolucionario del Magisterio (M.R.M., Revolutionary Teachers Movement) alongside thousands of rural schoolteachers. This was recognized as the first mass teachers’ movement that stood up against government authoritarianism In the 1960s and ’70s. Lucio Cabañas Barrientos and Genaro Vázquez Rojas, both educated in the rural normal in Ayotzinapa, led peasant and civic movements in the state of Guerrero against the despotism of local party bosses and for the defense of social rights. Genaro Vázquez Rojas founded the National Revolutionary Civic Association (ACNR), a peasant and anti-capitalist organization, as a response to the government’s actions in Guerrero under governor Raúl Caballero Aburto. Lucio Cabañas Barrientos was a student leader at the Rural Normal in Ayotzinapa; when he began work as a teacher, he also mediated problems at other schools. In 1962 he was elected to the post of General Secretary of the The Federation of Campesino Socialists Students of Mexico (FECSM), and in 1967 founded Partido de los Pobres, Party of the Poor (PDLP), a social organization also in resistance to the abuses of governor Raúl Caballero Aburto.
In the face of strong repression by the government, that included illegal detentions, imprisonment, torture, assassinations, and disappearances, these pacifist social organizations turned into armed movements in the Sierra Madre del Sur, ending in their destruction by the forces of the State during the Mexican Dirty War.
Rural normals continue to be the most besieged and persecuted institutions; an assault that seeks to disappear one of the most interesting and rich pedagogical experiences that has ever lived in Mexico.
Every year Ayotzi students are in a struggle for survival. In September, at the beginning of each school year, the Student Committee presents a statement of funding requests to the state government and opens the call for new entry. If the call is not opened, the school is declared deserted and in two years it can be closed. Hearings are requested and terms are negotiated regarding the number of new students enrolled, and the resources needed. In 2011 the Student Committee at Ayotzinapa requested an increase in the food ration from 35 to 50 pesos a day (approximately 4 USD), an increase in the new enrollment from 140 to 170, and repairs to bathrooms, dormitories, and other facilities, all in deterioration due to lack of maintenance for years. They also requested guaranteed access to teaching positions for graduates of the normal. Then Governor Ángel Aguirre breached the agreement and refused to meet with members of the Student Committee. On December 12, 2011, the normalistas blocked the Autopista del Sol - the highway that connects Mexico City with the port of Acapulco - and demanded to meet with Ángel Aguirre, to guarantee that he would deliver the necessary budget to the school and that he would not close it. More than 300 state and federal police arrived shortly after and opened fire on the students from both sides of the highway and from the nearby bridge, killing students Gabriel Echeverría de Jesús and Jorge Alexis Herrera Pino. No one was ever held responsible.
Three years later, on the night of September 26-27, 2014, approximately 100 students, most of them freshmen, boarded two passenger buses that had already been commandeered and used on trips to carry out classroom observations. They traveled from the school to Iguala to secure more buses needed in order to lead a caravan of rural teachers’ college students from across the country to Mexico City early on October 2 to commemorate the 1968 student massacre at Tlatelolco. More than a hundred uniformed police officers and other non-uniformed armed men attacked five buses of unarmed students from the Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos de Ayotzinapa, one bus carrying a youth soccer team, as well as journalists, teachers, and other passersby in and around the city of Iguala, Guerrero. The preplanned ambush (The Mexican Army and Federal Police monitored the movements of the Ayotzinapa students from 6 p.m. on that evening) and attacks lasted more than eight hours; police and other armed men killed six people—three Ayotzinapa students, a young soccer player, the soccer team’s bus driver, and a passenger in a taxi; wounded more than 40 people, including at least 10 students, and forcibly disappeared 43 Ayotzinapa students from two different buses that were attacked simultaneously at two distinct locations. While Iguala, Huitzuco and Cocula police initially abducted the 43 students, they did so in a coordinated operation of an evolution of orders, an escalation of violence, and a chain of command, in which Guerrero state police, Federal Police, Army personnel, and criminal organizations were all acting in different capacities as perpetrators or observers.
To the end of his sexenium in late November 2018, President Enrique Peña Nieto and his administration insisted on repeating a series of discredited lies about what happened to the students. The government built a story, based on “confessions” extracted through torture, that told of corrupt, local police confusing the normalistas for members of a rival drug cartel, detaining them and then turning them over to cartel killers who murdered them and incinerated their bodies that night in a trash dump in nearby Cocula. Not only did police know exactly who the students were (during the attacks they repeatedly insulted the normalistas using the epithet “pinches Ayotzinapos”), following more than a year of scientific studies, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) concluded that not a single person was incinerated (much less 43) at the Cocula trash dump on the night of September 26-27, 2014.
It would take the survivors, the families of the disappeared, journalists human rights workers, and the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) months to piece together even the basic reconstruction of events. While the struggle for truth and justice continues, the independent investigations revealed the depth of collusion and blurred lines between organized crime groups, security forces, and the Mexican government.
The horror of the events in Iquala is not at all isolated, but instead, representative of an overarching context of violence and impunity across the country. In the course of looking for the disappeared students, families and volunteers discovered hundreds of hidden graves in Guerrero and other states. The Mexican government would register nearly 2000 such graves by the end of 2016. The official number of people disappeared in Mexico in the past twelve years would rise to almost 40,000, and those murdered to more than 250,000 by 2018.
The attacks on the Ayotzinapa students reflect the symptoms of a failed State in which its youth, particularly those from repressed indigenous communities, continues to be dehumanized and criminalized, while being victimized by drug traffickers who hide under their uniforms and the protection of the municipal, state, and federal government.
Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos de Ayotzinapa is one of only 16 remaining schools for normalistas that have managed to keep their doors open despite the constant hostility from the Mexican government. Due to the resilience of students and professors, and the communities that support them, rural normal schools continue their struggle in the face of the aggressive neoliberal policies that aim to privatize post secondary education in Mexico. As long as poverty and repression continue, there is reason for the rural normals to exist. To defend the rural normal schools, like Ayotzinapa, is to defend the social right of the Mexican people to a secular, free, public education for the masses, with which the people can rebuild the foundations of a truly free, sovereign, just, and democratic country.