Alive They Took Them, Alive We Want Them

It’s Friday, Sept. 26. I decide to brave the infamous
Tuxtla humidity and walk to work at the Universidad Aútonoma de Chiapas
(UNACH), where I am the resident English Teaching Assistant for the 2014-2015
academic year. This week we talk about poetry. 

Many of my students, all of whom
are studying to become English teachers, tell me they find poetry boring
because they cannot understand it. However, once we get talking, the students
challenge both themselves and their classmates to see the ambiguity in meaning
as a positive aspect of poetry. One student suggests that by creating space for
multiple meanings, reading and writing poetry can help people see issues from
various perspectives. Another extends her classmate’s analysis, suggesting that
it can especially help people understand perspectives that challenge commonly
held beliefs.

Not long after I get back to my apartment, my brain humming with students’
responses from the week’s lesson, 43 students are reported missing in the
state of Guerrero. Soon after, witnesses report having seen the students rounded up into police vehicles. They have not been seen since. 

The news hits mainstream media outlets a few days later, and progressive
student communities throughout Mexico jump to action. Exhaustive searches are
started to find the students; political leaders are condemned for their inaction
or direct role in the disappearances; protests and marches are organized to express
rage and inspire action.

Information about the students spreads quickly. Like my students at UNACH,
they were studying to become teachers; unlike my students, they were part of
the nationwide normal education system started in post-revolutionary Mexico to
advocate for peasant families. They are called ‘normalistas’: students who are
educated and taught to educate in revolutionary ideals, local community values
and indigenous cultural preservation.

It’s been over a month now, and the students remain missing, but the
reason for their disappearance is clear: They studied, spoke and acted loudly
in opposition to government education reforms that privilege the privatization
of education.

The missing 43 students were taken from a small town in Guerrero, but their
stories have traveled the world over. In the past weeks, mass protests and social
media campaigns have been organized in cities across Europe, Asia, the United States and Latin America, and the global movement shows no signs of slowing down. These
protesters recognize that the 43 normalistas’ disappearance is fundamentally
about students’ rights to study and advocate their ideas without fear of
government repression and violence, especially when those students belong to marginalized

The education reforms that normalistas and other progressive groups
throughout Mexico have criticized often directly conflict with the practices
and politics of indigenous and campesino communities. Specifically, they mirror
American education reform efforts that prioritize results-oriented economic
advancement over critical thinking development—the very type of education
that might lead students to challenge those policies.

One such reform is increasing mandatory English language learning. At UNACH, for
example, students in most careers are required to pass the Test Of English as a Foreign Language in
order to graduate. In fields such as medicine, engineering and even tourism,
where students often go on to work in hotel kitchens and maid-services, it is
unlikely that students will ever need to speak English fluently in order to
successfully do their jobs. Similarly, normalistas have argued that in many of
their communities where people dedicate their lives to agriculture, there is
equally little use for English skills.

While the uselessness of English in their jobs does not necessarily mean
they should not have the opportunity to learn the language, forcing English
language learning can be unnecessarily violent and oppressive.

What the reforms certainly do not do is provide increased funding and
support for programs that foster critical thinking, like those of the normalistas.
For me, and for many students at the 5Cs, college was a place where professors,
readings and fellow classmates consistently challenged assumptions and offered
opportunities to relearn history and politics. However, this trend away from
critical thinking in education reform even permeates Claremont, where support for
and enrollment in humanities programs is continually diminishing.

Governments throughout the world are prioritizing English, business,
science and technology programs because of their promised ability to promote
economic growth. But many world powers also have a vested interest in actively
not supporting other disciplines that privilege critical thinking
and teach students to view issues from multiple and contrary-to-mainstream

The fact that the normalistas are so threatening to government officials
that those officials colluded with organized crime groups to have them
kidnapped signals the power these students’ revolutionary ideas have. These
kinds of ideas lead to actions that can create substantive change to benefit
the marginalized communities from which these students come.

43 kidnapped normalistas were targeted with violence because they were
educated in and advocated a form of learning and living that challenged, and
thus threatened, current powers. As a language assistant here at UNACH, I want my students to have every
opportunity to explore different perspectives through their education without
any fear of violence—be it through poetry, history, languages or
politics. As a woman, as a person of color, as a member of the queer community and as a global citizen committed to social justice, I find their struggle important because it concerns the ability of marginalized
people to advocate their rights and beliefs.

Student protesters released a worldwide call to action for a
72-hour nationwide strike in Mexico Nov. 5. Their internet video, narrated in Spanish, English and French, states:
Que todo el mundo escuche nuestro exigencia: con vida los llevaron, con vida
los queremos.
” “Let everyone hear our demand: alive they took them,
alive we want them.” As global citizens, we must answer their call.

Miller PO ’14 is from Portland, Ore. She graduated with a degree in public policy analysis and is currently on a Fulbright Scholarship in
Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, Mexico.

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