Freedom school

IssueDecember 2013
Feature by Lia Plume

August 2013. The Zapatistas in Chiapas open their doors to their ‘solidary brothers and sisters’ from Mexico and from across the globe. August 2013 is the 10th anniversary of their autonomous government structure: their local, municipal, and regional government bodies; their education, health, and justice provision; their own security system.

They want to share with us what they have built up and what they have learnt, so that we take this learning back to our own contexts. In the ‘little school’ we start writing a new chapter of a collective story of shared commitments that started shortly after the Zapatista uprising of 1994 and has continued to the present day.

The little school is a school without aims and objectives, without evaluations, and none of us can pass or fail. Its teaching and learning is carried by a shared commitment to the Zapatista principles, and to autonomy.

A well-disposed heart

Before we go there, the Zapatistas tell us in a public letter that we have to bring three things: something against the cold, something against the rain, and something to help us remember; they will take care of everything else. They explain: ‘Without the following requirements, YOU WILL NOT BE ADMITTED: disinclination to talk or to judge; willingness to listen and watch; a well-disposed heart.’

Once the little school starts, we move out of our known comfort zone. We are taken into their territory, and separated from the collectives we came with. Most community members won’t speak Spanish with us. It’s not their native language, and they want us to understand what it means to be in an environment where one doesn’t understand the language. So we rely on body language, eye contact, and the language of our actions. And, of course, on our guardians. Each of us has one.

Mine is Flor, a 17-year-old woman from the indigenous tzeltal community. She is fiercely committed to the Zapatista project and very proud of it; she has a quick, warm smile, an inquisitive way of looking at the world, and a sharp, lively, and forever-curious mind. The guardians are our translators, and they are our first port of call for questions or when we are unwell. They accompany us always, everywhere.

On the first day, we are taken to the administrative centre – the caracol – of the region where we will be staying. There, we learn by listening to lectures from the specially-trained teachers of the region. They speak about the structure of the autonomous Zapatista government; about the different components of resistance (ideological, cultural, physical, political, economic…); and about the participation of women in the autonomous government.

The second day finds us in the communities, and with the families. We get a taste of their daily tasks: looking after the cornfields, milling maize, making tortillas.

They show us their collective projects. In our community these are cattle, a chilli field, honeybees, pineapple and bananas.

They take us to the school, where children are taught history, mathematics, language (literacy in the relevant indigenous languages and Spanish), and a subject roughly translatable as ‘general knowledge.’

They introduce us to their healthcare provision, which includes medicinal plants, midwifery, and bone-setting; and a pharmacy with medication against serious illnesses such as diarrhoea. And we are invited to their assembly, where proposals are discussed and decisions are taken at least once a week. Everyone is expected to contribute their effort, to expand their knowledge, and to learn new skills that are needed in the community.

Learning in the little school means switching quickly between different materials and learning styles. We learn by studying from the four textbooks that the Zapatistas have made for us; from the physical reality of the communities through participation and exposure; from the lectures delivered by the teachers from the region; and by listening and by asking questions in a collective. And we draw on the knowledge and the experience of the families, of our guardians, and of the members of the communities by sharing effort, time and space, and by asking questions in small groups or individually.

Unanswered questions

On the last day, we return to the caracol and meet once again with the teachers of the region. They answer questions, though by now we have learned that not all questions are answered.

We get an answer when we ask questions that build mutual trust and create understanding; we don’t get one when we ask questions to demand explanations or justifications, or to indulge our curiosity or satisfy our interests. Asking questions that put trust before curiosity and that rely on shared commitments – and not on our demand for transparency – was and is a very hard lesson to learn for most of us.

Remaking ourselves as those who receive – not those who give funds, recognition, acceptance, skills, knowledge – is another.

Was it worth it? The Zapatista communities accommodated 1,600 people from around the globe for one week. An unknown number of Zapatistas couldn’t participate in collective work for one week because they were involved in taking care of us in one way or another.

They put together four textbooks, trained teachers, produced food, prepared it, organised transport and accommodation.

Before we came they told us that they will not evaluate, and we know that they don’t do a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to solidarity. Was it worth it? Not unless we share their effort in our calendar and in our geography and in our ways, as they put it.