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Indigeneity, Horizontal Inequality and the Shortcomings of Peña Nieto’s Education Reform

Nestled in Mexico’s Santiago Valley, deep in the southern region of the country, lies Santiago Mexquititlán, a township of about ten thousand people located in the state of Querétaro. Over 90 percent of Santiago Mexquititlán’s residents are Otomi, and while these residents make up a mere percentage point of the 12.7 million indigenous peoples in Mexico, Santiago Mexquititlán has the greatest proportion of indigenous peoples compared to other municipalities in the state — rendering the municipality a microcosmic emblem of the broader structural violence inflicted against Mexico’s impoverished and indigenous populations. An amalgamation of institutional variables, including geographical and cultural isolation, discrimination and linguistic disadvantage, coalesce into a socio-political labyrinth suffocating Santiago Mexquititlán and Mexico’s indigenous population alike. In 2011, only 12 percent of Mexico’s indigenous population was enrolled in tertiary education. Thus, it is neither coincidence nor anomaly that Santiago Mexquititlán’s literacy rate is 53.8 percent, paling in comparison to the 97 percent rate enjoyed by Mexico’s Federal District. At the crux of these patterns are the inequalities in access to and quality of education between indigenous and non-indigenous populations.

In light of statistics like these, President Enrique Peña Nieto has placed education reform at the forefront of his platform. This emphasis on education reform is both for the sake of the Nieto Administration’s perpetually waning credibility, and more importantly, for the sake of Mexico’s social and economic growth. A comprehensive overhaul of the failing education system would be a critical step toward mitigating the country’s most endemic issues — a homicide rate of 22 murders per 100,000 people per year, a poverty rate of 45 percent and gaping inequalities between indigenous and non-indigenous, rural and urban, and northern and southern communities.

However, the President’s controversial reform proposals ignore the very issues that have rendered Mexico’s education system the lowest quality amongst all OECD states. Strategically rushed through Congress during a brief special session in September 2013, the bill’s orchestrators reduced any chance for a thorough Congressional analysis of legislation that would determine the fate of the Mexican education system for years to come. Imbued with the vengeance of a disempowered state, the bill pours government energy and resources into decreasing the power of Mexico’s — and Latin America’s — largest and most influential teachers union, Sindicato Nacional de los Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE) and its more militant counterpart, Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE).

Granted, Peña Nieto is right to target the power of the unions as a means to mitigate the corruption that afflicts Mexico’s education system. The unions’ efforts wildly disadvantage the communities they ostensibly represent: a 2006 study by renowned scholar Jeffery Cohen established that union-led, long-winded teacher strikes forced a dangerous mass migration of families northward in search of alternatives for their children’s education — either in the U.S. or in Mexico’s wealth-exclusive private school system. Further, the CNTE has skewed the system such that their teachers make 18,000 pesos per month compared to the two-thirds of Mexican professionals earning less than 6,000 pesos per month.

The unions’ power over the education system stems from Mexico’s corporatist era of the 1960s and 1970s, during which the government and the unions operated monolithically. The unions have since devolved into notoriously corrupt institutions as their power has proliferated. This is most obvious in their monopolization of the hiring process for teachers, which has all but created a labor aristocracy: In Oaxaca, for example, where the unions are especially powerful, 36 percent of teachers inherited their position. Decades old practices of buying and selling teaching jobs are common place. Peña Nieto’s reforms introduce evaluation assessments to mitigate the aristocracy and reinforce a meritocracy that ought to be implicit in the process of hiring teachers. Reforms go on to propose selecting new teachers through a national examination, subverting and nullifying the authority granted to union leaders in 1963 to fill 50 percent of the new or vacant positions. In an overt attack on the unions’ power, a provision was included stating that union representatives will lose their comisionados — the nearly 100,000 officials paid by the government to do union work, whose positions date back half a century.

Peeling back the layers of endemic corruption and malfeasance reveals that the CNTE represents — or usurps the representation of — predominantly indigenous communities in the rural regions of southern Mexico, who have no alternative but to decry the ineffectiveness of an education reform that fundamentally ignores the societal disadvantages they face. While Peña Nieto peremptorily declares that, with his education reform, “Mexico’s reform agenda is now complete,” available statistics expose irrefutable geographic inequalities. The lowest literacy rates are concentrated in Mexico’s southern states, a problem the reform fails to address. Oaxaca and Guerrero, for example, have overall literacy rates of 78.4 percent, while Chiapas, one of Mexico’s southern-most states, has a rate of 77.3 percent. In contrast, the overall Mexican literacy rate is 90.5 percent. The urbanized Federal District — which benefits from a concentration of wealth and grants its constituents close proximity to private schools — boasts the highest literacy rate in Mexico.  Private schools in the Federal District are largely devoid of the corruption pervasive in the public school system, but are hopelessly unaffordable for the majority of the Mexican population.

These educational discrepancies contribute to the inverse relationship that exists between indigenous populations and human development. Mexico’s indigenous peoples are 17 percent worse off than its non-indigenous peoples. Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guerrero and other southern states where the CNTE is most prominent have the highest percentage of indigenous peoples and the lowest scores of the Human Development Index, which uses income, education and health as indicators. These inequalities come together in the most disadvantaged communities to systematically exclude indigenous peoples from obtaining an education — their only viable way of escaping poverty, and Mexico’s only viable means of ascending development indexes. Reducing union power — for both the notoriously corrupt ones as well as better established ones — ignores the immense inequalities between rural, indigenous and urban, affluent mestizo communities.

Neither the nepotistic CNTE nor Peña Nieto’s proposed reforms are effectively benefiting the indigenous and impoverished communities in Mexico. Although the reforms rightfully combat prevailing corruption, they would shift the country towards privatization: the administration managed to tap into the unpopularity of the unions to add a revision to Article 67 allowing local groups to pool funds and create educational options for those willing and able to pay. Privatized schooling would be wildly unavailable — both financially and geographically — to the already disadvantaged communities that seldom have adequate access to public schooling. In what similarly resembles US education structures, the reforms introduce stringent systems of evaluation and examination, calling for increased standardized testing to complement their attacks on the unions. Pearson Education, a UK-based vendor of standardized testing materials and the company with the largest share of sales to the US government, praises Mexico’s education reforms, as Mexico is lucrative market for them. The praise of foreign business elites like Pearson, juxtaposed with the opposition of disadvantaged, impoverished, and union-represented communities, is emblematic of the education debate writ large and telling of the allegiances and interests driving Peña Nieto’s reforms.

Peña Nieto’s apathetic choice to tackle the more sensational issues — as he could easily elicit support from a population disillusioned by the CNTE — ultimately comes at the expense of a more holistic reform of the country’s education system. The new slate of education reforms prioritizes government revenue and authority at the expense of educational opportunities for rural, indigenous and impoverished youth. Unless reforms include, at the least, construction of schools in indigenous-populated zones, the training of teachers to include a bilingual education and social policies that recognize the disadvantages faced by poor communities, Mexico’s endemic inequality and educational poverty will persist. The words of David Calderón, director of the Mexico-based education advocacy group, Mexicanos Primero, ring true: “This is the moment Mexico could take off and catch up with more developed countries. What’s holding it back is education.”

About the Author

Amalia Perez '18 is a Political Science and Development Studies concentrator from Washington, D.C. Along with serving as the Section Manager for BPR's Culture Section, she is an associate editor with the Brown Journal of World Affairs, an Undergraduate Fellow with the Latin American Studies Dept., and a volunteer with DARE. You can find her cooking and/or running late to something.