Ayotzinapa Students Fight Extreme Poverty, Government Neglect, Pain of Deaths and Disappearances
"If we send a request to the government to buy seeds, tools and fertilizer,
they don’t even respond to us," report students from the
Raúl Isidro Burgo Rural Normal School of Ayotzinapa, Guerrero
Photo Sanjuana Martínez
La Jornada, 2nd November, 2014Sanjuana Martínez
Ayotzinapa, Guerrero – The marigolds (cempasúchil) stalks are a metre tall; the amaranth coxcomb (terciopelo) flowers reach 80 centimetres Both are ready to be cut and sold today for Day of the Dead, but the first-year students with shaved heads at the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Normal School, with machetes in hand, postpone the harvest. They stretch out this moment of harvest. Luis Flores Garcia, 20, puts it like this: "It feels awful. These flowers were planted by our disappeared classmates."
At this time, the meaning of the flowers of the dead* causes melancholy. The harvest, which should be a sign of joy, has turned into heartbreak, despair, depression, devastation over the 43 disappeared, a grief that doesn’t cease either coming or going, an interminable, agonizing suspense.
*In the Day of the Dead tradition, orange marigold petals mark the traditional path that guides the Souls of the Dead. Purple coxcomb represents mourning and cleanses the place of evil spirits.
In the five acres of cultivated fields, the first year students also planted corn, which has not yet ripened. The furrows are perfectly delineated. They were handmade by the normal school students. The two tractors are broken, and there is no money to buy parts. They have only one wheelbarrow and barely half a dozen tools. The little bit of fertilizer they used isn’t enough. The hoses are borrowed from the neighbours.
The government withdrew its financial support when the normal school students began to protest the forced disappearance of their 43 classmates. The recent food shortages have forced them to slaughter the few animals that they have. Gerardo de la Cruz Martínez, 18, cuts grass with a machete to feed the four cows that they have left. In addition to the cultivated area, they are responsible for tending to the pens where they raise about 16 pigs (mostly newborn), a couple of horses and a donkey. Of a hundred hens, only about 20 remain. They have already eaten all the quail. As he continues to hoe in the middle of the cornfield, Gerardo says: "The government always says the same thing. It doesn’t want to say where our classmates are."
He says that he shared a dorm room with Julio César Mondragón, El Chilango, who had his eyes gouged out and his face flayed: "They killed him hideously. What’s strange, he always came into the room relaxed. He loved to draw and write poems."
The cornfield is patrolled by groups of first-year students, who take turns. They fear that the crop will be stolen. They set chairs and, opposite the green of the growing corn, grieving, they recount their sorrow, remembering their lost companions, feeling that they are still with them, thinking that they still go around here watering, composting, working the land, tending the flowers.
They are peasants, like their parents and their grandparents. The 540 students are the sons of poor farmers in the Mountain, Sierra and Costa Chica [Little Coast] regions of Guerrero. They are proud of their origin. In these times of uncertainty about the fate of the 43, they sort out ideas, build dreams, lament abandoned projects, ruminate on the endemic poverty carried from generation to generation. It is a cycle of marginalization that they hope to break when they obtain their teaching degree. Education as lifeline.
"Every day we spend out here because the Normal School property isn’t fenced in. We don’t have chicken wire. Anyone can enter,” says Antonio Ruiz. "Both tractors are broken; parts are very expensive. We work with just a pickaxe. There is no budget. We have more land, but we cannot plant because seed is expensive. The cost of five kilos of cured sorghum seed costs 500 pesos. No other seed is useful, because they bring the ants."
Antonio explains other issues with the land, such as the misticuil worm that eats the roots of the seed; poison is needed, but they don’t have any: "If we make a request to the government to buy tools, fertilizer and poison, it doesn’t even respond to us. We rent the pump from the neighbours, who also loan us hoses. If we had what we need, we wouldn’t go around protesting. But neither can we let the harvest be lost."
The corn will be ready in three months, but meanwhile the survival of the Normal School students is threatened by lack of resources, Antonio adds: "What are we going to do? We wait. And in another three months we are going to eat? Right now, townspeople are supporting us by bringing us supplies. Families, activists, people who want to support us, but they eat along with us students. How do we do it? The government says that we are dedicated to drug trafficking. Such lies give us courage. Let them come. Let them take a tour around the school so they can see how it is. If it were so, we would have everything we need. But we have nothing."
The pens are almost empty. Hens cluck looking for food. The few eggs are eagerly awaited. Enrique Fuentes, 21, is in charge of the hen house and pigsty: "It’s been one month eating soup and beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner. An occasional chicken isn’t bad. The trouble is that now we are going to have none left. We go around grabbing a few. If we continue like this, it will end all we have."
A horse and a donkey roam among the classrooms looking for grass. There are many murals on the walls of the school buildings. There is a large mural of Che Guevara: "I will return, and I will be millions …" The Normal School is exclusively for men. It is a boarding school where students receive a scholarship for furthering his studies plus three meals a day.
In the kitchen, half a dozen young people are serving breakfast. The menu lacks variety. Beans, a staple of the Mexican diet, are the star of the menu. They are never missing. The flavour of meat is a distant memory. There are no cooks. The hundred workers from the Normal School called a work stoppage a few days ago for non-payment of wages.
This morning, it’s devilled sausage, black beans, toast, coffee and atole [traditional corn soup]. The spacious dining room has a mural with images of Stalin, Marx and Engels:
"Today’s philosophers have done nothing more than interpret the world in different ways, but transforming it is what it’s all about."
Oliver Vargas, 24, in his fourth year, is in charge of the kitchen. He has gone several days without sleep: "Since they disappeared our companions, we are here all the time, doing our best. Social organizations arrive at two and three o’clock in the morning, and we have to wait up for them. This dining room is open 24 hours. First-year students help us serve."
The kitchen is the centre of miracles, since when there is no food Oliver finds a creative way to fight hunger. Effects of the poor nutrition are visible. The majority of students are skinny, some very emaciated, malnourished: "When there isn’t enough food, we look for a way. If we have bread, we make sandwiches of whatever is around."
In the cupboard, there are bags of recently donated groceries. The call for solidarity has resulted in food shipments, but without any order. Today for example, the cooks are happy because some students went fishing in the closest river. Some dream of fried fish. Two hours they return empty-handed. Oliver says: "No matter, we’ll make rice and beans."
An enthusiast, despite the frustrated craving for fried fish, Oliver comments, while serving Normal School students from other schools in the country: "Graduates of the Normal School collect provisions and do their best so we aren’t lacking anything."
The first-year students also plant radishes, cabbage and cilantro for internal consumption, although the supply is now exhausted. All students are assigned tasks in the administration and support of the school. The difficulties for surviving are ongoing. The federal government’s strategy aims to start closing the Rural Normal Schools. Seventeen remain. Of the 140 who graduated last year, only eleven obtained teaching positions.
Walking the hallways and classrooms of the Normal School is to enter a world of extreme poverty. The makeshift clotheslines are covered with clean laundry. The old classrooms, without maintenance, barely have a little blackboard and some student desks. The gardens are neglected. The dormitories lack everything.
The hubbub of the daily student rhythm has been altered by a deathly silence [that permeates] into every corner. In the laundry Joel Castro, second-year, a native of Tixtla, is washing his sneakers and pair of pants. With sadness, he recalls: "Here I was always relaxed, laughing. That ended. Now we live in complete silence. There is no more fun. I escaped. They got me off the bus that night because there wasn’t room for everyone."
It is midday. On the basketball courts, comida [day's main meal] is being served. The meal was brought by "the aunties," neighbours from Tixtla who come in solidarity offering support. Large cooking pots contain sardines with tomatoes, beans and Jamaica water [cold tea prepared from dried hibiscus flowers].
Opposite the classrooms, Florencio Sandoval, 25, paints a portrait of Abel García Hernández, one of the 43 disappeared students. The project is open to any artist who is willing to capture images of the students: "This is a cause. This isn’t just the face of a disappeared. It is to show the impact this event has had on art and society. It isn’t an ordinary portrait, as when you represent a person. In this case, I’m painting one who is absent, someone disappeared. I don’t know where he is. He is a boy. He is 17 years old and very young looking. It pains me to paint him."
A few steps away is the House of the Activist of December 12, , in honour of their comrades killed on the Highway of the Sun. The building is painted red, with images of Stalin, Lucio Cabañas and Che Guevara. At the bottom, a legend makes clear the social consciousness of this Rural Normal School: "We do not bury our fallen comrades. We sow them so freedom might flourish."
Translated by Jane Brundage