Unitierra, as an autonomous learning movement and as an experiment of higher education, has helped to spark other Unitierras in the Americas – in Puebla (a city in Mexico), in San Cristobal de la Casas in Chiapas and most recently, in California, in the United States. We decided to take the opportunity of arranging a short visit to CIDECI-Unitierra (Centro Indigena de Capacitacion Integral – roughly translated as ‘An Indigenous Centre for Integral Learning’) in San Cristobal de la Casas and learn more about what they were doing as connected and separate from the Unitierra in Oaxaca within which, we had just spent 12 inspiring days (see the previous 8 posts that are related to Unitierra-Oaxaca).
Buses from Oaxaca to Chiapas go only at night. The journey lasts for an intense 11 hours of very windy roads. Udi and I were both unable to do any reading or even much concentrating after only 30 minutes into the journey as all roads out of the valley of Oaxaca City become so immediately tortuous.
We had contacted Raymundo Sanchez Barraza, the primary organiser of CIDECI-Unitierra, in San Cristobal, Chiapas, with the help of Gustavo Esteva in Oaxaca. Raymundo had invited us to visit with him the morning we arrived.
The locale of San Cristobal de la Casas is in the centre of the state of Chiapas (a few hours west of Guatemala), nestled between green hills and mountains. Its small size (less than half the population of Oaxaca) was a refreshing greeting, especially after the re-circulated air on the crowded bus and the nausea that had permeated most of the waking hours in response to the continuous bends in the road. The air was chilly, a layer of fog covering many of the surrounding mountains. We went immediately to a hostel I had booked online to drop our luggage and go to explore the city for a couple of hours before making our way to CIDECI-Unitierra.
The city of San Cristobal de la Casas is beautiful, colourful colonial-style buildings and centred around the main plaza, or Zocalo. This was the Zocalo that the Zapatistas occupied on January 1st, 1994, when they let their presence be known to the world. At 7.30am many people, particularly indigenous Tzotzil women wearing traditional goat-hair skirts, were carrying handmade items such as blankets, scarves and shirts and settling themselves in different corners of the square to sell their crafts. We located a restaurant that was open and serving breakfast which overlooked the zocalo.
After an hour or so we hailed a taxi and gave the address that we had been given to us by Raymundo. The taxi wove its way through the city, past more outdoor markets, churches and streets lined with houses and shops about to open. We left the boundaries of the city and turned into a newer section within which the road became increasingly bumpy and only somewhat paved. At the edge of the housing, there was a steep hill on our right that was fenced in with rows of food being cultivated – maize, beans and squash (as part of a milpa) were immediately recognisable alongside other fruit trees and leaves of lettuce. Another couple of minutes and we came to an opening gate that painted bright colours of red, yellow and green. Udi spoke with a young boy who seemed to be helping through the gate and we were ushered through. A colourful mural painted on the side of a building greeted us with a message – Resistancia y Autonomia CIDECI Unitierra (Resistance and Autonomy CIDECI Unitierra) – see photo at the top of the page.
In front of us were many buildings, all painted in bright colours and many with murals decorating their sides. I was immediately quite curious and wanted to explore on my own, but decided it was more appropriate to wait until we met with Raymundo.
After asking several people where we could find Raymundo, we walked on a small trail past several buildings, a small pond with ducks wandering about and into a forested area of evergreen trees. A house on the left had a round table outside with stools that looked like tree stumps. The entire scene was decorated with brightly coloured paintings of flowers, shells, snails… on the walls, the table, stools, fencing… We timidly entered the house calling for Raymundo who emerged a few minutes later and asked us to wait outside.
Whilst waiting, I tried to take in the scene around me. The colours and designs, the gently swaying evergreen trees in the light breeze, were a feast for the senses and I had to hold myself back from immediately capturing it all on film.
Raymundo called us in and we entered into another space filled with beauty – plants, objects, blankets, tables, books… Udi and Raymundo talked in Spanish and I sat patiently trying to comprehend as much as I could. There was little space for translation and I hoped that Udi could remember much of what was spoken about…
(Udi explained later…) Raymundo spoke about the trajectory of CIDECI, the influence of the local Bishop from Chiapas Samuel Ruiz and of liberation theology in the beginnings of a cultural and educational initiative with local communities back in the 1980s. He also narrated other influences in the development of CIDECI in its present form, Unitierra and Gustavo Esteva, ecologist and activist Vandana Shiva amongst many others (Ivan Illich, Immanuel Wallerstein, etc.). Later in our visit, as we were guided through the campus by a former student who now works there, we saw various rooms named after a number of these influences which have shaped the thinking and approach of CIDECI (see photos).
In its current form CIDECI occupies an area of approximately 20 hectares of land sloping up from a developing neighborhood at the edge of the city of San Cristobal.
With our guide we walked through a number of large and amazingly resourced rooms: mechanics, sewing, architecture or shoemaking workshops, printing or weaving workshops, a music building with rooms divided according to types of instruments, a beautiful library and seminar rooms build out of adobe and decorated with paintings and plants and murals, everywhere murals. We also saw a large seminar room that could accommodate several hundred people and a chapel were students attend a daily service.
We also visited the bakery, the farm where chickens and rabbits where raised kept and the milpa which made the whole learning community almost self-sufficient. We noticed in particular a version of a bicycle used to grind corn as it is pedaled.
The students come from indigenous communities throughout Chiapas, many of these communities caracoles controlled by the Zapatistas and many with first languages other than Spanish. They come here to stay for a few months or several years before going back to their villages and taking the responsibility to teach or practice the learning they experience here and the skills they acquire. Many ex-students have taken the role of teachers on the various courses they offer which range from the various technical skills mentioned above (mechanics, weaving, shoe-making, electronics, carpentry, hairdressing) to courses around health and nutrition, to those around cultivating food (within a milpa) or raising animals. Alongside these subjects there are also regular weekly and monthly seminars which also bring together others from outside CIDECI.
We were invited by Raymundo to join one of these seminars on Saturday discussing the work of John Holloway, an Irish academic who left the academic scene in the UK and moved to Mexico where his work How to Change the World Without Taking Power has become influential amongst activists, here and elsewhere.
The seminar was attended by a diverse group of about 25 or so local academics, students, activists and NGO workers. The seminar meets regularly and many here already knew each other and were familiar with each others’ perspectives. The book for discussion was Holloway’s Agrietar el Capitalismo, el hacer contra el trabajo (Crack Capitalism, Reflections on a Revolution). During the seminar, we sat in the Immanuel Wallerstein room around a large decorately carved (and painted) wooden table. After a couple of hours, there was a break and everyone went outside to share coffee and baked goods (from the bakery on site) along with at least 30 or so students, many of which were indigenous women. There were children also playing which made the atmosphere that much more relaxed and warm.
Some days later when we visited Oventic, the Zapatista village some hours drive from San Cristobal, we were told by a friendly shop-owner that most of the young people from the area went to CIDECI-Unitierra after they graduated from the local Zapatista-run secondary school. Here, as in CIDECI, those who teach there are not paid professional teachers but are people from the communities who want to share their learning with others and, in the case of CIDECI, receive a small sum for travel and keep.
We wished that we had had more time to spend at CIDECI, getting to know the people learning, living and/or working there. We found the place a beautiful and creative space to in which to learn and live in a community that is, like Unitierra in Oaxaca, engaging deeply with issues of self-sufficiency, autonomy, ecology and sustainability.