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Visiting another Unitierra – in San Cristobal, Chiapas

Visiting another Unitierra – in San Cristobal, Chiapas

Posted by on Jan 16, 2013 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 2 comments

San Cristobal, CIDECI, generator, photo by Udi

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.

Map of Chiapas and Guatemala, discovered in San Cristobal outside of a shop, photo by Kelly

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.

Buildings of San Cristobal, Chiapas, from a shop. The bottom postcard is of Comandante Ramona, a revered female Zapatista leader who died from kidney disease 6 years ago. Photo taken by Udi

Tzotzil women in the San Cristobal Zócalo, photo by Udi

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.

Mural at CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

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.

Painted table and chairs, CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

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.

Painted tables and chairs at CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

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).

San Cristobal, CIDECI, photo by Kelly

San Cristobal, CIDECI, dining room, photo by Kelly

San Cristobal, CIDECI, Illich sign, photo by Kelly

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.

View from a high point of CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

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.

Adobe wall outside seminar room and painted chairs, CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

San Cristobal, CIDECI, sewing room, photo by Kelly

San Cristobal, CIDECI, weaving room, photo by Kelly

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.

Rabbits at CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Bicycle corn grinder, CIDECI-Unitiera, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

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.

San Cristobal, CIDECI, courtyard, photo by Kelly

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.

San Cristobal, CIDECI, library, photo by Kelly

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.

San Cristobal, CIDECI, bishop mural, photo by Kelly

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Burning the totems, residential schools and an art resurgence

Burning the totems, residential schools and an art resurgence

Posted by on Nov 16, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art | 0 comments

Tlingit sculpture of a missionary, Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria (photo by Udi)

 

A number of the oppressive acts against First Nations committed by the settlers and the Canadian state we learned about in Alberta were also perpetrated in British Columbia. The same pattern of the spread of diseases, the appropriation of land, the extraction of resources, the destruction of culture through missionary zeal, the prohibition of ceremonies and the removal of children to residential schools were also part of the stories we were told here. Just as the bundles were targeted by missionaries in Alberta, in B.C. it was the totem poles which were taken to be the most visible expression of local beliefs and ceremonies. These were either burnt or bought, at times under dubious circumstances, finding their way to museum collections across the world.

 

In time few master carvers and artists, with skills that had been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, remained. For several generations no poles or masks were carved in many of these communities. It was not until after the Second World War and the period of gradual removal of the oppressive laws against First Nations peoples that a group of artists started to re-learn the art, piecing fragments together from surviving artists and learning from the old pieces that were scattered across collections throughout the world. Pioneers such as Bill Reid, Freda Diesing her student Dempsey Bob and others, provoked a resurgence in northwest coast art. Whereas today a number of professional and world renowned artists from this region ensure the place of this art form in the public imagination and in the international art market, the Freda Diesing school is the only one in the country that provides training for a new generation of artists.

Burnt mask, Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria (photo by Udi)

 

As Dempsey and other instructors we talked to put it, it is hard to be an artists and develop these skills by yourself. The school provides an environment where this development is nourished and supported by a community of other artists, instructors and fellow students.

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Residential schooling

Residential schooling

Posted by on Nov 6, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 1 comment

This is a difficult blog entry to write as neither of us has had the experience of this kind of schooling and the forms of cultural oppression it brings, but also because it is always challenging to faithfully give an account of experiences and stories one is told. However, given that  so many people spoke about residential schools to us not only here in Alberta with the Blackfoot but throughout our journey across Canada we felt that we had to write about this. Residential schooling is an underground current, and for most a poisoning one, that has permeated the formative experiences of many First Nations peoples not only in Canada but in many other settler societies where the government had a policy of assimilation.

St. Mary’s Residential School Dormitory – photo from Glenbow Museum Archives

As we heard from a number of people we talked to, residential schools perpetrated a still present trauma in First Nations communities as children were forcibly removed from their families and schooled into the ways of thinking, believing, of being and relating of the White settlers. The schools where run by different Christian denominations and the Blackfoot language was forbidden. During the same period the government prohibited the Blackfoot from practicing their ceremonies, dances and from leaving the reserve without permission.

 

The first residential schools were opened in the 1840s with the last one closing its doors in 1996. At school, children had to cut their hair, speak only in English and learn a history which was not their own. At the same time they were made to feel that the ways of their grandparents were inferior to those of the settlers. They were also required to pray and learn the teachings of the bible. The government and the church have only recently offered a public apology for these policies and associated abuses and we were surprised to find ‘truth and reconciliation’ commissions for residential schools when we arrived in Canada. Also through our stay a number of stories in the press addressed grievances against former teachers of some of these schools who were accused of abusing the children.

 

We heard many stories of the adverse effects of the loss of family, culture, community and of a way of life with its complex mesh of social, ecological, spiritual and economic practices for those who attended residential schools. The loss of orientation in the world which the destruction of this mesh was attributed to the hardship encountered in First Nations communities; alcoholism, violence and abuse, suicide, loss of confidence and so on. A key part of this, as we heard, revolved around a crisis of identity, of having one’s culture destroyed and delegitimised, of being in a limbo state of not really knowing who you are.

Education panel from Blackfoot exhibition at the Glenbow musuem, Calgary.

 

At the same time we also learnt of how much effort is being placed on healing and cultural rejuvenation amongst First Nations communities around the impact of these policies on individuals, families and communities. What has occurred since the 1960s is a reawakening of First Nations spirituality, ceremonies and societies, of art and education.  Alongside this cultural re-invigoration a stronger assertion surrounding land and treaty disputes with the Canadian government has also been seen (see our entry on the Nisga’a from Northern British Columbia).

Community Colleges Panel, Blackfoot Exhibition, Glenbow museum, Calgary.

Red Crow Community College is part of this wave of cultural reawakening as First Nations groups seek to gain more control over their own education. Kainai Studies, as far as we understand, is the first and most successful initiative at a post-secondary school level which is reconnecting with the Blackfoot way of being, knowing and doing which was deliberately destroyed through residential schooling. That Red Crow college is housed in what used to be St. Mary’s residential school makes their victory all the more palpable.

St Mary’s Residential School, Blood Reserve, photo from Royal Alberta museum exhibition, Edmonton

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