We’ve been in the Universidad de la Tierra, better known as Unitierra, for a couple of hours. It’s our first visit. We walked 10 minutes from the homestay we are staying in to arrive there. We waited in the front room for 30 minutes or so before Gustavo arrived for our first face-to-face conversation with him. During these 30 minutes, we explored the books and banners on display in the front room and spoke with one of the learners at Unitierra in the front side room.
Upon entering Unitierra, there is a table with tee-shirts saying ‘Todo para Todos’ (Everything for Everyone) and a variety of books for sale, mainly in Spanish that engage with topics relevant to the principles and practices of Unitierra. I notice one book that has been published in English and wonder about the connection between Unitierra (especially Gustavo) and the Zapatistas — Beyond Resistance: Everything (An interview with Subcomandante Marcos).
There is also a beautiful hand-woven banner on the wall with the Unitierra logo. I notice a portrait of the famous revolutionary Emiliano Zapato and a Zapatista poster which reads ya se mira el horizonte orto Mexico nace abajo y ala izquierda (You can see the horizon: another Mexico comes down and left).
We wander into the adjoining room, exploring the books housed on a large book shelf against one wall and begin talking to Edi (short for Edgardo), a current learner-collaborator (the term ‘student’ is not really used in Unitierra) who came to spend time with Unitierra after he accidentally discovered it during his Sociology course at a Oaxacan University when he had to do go out and ‘do service work’. His ‘service’ work became much more reciprocal as he shifted to learn with and from Unitierra rather than providing some sort of ‘service’ to them. In this room, some book titles stand out that immediately catches my eye: Mexico Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization; Oaxaca Rebellion; The ABCs of dry compostable toilets; Women Writing Resistance; The complete works of Ivan Illich. I have just come across the term ‘Mexico Profundo’ a couple of days before in another (quite wonderful) book I found called The New World of Indigenous Resistance in an English bookstore in the center of Oaxaca, very near to the Santo Domingo. I wonder how all of these different books (amongst the hundreds of others) relate to what Unitierra is as a community, who is connected to Unitierra, what Unitierra has done in the past and what is currently occurring in the present.
From both front rooms there is a clear view of the large meeting room that can fit at least 40 people comfortably. The room is warm, with many plants, posters and the walls warmly coloured. Trees are growing literally through the roof in the back of the room. There is sunlight filtering through the bamboo ceiling as well.
I am feeing really excited about being in Oaxaca, particularly here in the Unitierra building. I had a similar feeling when visiting Shikshantar the first time, in Udaipur, India and meeting Manish Jain – and also when Udi and I visited Red Crow and met Narcisse Blood and Cynthia Chambers. Before visiting Red Crow, Shikshantar and now Unitierra, I had imagined many times what these places were like. I had read about them, watched films about them (the few that I could find online). I had incorporated these places into talks, discussions and images used in my teaching in Bath – in several of the classes I taught. I had also spoken about them at a major international conference all-the-while feeling a strong awkwardness about my inability to be embedded in these places and speaking about them in an abstracted sense. Yet, I had spoken many times about these places anyway, with passion for their importance in the world. The responses tended to be the same – a mix of enthusiasm and skepticism. Students often were very intrigued and I heard several times comments about their imaginations being inspired. Colleagues at the international conference I spoke at were enthusiastic to learn more, but a few also patronized these places as ‘adult literacy projects’ or a ‘guru cult’ (my personal favorite). I’ve replied to these sorts of patronizing statements with — ‘Well okay… maybe we need to pull back and critically consider — ‘What is a university – and who says?’ ‘What should a university be for (and who should it be for) in our current world?’ ‘What other ways can we imagine and create a university – or any context of so-called higher education?’
Switching back to my presence in these first few minutes at Unitierra, I consider all of the various things I’d like to talk with Gustavo about and I wonder what this initial conversation will be like. I’ve been inspired by Gustavo Esteva’s ideas, his writing and his influence on friends of mine for a long time, well over a decade. From the moment I entered into the ‘critical education’ and ‘post-development’ world that strongly critiques ideas and practices of progress, modernity and formal education – thanks to Ana Maria Duque-Artistizabal, a fellow post-graduate student I was blessed to meet at King’s College London – I saw Gustavo Esteva’s name (the first publication of his I encountered was his chapter ‘Development’ in The Development Dictionary where he critically deconstructs the term ‘development’ and outlines historically the moment the ‘idea’ came into being through Truman’s post-WWII speech identifying the majority of the world as ‘underdevelopment’ and in need of help and progress, modernity). And 12 years later, here I am, a different decade and phase of my life – learning, travelling, visiting – finally able to embed myself in this actual place. What has inspired me the most about Gustavo, is hearing of his commitment to practice –and the way he lives his life that is in complete accordance to his beliefs and values.
Gustavo walks in – slightly flustered – a bit later than planned. We are all apologetic – he for being late – and us for not wanting to be in the way, especially as he is needed in so many places at the same time. He leads us into another room and we all sit down around a large table. There is another wall of books and wall with black/white photos of what I am guessing are indigenous people from Oaxaca.
My inability to speak Spanish (hopefully not a permanent disability!) and Gustavo’s fluency in English made English the language of choice. Udi and I spent some time introducing ourselves – who we are, what we’ve been doing, why we are here, what we want to do whilst in Mexico… Udi did the majority of speaking on behalf of our journey(?) project(?) pilgrimage(?) — I interjected and we both struggled to find an appropriately descriptive word. Gustavo listened intensively, patiently. And then Gustavo began to speak. But as suddenly as he began, he stood and walked us out of the room, through another room (again with walls of books) and then through a door outside.
Just outside the door, Gustavo pointed us to the bamboo-walled compostable toilet on the right of the door leading outside – and then a custom-built bicycle that pumps water up to a large water container on top of the roof.
We headed up some stairs to an urban roof garden. There are plants on either side of the path that leads to the far end of the roof. Along this wall of plants are vegetables, herbs, trees growing fruits, a small greenhouse and a large cactus. I notice that on the left side, there are the ends of trees emerging from the main meeting room on the floor below. Many of the plants are kept in up-cycled plastic containers – water bottles of various sizes, soda bottles, wooden containers.
The far end of this wonderful urban roof garden is covered with another open-roofed area and there is a table with chairs to seat at least 15 people comfortably. There are posters along one of the walls and the opposite wall has another table that houses containers of dirt, tools, smaller plants.
Unitierra began in the late 1990s – a creative response to a 1997 Congress during which there was the first public declaration of the destructive impact of education to indigenous communities – by indigenous people themselves. Gustavo refers to this destruction as ‘culture-icide’ (I am reminded of Wade Davis’s reference to ‘ethno-cide’ for similar reasons). After this public declaration and with the influence of the teachings of (and Gustavo’s friendship with) Ivan Illich, Gustavo thought to create an ‘experimental’ university-type learning context – Unitierra – as a direct response to these critiques of education. Anyone over the age of 18 was invited to join Unitierra as long as they could read and write. The doors are currently and have always been open to anyone curious to learn within the Unitierra community.
Gustavo explains that the ‘campus’ of Unitierra has become nomadic –like a spreading web. Although this is the main building for Unitierra, it is no longer the centre of the University, of Unitierra. There is greater emphasis on creating and enacting work with communities (primarily indigenous communities) outside of the centre of Oaxaca city. The campus of Unitierra was originally all in this location – learners came here to stay, to organize what they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn before going to stay and learn as apprentices with different mentors as people and/or organizations in different parts of Mexico (although primarily Oaxaca). The learning process within the walls of Unitierra involved time spent reading (texts of their choice), discussing but also reflecting on their experiences as apprentices until they felt satisfied with their learning. Some learners would change their focus area after exploring more of what they felt they were most interested in. The key issue, Gustavo explained is that they were doing what they love. Gustavo’s eyes brightened and he explained that love is the most important thing — love as a term is purposefully left out of typical academic contexts. This nurturing learning environment is devoid of any formal examinations or structural formalities on attendance or following through on any reading lists, etc. As Unitierra sees it, to nurture learning is to be free, to be autonomous – but within a context that is hospitable and nurturing toward all those involved. The conceptualizations and practices of autonomy alongside the practices and concepts of friendship and hospitality make up the pulsing heart of Unitierra within all of its creative and critical seminars, workshops and activities.
Funding has been a constant issue however, and in the early days of Unitierra when learners came to Oaxaca city to learn, discuss and create, many were unable to sustain their day-to-day living. There are no fees for learning at and being a part of the community at Unitierra. This pushed Unitierra to focus more externally, particularly with so much emphasis being on communities outside of Oaxaca city.
On this roof garden, Unitierra holds urban agricultural workshops (we are attending one on tree grafting) on a range of practices to do with food – cultivating, propagating, cooking… Unitierra is also working with many communities outside of Oaxaca city on issues pertaining to food, water, sanitation and construction (architecture). All of these workshops engage with learning how to make, cultivate, shape, design… in other words, how to do things (practice). The theoretical conversations occur routinely once per week (usually Wednesdays) although there are often other seminars on other days as well. And, importantly, there are always further discussions that critically reflect on how these theories can be put into practice.
Gustavo explained that the key priority for Unitierra is to resurrect knowledges that have been suppressed through colonialism (‘culture-icide’) processes and to create new forms of knowledge that are focused on creating autonomy (much more on autonomy in future posts…). Unitierra is linking with people that have technical expertise – but this expertise is about being self and community-reliant, up-cycling used materials and natural resources, capturing and storing water, managing sanitation. Food is an easy way to connect and there is ‘profundo’ knowledge with food that communities are sharing with Unitierra as well. Thus, there is reciprocity in learning and exchanging – fiesta and eating.
Our initial conversation with Gustavo during this first visit was fragmented, interruptions from other meetings and shortened time. However, Gustavo generously presented us with a variety of events, activities and seminars that are occurring over the next 10 days. The first of which would be later that day – an open seminar to discuss the 19th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, the adjacent state to Oaxaca – What is Zapatismo today?