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Michoacan's rural education

Amanda Villagómez

Stating what it means to be Mexican is not an easy topic to define, but the rural education system helps in forming a sense of being Mexico for many young people in Michoacán’s rural areas. The history of Mexico contains many conflicts and battles. During the years of the conquest and colonization, the people of Mexico (New Spain in those times) began to mix races, resulting in the creation of a new group – the mestizas, who had an identity conflict because they were not Spaniards, but they were not exactly like the indigenous either. In addition the descendents of Spanish ancestry had an identity crisis because they could not identify with their motherland, which they had never seen. This group, which became known as criollos, along with other people, began to resent the control of Spain and fought for their liberty. Nonetheless, after Mexico gained its independence, it still had the influence of different sides and the conflict continued.

Some say that the Mexican identity is still in conflict because of the tumultuous history, resulting in two opposing sides: that which the Spaniards brought and that which already existed when the Spanish arrived. At the same time, others say that this time of conflict has already passed, mainly as a result of the nationalism movement, which allowed Mexicans to create a clear and distinct sense of mexicanidad.

Rural schools have been an important part of Michoacán since the beginning of the rural school program. In these schools, teachers put an emphasis on the concept of nationalism so that all students have a strong sense of what it means to be Mexican. Even when students already have ideas before they enter school, in the classrooms teachers become a valuable resource for students to make them think about their identity in addition to learning about their culture. After attending school, the initial sense of mexicanidad is more concrete.

The influence of Lázaro Cárdenas del Río

Directly after the revolution there was a decline in education throughout the country because of the conflicts and insecurity of the time (Meyer 541). Regardless, in Michoacán there was a completely different situation, and a big reason for this is that the governor during the years of 1928 and 1932, Lázaro Cárdenas del Río, greatly supported education, especially when it came to rural education. During his term as governor he opened 100 new rural schools (Meyer 575).

The influence on rural education was very important because it was the center of cultural life in the 1920s and 1930s (Meyer 588). Moreover, in his essay, “El maestro y la maestra rural, mensajeros de la igualidad y la justicia social” Robeldo Santiago explained that rural education is a legitimate product of the Mexican Revolution, which served as a messenger of the Revolution, allowing social justice programs to arrive to all corners of the country (9). Thus, Cárdenas del Río used this as an avenue in which he tried to transform the goals of the Revolution into reality. In this way he started the concept that Mexico’s rural schools, which he promoted so much in Michoacán, helped to create a sense of mexicanidad in those times and continue to do so today for Michoacán’s rural students.

It is easy to see this concept through the thoughts of Cárdenas del Río regarding rural education and its function in the Mexican society. Rural schools began with the idea that with school people would learn how to be an active part of society and to create more equality among Mexicans. Cárdenas del Río said that teaching children their obligations and showing working classes the way to economic liberty were essential in passing on the concepts of the Revolution (Durán 213), and he fostered the concept that school, above all, should be a preparation for life (Durán 205).

His dream was that all Mexicans would learn what they needed to know in order for everyone to have the same opportunities, and he saw education as the means to achieve this goal, which would especially benefit the lower classes by allowing them to have access to the same resources as the higher levels of society.

Through educating everyone, Cárdenas del Río thought that rural schools created the possibility for Mexico to place itself inside of a firm economic and cultural unity (Durán 207). In a society with a great difference between social classes, Cárdenas hoped that education focusing on rural areas would help close the vast gap. At the same time, he wanted the improvements of the rural life to have a positive effect on Mexico’s economy.

With thoughts of well being for all, the concept of socialism was a focal point in the thoughts of Cárdenas del Río, and he expressed this in his thoughts about rural education; he even created socialist schools. He said that the result of educating everyone in the country would eliminate the need to worry about the destiny of the country because it would produce positive changes with the knowledge obtained through education (Durán 223). He held idealistic concepts for Mexico’s society and expressed that rural education served a great role in making changes in the society.

He wanted the people to understand the value of education, and this continued to be a major concern while he was president as well, and he once said that he desired that Mexico’s peasants would request schools (Benítez 114). With these ideas, Cárdenas del Río impacted the lives of Michoacanos through supporting rural education on a state level as governor and continuing to do so later as president, when he contributed twice as much to rural education as any other president who came before him (Meyer 581). Through Cárdenas del Río there was a lot of support for Michoacán’s rural schools from the very beginning of the program.

History of rural education

Apart from Cárdenas del Río’s support, rural education has always been an important concept in Michoacán, throughout the history of the educational program. One piece of evidence that points toward this is the fact that Mexico’s first rural schools began in 1922, and just one year later, in 1923, Tacámbaro, Michoacán became the home to the first school to prepare teachers for rural school situations (Cano and García 233). As such, rural schools have held a special place in the state of Michoacán right from the start.

Cárdenas del Río and others worked to establish a strong program in the remotest areas of Mexico. Because of the differences between rural life and urban life a lot of people saw a necessity for a different educational program customized to the needs of the rural populations. In his essay “E l maestro rural,” Rafael Ramírez explained that the main reason for creating such schools was to work toward the advancement of rural Mexicans, especially since the country is largely composed of rural areas with poor populations. He added that Mexico’s special circumstances called for a special education program (Jiménez Alarcón 20).

Cárdenas del Río was not the only one fostering socialist ideas, as many others, such as Emilio R. Vázquez, also saw this as the path to improving the lives of the poorest people in the country. In his essay “Opinión sobre lo que es la escuela rural” Vázquez said that there should be a combination of improvements in three areas: social organization, homes, and methods of life (87). This moved socialist ideas to the forefront of rural school organization, so it was not created solely to teach rural populations how to read and write, but rather to make an impact on the daily lives of the whole community and these changes would in turn positively affect the entire country.

Many also shared the common view with Cárdenas del Río that in order to improve rural life, it was best to start with the children, who would eventually construct the future rural life. Robeldo Santiago explained that children’s education was the base of towns, and schools were the social agent that should act to the communities’ immediate benefit (13). It was the desire that through children’s education a path to improvement of rural areas would appear. If they could start with children, eventually there would be generations of people in rural areas who would have gone to school, so as the years went on the program would affect rural life in a very positive manner. In addition, rural schools started with the idea that teachers would also teach the adults of the community. There are still programs like this to make it possible for adults, who for one reason or another did not attend school in their childhood, to receive education.

With this ideology in mind, rural teachers were the key to achieving the goals of the new educational program. They served a distinct role and were the messengers of the program’s concepts. Cárdenas del Río said that rural teachers were the guides for peasants and children to form an interest in improving their towns (Durán 212). The teachers knew the reason for rural education, and it was their job to work toward achieving and teaching the concepts of the program to the rural communities. Through their teachings, they could show ways in which the rural inhabitants could improve their lives through their own actions.

In order to start, rural teachers had to see the differences between their own environment and that of the areas where they taught. It was important that the teachers understood the necessities of the people and that they respected those wishes, even when the teachers were accustomed to other ways of thinking and living. Robeldo Santiago explained this responsibility saying that one of the first things rural teachers should do was study the community in order to understand the area where they would work, geographically, historically, politically, economically, and socially (15).

It was very important that the teachers took into account that a pattern of daily life already existed, and it was necessary to respect that which already existed in order to improve the community in the most beneficial way possible. In his essay “Que es la escuela rural,” Salvador Gutiérrez said that rural schools were an institution responsible for presenting peasants with the best way to live given their own environment, given that the best life for peasants was producing and cultivating land (69). It was necessary for teachers to not only think about what had worked in other communities, but also in other options in order to discover the best way in the unique areas where they taught.

The current situaltion of Michoacán's rural education

Today rural schools still consist of the same concepts as the initial schools, but there are new, technologically advanced resources to help obtain the goals, including the substructure telesecundaria, which is very common in Michoacán’s rural areas. It is a service that utilizes social communication resources in order to promote individual development as well as that of the community (Tinoco Farfán 156). As a test, the program started was 20 years ago in Mexico City, and it later moved to other regions of the country, especially in the most remote areas (Arreoloa Zarco). With this program students, even in the most isolated zones, have the same opportunity to receive an education.

In addition to the telesecundaria program, Michoacán’s state law of education of 1998 says that primaria and secundaria educations are obligatory for everyone in the state (Tinoco Rubí 270). In the United States elementary school is the equivalent of primaria, while completing the ninth grade is the same as finishing secundaria. Even with telesecundaria, which aims to extend education to all places in the country, and the state law, which makes education mandatory, there are still problems in assuring that everyone in Michoacán receives an education. Gilberto Morelos Cisneros, coordinator of the governor’s advisors, explained that Michoacán occupies one of the last places in the country with respect to education. Of the 32 states, Michoacán is 30th.

There are many reasons for the problems in education of the state, many which are not specific to Michoacán. Firstly, there are schools that do not promote a productive environment for learning – there are schools without roofs, without books, and with dirt floors. In addition the students are sick and because of a combination of factors, they cannot focus on the teacher’s lessons (Morelos Cisneros). A man who is now learning English recently said that growing up in Guanajuato he could never concentrate on his classes because he was constantly thinking about how hungry he was. In contrast, now that this need is met, in his adulthood he is now able to focus on learning.

A handbook for teachers put out by Michoacán’s Secretary of Education explains that every parent or guardian has to insure that their children receive an education (Tinoco Rubí 270). José Félix Arreola Zarco, a Michoacán rural teacher, explained that this is a major component to the problem because parents argue many different reasons for not demanding that their children attend school. Typical reasons that parents give are: 1) they do not have the economic resources, 2) there is no reason to study, and 3) children have a superior authority than their parents. He further explained these responses saying that in some situations it is necessary for the boys to work with their fathers, while in others the child says that he or she does not want to go to school, so the parent simply says, “Okay, then do not go.” Nonetheless, at this time in his or her life the child does not understand very well the reason for attending school. Also, some students go to the United States instead of finishing school because they create an unrealistic image of what they can find there (Arreola Zarco).

In the book With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today, Rocío Arriola from Dos Estrellas, Michoacán said, “The men only study up until sixth grade. They don’t go to high school. ‘Why study,’ they say, ‘when you can go to the United States, earn money, come back with a car, and build a house?’” (Rothenberg 317). She also said, “tTey come back from the United States in cars and trucks, with elegant clothes, nice jeans, and silk shirts,” (Rothenberg 318). The students see the changes, and it influences their actions.

A main reason that students want to go to the United States is to support their families. Jorge Urroz explained his poverty and then said, “Because of my childhood, I always wanted to go to the United States. I thought about it all the time. It was my dream to go north to work and then return home with clothes for my mother and all my brothers and sisters,” (Rothenberg 122). He left school at eight years of age to begin working and then went to the United States for the first time when he was fourteen. With his first trip, he began a cycle of going and returning. He explained, “I returned home with dollars. I took my mother to a doctor. I bought food for my brothers and sisters. I also bought a small piece of land, just enough for a house. I was fifteen years old. When I was sixteen, I went back to the United States to work,” (126). The image of the people coming and going between Mexico and the United States helps form an idea in the minds of the youth. The different ideas and thoughts in regards to education contribute to the problems of Michoacán’s rural education.

In addition, even if students do complete secundaria, many of them are left without the option to further their education unless they go to a larger city. For example, the rural areas surrounding Morelia, the capital, often need to move there to continue. For most, if their parents did not see the need for education in the first place, they will not find it necessary for their children to go away to continue on, especially when the family has financial struggles and think that their children would better serve the family by helping out around the house or going to work. Without the support to go away to a larger city at a young age, it is hard to make this step.

If the students are unable to move on in their education, then there are not many opportunities to advance in their rural areas, so the lure of the United States once again pulls, and instead of finishing high scool, many students leave to work, especially when there are family or friends offering to accompany them. In both situations, going to the United States and going away to school, the students need to step out of the comfort zone of their ranches, but with the groups going to the United States, they find the support they did not when they wanted to continue high school.

Lázaro Cárdenas Batel (Lázaro Cárdenas del Río’s grandson) is the current governor of Michoacán, who recently began his term. With the slogan “U nidos Michoacán un gobierno para todos” (United Michoacán, one government for everyone), Cárdenas Batel is creating his own plan for education. Morelos Cisneros said that Cárdenas Batel is preparing a strategic plan to achieve his dream, to make the dream of the Michoacanos a reality. Cárdenas Batel expresses the same thoughts as his grandfather with respect to the importance of education.

The government’s official website explains the new program as fostering the idea that a country or a state without adequate education limits its future and the possibility of development. In addition it says that the program aims for a dignified education for everyone (Gobierno del estado de Michoacán). Morelos Cisneros explained that Cárdenas Batel has a compromise with Michoacán’s towns so that there are not any more illiterate Michoacanos, that all children have clothing, food, housing, and that they finish elementary school. Cárdenas Batel is still in the beginning of his six years as governor, and he has time to make positive changes in the current situation of Michoacán’s rural education.

Identity in the schools

Teaching culture in school settings is still a goal. In his essay, “ El sitio del maestro en México,” Alejandro Miguel said that schools are, in the first place, institutions of cultural character (12). This is true for Michoacán as well, and Michoacán’s Secretary of Education said that emphasizing cultural components helps reaffirm regional and national identity, which in turn builds unity in Michoacán (Gobierno del estado de Michoacán). With cultural teachings, students form a better sense of what it means to be Mexican. Through nationalism Mexicans from all classes unite for the love of Mexico, love of the flag. They find their origin and their identity (Morelos Cisneros).

In rural schools students have the opportunity to learn a variety of components of the Mexican identity. The state law says through education every right of human beings will develop harmoniously, and it will foster a love for the country. It also promotes to Michoacanos their social, civic, and economic responsibilities, as well as a respect for nature. In addition, it will create a knowledge of geography, history, culture of the state, traditions, languages, and beliefs of indigenous cultures (Tinoco Rubí 269). In this way students can learn about Michoacán’s role in the history of the country and the forming of a national identity. Through a variety of subjects and activities Michoacán’s students can form an identity as a Michoacano and as a Mexican.

One aspect of the formation of a sense of mexicanidad is that students learn about Mexico’s patriotic symbols: the flag, the coat of arms, and the national anthem, which are all points of pride for Mexicans. In school students learn the significance of each symbol, and then the students have a higher level of understanding and respect for them (Arreola Zarco).

In addition, there is a subject that addresses civic and ethical formation, which talks about what it means to be Mexican, especially with respect to rights and obligations. These teachings are another way in which rural teachers create a sense of pride in their students because they learn about how their ancestors had to fight for independence in order to have their own identity.

The role of teaching about these aspects is important because it has an impact on the Mexican society. In his essay “Los maestros y el país,” Carlos Ramírez said that teachers form the awareness of Mexicans in their classrooms (23). Teachers have a high influence in building a Mexican identity because their students come to school at a time in their life when they are very impressionable. Aguilar Camin said that if someone was our teacher once, he or she continues to be our teacher for the rest of our lives because nothing is as memorable as the beginning of something or entering for the first time into a world that we have not yet seen (38). Because teachers are so memorable, they hold a very important role, and they impact their students’ lives in a big way.

Portrait of a rural school in Michoacán

José Félix Arreola Zarco has been a teacher for 15 years in different rural schools throughout Michoacán. Currently he is teaching at Las Cruces de Barreras, a community that utilizes the telesecundaria system. For each subject the students see educational programs on the television and then they read, do exercises, and discuss. With the discussions, the students have the opportunity to ask the teacher about any doubts they may have from what they saw on TV, and they can express their opinions.

Arreola Zarco explained that the school in Las Cruces began like every other rural school, with nothing. Then little by little they built the school. Now there are three classrooms, a laboratory, a workshop, and a multiple-use facility for sports. There are three teachers, each one teaching a particular level of students.

A typical situation in Las Cruces de Barreras is that 50 students start the first year of elementary school. Later 35 students finish, and 25 start the first year of middle school. In the end, 10 to 15 students finish the ninth grade (Arreola Zarco). The reasons why all the students in this school do not finish elementary school or the ninth grade, or that some do not even start, are the same reasons as the other schools in the state.

For the students that attend the school, there are a lot of activities that teachers utilize to create a sense of mexicanidad. Just like the other schools, the teachers at Las Cruces de Barreras teach the subject of civic and ethical formation. They also celebrate holidays and different Mexican traditions. In such days, they do different activities. For example, on September 17 they celebrate Mexico’s Independence Day. On this day there is a parade, and they do a representation of the period and the main people of the Independence. This gives them the opportunity to not only have pride in Mexico, but also for their state, since one of the main players in the Independence was José María Morelos, for whom the capital of Michoacán is named.

Now it is easier to travel between the rural areas and the urban areas because of the improvements of the street and highway system, so the students have more contact with the other parts of the region. Before they had to ride donkeys or horses, and it took a lot of time, but now they can go quicker to places such as Morelia, where there are many cultural attractions (Arreola Zarco). When the students have access to Morelia’s historical center, they can see such things as murals that represent the history and the ideology of Mexico. For example, in the Palacio de Gobierno there are murales by Alfredo Zalce, which contain three different sections: one teaches the history of Mexico, another represents the history of Michoacán, and the other shows the different areas of the state. The objective of seeing and becoming familiar with these murals and others is for students to see different components that represent elements of their national identity (Tinoco Farfán 189). Because students obtain a sense of mexicanidad through the ideas of nationalism, the historical center helps them to reinforce their identity.

Celebrating holidays and learning the history of Mexico are aspects that are not specific to rural schools, but rather activities that are common in all of Mexico’s schools. Nonetheless, there are other components to rural schools that are especially for rural situations. The difference between rural schools and their urban counterparts is that rural schools have fewer teachers and fewer students.

Arreola Zarco explained that sometimes when rural students go to Mexico’s urban areas, they feel different, and they do not think that the people who live in urban areas are Mexicans because of the differences. They see a lot of aspects that contrast with their communities, and they do not understand why the urban people have more things than they do. In addition, they also think that they will never have the same. Students who do not attend school are left with these questions, and they cannot think of a reason for these differences. On the other hand, rural schools provide an opportunity to understand why there are variations and that the two groups (those from rural areas and those from urban areas) are both Mexicans. The teachers explain the constitution of Mexico in order to show this point. Arreola Zarco said that many people in rural areas are not familiar the constitution unless they attend school.

Another component that is more common in rural areas is that more people are coming and going from the United States in order to work. Through this movement, students see the influence of another culture and another form of living, and they also hear various situations that the people who return tell – some say that it is better in Mexico, while others say they are more comfortable in the United States. Some people also demonstrate differences through what they bring from the United States, such as tattoos, earrings, different clothing, and cars.

The teachers at Las Cruces de Barreras explain why people change, and they suggest that students ask the people who return from the United State why they decided to change some aspects in their life. This provides a form to prevent students from imitating what they are seeing without understanding why, and teachers can clarify doubts that students have. This situation makes students think about situations instead of just seeing them and accepting them. Through questioning and challenging, students have a stronger sense of their own identity because it is something that they have created, instead of just mimicking what they have learned or what they have seen.

Another similar influence comes from the television, in which many students see aspects that they are not accustomed to seeing in their daily life in rural areas. It is easy to once again imitate without thinking about the reasoning, especially in the impressionable age of the students. Without school, it is very possible that no one will discuss the differences and reasons, so once again it is common to mimic. Arreola Zarco said that in a lot of ways the television can cause harm, rather than help in certain contexts. However, when students go to school they can make more responsible decisions because they are going to understand the reasons and then they can decide on their own if they want to change a certain aspect of their life or if they would rather remain the same.

For Arreola Zarco, being Mexico means that one feels committed to Mexico, to his or her fellow Mexicans and that one helps care for all of Mexico’s natural resources. In class when students have questions, he can explain what it means to be Mexican with his own feelings. If he gives an abstract answer or what he says does not make sense to the students, they can ask why he thinks that way. Through the questions, students do not have to just accept what he is teaching, but rather they can understand better with the reasoning for his beliefs. Later students can think about their own thoughts, the feelings of their teacher and what they have seen through telesecundaria. Then they can decide for themselves what it means to be Mexican. In this way, each student has a solid foundation of his or her own identity.

One student attending the secundaria at Las Cruces belongs to a family in which the males frequently come and go between the United States and Mexico. When asked if people change in the sense of being Mexican after having experienced the influence of the United States, she confidently said that they change, but they stay the same as far as what it means to them to be Mexican. For this student, the influence of the United States has not changed her sense of mexicanidad and pride in being Mexican.

Since its beginning in 1922, the system of rural education has changed the lives of the rural population. The goal of the schools is to improve the lives of the people living in the most isolated areas of the country. Through rural schools, Michoacanos can learn more effectively what it means to be Mexicans with respect to different aspects of life. The students learn about history, holidays, the constitution, and their obligations as Mexican citizens. Students also learn why there are differences between their lives and the lives of Mexicans living in other areas of the state and why there are differences between the United States and Mexico. Then, when there are influences in the students’ lives, they know who they are, and they can think more effectively instead of changing something through imitation without reason. Rural schools help to build understanding of the Mexican identity and a sense of pride in their country.

The challenge is that community members understand the importance and value of education, so that as Cárdenas del Río wished, peasants will request schools, or in the current context, parents will see the importance of scooling and encourage and support their children to go to school. However, the solution is not as easy as this. Many parents support their children, but they cannot change their poverty situation, and some students decide without parents' consent that the only option is to work in order to help out the family because of their sense of obligation.

Cárdenas Batel is starting his term with the goal that everyone receives primaria education. If he, alongside the Michoacanos, can persuade a solid number of students to complete the first stage, then it will boost the number of students entering the secundaria. Eventually there will be a base of support for the students who then want to continue with high school and college and, little by little, the theme of education will be achieved. With rural school programs, each generation will more deeply understand and maintain their feeling of mexicanidad and pride in being Mexicans.

* As many sources and quotes obtained through interviews were in Spanish, I changed them to indirect quotes when translating to English, keeping the essence of the quotes.

Works cited

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Arreola Zarco, José Félix. Personal Interview. May 15, 2002.

Benítez, Fernando. Lázaro Cárdenas y la Revolución Mexicana – III. El Cardenismo. Fondo de Cultura Económica: Mexico City, 1977.

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Durán, Leonel. Lázaro Cárdenas ideario político. Ediciones Era: Mexico City, 1972.

Gobierno del estado de Michoacán. Home Page. May 23, 2002 (access date). http://www.michoacan.gob.mx/.

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Ramírez, Carlos. “Los maestros y el país.” José P. Berrum de Labra y Vicente Miguel Méndez. Maestro de Excelencia. Fernández editores: Mexico City, 1995.

Ramírez, Rafael. “El maestro rural.” Loyo, Engracia. La casa del pueblo y el maestro rural. Secretaria de educación pública: Mexico City, 1985.

Rothenberg, Daniel. With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today. University of California Press: Berkley, 1998.

Tinoco Farfán, Mario César, et. al. Bienvenido Maestro: serie maestro Michoacano. Secretaría de Educación en el Estado: Mexico City, 2000.

Robeldo Santiago, Edgar. “El maestro y la maestra rural, mensajeros de la igualdad y la justicia social.” Gabriela Cano y Ana Lidia García. El maestro rural: una memoria colectiva. Secretaría de educación pública: Mexico City, 1991.

Vázquez, Emilio R. “Opinión sobre lo que es la escuela rural.” Loyo, Engracia. La casa del pueblo y el maestro rural. Secretaria de educación pública: Mexico City, 1985.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2003 by Amanda Villagómez © 2008
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