Review: Film Highlights Mexican Teachers’ Fight for Education, Democratic Union

Colorful murals, mostly of people in struggle, splash across the walls of Mactumactza, the school featured in the opening scenes of the documentary Granito de Arena. The students we see walking the grounds of the rural public college, located in the Mexican state of Chiapas, are studying to be school teachers in the low-income and indigenous communities in which they were raised.

Their housing is free and teaching jobs are guaranteed upon graduation. They pay no tuition, in keeping with Mexico’s constitutional guarantee of free public education. Mactumactza, states one of the interviewed students, “is like a mother to us.”

Granito de Arena: Directed by Jill Friedberg, Corrugated Films, U.S./Mexico 2005, 62 minutes. $25 personal use; $250 institutional use. Email info [at] corrugate [dot] org (Corrugated Films) or call 206/851-6785.

A few scenes later, director Jill Friedberg shows us some of the students’ actual mothers—being brutally attacked by the police. In 2002, the World Bank offered Chiapas an anti-poverty loan on the condition that it partially privatize its normales rurales, or public colleges. On the false pretense of a teacher surplus in Chiapas, the Bank imposed a privately administered standardized test as a graduation requirement.

The families of Mactumactza—teachers, students, and staff—occupied the school in protest. In response, the government spared nothing in crushing their resistance, sending into the school a highly militarized police force with no qualms about using teargas and batons on children. One hundred fifty teachers were arrested and tortured, and a schoolbus driver was killed.

Despite the fact that, in one of the film’s most stirring shots, hundreds of privatization opponents mobilized in Mexico City and nearly tore down the gates of the Ministry of the Interior, the World Bank’s plan succeeded. By 2004, Mactumactza was eviscerated: its walls torn down, its free housing eliminated, its enrollment slashed.


The destruction of Mactumactza gives us a window into the two larger stories told by Granito de Arena. The first is the decades-long struggle of Mexico’s teachers to democratize the National Education Workers Union. One of the documentary’s great strengths is its crystal-clear depiction of how their fight for union democracy is inseparable from the battle to defend public education in Mexico.

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Leading the resistance to school privatization are teachers belonging to the rank-and-file reform caucus within the union. Formed in 1979 to combat the deadly ills plaguing the union—including the sexual exploitation of women and rampant corruption—the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores en la Educación (CNTE) was targeted by the union bureaucracy, who launched a guerra sucia, or dirty war, against its own members. The troublemakers were harassed, assaulted, and disappeared.

Thanks to the union leadership’s complicity with Mexico’s political elite and its repression of the dissidents, the 1980s was a decade of desperation for Mexican teachers: most of them held multiple jobs in order to survive, and funding for education was so poor that teachers and parents paid out of their own pockets to keep schools running.

As Granito de Arena documents, teacher union officials were as responsible as any other party for undermining Mexicans’ constitutional right to free public education. Hence the declaration of one teacher activist during the 1989 strike that eventually led to the ouster of the union’s president: “They could give us a 1,000 percent raise, but it wouldn’t mean anything unless we have democracy in our union.”


Complementing the inspiring story of the teachers’ struggle for union reform is the darker tale that Friedberg tells: that of the fate of public services under neoliberalism. NAFTA converted public education in 1994 into a “tradable service” between the United States and Mexico.

And a lucrative service it is, we learn: worldwide, privatizing public education is a $4 trillion industry. Understanding this, it makes perfect sense that, throughout the film, we see one Mexican president after another starving out the country’s schools so that corporations like Coca-Cola can take them over.

How else can—in the chilling phrase of former Mexican President Vicente Fox—the development of “human capital” be achieved? By exploring the Mexican teachers’ fight in this larger context, Granito de Arena shows just how much we all have at stake in their struggle.

Kate Levin is a writer and labor activist based in New York. The CNTE received a Troublemaker Award at the 2003 Labor Notes conference.