by Fer de la Cruz
I don’t want my government to get away with extortion, especially when it is done to me. So this is my personal story regarding Mexico´s hottest issues: public education and human rights. For months I haven´t been paid in my job as a professor of Creative Writing for a public school of arts. So I am suing. Yes it is possible to sue the government in Mexico and, despite retaliations, it is possible to win. I was writing this to share with readers of In Other Words: Mérida right as the national leader of Mexico´s largest teacher´s union was about to be arrested on charges of embezzlement, as The New York Times was reporting on the hundreds of disappearances by Mexican police and military forces, as I was receiving kind invitations to work without pay at this year´s International Book Fair in Mérida (FILEY), and as I was worrying about how I would pay this month´s rent.
Beside the disappearances, the beatings in the prisons, the illegal arrests, the irregular trials, and the horrors of that sort which are not always publicized in the newspapers but one would expect to occur in a developing country, what is probably the most subtle but prevalent of human rights violations committed by the Mexican government against its citizens is the withholding of payment earned by workers in the public sector, particularly in schools. This is an account of my own such experience here in the state of Yucatan, Mexico, as founding professor at the School of Creative Writing at Yucatan´s State Center of Fine Arts—a nearly one-hundred-year-old institution locally known as Bellas Artes—after I, with some colleagues, decided to sue.
Many of the professors within Mexico´s huge public education system saw St. Valentine´s Day go by without having yet received September´s paycheck. Year after year, this is the reality of Mexico’s adjunct professors: 1) that their new 10-month contract is finally authorized—in which case they get their late payments all at once—or 2) less often, but not unheard of in Bellas Artes, that their new contract is not authorized by the Secretary of Education and the time that they already worked will not be paid. From this perspective, slavery is still taking place in Mexico.
To prevent this, in July 2012, thirteen of Bellas Artes´ employees (two from the administration and eleven faculty members of various arts) placed a lawsuit demanding tenure from the Secretary of Education, to which Bellas Artes belongs. The initiative came from Leticia Sánchez Vargas, professor of Mexican folk dance who has been teaching there for fourteen years. On more than one occasion, Maestra Leticia obtained excellent marks on her tenure examination, only to discover later that new teachers, including her own former students, were being hired by the newly appointed principal and entered Bellas Artes as tenured faculty.
This school year, due to the transition between the old and new State governor, payment came early in Bellas Artes. Except for those thirteen listed as plaintiffs within the July lawsuit, every non-tenured worker received their payment and contract in October. Shortly after, we and our lawyers found out that a group of teachers and the two workers from the administration had withdrawn from the lawsuit. The entire faculty of the Jazz Dance department then decided to step down in support of their coordinator who, reportedly, had been threatened with losing her job if her teachers and staff did not line up with Bellas Artes´ higher authorities. Other teachers were simply offered more teaching hours. At least one was legitimately afraid that she would lose her teaching job at a different official institution.
In any case, the extortion continued. Bellas Artes´ principal, Maestra Rita Castro Gamboa, summoned most of the “rebellious” teachers to her office, one by one, with a simple offer. If, while within her presence, teachers chose to call the Secretary of Education´s legal services office and withdraw from the lawsuit, in return, she would immediately authorize the release of the paychecks withheld and extend them new ten-month contracts. She kept her word in most cases and her method proved effective, reducing the number of dissidents from thirteen to the current three. The last one to abandon the lawsuit, in January of this year, was a professor of contemporary dance who had to pay her mortgage or lose her house. She has taught at Bellas Artes for seven years.
In the meantime, those who remained party to the lawsuit continued to teach but without pay. The three who remain are: Lety Sánchez from Mexican folkdance, and from Creative Writing, Francisco Lope Ávila and myself. Maestro Lope is quite knowledgeable of the issues mentioned in the opening line as he happens to be a member of the Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights. Unlike the many professors suing the government in the State of Yucatan alone, we´ve gone public. However, there are some local journalists, artists, and intellectuals who hesitate to take a stand, perhaps out of fear of losing their jobs or isolating their influential contacts.
The Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights, member of the International Federation for Human Rights, has already sent a letter to Yucatan´s new Governor, dated Dec. 10, 2012, urging him to instruct the State Secretary of Education, Dr. Raúl Godoy Montañez, and Bellas Artes´ principal, among others, to immediately cease violations of both criminal and labor laws as well as the Human Rights of Bellas Artes´ professors.
As for me, after having worked enough semesters for a paternalist government, I’ve transformed from lyric poet to satirist (as Quevedo did), believing that it’s better to laugh than cry. Along with Lety & Lope, I am actually enjoying this ongoing legal process, painful though the lack of an income may be, because we are proving to ourselves and others in our situation that something can be done. And as we fly among the uncertain winds of politics (here´s the dancing metaphor), Lope and I are looking for a publisher who might be interested in the wonderful poems written by the children and other students of all ages who have attended our classes and workshops for the past four-and-a-half years since we founded Bellas Artes´ School of Creative Writing. And we stand at ease, knowing that the law is on our side and that our lawyers have proven to be far more efficient than those of the State government, in our tropical corner of this developing country (which is still quite safe for tourists), where we are proudly making a difference in what our principles dictate as wrong.
Fer de la Cruz is a Yucatecan poet born in 1971. He has received two national, two regional, and one state-wide poetry awards in Mexico and is a member of the founding faculty at the School of Creative Writing of the State Center of Fine Arts, in Mérida. He is also coordinator of the Historic Mérida branch of Centro de Idiomas del Sureste, where he was a teacher for 20 years. He holds an MA in Spanish from Ohio University and a BA in Philosophy. As an independent editor, writer, translator, and cultural promoter, he has participated in cultural festivals, conferences, and book fairs in Mexico, Cuba, France, and the United States. His poems appeared in the books “Redentora la voz” (Ayuntamiento de Mérida, 2010) and “Aliteletras. De la A a la que quieras” (Dante, 2011), as well as in the chapbooks “La cuenta regresiva. Radiografía urbana mesozoica” (El Drenaje, 2012) and “Seven Songs of Silent, Singing Fireflies” (JKPublishing, 2008): email@example.com.
Painting: Juan Pablo Bavio – detail from CABEZA CANSADA