Posted by Katie Schlechter – MA Candidate at CLACS / Global Journalism at NYU
To get to the La 72 migrant shelter in Tenosique, Mexico, I had to fly to Villahermosa, and then take a bus across the state, passing through the northern tip of Chiapas near along the way. Upon arrival in Tabasco, I learned that many buses weren’t taking this route due to highway blockades in the Chiapas portion of the highway.
The blockades are part of the unrest that has rocked southern Mexico since I arrived at the beginning of June. The largest teacher’s union in the region, the CNTE, has been taking to the streets to protest education reform measures recently taken up by the government. The discussion here is similar to education reform debates in the United States: one side says that many teachers are not effective and should therefore be evaluated based on the performance of their students on standardized tests and the other side criticizes the state for cutting funding to education and sees the reforms as a way to shift the blame of a struggling education system from the state’s lack of resource allocation to the professional shortcomings of the teachers.
Despite the rumors of CNTE bloqueos, I found a bus that was going to attempt the trip. The first two hours of the drive were smooth, but near the exit for Palenque, the highway was occupied. The first sign was the beginning of a long line of semi trucks along the shoulder, trapped for the foreseeable future. As we continued slowly, I wondered if we would be allowed to pass. The bus was full of murmuring, and the guy in the seat across the aisle was filming with his phone. Perhaps he was also a journalist? Or maybe it was just another example of the new power of smartphones in the hands of a regular pedestrian or bus rider.
Within 10 minutes or so, we reached the epicenter of the blockade: hundreds of people, camped out under tarps—men, women, children. Some of the men had bandanas around their faces, like I’ve seen in the Zapatista communities in Chiapas. Others had used semi trucks block off the road. Many were armed with whistles and rags to direct traffic. Some stood by with sticks, guarding makeshift blockades composed of strips of woods with long tire-puncturing nails sticking up out of them—their effectiveness evidenced a few hundred meters later by a truck driver laboring to prize the nails the sharp shiny bits out of his newly studded tire.
There were no police or military officials, though I had seen a few military personnel fully armed and armored up a bit outside of the encampment near the official border crossing. But blockade was a space where the people were entirely in charge. They decided who crossed and who didn’t. It was an amazing thing to see. They slowly waved our bus around the obstacle course, waving at the driver as if they knew him well. As quickly as it began, it was over, and we were increasing speed again.
As I watched the halted line of trucks go by on the other side, I wondered if I would be so inspired by the power of the pueblo if it had managed to also halt my own passage. Would I still find it so moving if it had actually messed with my day? Or would the little revolutionary inside me melt away and be replaced by indignant customer feeling entitled to the product I’d purchased: the transportation of my body from point X to point Y?
It all makes me wonder how dedicated I am to the cause of social and economic justice. Academically I support the lucha, but would I still be so keen on it in the moment that it meant giving up some of my own privilege? I move so freely in this world as a white, upper-middle class estadounidense. Perhaps being stopped in Chiapas would have been the tiniest glimpse of the tip of the iceberg of what migrants live. That repeated declaration of “none shall pass.” When it comes to transporting my body across borders, I’ve never been told “no.” It’s more likely than not that I wouldn’t have the strength to face being suddenly denied that immense privilege.