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Oaxaca, Mexico – It is November 2, the Day of the Dead in Mexico, and the family of Anselmo Cruz Aquino has gathered by a cross on a roadside in Nochixtlan, Oaxaca. It marks the spot where the 33-year-old was shot and killed last summer during a clash between the federal police and a dissident wing of the Mexican teachers’ union, the National Coordinator of Education Workers, or CNTE.
“We are here with pain,” says Anselmo’s brother, Jose.
His brother, he explains, was not involved in the union’s protest, during which it had blockaded the city, forcing the government to airlift supplies into it. According to Jose, Anselmo was walking home when he was shot; the spot where he was shot is some distance from where the blockades were.
Jose says he blames the government for his brother’s death, adding: “We demand justice.” Anselmo’s father, who asked that his name not be used, agrees. “I blame the municipal politicians. They allowed the federal police to come and remove the blockade,” he says.
The clashes, in which eight were killed and 100 injured , were the continuation of a 10-year battle waged by Oaxaca’s teachers’ union against a series of education reforms by the federal government that they argue cements the cultural domination of the southern states over this historically marginalised region.
The union is particularly opposed to a reform that would introduce a federal teacher evaluation that many see as a thinly veiled attempt to fire them and break up their union.
“We are not against an exam for teachers,” says David, a union teacher who asked that his full name not be revealed. “[But] what comes with this exam is mass firings, followed by the hiring of teachers that are privately contracted. This would mean that the unions will disappear.”
But for many teachers, the issue runs much deeper than exams. Their fight, they say, is against a system that threatens to impose a singular view of Mexican culture and history while destroying the diverse mosaic of identities that characterise the country’s indigenous and mestizo, those of mixed indigenous and Spanish descent, cultures.
“Oaxacans have always been a people of resistance,” says David.
Mayem, who is involved with CNTE’s legal affairs and did not want her full name used, told Al Jazeera that the reforms “will present a grave danger for the patrimony of humanity, in terms of the disappearance of indigenous language, practices, customs and above all, sacrifice another, more holistic, way to see reality.”
Sergio, another union teacher who asked that his full name not be used, explains: “We want students to be critical, to transform their thinking and their society without having to destroy who they are: their roots, customs, traditions and history.”
The Mexican president, Pena Nieto, says the 2013 reforms (PDF) are simply an attempt to fix Mexico’s public education system. His administration says these changes will limit fraud and corruption, cut costs and, through standardised teacher exams, lessen the union’s “stranglehold” on the education system.
However, many Oaxacans see the government’s violent response to the protesters as confirmation that the latest round of reforms, which began in 2013, are an attempt to deny their rights and interfere with their self-determination – 418 of 570 Oaxacan municipalities are governed by autonomous indigenous rule .
Mayem’s belief, that the teachers’ union represents a political stronghold against the imposition of central governance and the acquisition of the region’s lucrative resources, is widely held here.
“The main force of politics in Oaxaca is the teachers’ union and [the] local indigenous collective and … taking away that political force would mean that national and international mining companies would take away our natural resources,” Mayem says.
A piece of political art on the wall that outside the cemetery in Nochixtlan [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]
The battle over education in Oaxaca has often turned violent.
It first boiled over in May 2006, when teachers mobilised a sit-in in the central square of Oaxaca City to demand better education in the impoverished and underserved state.
A month after the sit-ins began, then-Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz – after refusing to meet the teachers – called in the federal police.
On July 14, the police attacked the protesters, leaving 92 injured and four unarmed teachers dead .
The people of Oaxaca responded with a 500,000-person march, inspiring the umbrella organisation, the Popular Assembly of Oaxacan Peoples, known as the APPO, to join them, explains author Diane Denham in her book , Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca.
The protesters initiated a takeover of Oaxaca City’s central district, erecting barricades to keep the federal police and Mexican army out. The sit-in lasted until October that year, when 11,000 troops were sent into the square and, according to Denham, 17 people were killed. Ten years later, the teachers’ protest remains visible. At the busy central square, and throughout the historic central district, tarps and tents – permanent encampments and sit-ins – take up full city blocks, while Oaxaca’s colourful walls are adorned with political posters supporting the teachers and their cause.
“The government wants to impose its view and keep these indigenous people silent,” says Sergio. ” …The state is scared that the people of Mexico will rise up again, like they did in 1810 and 1910.”
A statement released on July 19, 2016, by the Federal Police about the clashes, in which Anselmo and seven others were killed, said that the federal officers in Nochixtlan were not carrying guns and that the violence was caused by internal provocateurs.
“The attacks with guns came from people outside the blockades who fired on the population and federal police,” read the statement.
But video footage of the clashes show at least one police officer firing live ammunition at protesters, although it is not clear whether it is a federal or state officer.
Back in Nochixtlan, the burned remains of cars and buses still block much of the main road; the skeletal steel frames are a reminder of the violence that rocked the poor rural town last summer.
For the Aquino family, the event has cast a cloud over the Day of the Dead celebration, when it is believed that the dead and the living are able to commune in the same realm.
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Normally, this bittersweet holiday is accompanied by celebrations at gravesites and altars, where the deceased are offered their favourite meals, drinks and songs. But this year, for the Aquino family, the celebrations are focused on the location where Anselmo was killed.
“We are indigenous Mixteca,” says Anselmo’s father, explaining his people’s tradition of marking both the grave and the spot where the deceased died. “This is the place where the dead move from this world to the other.”
“He was the spark in our family that united us all,” says Jose, looking towards the busy local graveyard, where hundreds of families have gathered to welcome the return of their deceased loved ones, and the burned-out remains of automobiles on the road in front of it.
For Patricia Sanchez, whose 19-year-old son, Jesus, a Catholic catechism teacher, was also killed in Nochixtlan last July, both the government and the teachers are to blame.
“[The teachers] have asked [the government] to free their political prisoners, they have asked for better pay,” she says, looking at the cross that marks the spot where her son died, “but they have never asked to remedy our loss.”
“We want to see people go to prison for this. That’s justice,” she says, visibly angry and holding back tears.
“They are abandoning us at the same time that they are using our dead to get what they want,” she adds. “I used to sit with the teachers and ask them, what is this going to do? I told them to go back to work. The reform has been there and no one can change it.”
For Anselmo’s family, the death of their son is part of a longer struggle, one they are willing to continue.
“Our fathers, our grandparents, our great-great-great-grandparents fought for liberty … nothing has changed,” says Anselmo’s father.
“Justice, justice, justice, justice,” adds Jose, his hand resting atop his brother’s cross.
“If they say we are having a revolution, we are there.”
In the meantime, a stencil of a crouching police officer marks a wall in Nochixtlan, his rifle pointing at the spot where Jesus and Anselmo were shot.