For decades, rampant violence and poverty have denied the youth of Mexico’s southwestern state of Guerrero a stable future.
Caught in a vicious cycle of drug trafficking, gang violence, and endemic poverty, there are only a few teachers brave enough to work in the villages in the heart of Guerrero.
Maximino Villa Zamora is one of them.
To try and break this cycle affecting his community, he teaches the children of poor villagers and farmers while providing guidance to the region’s youth, who feel trapped by the lack of opportunities.
But when the deaths of 43 students made news headlines in late 2014, it was personal for “Maxi”, as some of them were his students and one a nephew, Bernardo Flores.
Maxi also organises for the community, providing support to the youth of Guerrero. He strives to give them hope and a belief that the lives of those missing students will be the final spark to ignite the change for his community and for Mexico’s future.
By Rodrigo Hernandez
About 30 young teens carry their desks on their backs, walking in a straight line. They climb a small hill and place their seats under a tin roof. A tarp separates two imaginary classrooms without walls on a dirt floor. Two teachers begin the lessons, keeping their voices low so as not to distract the students on the other side.
We are in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, in a small community called San Juan de las Flores. This state is one of the three poorest in the country. Two in every five inhabitants lack enough food to survive here, while illiteracy affects 70 percent of the population.
For decades, the rural population here has suffered from state neglect and high levels of extreme poverty. The youth barely have opportunities for work beyond labour in the agricultural fields, which are increasingly abandoned. Many young people have to migrate to improve their chances of having a better life. Many of those who remain see their only option as working for the drug cartels, either as sellers, paid assassins, or harvesting opium and marijuana.
Maximino Villa Zamora is a rural teacher and the protagonist of this film. He was born, grew up, studied and now works in Guerrero. Every day, he and his fellow teachers face the results of the extreme violence that his students have suffered their entire lives. He is dedicated to giving them a chance in life through education, serving as a beacon of light to pull them away from the darkness of drugs and violence.
Violence and impunity have made Mexico a country full of corpses. More than 90 percent of murders go unsolved. Mass graves, forced disappearances, and extreme violence are the images of horror that haunt the everyday lives of more than 100 million Mexicans. Throughout the length and breadth of the country, since 2006, when the so-called “War Against Drug Trafficking” started, more than 100,000 people have been killed and more than 30,000 people have disappeared in Mexico.
Guerrero is a state where both drug transportation and the production of opium take place. Many farmers have to cultivate drugs since they do not earn enough money with traditional products to provide for their families. Synthetic drugs are manufactured as well for export into the United States.
During the weeks that we were able to spend with Maximino, we observed the difficult life that more and more Mexicans are experiencing. The cities become ghost towns at night when criminal gangs move through the region. Everyone knows which zones are okay and which are the “headquarters” of cartels. Violence has become part of people’s daily lives. It is present in their conversations, in their most recent experiences.
Maximino shared with us how the night of September 26, 2014, changed his life. That day, there was an attack on a group of young people by the police in Guerrero. Three of them were killed and 43 disappeared, exposing the reality of violence in the country. All were students at the Ayotzinapa Rural Normal teachers college, one of the most important rural schools in the country. The college is responsible for training the teachers who give classes in the most remote and abandoned communities in the country, like the area where Maximino lives and teaches.
Some of the missing students studied under Maximino. One of them is his nephew. For him, the blow is both personal and to his profession as a teacher. To share this tragedy with the victims leads one to understand the frustration of living in a country where the poorest have little opportunity to improve their situation, and where violence and corruption mostly affects the people who have the least.
But it also allows us to meet real unsung heroes, like Maximino, who keep fighting for the future of those young people with the least opportunities, trying to exchange guns for books.