as told to Andres Reyes
photo: Alyssa Castro
Editor’s Note: The 43 young men abducted and now presumed murdered in Mexico were students from Raúl Isidro Burgos, one of the many Rural Normal schools in Mexico. Referred to by Mexicans as “normalistas,” the students who attend these schools are typically indigenous, and among the poorest of Mexico’s rural poor. For students like the ones kidnapped in Guerrero, the Normal schools are a training ground for future teachers, and are often an entry point for learning about social and political issues. In the piece below, a Mexican now living in Merced, Calif., recalls her years as a “normalista” in Michoacan. Her story, as told to New America Media’s Andres Reyes, helps to contextualize the tragedy that has sparked outrage and fomented street protests across Mexico and in some parts of the U.S.
This interview was conducted during a protest in Merced, CA in solidarity with the 43 missing students. You can see photos from the protest on We’Ced’s Facebook page.
My name is Carolina Arceo. I’m from Planada, California, and I’m 45 years old. I was motivated to attend [the protests in Merced] in support of the 43 missing normalista students when I heard an announcement at my church urging the congregation to attend. Twenty years ago, I too was a normalista like the missing students. Hearing about their disappearance hits home for me because I used to attend protests and rallies like they did.
A Normal school is a place for secondary education for low-income or agrarian people who want to go into education as a career, usually in the lower grades. There are also Normal schools for people who wish to teach classes at a high school or even college level. I studied to be a primary school teacher, from first to sixth grade.
I wanted to be a teacher since I was a little girl. My father didn’t have much but he helped me attend the closest Normal school to where we lived. I studied in a Normal school in Arteaga, Michoacan. Besides studying, we would protest and strike, like the 43 missing students. Other Normal schools would support us and we would support them.
We had to live in the small town where the school was located. The town was very small so we lived and studied there, walking everywhere because we didn’t even have public transportation. We would visit other Normal schools like the one in Morelia. Sometimes we’d go for up to two weeks to support them in their protests. We would sleep and eat in their school, supporting them however we could until their demands were met.
We fought back against a myriad of issues. We were displeased with the kind of government we had, and with many of the teachers in the public schools. [Our actions were always about] something different, but it was always about the common good of the students, and our communities where we lived and studied.
We were very united, that’s why we were always supporting each other as students. No one could quit! We all had the right and the responsibility to support the protests and no one could back out. We all would organize, and certain groups of students would go out to other schools to support actions in other cities, so our collective voices and demands would be heard. Other groups of students would stay behind to keep the school safe. All of our actions where nonviolent.
All Normal schools have a similar system. They all teach the same thing, in terms of education training. We had to be ready to go out and work in rural places because that’s where we were most needed after graduating. Our education was tailored to working in disenfranchised, poor rural communities. Before graduating, we had to go to places like that to work, like an internship. Without that internship we couldn’t graduate. Sometimes we had to walk for hours to get to a school to teach.
The first thing I thought when I heard about the news of the students was, “I hope they’re alive.” I don’t have confidence in the Mexican government of today. They have done almost nothing to find these students and bring clarity to the situation.
After I heard about the missing students, I told my daughters that when I was younger, I was like those students. I’m proud that one of my daughters came with me [to the rally in Merced]. She knows it is for a good cause… At the same time, I’m a bit disappointed in the turnout, given that there are so many Latinos, Mexicans and people here from a similar, humble background as these students.