On Thursday, November 7, the Gould Library Athenaeum was filled with students, faculty and community members eager to hear guest lecturer Mariana Hernández Burg present a talk entitled “Resistance to Counter-Insurgency in Southern Mexico.”
Hernández Burg is a community organizer and public educator with a degree in anthropology who has taught about language, culture and bilingual education in Mexico City. She is currently the head professor at the Autonomous University of Social Movements (AUSM) in Chiapas, Mexico, where she teaches students from the United States how to work towards social change.
Caro Carty ’20, a Sociology/Anthropology major, met Hernández Burg when they studied abroad with AUSM in Chiapas during their junior year. “I have learned so much from Mariana about what it means to be a community member and activist,” said Carty.
With this in mind, Carty worked with the Center for Community and Civic Engagement’s Peace and Conflict Cohort, the Department of Political Science and the Carleton Student Association Senate to bring Hernández Burg to campus.
Hernández Burg began her talk by commemorating the 25th anniversary of the War Against Oblivion, in which the Zapatista movement rose up in Chiapas against the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Mexican government responded by bombing the city; at 14 years old, Hernández Burg was already involved with a liberation theology group which responded to the massacre. She then detailed the ongoing struggles of the Zapatistas and other indigenous movements to resist the government’s systematic removal of their autonomy by forming their own collectivist societies. Throughout the talk, she highlighted indigenous women who have emerged as leaders in these movements.
If I took anything away from my evening in the Athenaeum, it was the importance of organizing in support of the social movements in southern Mexico. At the end of her talk, Hernández Burg delivered a clinching line: “the only thing [the Zapatistas] have going for them is national and international solidarity… the only thing they want is that you organize here against capitalism and systems of oppression.”
Her passion for activism came through here; however, it was sometimes obscured by an overload of information. By the time she finished flipping through her extensive slideshow, the talk had run long. Many students had to leave before the question and answer section. I admire Hernández Burg’s commitment to teaching about Mexican history, a subject that isn’t covered often enough in school curriculums. However, the level of detail she went into seemed too deep for an hour long presentation.
I was more interested in the relevance of Hernández Burg’s research to activism in practice, so I caught up with her after the talk to hear what the social movements she has studied can teach us about community organizing. After all, she has been working on the ground with the Zapatistas since that first action when she was 14, mostly by setting up autonomous education.
The most important skill she has acquired in that time, she told me, is “learning how to learn and learning how to listen.” Only then, she said, can we “build bridges and networks between people who are doing this already and focus on what unites us.” This is critical to all kinds of activism.
But to accomplish any of this, Hernández Burg said, you have to set up “spaces where all are welcome.” She has worked to do just this between students, faculty and staff at the AUSM, and according to Carty, she has succeeded. I stopped to pick up a brochure for the program on my way out, telling them that I was excited to learn about a new study abroad opportunity. Carty smiled. “This is a good one,” they told me.