Chiapas: Displaced Children Due To Religious Strife

Thousands of children have been forced to leave their schools as a new form of segregation takes root in rebellion-wracked southern Mexico, with conflicts in Indian communities pitting Catholics against Protestants, and traditionalists against the political opposition.

Yoriko Yasukawa, a UNICEF representative in Mexico, estimates that 184,000 children in the state of Chiapas have left school - many of them as a result of political or religious discord.

The Associated Press recently visited a half-dozen predominantly Catholic towns where Protestant children had been expelled from schools: State officials refused to say how many Protestant children had received such treatment.

The expulsions go beyond religious friction - they sometimes involve politics, or even debates over bilingual education. And often the government tries to build alternate classrooms for kids expelled because of their parents' beliefs. But some are left with substandard, improvised classrooms - or no school at all.

Most of the better-equipped schools remain in the hands of "traditional" Catholics, so named because they practice a form of mixed Indian and Roman Catholic rites, require community members to serve in ritual posts, and support Mexico's old ruling party.

Those expelled are called "evangelicals," a term applied to both Protestants and anybody who supports a different political party.

In one incident, on Aug. 19, 2002, majority Catholics armed with machetes, rocks and guns gathered outside the school in the hamlet of Tzejaltetic to prevent "evangelical" children from registering for the school year.

The parents told school director Alejandro Ruiz, 38, not to resist the expulsions, and to leave for a while himself, which he did.

"'We respect you, Maestro, but it could get dangerous,'" Ruiz recalls being told.

When parents of minority children showed up demanding the right to enroll in the government-run school, a fight ensued in which several people were injured.

"The ideal would be for all the children to study together," Ruiz says. "But they have prohibited me from accepting any registrations from 'evangelical' children. They keep a close eye on me."

A chain-link fence has been erected around the school in Tzejaltetic, and an armed state policeman stands guard in the schoolyard to prevent further violence.

The 40 students who were denied entry missed the 2002 school year. In 2003, they used an improvised classroom in a house, and this year minority parents pitched in to build a cinderblock, tin-roofed shed to serve as a school.

In the noisy, one-room building, teacher Virginia Santiago leads students from grades one through five as they shout out the alphabet and phonetics drills in Spanish.

"Next year, I'm supposed to get 19 new kids. That will make 61 students," Santiago says, gesturing to the 12-by-20-foot schoolhouse. "I just won't be able to take care of them all. We just won't fit."

Manuel Mendez, 12, is still in the first grade as a result of the expulsions and sporadic attendance. Like his classmates, he has a strong thirst for even an elementary-school education - as far as most Tzotzil children ever get.

"I want to be a teacher," Mendez says, "so I can teach my mother and father how to read."

A few teachers have been able to resist the expulsions, at least for now.

"Some of the community wanted to split the school, take some of the children out, but we told them: 'This problem has nothing to do with the children,'" says third-grade teacher Maria de Socorro Hernandez de Gomez, describing a tense meeting with parents in the Indian town of Mitziton, near Tzejaltetic, a few months ago.

She convinced them not to expel any children, but says she isn't sure how long that will last.

Some communities appear to have split in part over bilingual education. Many Catholics prefer it because they say children understand better when material is explained in their native Tzotzil language.

Many Protestant families, however, work in non-Indian cities as construction workers or itinerant vendors, and thus prefer Spanish-only education.

In the village of Nichen, the state government built a pair of brick classrooms to accommodate minority Protestant children who weren't allowed to attend the better-equipped bilingual, majority Catholic school across the road.

Still other schools in Chiapas are run by the leftist Zapatista rebels.

"Here, we teach by learning and educate through production," reads a slogan painted on a Zapatista elementary school in the rebel-dominated town of Oventic, where classes concentrate part of the time on farm and technical education. But the rebel schools seldom appear to be in session, and rebels refused to allow reporters to visit them.

One of the few examples of integration in Chiapas is a small private school that's not even recognized by the government.

It was started five years ago by the 500-strong Muslim community in San Cristobal de las Casas, who hold it out as an example of tolerance and diversity, even as they struggle for official certification.

In the converted house where the Islamic school holds classes, 40 children sit or kneel on the floor and intone melodic verses from the Quran in Arabic. Side-by-side sit Tzotzil Indians, mixed-race and fair-haired Spanish kids. They also learn some English.

"Our school is multiethnic, and multi-lingual," says Aureliano Perez, the head of Chiapas' Islamic community. "That bothers some people here."