MEXICO CITY -- She may be Mexico's most powerful woman, but she doesn't seem too keen on power for women.
Elba Esther Gordillo, the much-feared head of Mexico's gigantic teachers union, is blaming the abysmal state of education here on none other than working mothers.
In an "open letter to the public" covering two full pages of Mexico's leading Reforma newspaper, Gordillo seemed to rue the days decades ago when traditional family roles were clearly established (link in Spanish, registration required).
"A fact that was changed when women had to share responsibility for the family income, which didn't only contribute to the deterioration of the individual but also of society," Gordillo wrote.
"The abandonment of the mother in the rearing of children turned schools into daycare centers, gave teachers sole responsibility for education and emptied education of any substance," she added.
Gordillo went on to say that the void created by absent mothers working outside the home was filled with "the excessive consumption of junk TV" and similar distractions, which generally contributed to the demise of society's values.
Quite a lot to hang on working women, especially since most experts would blame Mexico's poor educational system on precisely the union that Gordillo lords over like a private fiefdom.
Gordillo, who favors expensive jewelry, designer clothes and tons of prime real estate, is the "president for life" of the union, which also formed a political party prone to backroom king-making deals and which generally refuses to open its bank accounts to public scrutiny. Thanks to the union's clout, teachers are allowed to bequeath their posts to descendants, and most teachers have flunked basic competency exams.
Outrage over Gordillo's comments was swift, intense and came from both the political left and right as well as women's groups.
"I read that and didn't know whether to laugh or cry," feminist columnist Rosaura Barahona wrote, noting that Gordillo apparently ignored the fact that many of the very teachers she represents are working moms (link in Spanish).
"It is very easy to blame women for everything bad that happens in the world today and for the poor education of the children," she continued. "But what about the fathers? The school? The media? The church? The government?"
If Gordillo needed a scapegoat, Barahona concluded, she should look elsewhere.
And that is exactly what many analysts said Gordillo appeared to be doing. She is under pressure on several fronts. There is a move afoot in the recently seated Congress that would force unions to be more democratic and "transparent," qualities that might erode her power. And the citizens group Mexicanos Primero has launched a concerted campaign to promote education and criticize Gordillo's handling of the teachers. One slogan is: More money for education, less for the union.
Gordillo on Thursday was opening a three-day convention of her union, the largest teachers group in Latin America. It was expected that members would endorse a slate of regional and local leaders primarily loyal to Gordillo. The city of the convention had to be changed at the last minute because of reports that a group of dissident teachers who oppose Gordillo planned to picket the meeting.
Gordillo used the venue to argue that some of her recent comments had been "twisted" and that she really wasn't a misogynist.
But her critics remained adamant and revived a June television interview given by Gordillo's daughter, Monica Arriola, who was just elected to the Senate (link in Spanish). In it, Arriola said she was essentially raised by her grandmother because her mother, whom she sometimes went weeks without seeing, was too busy.
"It was difficult to see her," Arriola said, "because of her work."
-- Tracy Wilkinson
Photo: Teachers union boss Elba Esther Gordillo of Mexico, shown in 2006 in Mexico City. Credit: Dario Lopez-Mills / Associated Press