Mexico's most powerful woman faults working mothers

  Mexico's most powerful woman faults working mothers

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."


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Photo: Teachers union boss Elba Esther Gordillo of Mexico, shown in 2006 in Mexico City. Credit: Dario Lopez-Mills / Associated Press



Renowned South African scientist Phillip Tobias dies at 86

Phillip Tobias, renowned South African paleoanthropologist and expert on early man and hominids, died after a long illness
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Phillip Tobias, renowned South African paleoanthropologist and expert on early man and hominids, died Thursday in Johannesburg after a long illness. He was 86.

In 2005, turning 80, he wrote of a life enriched by "serendipity, coincidence, synchronism, eureka moments."

"You go to search for something -- an odd tree -- and you find something else, something that may prove to be even more important than that which you had set out to examine! This is the essence of serendipity," he wrote, describing a 1945 visit to a cave in Limpopo to see a twisted yellowwood tree when he was 20 years old.

Kneeling in the sandy soil to get a better look at the tree, he felt something hard and pulled out an ancient stone tool.

He launched an archaeological dig in the cave, which he later named Mwulu's Cave. It became a significant site, casting light on the earliest artistic activity by predecessors of humans. Some 3,000 stone tools were excavated from the place.

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Turning poor Guatemalan kids into photographers -- 21 years later

  With a handful of cheap, plastic cameras, photographer Nancy McGirr began a program known now as Fotokids and taught children who scavenged at the garbage dumps of Guatemala City to photograph their surroundings
GUATEMALA CITY -- It began at a toxic garbage dump, Central America's largest and most dangerous.

Nancy McGirr, a Guatemala-based American photojournalist and veteran of Reuters news agency, one day surveyed the burning plastic, cardboard houses, gardens of sewage and thousands of people scavenging for food at the 40-acre dump in Guatemala City. Many of them were children who pursued her, eager to look through her camera lens.

"The thought occurred to me: If they had the camera, what would they see through that lens?" McGirr recalled.

That was more than 20 years ago.

With a handful of cheap, plastic cameras, McGirr armed a program known now as Fotokids (and originally as "Out of the Dump") and taught children from the dump to photograph their surroundings, taking in everything, censoring nothing.

With a handful of cheap, plastic cameras, photographer Nancy McGirr began a program known now as Fotokids and taught children who scavenged at the garbage dumps of Guatemala City to photograph their surroundings

The Times first wrote about the project in 1993, shortly after it was launched. "The dump is a place where the stench is nauseating and inescapable, where vultures darken the sky and where disease breeds uncontrollably," The Times wrote.

The children's photos, it continued, "the result of something between creativity and serendipity, show the dramatic horrors of life at the dump -- the drunken scavengers, the wretched landscape of trash, the roosting vultures. But they also capture private moments of poignancy and joy, of young Indian girls dancing, of a wedding of an elderly couple, lifelong residents of the dump."

Today, the remarkable thing in a region of dashed promises and debilitating violence is that the program continues strong after achieving worldwide acclaim.

"I originally thought the project would last six months to a year, but it just took off," McGirr said.

McGirr, a San Francisco native who has also taken pictures for The Times, said her goal was to use photography to break the cycle of poverty. She soon realized the kids' snapshots could also be used as a teaching tool: showing them that they didn't have to be a part of a gang to be in a group and that cameras are a more effective weapon against poverty than guns.

From an initial six students who entered the after-school program in 1991, hundreds have passed through, receiving a camera, food, photography classes and education scholarships. One of the early sponsors was the Japanese photo giant Konica, which donated supplies, and the kids have had exhibits the world over.

"Of course they don't all go on to become photographers," McGirr said. "Photography just gives them a face and a platform" -- a tool that they might use to escape lives of perpetual poverty, drugs and gang violence.

More of the kids' snapshots can be seen at the Fotokids website.


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Upper photo: One of Nancy McGirr's young students, Marta, takes pictures in Antigua, Guatemala, alongside a professional news photographer from the Prensa Libre daily. Credit: Fotokids

Lower photo: A student poses with her camera. Credit: Fotokids




Teachers in 'mega' protest march tie up Mexico City


REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Another day, another demo.  In a megalopolis known for its traffic-twisting protest marches and political rallies, Thursday's did not disappoint. 

Tens of thousands of teachers tromped through city streets, converging on Mexico City's downtown Zocalo, or plaza, from three directions (link in Spanish).

Their beef? They oppose new rules that require them to be regularly evaluated to judge their competency.

This in a country where teachers often inherit their jobs from relatives and routinely fail entrance exams. Under government pressure, however, the super-powerful teachers union that preserves such perks reluctantly agreed to the evaluations as a way to improve the abysmal quality of education in Mexico.

But at least one faction of the profession was having none of it and staged Thursday's self-proclaimed "mega march" to make the point. "A teacher, silenced. Never!" read one of the banners they carried. The city's principal Reforma Boulevard had to be closed for several hours, and downtown traffic was at a standstill for periods.

A study by security officials once estimated that there are an average of five protest marches a day in Mexico City, as The Times' Marla Dickerson reported a few years ago.

"Marches are so commonplace that radio reporters include them in traffic reports," she wrote. "Businesses have fled regular parade routes, fed up with vandalism and falling sales. Traffic gridlock has sapped productivity, worsened the city's already lousy air and hurt the pocketbooks of poorer city dwellers who don't get paid if they can't get to work."

There are other costs, too. For Thursday's demo city officials said they deployed more than 17,000 police officers (link in Spanish).


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Photo: Mexico City police block a street in the Polanco district March 15, 2012, as demonstrators converge nearby.  Credit: Tracy Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times.



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