Episode 1 – Alnoor Ladha with Gustavo Esteva

Alnoor Ladha (AL) | Welcome to the Deschooling Dialagues. This podcast is a co-creation of Culture Hack Labs and Kosmos Journal. Culture Hack Labs is a not-for-profit consultancy that supports organizations, social movements and activists to create cultural interventions for systems change. Learn more at

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I am your host, Alnoor Ladha.

In this episode, I meet with the late, great Gustavo Esteva. This conversation took place in February 2021, at UniTierra, the radical deschooling university set up by Gustavo in Oaxaca City, Mexico.

This podcast series is about both unlearning and remembering, as our species is being prepared for even deeper complexity, breakdown, tragedy, renewal, and rebirth. This transition calls upon all of us to be vigilant students of our cultures, to contemplate our entangled destinies, to abandon our entitlement, to transcend the apparent duality of inner and outer work, and to reaffirm our responsibility to each other and the interwoven fabric of our sentient planet and the living cosmos. This is just some of what we’ll explore together.

In this first season, we’re going to learn some of the basics of deschooling from decolonization practices, alternatives to traditional education, what’s being learned on the edges of social justice movements, and the deep time lessons of Indigenous wisdom and knowledge systems.

AL | So first, we’re very happy to have Gustavo Esteva for one of the first episodes of the Deschooling Dialogues. It’s very fitting that we’re with you first because the name Deschooling Dialogues was inspired by Ivan Illich’s book, Deschooling Society, and I know you knew Ivan and were influenced by his work. And you’ve also continued that culture of deschooling. So maybe we start with you telling us about your background and your story and your journey.

Gustavo Esteva (GE) | Well, it’s a very long story. I would say I am basically professionalized as a public intellectual activated by the people around me. For a long time, I was calling myself an activist, but now I have really discovered that they activate me. I am not activating anyone. And then for the last 40 years or more, I have been working independently with people, mostly Indigenous people in Oaxaca. I moved to Oaxaca 30 years ago. I have made a small piece of land where I cultivate my own food and I live in a small Zapotec village in interaction, in permanent interaction, with Indigenous peoples in Oaxaca, but also in networks around the world.

Courtesy, Radical Ecological Democracy

I have been very close to the Zapatistas since 1994. What I really love to do is to interact with people.

AL | How did you get into this work? At one point you were a journalist, is that right?

GE | Not really. I started my life in the private sector with a successful and incredible career. I was personal manager in Porta Gumbo when I was 19 years old, and then personal manager IBM in Mexico. But then I discovered that it was impossible to live a decent life in that kind of world. And those were the years in Mexico where we were listening to Fidel Castro in Havana, and here people were in for more.

Then I got my lessons from the real world and then I abandoned my profession. After trying a clandestine group and to organize, I became first a leftist and then a Marxist. Then the idea of becoming, follow the Che Guevara, that was the time of Che Guevara, and then that was the model for all of us. And then we tried in a clandestine group to have something that will become a reality, and then it collapsed before starting. That was a very important lesson for me about violence.

And then we stopped the idea of violence and we tried non-violence. And first I tried in the government and then I got, because we had a populist president, a very high position in the government and I was in 1976 in the immediate danger of becoming a minister in the new government. And then I quit the government forever because by that time I knew that the government, the state, is posed to for control and domination and not for social change.

Then I abandoned it with this, the idea, the leftist idea of seizing power and capturing the state to organize the revolution. And then I started to work at the service in collaboration with people at the grassroots. We created an independent organization. It grew very fast and very much.

AL | What was it called?

GE | Autonomy, decentralize and [Spanish] – is very difficult to translate and it’s the connection between the different people. And we were working at one point in 25 states of Mexico. We were all over the place and doing almost everything, following what the people wanted us to do. We invented create, [Spanish] create without any support. Then one community could come to our office and ask for a crate for the community and then came back with a check without any kind of only basic interest.

And that was very successful and that was one of the activities that we were doing associated with the technical aspects, political aspects, agrarian aspects, almost the whole everything that the communities wanted. And after some time, we started also to work in the cities because the camp casinos were coming to the cities and we started to work also with the so-called informal sectors in the cities. And then the network, this organization was covering all the aspects of the society, other grassroots with the so-called popular sectors.

AL | And how did you end up in Oaxaca in setting up UniTierra? 

GE | Well, I am living at eight kilometers from the place where my Zapotec grandmother was born. Then in a very real sense, I was coming back to the land of my ancestors. I had been working a lot with things in Oaxaca, but finally it was meaningless to keep a flat in Mexico City with the kind of work I was doing. And then we abandoned with my companera. I abandoned Mexico City and came to live here 32 years ago. After looking different places, this was the place where I should come.

And that was first a very lucky decision because Oaxaca is the only state in Mexico where the majority of the populations are Indigenous peoples, of 16 different Indigenous peoples. And then the Indigenous culture here is a reality, it’s a presence. You cannot ignore the Indigenous reality, and for me to learn the whole thing, I think I came here like 1988, ’89. In the ’90s, it was first, 1992 was the moment of affirmation of the Indigenous people in the whole American continent because of the 500 anniversary of the ambition. It was a moment of affirmation. It was spectacular.

And it was our discovery that how much we ignored how different we are. We were in a very western tradition. We were all the time assuming that we were the same human beings and that’s it. And then because of the Indigenous people we have, because of ’92, we started to discover, no, no, they are different. They are different kind of beings and then we need to discover how to talk, how to interact with them in a different way. And in was the discovery for us of what we call the intercultural dialogue, how to acknowledge the radical otherness of the other and then how we can connect with them in a different way.

After many attempts, and then we created a center that was called a center for intercultural encounters and dialogue, and that now has more than 25 years of work. It was talking, interacting with the people in Oaxaca, but also with people coming from other countries, with the students and researchers, et cetera coming here. And from Japan or the United States or Canada or Austria or Finland or many, many different places.

Then trying to talk with them to understand the connection, we discovered two things. One is the real dialogue happens only doing things together, not just talking changing ideas, not just conversation, doing things together, then you can have a real dialogue. Second, perhaps this sounds very romantic, but it is to say perhaps we cannot understand each other mind-to-mind, but we can connect heart-to-heart. It’s a different level of introduction. And then we were involved in that kind of things.

And then in that context to have the Zapatistas was an incredible blessing. It was an opening to a whole different way of doing the things of opening the interaction with others. I think for me it’s a very good example what happened when they organized in 1996, what they call it, the intergalactic encounter, when people from all over the world were coming with a lot of trust kits, and Marxist-Leninists and all kind of groups saying, “This is the moment to create again another international in the tradition of the international organizations of the socialist.”

At the end, the [foreign language 00:13:48] and the Marxists announced the creation of the international of hope. That was completely different. It was not an organization; it was not an apparatus dispositive. It was united by a common hope in changing everything. And then I have been with the, of course, with the Zapatistas in them since then in very different ways. I was an advisor in the negotiations with the government. They invited 100 advisors and I was one of them.

Ivan Illich

And I was lucky enough in this process to finally meet with Ivan Illich. When Ivan was at the peak of his fame in the early ’70s, I was living at 60 kilometers from his place. But for us in the Marxist left, he was just a reactionary priest and then we did not care, even in reading his stuff. We were saying, “Yes, he’s criticizing education and health in the capitalist society.” Of course, it’s shit, but in the socialist world we will have good education and good health like Cuba is showing to the world. That was the conviction in the ’70s.

Then finally because of a friend I met with Ivan in 1983, I was immediately fascinated and then I started to read frantically all his books and we started to collaborate and then we became friends. And then of course I discovered that perhaps what Ivan has is the people’s discourse. And the basic words of Ivan, I have heard them among the people at the grassroots, not in any book. Words like vernacular are words used by the people here at the grassroots, not by the mid classes.

AL | So most people in the West don’t know Ivan Illich, and maybe you could just tell us a little bit about his role in the discourse of decolonizing education and his capitalist critique.

GE | Yes, I think and in fact we are convinced that even anticipated what is happening today better than any other person I know. That he was clear what will happen in 1970. He said at one point the prophet is not a person with a crystal pole, but the person that can grow deep in the examination of the current reality and discovered the basic trends. And then he discovered the basic trends. His contributions are first, he’s I think the most solid critic of the industrial model production. And because of the industrial model production, capitalist or socialist, he can discover the basic counter productivity of modern institutions.

And he discovers how these institutions will collapse the way they are collapsing today. He anticipated this kind of collapse and discovered something else, how in this process, when the modern society is falling apart, the people will be destroyed for what they are and they will transform it into subsystems of systems. What we are in a sense, seeing today, that they are creating the synetic man, the young man clogged into a cell or something. He’s no longer a person. He’s a subsystem of a system.

I think that we need to discuss the current situation with the word sub event, with the eyes sub event, that he really opens our minds and hearts to a completely different thing. And it is, he helps not only to understand what is happening, why it is happening, why the collapse of everything that we knew, how the world when that we knew is no longer there, but also what to do. He anticipated what we are doing today. For example, he’s not announcing at the end of tools for conviviality. He’s not talking about creating parties or creating organizations or revolutionary organizations. He has a different definition of revolution.

But he’s talking about coalitions of the discontented people, and this is exactly what we are doing all the time today, these people that are discontent with what is happening, that are creating coalitions, and this kind of things. This is what I find fascinated in Ivan. In fact, I am trying to launch with some friends and a project to document everything from Ivan to collect all his work and to disseminate it electronically and in a very possible way.

AL | How did Ivan Illich end up in Mexico in the ’70s?

GE | It was a very clear, it was a very conscious decision. He was already a critic of the system when the Pope and President Kennedy had an agreement to send to Latin America 10% of all the priests and nuns of North America. And then the church asks Theban, the Cardinal Spellman and others ask Theban to organize the process of sending this priests and nuns and train them to go to Latin America.

AL | What was his background? What would put him in that position? He was-

GE | Because he was so brilliant, he was really amazing. He became a priest in Rome. He was invited for a brilliant diplomatic career. He was to become the private secretary of the Pope. And then he escaped and took a flight to New York to a study in Princeton. But then being in Princeton crossing, and this is very important for our conversation, being in New York with Cardinal Spellman that became person protecting him, he crossed to the Puerto Rican neighborhoods and saw the horror of how the priests, the Irish priests there, were treating the [Spanish], the people from Puerto Rico.

And then he went immediately with Cardinal Spellman and asked for the parish. And for the first time he became a real priest, a real Catholic priest giving him the mass, et cetera. And then he changed everything in conceived. We are talking about the ’50s and the early ’60s. Then in that context, he was in the church, he was singing, bringing music, using Spanish instead of Latin, changing everything. And then he became famous of the kind of things he was doing, and he started to publish the critique of the church and the alternative for Latin America.

And then after some point he was sent to Puerto Rico where he was vice director of the University of Puerto Rico. He started to do fantastic thing. That is where he started to find a critique, a critique of the school, seeing what the school was doing to the people. He elaborated something about that kind of thing. And then he was in that position prominent first about Latin America. He was one person of the church that knew well Latin America. The stories go on and on. He went to visit in Brazil, Bishop Helder Camara, a very famous man in the whole Latin America, and Helder Camara adopted Ivan immediately and he was given to Ivan one book every day. And then the next day introducing the author of the book to Ivan.

And then that is how he met Freire and they became friends and then Helder Camara told Ivan, if you really want to know Latin America, you need to walk Latin America. And then – this is very impressive – he walked from Santiago de Chile to Venezuela. Walking a lot-

AL | In the 1960s?

GE | Yes, yes. That is the kind of thing a person that he was. Even then he was known because of this kind of thing. And then he was invited to organize and then he was horrified about the idea of bringing all the priests and nuns of America. It would be the worst kind of colonization ever conceived. And then he found a place in Latin America where he will create a center to train them. He discovered Guadalaca, very close to a big airport, et cetera, but isolated. He invented a fantastic language school for them to learn very quickly, very, very good Spanish, the best method created by Ivan that still exists. It’s a fantastic language school. But at the same time, he was telling them what they were going to do. And then most of them never went. They came back to the US and decided not to go. And those that went were no longer [inaudible 00:24:08]. They were transformed with Ivan.

AL | So we’re sitting in UniTierra in Oaxaca. And maybe to ask you about the pedagogy here, you mentioned Freire, the author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Illich of course with Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality. Maybe tell us about your understanding of pedagogy and what you’re doing here and your point of view on education.

UniTierra, courtesy Radical Ecological Democracy

GE | Yes. We don’t have any pedagogy. When someone asks us, we said that we can use baby’s pedagogy, that the babies learn things as difficult as to think, to walk and to speak without any pedagogy, without any educator, without any education. And then we are trying to reclaim that condition of learning. We are explicitly trying to go beyond education. I will briefly say that when my first daughter became of school age, that is long time ago, then I could not find the school to which I can trust. I put my daughter a public or private school. And then I created a school with some friends in which we mix it, a lot of things Montessori and Waldorf and all kind of alternative ways of teaching.

To make that long story short, when my daughter ended high school, we closed the school. That was very successful at that time because by that time my daughter and her parents were convinced that the problem was not a quality of the school, the quality of education, but the school itself, that the problem was the school. This we are talking about the ’60s. And then for the last 50 years I have been exploring alternatives. For some time, alternative education and finally alternatives to education. Then what we are saying is that the very idea that someone know what you must learn is criminal, it’s absurd, it’s impossible. We cannot accept anymore that kind of things. That what we need to create is condition for learning and freedom and that is what we have been doing.

Alnoor Ladha

AL | And what does that look like in practice? I can imagine talking to a mother in her 30s who has a five-year-old who’s just about to enter the school system and they’re looking for what the alternatives are, Waldorf and et cetera, and how would you explain to this person what uneducation education looks like?

GE | We have that experience every week here in UniTierra because there are groups of parents coming to discuss how to abandon the school. That is not easy. It’s one of the most challenging things. It is not easy because the question of the school is not only the question of education in general, but what to do with the kids that if you really deschool, your child, your children and you don’t have, are you no longer with an institution to which you can deposit your children, you need to change your life.

You cannot continue living the usual way, doing your work and going to your work and doing your things, what to do with your children. And then that is very challenge. That is what we are discussing here. I think that Illich started his critique of the industrial model production with the school because it’s the most radical thing. You really need to change your way of life. You cannot live without the school. It’s really the pillar of the modern society. The whole society is organized around the school and then if you eliminate the school, the whole thing is because to collapse.

AL | The parents can’t go to school now and leave their children and write some incubator and then they’re not being trained in vocational job skills for the industrial market economy.

GE | Yeah. That is, and the question is, I am telling you that for 60 years now I have been involved with this critique of the school, et cetera. I have never seen what is happening today in the world. I have never seen the interest of millions of people in alternatives way of learning. The parents are seeing the poor children in the house plugged into the computer, plug it into the stupid things that they are getting in the screen. And then the many, many parents are saying, “No, no, this is not possible. I don’t want to do my poor children to this kind of life.”

And then they begin to look for alternative ways of learning. And this is what we are doing, talking with them and showing the many different ways in which you can learn. And I must tell you that perhaps one piece of story should be introduced at about UniTierra, because this happens with everything that we do. We started because of the Indigenous people in Oaxaca in 1997. They created something that they call the Indigenous Forum and then they present periodically the position of the Indigenous people to their society.

And then 1997, after one year of meditation and discussion in assemblies, they came to the people and told them the educational system is considered to de-indianize us, to destroy us, to destroy the condition of being Indigenous. And they said, and it has succeeded for 200 years, millions of Indigenous people enter the educational system and came out. They are no longer Indigenous. They are something else that we don’t know exactly what it is, but they are no longer Indigenous. The school is considered in Mexico and everywhere in the world to destroy, it is a culturalcide instead of genocide. Yes, we will not kill them but we will transform them in something else.

Then the Indigenous people of Oaxaca, they said in 1997, “Enough, basta, we cannot accept that any longer.” And then they started to close the schools. You can imagine the scandal. The front page is everywhere – these barbarians, they are condemning their children to ignorance. They should not be autonomy. We need to do something against these guys and they put an incredible pressure, political and economic pressure on them. But many of them persisted and then a good anthropologist, we know him and decided to teach a lesson to these parents and then he decided some tests to apply it to children going to the school and to children not going to the school to show the parents this is what you are doing to your poor children. They are being left behind.

For his surprise, these children not going to the school were better not only knowing how to believe in the community, how to attend the fiestas, et cetera, but also how to read and write and geography or history better that children going to the school with one exception. They did not know how to sing the national anthem. That was the only advantage of the children going to the school. And of course, these communities were very happy and then continue with the experience with these children.

But then they came with us two or three years later saying, “Well what will happen with our young men and women after they learn a lot of things they can learn in the community and they are curious and they want to learn something that no one knows in the community because they don’t have any diploma, they cannot continue their stories.” And then we invented UniTierra with them and for them. If you see the founders of UniTierra, it is Indigenous and non-Indigenous people coming together to create something, to host this curiosity of young men and women that want to learn something.

At the very beginning it was fun, real fun because we created this for every person come here. We don’t have any curriculum; we don’t have any program of studies. We try to support the people that want to learn something and to support their learning by doing what the person wants to learn. For example, a person comes and say, “I want to become an agrarian lawyer.” The next day he’s working with an agrarian lawyer. Of course, an agrarian lawyer is he’s our friend and he’s very interested in that this guy learns very soon how to be an agrarian lawyer, because he will very useful in the firm.

And then in more or less 18 months he’s a good lawyer. He knows nothing about the labor law or constitutional law, all the other branches of law, but he knows everything. And then he presents cases in the courts and wins and then he’s ready to become a lawyer. But that was only one sum of the cases. The students even destroyed that way. The most popular area was popular communication. The young men and women wanted something in communication. And then we had something that was kind of curriculum. We were saying, “Well, in a year they need to learn how to produce a radio program, how to use the mic, how to produce videos, how to print a pamphlet,” et cetera.

All of them, 100% of the student destroyed that curriculum at one point saying, “No, no, I am not interested in only the thing. The thing that I want to do is video. The thing that I want to do is radio. This is my thing then.” And they started doing it and then we had some of the best guy producing video in Oaxaca Este Leonard here, how to produce video. And he stopped it. This is my thing; this is what I want to do.

AL | So, in this model of self-directed, apprentice-based, practical skills that you are drawn to rather than rote memorization, et cetera, but what do you say to the parent then who’s like, “How does my child learn to read and write and do math and do the basics?” How does that process happen if you’re your deschooling your child?

GE | The basic argument is when the child wants, when the child is interested with someone that he or she loves, that is for us very important. First, all the children are, they are a real pest because they are all the time asking questions and they want to know everything. From the very beginning when the child is one year old, he’s already asking questions and trying to imitate the others. Then you don’t need to teach them to wash their teeth because when they see you washing your teeth, they are curious, and they want to know and they want to have the books. They want to learn. And then it is reacting to this, not telling them, “This is the time to learn how to write, how to read.” It’s when they see their brothers, someone else, a friend et cetera, reading and enjoying reading and then he can say, “I want to do the same.”

And then if that child is ready, he wants to learn how to read, how to write, then that is the time and you find his brother, his mother, anyone. Let me tell you a story. A very close friend of Ivan and a friend of us, Richard Westheimer in Cincinnati in the United States decided to deschool his five children and adopt this principle. And then the third of his children, a girl, was not interested in reading and this guy was very concerned and she was six years old, seven years old, eight years old and she was not reading, and she was not interested in reading even if her brothers, all of them were reading pretty well, she was not interested.

And when the father started to tell her, Eva is the name of this girl, “Eva, perhaps you need to…” She answered, “You told me that I am free to do whatever I want. I’m not interested in reading.” And then when she was more than nine years old, she became interested in reading. She’s now 20 years later, the reader of the family. She’s the one reading like mad, reading everything that she can collect. She decided to read when she was ready, she was really interested and then she was really passionate to read and then he’s reading a lot.

I think this lesson is for me, it’s a very important principle to give the children the opportunity to decide in what moment they want to read what. Of course, they are questions of survival. They need to learn how to cross the street with you as soon as possible because if not, they will die. There are some things that they need to see that they need to learn immediately for survival. But again, interacting with them in freedom, trying to create the opportunity for that the children decide when to learn.

AL | And this is inspired by Indigenous knowledge systems. This is the way most Indigenous cultures are teaching children. There’s no formal education, it’s mimicry, it’s integration in the community life, integration and family life.

GE | In fact, I think in Indigenous peoples in Oaxaca, we can see an experience that areas and elites are right. The idea of childhood is a modern creation. It does not exist in the Indigenous community. They are not children. There is not a category of people call it children. They are members of the community. They live the children, the first one, two, even three years with the mother and the mother takes care of them, living with the mother, protecting by the mother.

But after that, they are members of the community and they attend all the fiestas, et etcetera. They learn by seeing and experiencing the different aspects. And after they are three years old, of course this is considered children’s work, et cetera, problem solve of human rights or whatever, the children are participating in their real life of the community in every possible aspect. And accompanying the father, the child can accompany the father to the path, cultivate the corn and the girl accompanying the mother in the activities to produce tortillas, et cetera.

This is happening today. You have today here in Oaxaca, you have the school through the screen and you have the children program to the screen and then the teacher will come to help him in the screen. But at that moment the father is going to the Milpa and then the child escapes and go with the father to the Milpa. And of course, the father protects him against the teacher and against the school system because now the children are again living with the community, living with the parents and learning in the traditional way, learning by doing with parents, with the family, with the community, learning real life and things to leave.

AL | And this is why you said you would have to change your life radically if you wanted to deschool your children because for parents embedded in modernity, living in an urban environment, what is the child going to learn from that parent, right, who’s not practicing food sovereignty, is not practicing community life.

GE | That is what they are learning. This is what is happening here. We have many, many different groups of people coming here for this process. We have an area for children in UniTierra where the parents come and we have discussions here and the children are enjoying themselves in another room, not really learning, not any curriculum, not any teacher taking care of them, enjoying themselves. But basically, discussing what to do, how we need to reorganize our lives. COVID is helping because many people, millions of people have been losing their jobs and the jobs will not come back and then they are forced to reinvent themselves.

To give example, they of the city of Oaxaca, Oaxaca was the city living on the tourists and then thousand, thousands of people were working in the restaurants, working in their hotels or producing food goods and services for the tourists. And suddenly there are no tourists. You are now here very welcome exception in Oaxaca because there are no reading, there are no not many tourists. And then you have thousands of people that cannot find jobs. I will never find a job of the kind of job they have, a job or a source of income and then they need to reinvent themselves. And then reinventing themselves one way, this is where are working with them just is reproducing food.

For example, food is a astronomic paradise and people need to eat and then instead of going to Walmart or to a Starbucks and to buying food, and you can see in the street here in Oaxaca, overeats bringing food to you at home. But instead of having that kind of things, you can produce your own food or have the arrangements between people in the city and people in the countryside producing food for the change. That in place changing the lives and then the children may accompany this process.

But in fact, what we are doing, and it is very difficult, I must tell you. First, creating opportunities for the children to meet with other children in the current conditions with the lockdown and these kinds of things. Finding ways for the children. But the most important point for us, not only for the children to be with other children, but the children to experience directly a whole world of different activities. It is not easy. We are saying the child should select, I want this guy is a philosopher and I love what he’s doing, and I want to learn how to philosophize with him. And you are a carpenter and then he suddenly loves what you are doing as a carpenter. But he needs to find, to see, to experience firsthand the philosopher and the carpenter and to coexist with them and see this is what I want to do.

This we are trying to create the opening also for people in the communities, because perhaps in the communities, in many Indigenous communities, very traditional communities, they don’t have many opportunities except for their traditional cultivation, et cetera. And then we need to create opportunities where for them to see other kind of things to come back to the communities. For a while in immense satisfaction at North, most perhaps 99% of all the Indigenous men and women that learn something in UniTierra are back in their communities. It was not an opportunity to escape from their communities, but they are bringing back to the communities whatever they learn here.

AL | So, if we were to apply this model at a bigger scale and this was embedded in our vision for the post-capitalist world, what do you think the dominant culture would need to unlearn to deschool? To deprogram? What aspects of our culture?

GE | I think that the most aspect of, the most important aspect, is it’s combined in one point is first that “I know what the next generation should know.” That is a principle that should be abandoned. And associated with this is the very foolish idea that we are all the same. The industrial idea that all the humans are the same and then we are talking about homogeneous capacity. And the very idea that we have the same curriculum for children in New York, Mexico City or a small village in Oaxaca. It’s a stupid, it’s absolutely abhorrent. It is the most stupid thing.

It is not to prepare label for us, same label, it’s just a disease, a pathology of the modern society. Then we need to abandon this idea. We need to schedule and format whatever the next generation will do. And we know increasingly that this is stupid because we know nothing about what will happen tomorrow. how we will train the children in something that we basically ignore, that there are no experts in tomorrow! No one knows what will happen and then how I will teach the students, all the curriculum around the world is obsolete. It’s useless.

AL | Jung used to say that every generation has a spirit project, a sort of generational task in which they’re incarnated for, right? And so one generation cannot know the other generations, what they’re being prepared for, essentially. So, in order to achieve this vision, enact this vision, what does the progressive movement, radicals, vanguard, social movements, what do we need to unlearn in ourselves in order to make this more widespread? What’s blocking us? Bayo, who’s a friend of both of ours says, “part of the crisis is the way we are approaching the crisis,” as progressives, as radicals, et cetera.

GE | I think it is the… I would say the obsession with ‘leading the masses’.

AL | Leading the masses.

GE | Leading the masses. “I know what to do that I will lead the others in the change.” The creation of the vanguard, the vanguard can be a political organization or can be a small NGO that we lead the people in a certain direction. It is something that it is not easy, but it is really beautiful, really exciting, following the others, learning with the others instead of leading the others. We say all the time that UniTierra is in submersive in the social movement in Oaxaca and we are totally fascinated with the many directions in which they are leading us. It is the people leading us, not us leading the people.

This is really exciting, and this is beautiful. This is… And people, I think that with COVID, when science is lost and they don’t know what to do with this and the politicians are giving the most stupid instructions to everyone, people know how to react. People discovered people really know how to do. The authorities, the health authorities in Mexico acknowledged it a few months ago that half the Mexicans cannot be locked down because they cannot survive lock down. They cannot. They need to go out to survive.

The people are going out to survive. And the question is not if they’re using masks or not. The question is what they are doing. I would say the most important point, and this is a lesson learned with the people not taught by us, is the most important point is sitting, the whole point with the virus is eating better, is eating well to produce, to improve your capacity to resist the virus or to use to resist all these kinds of things.

They don’t know the official the figure of recent studies saying that 90% of the people that died for the virus died because of previous conditions of obesity and diabetes and this kind of chronic conditions. The problem is the obesity and diabetes and this chronic condition.

AL | Industrial food model.

GE | The industrial food model, and this is exactly what the people have been doing. The figure in Oaxaca is impressive. One reaction of communities. We have 12,000 communities in Oaxaca. These 12,000 communities, at least half of them closer themselves because of virus, after the fear of the virus, et cetera. Not locked down, closer the village, then no one can come into the village. Even if someone of the village can needs to go out, it’s with control, with a very appropriate filter for that person, with quarantine if needed, if someone was coming back from the US or from Mexico City, quarantine.

But then inside the village, many villages closer the village to junk food. No more, no more all these stupid things. And so the lady community discovered how much they were dependent of that stupid food, was the community they were eating a lot. It was not only a few Coca-Cola addicts; it was the whole village were eating this kind of things. And then after they closed the possibility of having junk food, they were forced to formulate the whole idea of fitting. And then they started to put again more attention to the Milpa, more attention, some arrangements with the next village to compliment what you were producing, to have a good diet with all the proper things.

And exactly the same about healing. They started to rediscover the traditional healers, how much the traditional healers know how much they need to discover when a person has the virus, to discover as soon as possible and to do something immediately, not to wait until he or she is having problems. Then and mixing the traditional remedies, the traditional practices, the kind of sauna abouts with eucalyptus, these kinds of things that have been very, very effective.

We have the figures. In the whole American continent, the proportion of people dying in Indigenous communities is higher than the average. Why? Because they were suffering a lot of mystery, malnutrition, health problems of every kind. They were in very bad conditions. That was the usual condition of the Indigenous people sector, very oppressed by the modern society. But in Oaxaca with these communities, you see the fears. You have 110 municipalities, that means several hundred communities with not a single case of the virus, not one case. And second, those with cases, very few deaths.

And those deaths are basically people who were in very fragile conditions before, meaning people are not seeing the virus as the enemy. They are rediscovering that the enemy was how they abandoned the people in delicate conditions, how they abandon some of their old people, some of the people with obesity or diabetes, et cetera. And they’re taking care of them, they’re doing the right thing.

AL | So this is a good transition to the last question I’ll ask. And we talked a bit about this idea earlier before we were recording the idea of centropic frames. So centropy is the counter to entropy, right? Entropy is degradation and centropy is almost like a positive feedback loop. And so, at Culture Hack Labs, we talk about this idea of centropic frames, which are memes, ideas, phrases, concepts, pieces of language that create positive feedback loops, healing, restoration through the very use of the language itself. And maybe we can touch quickly on two concepts that I’ve heard you talk about. One is [Spanish] and the other is [Spanish]. And just so we can also insert some of these antigen memes, these centropic frames into the discourse. So maybe you could just talk a bit about those two.

GE | As I said [Spanish] was the creation of to two Indigenous guys, independent creation [Spanish] in Zapotec independently invented the same word, [Spanish], basically to share with others what kind of beings they were, that it was very difficult for them to explain this to others and say, “[Spanish] basically is to accept that you are not an individual, that you are a we, not an I, or that every I is a we, that we are not in nets of relations and that these nets are brought into a community.” And then we are that community. That we is the way we are. And even many, many people perceive themselves first of all as an expression of the community, as a personalized expression of the communal spirit. Well, that is basically [Spanish].

AL | There are four pillars to [Spanish], right? You contribute to shared work, et cetera. Maybe you could say a bit about that.

GE | Yes, it is. First [Spanish] means that it’s the communal work that is you are not paid for doing some work for the community. The community decide, “Oh, we will fix that straw that is in bad conditions,” and then the whole people need to go and put some work without any payment. This is [Spanish]. Then you have the assembly. That is the supreme authority of the community, meaning the basic decisions in the community are taken by the assembly in which everybody participate.

One very important point that I think we must include in this conversation, for us the most important point today is what the women are doing on the March 8th. And I think that last year, at least in Oaxaca, on March 8th, in 2020, they broke the patriarch normality in the spectacular way. And that we are living in that moment, which pack normality is no longer there. This is, it’s very, very important for us that in these 12,000 communities in Oaxaca in the last 10 years, the assemblies took the decision that the women that were not allowed into the assemblies for hundreds of years, for centuries, now they have been allowed to come.

And this is not a suddenly the men were enlightened, and they’ll change it because of this alignment, it is the struggle of the women. And many women assume that all the full responsibility of the villages when the men went to the US or any other place. It is, the assembly, it’s now with men and women have the full authority in the village. And then you have cargos. It means that the community ask you to perform a cargo position of authority for them. It is for free, it is without honorarium, without payment. And then you are at the service of the community. This starts very early in life when you are just a child and then you grow, depending of how you do, you are improving in the level of the cargo they ask from you until you are the municipal president or whatever.

And then the fourth is perhaps for me the most important, the fiesta. The fiesta in which everybody participates, it is a moment to fix conflicts. People that have been fighting during the year arrange everything during the fiesta. They are together. They are enjoying themselves. The children are part of the fiesta participate; everybody participates. It is a very important moment and there are many fiestas in the communities. In one place there was they were going to put factory. They realize that a lot of tests and they discovered they can be magnificent workers and say to us, “This is a place for the factory.” But then the people told them that they will be very happy to work in the factory, but in that community, there are 112 days which they cannot work because they have a kind of fiesta. And then for the factory it was impossible to accept 112 days of fiesta, not work, and they moved the factory to another place.

AL | And then maybe just a little bit about [Spanish].

GE | Yes, a few years ago, because with the tourist [Spanish] in Colombia, we discovered that there were collective groups that were doing fascinating things beyond the market and the state, that they were trying to create a different kind of life. That in a sense, without any theoretical formulation, they were assuming that the modern era ended, that capitalist is dead, that everything is dead, that they need to create something different. And they started doing perhaps in one marginal area of activity or very important area of activity, like eating, but just one area they started with something like producing their own food. And then a step-by-step, the step they started to cover other different areas.

And then we discovered that they were collectives emerging everywhere. And then we say, “Well, let’s try to identify them and put them in connection with each other from them to learn from each other.” Then after some time they will offer mutual solidarity and after some time we will give them visibility for all the people that are discontented with the current conditions of the world but don’t know how to do, can be inspired by them. And then we have now [Spanish] in Mexico, in Colombia, and we also created a global tapestry of alternatives trying to find this all over the planet.

I must tell you something more about [Spanish] that is connected with this. We assume it from the very beginning that we should be small, that we need to grow. We must not grow very much. Then we call this [Spanish] Oaxaca meaning only for this, only for the city of Oaxaca. Then but we share that experience and other people started to what we were doing, and they have been doing. And then we have many community UniTierras, one community UniTierra 30 minutes from here because the community decided to create something like UniTierra in their own way in that community.

And then we have many communities. Another in Chiapas, there is [Spanish] in Chiapas. Next to the Zapatistas we have UniTierra in Puerta, other UniTierras in Mexico. But you also have UniTierras now in Japan, in California, in Catalonia, in Toronto, in many different places where someone starts something of this kind for the people to learn by themselves in freedom learning by doing in different ways for different conditions.

AL | Beautiful, beautiful. Thank you so much for your time, Gustavo. And yeah, it’s an honor to be here in Oaxaca with you in UniTierra.

GE | Thank you for the invitation to participate in this. It’s as usual a very good adventure what you are doing.