By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
Reporting from Mexico City— The most powerful woman in Mexico carries $5,000 Hermes purses and can make or break a presidency.
She's head of the nation's principal teachers union, the largest syndicate in Latin America, and once gave Hummers as gifts to loyal teachers.
Elba Esther Gordillo commands the patronage of more than 1.5 million teachers, and in election years, that means more than 1.5 million votes. Almost every political party courts her.
Yet scandal has forever dogged her, including accusations of illegal self-enrichment and even murder. No charges ever stuck, making her seem untouchable. Her union reportedly takes in millions in government money while she, once a humble teacher from Mexico's poorest south, lives much of the time in luxurious properties in Southern California.
Gordillo's critics say her extravagances during 22 years as union president might not be so bothersome if the state of education in Mexico were not so abysmal. ...
Last year, slightly more than half of high school students flunked the math portion of standardized tests, while more than a third flunked Spanish. Mexican students scored the lowest reading levels of developed countries in the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Okay, but Mexico doesn't really belong in the OECD with Denmark, Canada, and Japan. It's more like Turkey or Brazil. And, its 2009 PISA scores were up over the previous PISA.
On the other hand, Mexicans in Mexico score a lot worse than Mexicans in the U.S. on the PISA. The thing that struck me the most about Mexico's lousy PISA scores was not the mediocre average but what a tiny percentage of Mexicans scored high. There are several times more students in Turkey who ace the PISA than in Mexico, which suggests that rich Mexicans, the ones who ought to be doing well on the test, are lazy, don't like reading and studying, and set a bad example for the Mexican masses.
Meanwhile, in 2010, 75% of teachers-in-training failed the exam that would have placed them in a job, and last year only 1% of working teachers passed a test that would have raised their salaries. ...
Gordillo is in the spotlight again because Mexico is in the throes of campaign fever, with a presidential election coming up next year. Her support was considered decisive in the 2006 narrow victory of Felipe Calderon and his conservative National Action Party; and today, she appears prepared to cast her lot, and her many votes, with the clear front-runner, the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
By the way, wouldn't the best thing for Mexico be a victory by a responsible leftist, like Lula in Brazil? It's not like the political climate in Mexico is so anti-business that nobody can get rich there (e.g., Carlos Slim). The left party has never won, having the 1988 election stolen and may have had the close 2006 election swiped, and wouldn't it be time for them to learn some responsibility by having to govern? However, that's just my gringo view and Mexican voters seem to want to go back to the old ruling party. Maybe there aren't responsible leftists in Mexico?
Gordillo, with her fondness for designer frocks, extreme jewelry and, apparently, abundant plastic surgery, was in fact a product of the PRI's old-style, autocratic type of rule, which lasted seven decades until 2000 and is poised now to return. The party controlled just about everything, including unions. Then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari anointed Gordillo in 1989 as president of the National Syndicate of Education Workers, or SNTE, after she'd spent years as a tireless and fiercely loyal climber in the party and the union.
In 2007, at a closed-door meeting protected by private guards, the union leadership purportedly made Gordillo "president for life." A dissident group of unionized teachers has been threatening ever since to denounce her to the International Labor Organization for abuse of office. ...
Gordillo, 66, calls herself and is widely known as La Maestra, The Teacher. In public speeches, however, she sometimes sounds more like a failing student than a polished educator, fumbling words and syntax.
My recollection is that some public school teaching jobs in Mexico have become a hereditary privilege. Talk about tenure: in Mexico, if you are a teacher and die, your heir gets your job. If your child doesn't want to teach, he or she can auction off the right to the job.
In general, Mexico is a pretty entertaining place to read about, but it doesn't get covered much in the U.S. in the English language media relative to, say, the Middle East. By the way, whatever happened to that whole Arab Spring thing? Did Summer happen to it?