Bystanders to a Revolution: Oaxaca City, Mexico
Bystanders to a Revolution
You probably don’t know about the months of mainly peaceful protests starting in May 2006 against the Oaxacan government, the murder of N.Y. independent photojournalist Brad Will as he filmed Mexican government officials shooting at unarmed citizen protesters in Oaxaca, Mexico, or the torture and disappearance of countless Mexican citizens. Mainstream U.S. media barely mentioned what began as another teachers’ strike in May 2006. My family and I, however, were in Oaxaca, the beautiful colonial city and capital of the Mexican state of Oaxaca in the south of the country and saw what happened.
In August 2006 as my husband and I were about to leave for Mexico, the U.S. State Department issued a warning against travel to Oaxaca, Mexico— home to 16 indigenous peoples where we’d arranged to live, study Spanish, and learn about the culture. With leaves from our jobs, a good foster home for our rascal dog, and a friend to come with our 16-year-old son, we decided to go ahead with our plans. We’d already bought our airline tickets. How bad could it be?
So on August 29, 2006, our son, John; his friend, Jesse; my husband, Barry, and I flew into Oaxaca on a late night plane with only 21 people – including the attendants – on board. As the one airport shuttle van delivered five other tourists and us into the city center, we saw ominous fires blocking intersections, burned out buses, and one group of club-carrying men in the dark streets. We learned that demonstrators had carried out a statewide work stoppage that day. Although not wanting to scare the boys, my husband and I – talking late into the night – worried that we had made a BIG mistake.
The next morning, however, we awoke to the sun streaming into our hostel windows and people bustling along the sidewalks carrying bags from the markets. Buses and taxis emitting clouds of black fumes chugged up the street. No one looked particularly worried. At breakfast, the four other tourists and hostel staff said there was really no problem, but we ought to be back in before dark. So tentatively, we ventured out and joined the throngs of people in this city of 400,000.
We saw a lot of graffiti: “Fuera URO” and various versions, which meant, “Get out Ulises Ruiz Ortiz” – the governor whom the teachers and other workers blamed for corruption–and worse.
We felt excited to be in this colorful city of ancient buildings and grand cathedrals, where the walls shops and houses radiate color: red, yellow, mustard, even cranberry.
Entrepreneurs abound: from the indigenous women in colorful “huipiles” selling mounds of fried grasshoppers (salty and crunchy) to boys selling plastic toys.
Sticking close together since none of us knew much Spanish and although wary of what could happen, we relished the sounds of the church bells, laughing children, and construction hammers and smells of tamales, chocolate, and passion fruit in this pulsating city. Heading to the Zócalo, the center square and main camp of the protesters, we wanted to see what was happening.
From Gary, an American who lives in Oaxaca, we soon learned that, as teachers had done for the past 22 years, they had begun their strike in May. Usually teachers spend a couple of weeks in protest in the Zócalo; then the government gives them a little raise, and they go home. But 2006 was very different. Oaxacan State Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, who had complete control over the state budget, gave nothing. The teachers did not go home.
Then on June 14, 2006, under orders from the governor, about 1,000 police attacked the sleeping but legally protesting teachers starting about 4:00 a.m. The police hurled tear gas and plowed through the Zócalo encampment with buses, crushing the teachers’ barricades, tents, and everything in their way.
The governor’s actions compelled farmers, taxi drivers, Socialists, Communists, and many others – perhaps 30 groups in all – to join the teachers in their protest under the umbrella group APPO (Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca). The teachers and other workers quickly recaptured the city center. Someone said even three thousand police can’t keep 40,000 angry teachers down.
By the end of August when we arrived in Oaxaca, the teachers’ and APPO’s basic demands had changed. They wanted the governor, who had not yet served two years of his six-year term, to resign. He refused to leave or even to negotiate. The national government did nothing, and the protests continued. Many of the protesters said they had nothing to lose but their lives.
Barry and I decided the city was interesting and seemed safe enough for us to stay.
Periodically during the campaign as a way to demonstrate their strength, APPO groups staged grand marches. On September 1, 2006, the day of the Fifth Oaxacan Megamarch, Jorgé, a local guy, skirting blockades and a parade route, drove us from our hostel to our very beautiful and affordable rented house. Once we unloaded our suitcases, we hurried a few blocks to Niños Héroes de Chapultepec Highway to watch the march along with hundreds of others. Chanting and carrying banners, the protesters twenty and sometimes more abreast, of mainly teachers, representing about 70,000 on-strike teachers from throughout Oaxaca State, marched steadily toward the Zócalo.
Farmers and union workers, many with lined faces and worn bodies, passed stoically.
I couldn’t help but think of the unarmed protesters of Tiananmen Square.
The next morning, afraid that friends and family would think we were in danger, I got up early to check the news. However, there was basically nothing in the U.S. news – Google, Yahoo, NY Times . . . – to report on the incredible march that we had seen and the power of these peaceful, determined people. The world didn’t see their efforts or know of their situations!
We had quickly learned that the “be in by dark” rule was unnecessary. The protesters were numerous and patient and non-violent. Because the boys wanted to take Tae Kwon Do lessons that were 14 blocks south of our house in a direct line though the Zócalo, we saw the protesters daily as Barry or I or both of us would walk to get the boys about 9:30 several nights a week.
Some of the protesters slept on cardboard on the sidewalks in the Zócalo. During the day, many of the women embroidered; many of the men played cards or chess; big groups played soccer in the streets; most read pamphlets and newspapers. The speeches and fireworks went on into the night. There were no police in this city of 400,000 for over five months. The people took care of problems themselves.
Finally in September, for the first time, the legislature talked of possibly removing the governor. The protesters felt hope. The owners of the burned buses and cars that blocked streets to slow down police or army forces, of course, were unhappy, and businesses suffered from low tourist rates, but most people wanted this governor gone and the protests resolved.
Thinking we were witnessing a peaceful revolution, one that would be a model for the world, we didn’t feel threatened.
We loved our beautiful house, discovered a great library that had books in English and weekly movies where we enjoyed popcorn and wine and met people.
We socialized more than we ever had time for at home and took great Spanish classes.
We settled in. The boys and I went to a wonderful school every day–Oaxaca Spanish Magic– and got local partners with whom to practice our Spanish.
Although I had family members who thought we were being very irresponsible to stay in Oaxaca, Jesse’s parents had faith in our judgment. The protests seemed to have no direct impact on us.
We learned about the Oaxacans’ dissatisfaction. In 2000, in the first Mexican presidential election considered clean and fair since the Mexican Revolution, Vicente Fox of the National Action elected Party (PAN) had won. However in Oaxaca, the governor’s party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had been in office for 77 consecutive years. For the previous last eight years, there had been no fiscal oversight of how the governor spent the state’s money!! Amid many accusations of election fraud, the PRI candidate for Oaxacan State Governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, was announced winner.
Many Mexicans feel Oaxaca had had good leaders in the past. For instance, under their beloved Benito Juárez, governor from 1848-1852, Oaxaca flourished. Juárez kept the peace, opened hundreds of elementary schools, many teachers’ academies, and almost wiped out state debt.
But now some say the reason so many risk their lives coming into the U.S. illegally is because the conditions in Mexico seem without hope, and the leadership is corrupt. Now the chief source of income for Mexico is the money sent from family members working in the U.S. Also many Mexicans have experienced great economic displacement under the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has made what was bearable poverty for the majority of Mexicans into worse scarcity. In sharp contrast to the Ulises Ruiz Ortiz government, Benito Juárez worked to give everyone in Oaxaca an opportunity for a better life.
As outsiders, we could see the government could help its citizens in obvious ways. Even in the capital city of Oaxaca, there is no clean water (unless you buy it); in the rural areas, only one in three farmers has use of a tractor, many people have to “buy” their jobs, and it’s expensive to get a decent education. For instance, Wendy, the 16-year-old Mexican girl with whom my son practiced his Spanish most afternoons, wants to be an electrical engineer, but her family can’t afford to send her to a good high school; instead she studies to be a secretary, learning shorthand in a high school with no computers. She’s typical of the bright, hardworking students who unless their families have money or connections are unlikely to attain good educations or real job opportunities.
However, in Oaxaca that summer into fall of 2006, the governor would still not negotiate with the teachers who still slept on the sidewalks although it rained almost every night.
John, Jesse, and I, however, were learning Spanish. Barry walked around Oaxaca–climbing hills, talking to shopkeepers, and carrying groceries from across town to keep two hungry 16-year-old guys and me full. We were all making friends and enjoying the Oaxacan markets and festivals.
Flor, the director of Oaxaca Spanish Magic, also kept us busy with varied field trips.
We continued to have fun:
We took a bus on a winding, mountainous road to Puerto Escondito on the coast.
The boys went on running and bike adventures.
We enjoyed the food.
Our school also showed us Mexican crafts and arts.
We enjoyed the many Oaxacan festivals.
While learning Spanish and having fun, we thought we were also seeing a peaceful revolution in Mexico that would promote needed changes. You can understand why we stayed.
Then on Friday, October 27, American Bradley Will was killed while videoing government officials shooting protesters. Newspapers carried the story and pictures; the Internet showed Will’s final video of the men shooting at him and others.
A Mexican professor and two other protesters were killed at the same time. Those with the guns were arrested and held for a short time by the Mexican police but later released. Oaxacan State Attorney General Lizbeth Cana suggested Will must have been shot by one of the protesters. Even now, years later, there have been no arrests for the deaths.
Those deaths, however, led President Fox to take action–but not the kind that the protesters had hoped–and on Saturday and Sunday, October 28-29, about 3,500 federal police (PFP) and 3,000 military police arrived in Oaxaca to remove protesters from the Zócalo. Fox had a backup of 5,000 army troops waiting at the airport and outside the city. Suddenly my sister’s premonitions seemed accurate.
The “invasion” scared us. We hid in our house. Although a Mexican law requires that police cannot shoot unless shot at, they were definitely armed and ready. Government helicopters circled everywhere.
When we really should have left the city, all the roads were blocked, the bus stations and airport closed. While government planes and buses of police descended on the city, we stayed glued to our radio. APPO announcers constantly called for calm, peace, non-violent resistance – and for Coca-Cola–to wash out eyes affected by tear gas. A little after 11 Sunday night, the connection to the radio was broken.
The government took the Zócalo back, but the protesters still controlled the university, an autonomous region where police cannot enter without permission.
Protesters regrouped, but the radio stations they had used (except for the one at the university), the Zócalo, and the church squares they had occupied were lost. Also with numerous police on the ground, it was obviously very dangerous to participate with APPO. We could not leave the city, so we stayed where we were and away from any “action.” Unofficial sources said there were deaths and kidnappings. However, Tony, a classmate who was in the Zócalo when the police came on Sunday said the federal forces showed professional behavior and restraint.
In an example of our wavering feelings about being in Oaxaca, on Monday, October 30, the day after the Mexican Federal Police retook the Zócalo, Flor suggested we go on a field trip to see what was happening. Go on a field trip? Worried that her school would be burned down, Flor had spent the previous night pacing the roof and before classes, washing away ash from all the floors and desks. This wasn’t Disneyland. But we didn’t hear any shooting, and we too were eager to see what was happening. At noon, we joined many other tourists and amazed local people to see the still smoldering buses and the hoards of police.
We could get close to PFP waiting in their riot gear in the hot sun.
An LA Times reporter interviewed our son. (“It’s like cool to be here,” John said in his typical 16-year-old view of the world).
On the MSN homepage for the day, Flor and classmate David from Berkeley were pictured in front of the police.
Although no one was allowed in the Zócalo, we watched (and I was amazed to see) a very large, noisy, APPO group march by in protest.
I was glad we got to see the police — and the protesters — but I made a vow not to go near the Zócalo again until after the shops had re-opened.
We could see from the numerous protesters undeterred by the police that it wasn’t enough for officials to hold the Zócalo and take down some of the barricades. The Mexican government and APPO, I thought, must now make real and meaningful agreements. And what did we do? We continued going to school and enjoying our daily lives in Oaxaca. We couldn’t think of another place in Mexico that we’d rather be.
By Tuesday morning, October 31, at the beginning of the Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, celebrations, I was out at a street market by myself buying huge armfuls of spicy smelling, brilliant red, yellow, and white flowers for the holiday. Flor took us to visit her family graves, meet her family members, drink mescal (the local liquor made from the maguey cactus plant), and join the parties in the graveyards for three consecutive nights.
On the final night of the Día de los Muertos celebrations, a live band played and couples danced salsa while costumed kids raced among the headstones in games of tag. Whole families came to eat and party and remember their loved ones in a clear recognition that death is part of our experience. It was obvious that the people who had died were not forgotten. I loved the whole holiday of beauty, spirit, and fun that included the living and the dead.
But as we enjoyed ourselves, the protesters did not go away as the government had hoped. The Oaxacan citizens had until then generally been supportive of the teachers and APPO’s cause. However, over five months of economic loss had a great impact. Some hotels had not had one customer in five months; restaurants and stores catering to tourists had shut their doors; Spanish language teachers and many others had lost their jobs. Many Oaxacans were tired of the strike, the barricades, the graffiti, and now with the police presence everywhere, it seemed the protest efforts weren’t creating needed changes. Much of the important popular support was lost.
We saw dramatic change. On Sunday, November 5, a week after the police had arrived, we went to Los Olivos for the wonderful vegetarian buffet.
Barry, John, and I were waddling home after eating too much when a 50-ish Mexican guy stopped us. In his excellent English, David S. introduced himself and then said he hoped we didn’t believe what APPO and the teachers were saying. David told how if he caught any of the APPO members, he would kill them. Saying he had stockpiled grenades to use against them, David, a tour guide, hadn’t had a job in five months. He said his economic problems were because of APPO, and he didn’t care what the governor did with the state money. He wanted to have work. David said he’d already given the police the names of the people who had manned the street barriers near his home. I was aghast. I tried listening to his point of view, but all I could mull over was that people protesting against a bad government were being thrown in jail (and worse). How many Oaxacans felt the same as David S.? Few, I think, but when the PFP took over the Zócalo, the people didn’t all rise up and take to the streets. They know the Mexican government and police; they’ve seen the consequences of challenging those in power.
We, however, continued on our daily routines.
And then something happened to us. We’d been really careful with the guys. Although at home, of course, Jesse is independent and drives wherever he wants to go, I wouldn’t let him go by himself out to the great skateboard park near the Oaxacan airport. I just didn’t want to take the chance that something would happen to him. But then on Friday morning, November 17, the boys were supposed to meet their Tae Kwon Do instructor, a thirty-something black belt, who had invited them to go running in the hills above Oaxaca.
John, who woke up feeling sick, backed out at the last minute. But it was a sunny morning, a little chilly, a great day for running. We lived in a very nice residential area. In fact, scenic parts of it were filmed in Jack Black’s 2006 comedy Nacho Libre. It was 8 a.m. I let Jesse on his own run out to meet Manuel. What could go wrong?
Several hours later when Jesse returned from his run with Manuel, he told me he had seen a man get shot. Right across from Santa Carmen Church and the just reopened elementary school, Jesse had been running by the organic market where rich Mexicans and ex-pats congregate to sip hot chocolate, eat organic treats, and gather their vegetables. He heard a popping sound and looked across the street to see two men struggling. Thinking they were the PFP, the federal police, Jesse ran a couple of more steps but heard pop, pop and stopped. The man in the mesh-jogging shirt was on the ground. The well-dressed man in a white shirt jumped into the passenger side of a white car as it roared off. Dashing over to help, Jesse saw the man had been shot in the side under his arm. An ambulance came quickly; the medics cut off the man’s shirt, and about five minutes later, covered the man – even his face – with a sheet. Was this murder or a PFP kidnapping gone badly? If anyone were looking for witnesses, wouldn’t Jesse, who is tall with long curly blond hair and blue eyes, be the first one remembered? But Jesse, typical especially of American teenagers who think they are invincible (and me too sometimes), didn’t come home immediately.
Instead Jesse ran on alone to meet Manuel. Later that morning when Jesse did return home, he told me about the experience, and he added another detail (as if a murder weren’t enough) that also said that we weren’t as safe as I had assumed. On the way back after the run and a smoothie with Manuel, one of the PFP greeted Jesse with “What’s up?” When Jesse smiled in response, the policeman said, “Fuckin’ Yankee.” All of a sudden, it now seemed really dangerous for us to be in Oaxaca. Maybe my sister was right, and we did have options, and we should get out. But for right then, not knowing what else to do, we went on to school as though it were a normal day.
The next morning, we read in the newspaper that the shooting had to do with a contested will. Although we were sad about the man’s death, we were extremely relieved that the murder was not PFP/APPO related; we would not have to worry about someone gunning Jesse down like they do on T.V. We were able to tell Jesse’s parents about the unfortunate incident but not be concerned that it was part of the ongoing political unrest. However, more incidents were ahead.
The following Tuesday, November 21, Jesse, John, and I had gone to school as usual. We were already used to the countless patrolling and stationary federal, state, and city police.
As usual, we had our lunch break at 3:00, the guys going to the gym, and I to a nearby park until it was time for all of us to go back to school to have our intercambio sessions, conversations (in Spanish and English) with locals. At the park, as usual, a few teachers conferred. However, when I started back toward school, I could see lots of people rushing north. No one was going my way. I asked a passing woman, “Qué pasa?” She said the PFP were coming. And then I saw a few hooded youths lugging cases of Molotov cocktails. Others sprinted by. Only a block away, the APPO camp at Santa Domingo Church was being cleared of as much of their supplies as the protesters could carry. I ran to school to see if the boys were back. They were not!
Frantically, Flor called the gym, which had closed and locked its doors. They had told everyone to stay inside, and John was there. But Jesse had insisted on seeing what was happening and had left. Flor told John to stay where he was, and she and I rushed to her roof, but all we could see was smoke from somewhere near the Zócalo.
It was obviously very dangerous to go outside, but where was Jesse? All I could think of was he isn’t my son; what would I tell his parents? Very worried, John called from the gym asking to come back to school and see if he could get Jesse on the way. Safely skirting Santa Domingo and the center of the APPO camp, John got back – but without Jesse. Setting out to find him, Flor, John, and I headed toward Santa Domingo and the adjoining streets where burning buses filled the air with thick black smoke. From the Santa Domingo plaza, we could see three blocks away the slowly advancing PFP with their shields, riot gear, guns, and water tanks. Many people milled around. Flor, John, and I scuttled from one place to another looking for Jesse. We did find Rachel, a classmate, whose boyfriend is a reporter for a European paper. She hadn’t seen Jesse. We thought we had looked everywhere, but the whole scene was surrealistic, and we couldn’t find him. Thinking he may have gone back to school, we ran back as the smoke got thicker and the PFP closer. But Jesse wasn’t at school. I was hysterical. I waited in the school doorway for what seemed an interminable time. Finally, Jesse sauntered around the corner. Dangling from his neck was a blue hospital mask, which the protesters use (not very effectively) against tear gas. Surprised that we were worried about him, Jesse had been in the Santa Domingo Plaza listening to political speeches when Rachel sent him back. Since he wasn’t dead, I felt I could kill him as I screamed, “I’m telling your mother!!” Jesse had been “missing” for an hour. We (well, I) talked about how important it was with the armed police everywhere, to be careful and not get separated. The PFP now controlled the Zócalo and just a block from our school, Santa Domingo. The protesters moved their base out to the university.
Many protesters did not give up. I couldn’t understand how the Mexican government could ignore such overwhelming calls for change. On Saturday, November 25, the teachers and APPO held their seventh mega march. At the end of the march, the protest turned violent with police lobbing tear gas and shooting rubber bullets as protesters attempted to encircle the Zócalo. The clashes quickly spread through the city as protesters fought back with rocks and homemade PVC rockets. The fighting continued into Sunday, November 26. Several government buildings and a few hotel and tourist spots were burned although it’s not clear who set the fires.
One of the destroyed buildings, the Judicial Building, held records that the Mexican Supreme Court had asked Oaxacan ex-Governor José Murat to produce to show how he had used state monies. Rumors at the time said that friends of the government had set the fires. From the massive police sweeps after the fighting, even some of URO’s employees were sent to jail. Although APPO had called for the citizens to rise up and take to the streets, most stayed at home watching from their doorways or roofs to see what would happen.
And what were we Americans doing while the protesters were making valiant (or foolish) stands against the police? On that Saturday night, we had gone to an ex-pat party just outside Oaxaca and made it home without having to detour too many barricades.
By 7 a.m. that Sunday, the huge tractor trailers that had blocked part of the Niños Héroes de Chapultepec Highway near our house were gone, and the boys joined the planned Run to Monte Albán, a 12 km race up to the top of the ancient Zapotec capital outside Oaxaca. The local newspaper told us about what had been happening in Oaxaca.
Soon after, we celebrated Barry’s birthday.
Also Flor got us out of town,
We celebrated Thanksgiving.
For the activists, on November 29, APPO had to give up the University Radio station, the main link the protesters and the community could know what was happening. By then, APPO leader Flavio Sosa’s brother and others had been kidnapped, most of the teachers had gone back to school, students and teachers had been tortured or “disappeared,” most of the political graffiti against URO had been painted over, and continuous caravans of four trucks with city police in riot gear patrolled the streets.
We continued going to school.
Then on December 1, 2006, Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN) took office as the new president of Mexico in a very close race with many allegations of voting irregularities. In one of his first acts, Calderón appointed to head the Secretariat of the Interior, the agency in charge of Mexico´s domestic politics and policy, the former Jalisco Governor Francisco Javier Ramírez Acuña, a man cited for torture and other human rights violations by international groups. Caldrón’s message was that he would brook no protests. And he hasn’t. For example on December 4, 2006, when Flavio Sosa, the most recognizable leader of APPO, was invited by the government for talks in Mexico City, he was arrested there with three other representatives as they were on their way to meet with government officials. Not convicted of any crimes, Sosa was imprisoned in Tamaulipas, on the U.S. border with Texas and held until April 19, 2008, after a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to continue holding him.
Many of those picked up from the streets after the November 25-26, 2006, clashes or targeted later, including teachers drug from their classrooms, were taken by helicopters to prisons in Nayarit, located on the central west coast of Mexico, many states away from Oaxaca and the friends and family of those imprisoned. Even now years later, some Oaxacans still don’t know where their loved ones are or what has happened to them.
As another early political move of the Calderón administration, the new legislators gave themselves a 168% raise to about $8,000 U.S. a month plus benefits — in a country where many rural people do not even have electricity and the Oaxacan governor beautifies parks. The corruption and inequities are horrendous!
We still stayed in Oaxaca, but had another incident.
On December 6 in the late afternoon, Jesse and his intercambio partner, Lilliana, were walking in a public park near our school when a man with shiny leather shoes and a crisp haircut called the Mexican girl over. When she came back, Jesse said she looked scared. The man, who we think was an undercover policeman, told Lilliana that the police had Jesse’s picture with APPO and that he would be arrested. Lilliana was warned to stay away from Jesse. The two ran back to school to get John. The boys came and got me in yoga class. Was the man really a police officer? Or was he an old guy with some sort of sadistic humor? Had he taken offense at Jesse’s Che Cuevara t-shirt? Did the police just want to give a warning to a foreigner? Did the police have Jesse’s picture from his “missing” hour at Santa Domingo Church? We were scared. To disguise Jesse, we went immediately to a nearby barbershop and got his curly blond hair shaved off – as though that would help.
Jesse turned his Che T-shirt inside out, and we scurried directly home. Even when we called Denise, Jesse’s mom, that night, I couldn’t really believe with my “nothing can happen to us because we’re U.S. citizens” mentality, that Jesse was in trouble. I explained that since we’d heard that police were dragging teachers out of classes in front of their students, we didn’t think that Lilliana’s presence kept the police from arresting Jesse right then if they were really looking for him. I assured Denise that I thought Jesse was safe.
But wisely, Jesse’s parents quickly arranged a new airplane ticket, and within two days, we had put him on a plane to fly home to Maui. Jesse’s a great guy. He never whined or got moody as so many teens do. It must have been hard for him to be away from his family and away from Maui (and the surf) for months, but he didn’t complain. He did his on-line classes without having to be reminded, and he made a wonderful companion for John as they had adventures (and rode roller coasters). He was a wonderful addition to our family.
As Jesse left us, we were very sorry to see him pass through security to his gate, but we knew that given the situation, it was the right thing to do. Without incident, he negotiated changing planes in Mexico City, going through customs, and landing in Las Vegas where he had to spend most of the night by himself while he waited for his connecting flight back to Maui. Although Jesse was only 16 years old, I wasn’t worried at all about him there: he was in the U.S., no protests were going on, he didn’t stand out as the only blond, and he could speak the language well. Jesse, his parents, brother, and grandparents were able to be at home together for Christmas.
John, Barry, and I tried to do fun things to fill Jesse’s absence.
We enjoyed the Christmas holiday that is celebrated in Oaxaca from the beginning of December until February 2. The Saint’s Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, comes in the middle of December. Children dress in the traditional clothing of Juan Diego, a poor indigenous man to whom the Virgin appeared. Where Juan Diego saw the Virgin is now a cathedral in Oaxaca.
We enjoyed Christmas festivities. The most unique festival in Oaxaca is Noche de Rabinos.
Noche de Rabinos has been celebrated each December 23 for over a century in Oaxaca. Artists carve radishes and compete for a cash prize. Everyone comes to admire the creations and enjoy the fun. Because of the political problems, Noche de Rabinos in 2006 had two separate celebrations: one for the activists and one for the government.
Grown near the airport specifically for this festival, the Noche radishes are heavily fertilized, treated with chemicals, and are not to be eaten. Some grow to about 20 inches (50 centimeters) long!
We also went to the Zocalo to the official celebration.
We caught a glimpse of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz.
In the week leading up to Christmas, richer Mexicans open their houses to their neighbors who come knocking at the door as Mary and Joseph did. The neighbors are treated to a simple dinner and pinatas. José, my intercambio partner, invited us to his house.
Christmas was followed, of course, with other celebrations.
Then we had New Year’s celebrations.
To celebrate the January 6, Three Kings’ Day, kids list their wishes and release them tied to a balloon. We could see balloons in the sky all over Oaxaca. Good kids, of course, receive what they had hoped to get.
Not everything was happy.
And John needed to leave Oaxaca to go back to Maui in time for spring term at Baldwin High School.
John flew off by himself. But again we weren’t worried. He had survived Oaxaca. For the start of the winter semester, John joined the Guerin family with Jesse on Maui.
But many of the Mexians, protesters, and bystanders, couldn’t get away – and still haven’t.
Barry and I missed the boys, but we kept busy. The day after John left, Flor did a class field trip to Yagul, an archaeological site and former city-state of the Zapotec civilization of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. In 1998, the site was declared one of Mexico’s four Natural Monuments. Occupied at the time of the Spanish Conquest, Yagul was first used around 500-100 BC, and by around 500-700 AD, residential, civic and ceremonial structures were built at the site.
We took other excursions.
By March 2, 2007, when Barry and I left Oaxaca, most of the government police (PFP) were gone, replaced by the local police and plain-clothes officers. Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz was back in Oaxaca. There had been deaths, kidnappings, disappearances, and many imprisonments. After one of the protests, when I was taking pictures of a still smoldering bus, a French woman tearfully said to me, “This is not my Oaxaca.” But those protests are expressions of the inequity and loss of hope for a future. Every year, for instance, about 1,000,000 students graduate from Mexican universities with little chance unless they have connections at a decent job. Even a good education does not normally mean a better future in Oaxaca.
So why did we stay in Oaxaca for so long? For four months, the daily protests didn’t really have a negative impact on us. We love the people, the city, the spirit that pervades the daily life of Oaxaca. Mainly, we felt safe. Even when the federal police occupied the Zócalo, we were able to make our daily (and nightly) trips across the center of the city. The federal police seemed well trained, polite to us, and just mainly looked bored. We had to laugh when we saw one, with his rifle slung across his back, jumping on “Dance Revolution” in the video arcade. The police are mainly men who want jobs to support their families. For us, the changing political situation was certainly interesting. Jesse, John, and I studied Spanish. When they came back to Maui, the boys took second semester Spanish at our Maui college. At the end of the semester because of their Oaxaca Spanish Magic learning and all their experiences, they had earned a full year–8 credits– of college Spanish!! We met wonderful travelers, ex-pats, and, of course, Mexicans.
My family felt the world came to us in Oaxaca, and we had experiences that we’d never had on Maui. For instance, one morning as I walked/ran up the pathway of El Fortin, a hill park in the city, a Mexican woman motioned me over to where about 20 locals were celebrating one of the many Christmas events with sweetbread and champagne.
These Amigos de Fortin members have the mission to reforest this city park that includes the planetarium. I was invited to two more celebrations with the Amigos; we never planted a tree (since it wasn’t the right season), but I felt included and very welcome. Although the boys never really found a track team to practice with as they had hoped, they trained on the 5,000-foot-plus Oaxacan hills, and came back to a good season on the Baldwin track team.
Our classmates were interesting. One, Tony D’Souza, a young American had published an award winning book, knew six languages, and had served in the Peace Corps in the Ivory Coast. He served as a great model to the boys—and me.
And Barry worked daily on his goal to get healthy: he lost 85 pounds by walking every day through the city (he got up to 15-20 miles a day)!! As he started losing weight and feeling better, he added swimming and lifting weights to his program. Barry looks great and is no longer diabetic!!
We made friends. We are sure to go back. You would love Oaxaca too.
8/19/2010 Update: So how are things in Oaxaca now? Even before we returned to Maui, many of the European countries had lifted the travel ban to Oaxaca, and so tourists started filling the city; restaurants reopened; music and dance fill the Zócalo again. The government has used repression to address months and months of mainly peaceful protests by many of the Oaxacan citizens. The serious problems for a majority of the people of Oaxaca haven’t changed. However, according to the International Herald Tribune/Americas, on June 15, 2007, for the first time the Mexican government officially offered an apology for Governor Ulises Ruiz’s June 14, 2006, raid on the teachers and his refusal to negotiate with the protesters that led to Mexico’s “worst unrest in years.”
If you were to go to Oaxaca now, you would be sure to love the architecture, the food, the art, the markets. Your money would go far. The people are wonderfully friendly and hardworking. The many fiestas, celebrations, nightly dances, and music would entertain you, but you would not likely see the corrupt government that is keeping the rich in power and the poor without hope of a sustainable future for themselves or their children. Because we lived there for several months, we feel we were able to see how much of the world lives. Although Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and others have shown that non-violent protests are the best way to “fight” for long-term changes and really the only way when the government has guns and power, even Nelson Mandela at one point resorted to violence and then spent the next 27 years in prison.
The consequences of the 2006 protests still continue. Arrested at the same time as APPO leader Flavio Sosa, Marcelino Coache Verano, secretary general of the free union of Oaxaca municipal workers, had been severely beaten and held for six months in prison, before he was released on May 31, 2007, with all charges against him dismissed. On June 13, the Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the shooting and wounding of Mexican journalist, Misael Sánchez Sarmiento, a reporter for the Oaxaca-based daily Tiempo. Sánchez had been investigating U.S. journalist Brad Will’s slaying and was shot in his jaw and left leg by an unidentified assailant. International groups continue to investigate the many alleged police violations of international law against the Oaxacans and the many reports of torture in prison.
Teachers did get awarded “good” raises and a shorter workday. However, in this second to the poorest state in Mexico, many Oaxacans see the teachers, who might have “bought” their jobs, as very well paid. Many resent the months of disruption and the very real economic problems the protests have had on Oaxaca.
Also the moral aspects of the Oaxacan situation are complex. That ability to “buy” jobs and other forms of pervasive corruption challenge creating an equitable society in Oaxaca. Mexico has a heritage of conquistador rule; about 90% of the indigenous peoples died from guns and disease in the 100 years after the landing of the first conquistador. From 1521 through the next 300 years, those who survived were dominated by the Spanish and by the Church. Those secular and ecclesiastical elite established laws that kept them in power at the expense of the poor. The Church, with its rigid hierarchy, has a powerful effect in this country where over 95% the people consider themselves Catholics. Historically those who have survived have followed. Those who questioned or protested have met grave consequences. However, the Catholic Church gives most Mexicans a real sense of moral certitude and wonderful guidelines for living as well as weekly celebrations for saints and church holidays. The Church is their core community. During the 2006 protests, the Church called for negotiations and often helped the APPO protesters.
To further complicate the situation, the Catholic moral imperative is to help friends and family. So what we from the U.S. see as blatant corruption, from many Mexicans’ point of view, is simply helping their friends and family. I think Governor Ruiz and others with power there see friends and family in a narrow way. Ruiz doesn’t seem to care at all about the poor, but he certainly helps in numerous ways his own family and those in his social and economic class.
I’ve been told that after each of the Oaxacan governors leaves at the end of his six-year term, there is no money left in the state treasury. In addition, because this society generally accepts the need to take care of your own and considers criticism of leaders in any form as a kind of betrayal, it is not too surprising that URO would not negotiate or even consider that he needs to make changes. The Church now is an emotional and cultural support for the majority of Mexican people, but some of its practices may explain why URO refuses to change, why many Oaxacans say that what will happen is up to God, and why so many will not take a stand.
Will the next protests in Oaxaca be so peaceful? The teachers struck again in May 2007 to protest the imprisonment of their colleagues. When they marched on July 16, 2007, police attacked them leaving a teacher’s husband dead, and reports of 70 arrested and 40 seriously wounded. According to Gustavo Esteva, an independent writer, activist, and founder of the Universidad de la Tierra, the police have a feeling of impunity because they know that there has not been even a single case of government officials or police being held accountable for the torture, kidnapping, or death of the protesters in spite of the documented proof against them. Alberto, John and Jesse’s Spanish teacher, e-mailed us that Oaxaca was in 2007 “in apparent calm.” Gary, our friend who runs a non-profit center for village youth, wrote at the same time: “Things are fine here in Oaxaca for visitors. It is beautiful here right now. The rainy season has started and everything is green. There are wildflowers in the mountains again. The temperature during the day is in the 80’s and the evenings are cool. The sky is a classical Oaxacan blue with wonderful clouds. The air is clear.”
While it may be safe for tourists, are the teachers and the APPO protesters super patient or foolish to put their lives at stake? Will they be able to encourage needed changes in the corrupt government and improve the plight of the many poor? South Africa needed 70 years of protests to get the vote for all its people – and apartheid affected everyone there–so it’s not a big surprise that when the Mexican troops arrived, everyone didn’t take to the streets in 2006 to resist the police although almost everyone wants a solution.
From what we experienced, we’re in awe of the resilience and fearlessness of many Mexicans. And to us, it’s clear why so many Mexicans are willing to risk their lives to come to the U.S. not just for economic and educational opportunities but for political reasons as well. I don’t think we can hope, as we did in 2006, that the results of the protests of these patient, long-suffering people will quickly allow more equality, better education, and improved opportunities for good futures for themselves and their families in Oaxaca. The world needs to know of the Mexican government’s repression and inequalities and its need to make fair changes.
So what happened next? According to a 2008 CNN report, “Oaxaca City is quiet with no obvious protesters and fewer tourists than in earlier years. The tourist bureau says come to Oaxaca. “
But now in 2010, there is change! The July 4, 2010, elections in Oaxaca resulted in the election of the first non-PRI party member as governor since the Mexican revolution. Gabino Cué Monteagudo, a lawyer and politician, Gabino defeated the old right wing PRI’s candidate, Eviel Pérez Magaña, (the locals refer to him as “Evil”)–whose party had ruled Oaxaca for 80 years. Perhaps the people of Oaxaca can have hope of equality and possibilities for everyone. I look forward to returning to Oaxaca and hope you will take a look too.
2/25/13 Update:Although the latest Mexican presidential race has put PRI–the party of the rich–back in power for Mexico, in Oaxaca, the workers have been able to come together in a coalition to keep PRI out. Oaxaca Governor Gabino Cué, the candidate of a much-questioned alliance between the left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and President Felipe Calderon’s right-wing PAN, swept the election over Eviel Perez, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz’s chosen successor. Through the election process, which was carefully monitored for fraud, Ulises now gone! The state has many economic challenges, corruption, and poverty, but the election gives hope for the future.
See the NY Times article on the most recent elections in Mexico– <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/mexico/index.html>
Is it an impossible dream to live together with justice and opportunity for all? Many Oaxacans are striving to reach that dream.
* Unless otherwise noted, photos by me
Campbell, Monica. “A Killing In Mexico.” CPJ Web. 17 Apr. 2007. 19 Aug. 2008 http://www.cpj.org/Briefings/2007/DA_spring_07/Mexico_07/mexico_07.html
Cohn, Marjorie. “One Year Anniversary of Mexico’s Bloody Crackdown.” CounterPunch. 13 July 2007. 12 Aug. 2008 Web http://www.counterpunch.org/cohn06132007.html
“Gabino Cué is Elected Governor of Oaxaca in Mexico.” DEMOTOX. 11 July 2010. 18 Aug. 2010 Web. http://www.demotix.com/news/386923/gabino-cu-elected-governor-oaxaca-mexico.
“Mexico-Oaxaca-Unrest.” International Herald Tribune. June 16 2007. 12 Aug. 2008. Web. http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/06/16/america/LA-GEN-Mexico-Oaxaca-Unrest.php
“State Repression Continues Unabated More than One Year into Oaxaca Uprising.” 27 July 2007. 12 Aug. 2008 Web. http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=07/07/27/144225