The Occupation Of Oaxaca

by Kym Beckwith Apr 17, 2007

protest gathering in oaxaca

In a war of many truths, how do you choose which side to be on?

Two years ago, on a wonderful January night, we married in the beautiful city of Oaxaca, Mexico on a balcony overlooking the historic main plaza, or zócalo.

All the children with their balloons, all the strolling couples, all the flower vendors and street musicians, all the café patrons and their attendant waiters, all were our witnesses.

In anticipation of our second anniversary, we started planning our return trip to Oaxaca City ten months before we went. The planning became difficult however when we began hearing unsettling news from Oaxaca.

None of the mainstream media reported much of what was going on; it wasn’t news so much as rumors of protests and strong government crackdowns. Searching the internet for other sources of information from Oaxaca, a picture began to emerge, albeit a fuzzy one.

An Unexpected Reaction

It started in May with a demonstration by the local teachers union to protest poor wages and under-funded public schools.

This is an annual event, usually ending after a few days of speeches and marches, sometimes in a minor increase of pay for the teachers. This year though, the political climate was different, and the response of the state government totally unexpected.

Mexico was preparing for national elections, including the office of the presidency. The many political parties had long been campaigning for ascendancy to the seat of power, but only two of these parties wielded enough influence and finances to be considered serious contenders.

The ruling National Action Party (PAN), which had ridden to power six years previously with Vincente Fox, was now facing a strong challenge from the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) under the leadership of the upstart mayor of Mexico City, Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The old Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had held power for most of the 20th century until Fox and PAN chased them from the capitol in 2000, was not deemed a player at all. Except in the state of Oaxaca.

The PRI lost its national power base amid charges of corruption and political oppression. In Oaxaca however, the state with the largest Indian population and the second poorest per capita, the PRI tradition lived on in the name of Ulises Ruiz, governor of the state.

police carWhen the teachers gathered in the zócalo for their annual protest Ruiz, rather than negotiate, the state police were sent in to shut them down. Teachers were beaten, arrested, and hauled away. The event received little notice from the rest of the nation, preoccupied as it was with the furor of the upcoming elections. Few took notice too, at the surprising response to the strong-arm tactics of Ruiz.

Rather than run away and sit back in silence, the teachers and their supporters responded in kind, taking back the zócalo in overwhelming numbers. They called on others to join them in their opposition to Ruiz, and over the ensuing month thousands of people answered the call under the umbrella of a newly coined name – La Assemblea Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca or APPO.

In a short time the name changed slightly from the singular “pueblo de Oaxaca” to “los pueblos de Oaxaca,” reflective of the whole tapestry of disparate and diverse groups that came to give voice and action to their issues. La APPO settled into an occupation of the main city center that would endure for months and, as tensions escalated and acts of violence increased, would draw the attention of the world.

Searching For The Truth

Here at home, we were able to access Mexican on-line journals, several Oaxacan newspapers, Prensa Latina from Cuba, an interesting site called Narco News, several Indynews sites, and of course all the normal AP and Reuters posts.

Interestingly, all this reportage served only to confuse the issue, as each source put its particular spin on the events happening in Oaxaca City. The one common theme however was that the APPO demonstration had become more than just a sit-in.

Factions within APPO had taken over radio and television stations in the city while others had barricaded banks and blocked streets in the city center with burning vehicles. Demonstrators had armed themselves with slingshots, sticks, and Molotov cocktails. Even more disturbing were reports of masked vigilante groups searching out and “disappearing” key organizers of APPO in midnight raids.

As the reports became evermore dire, the U.S. State Department issued an official warning to avoid travel in or near Oaxaca City, describing the situation as volatile and dangerous.

It appeared that Oaxaca City had become the frontline in a war between the classes, between the haves and have-nots… or had it?

On the heels of that warning came news of the death of Brad Will, a U.S. citizen and reporter for one of the Indynews networks. Reporting at the scene of a demonstration, Will was shot by some unknown gunman. APPO supporters charged the assassin was in fact an out-of-uniform state police officer and PRI member.

It appeared that Oaxaca City had become the frontline in a war between the classes, between the haves and have-nots… or had it?

In our initial planning for our return to Oaxaca, we had considered attending one of the many language schools in the city. Checking their websites we couldn’t find much information on current events, so we emailed them with questions. What came back surprised us.

Yes, the zócalo was occupied by demonstrators and yes, some streets were blocked by barricades, but the city was not paralyzed, in fact foreign visitors were still able to enter the zócalo and move among the demonstrators without any fear. Rather than describing a war zone, the schools spoke of a unique opportunity to see history in the making.

“Please come, don’t be afraid. The media has blown this all out of proportion.” was the message. Where was the truth?

An Unsettling Arrival

We arrived in Oaxaca City to beautiful weather, friendly people, freshly painted buildings, vendors selling crafts, smells of chilies roasting, and a city so clean you would never have known anything had happened ….unless you paid close attention to details.

churchThings like postings on the walls at the language school, advising students not to question their teachers about politics. Vestiges of graffiti on sidewalks and walls with obvious political messages – “fuera Ulises!”- spoke volumes. As one got closer to the main plaza, police uniforms became increasingly diverse with federal and state units joining the expected municipal cops.

At the zócalo, portable barricades stood ready to block all four entrances to the plaza. The zócalo itself felt different somehow, a tension that was just barely palpable under the surface calm. On January 10th, that tension popped.

On that day, during the mid-morning break at school, we noticed small groups of people gathering on side streets with signs, an air of urgency in their movements. After school, a visit to the zócalo revealed all the barricades up and police units in full riot gear.

The sidewalk cafes were open, but few people lingered over coffee or meals. Questions to the waiter at our favorite café were answered vaguely – a rumor that La APPO was planning a march.

We sat for a few hours waiting to see what would happen, but the afternoon lingered on without event. Finally we went home, disappointed, yet also relieved, to join our host family for the traditional late afternoon meal or comida. Several hours later, by pure chance, a walk around the corner from our host home abruptly introduced us to La APPO.

Taking Sides

They came cascading down the street, carrying hand-lettered signs and chanting. On-lookers scurried on both sides of the street jockeying for vantage points, we along with them.

At first we felt very uncomfortable, not knowing where this might go. The obvious presence of plainclothes police on all sides heightened our anxiety. We knew as foreigners we shouldn’t participate in any way, but we quickly found ourselves standing in the middle of at least 1000 demonstrators. (Later we learned that the press here reported 10,000, a gross exaggeration)

The march detoured off the street and down a long flight of steps into the courtyard of a large church, Plaza de la Danza. From our view on the sidewalk above, we watched the surrounding crowd.

the crowd thickensA middle-aged man approached and spoke with us. An obvious supporter of APPO, he described how the people had been abandoned by the government, both at the state and federal level. In his view, and the view of all those gathered there, La APPO represented their values and provided a legitimate outlet for their frustration. His words struck a chord.

Perhaps without realizing it, we had already taken sides in the conflict. This was the classic struggle; the poor and disenfranchised standing up to a corrupt and indifferent power structure. With our admittedly liberal viewpoint, where else would we stand?

Within minutes of leaving the march however, we were exposed to a different viewpoint, one that would lead us to some unanticipated truths and some unexpected feelings.

A Different Opinion

Upon returning to the house after the march, our host, Magdalena, shared her opinion of APPO. In a quiet yet passionate manner, she stated that APPO did not represent her family, her friends, or Oaxaca. La APPO had held her city and her family hostage.

Her children didn’t attend school during the strike. She and her husband had almost no income for six months, but the bills didn’t stop coming. We were the first students she’d had since the start of the troubles in June, 2006.

Could we have been so one sided in our beliefs that we closed our minds?

Economically, the city had been battered. Emotionally, the populace had been brutalized. “How has this helped us? We are not better from this. We are worse.”

Magdalena’s story left us feeling confused and a bit ashamed of ourselves. Could we have been so one sided in our beliefs that we closed our minds? It was hard to put a finger on, but one thing was clear; this was a pivotal moment for us, a reminder that we could not hold judgment here.

The next day fresh graffiti scarred the path of the march. It was APPO’s signal that they had not been defeated. Anarchist youth had spray painted “Muere Ulises,” (Death to Ulises) and “Libertad los Presos Politicos” (Free the Political Prisoners) on the walls of private residences and businesses, walls that had been repainted more times than could be remembered.

graffitiWhile taking pictures of some recently painted graffiti, I was yelled at by a woman in a passing car – “No seas tonta!” (“Don’t be a fool!”), as she wagged her finger in admonition. I wanted to scream, “I take no side in your politics” but she was gone…

Once again, I felt confused and ashamed. We began asking questions of everyone we could.

We asked waiters in restaurants, fellow students, our teachers (even though we weren’t supposed to), small business owners, street vendors, people of all ages and economic classes. They shared the same opinion and it wasn’t the side of La APPO.

The general consensus was that the annual teachers’ strike had mutated into much larger scale civil disobedience as a result of the strong government crackdown, but without leadership or a goal. La APPO had no organization, no control over the many disparate groups under its umbrella, and chaos resulted.

It was like a soccer game with everyone wearing a different jersey, 6 balls and no goal posts.

A Hopeful Calm

These sentiments contrasted dramatically with what we witnessed and heard on the night of the march. It was very clear to us that Oaxaca was still deeply divided and worse, there appeared to be no middle ground. The gulf between the haves and the have-nots did not go away with APPO’s forced departure from the city center.

If anything it seemed to have become deeper. After all the strife and violence, what had been gained? Ulises Ruiz and the PRI still hold power in the state. The federal government has gone on to other priorities, leaving Oaxaca to figure out its own solution.

a coupleToday, a tentative peace exists in Oaxaca City. Slowly but surely the Oaxaqueños, desperate to have their city return to normalcy, are putting things back together.

They dance again in the zócalo to the music of the marimba. They buy flowers from pretty women vendors and watch their children play with big balloons. And over it all, they actively promote a message to the outside world: “Come back!”

The problems at the root of the civil strife still exist. La APPO still organizes periodic marches to keep the protest alive, although some of its members have apparently fled to avoid incarceration and torture. Some day it may all explode again.

Yet in our final days in the city, an air of expectation had replaced the tension, a sense that maybe the worst had passed and better things were to come.

Kym Beckwith spent her summers in Baja surfing with her parents, while her husband Mark spent 3 years in Ecuador developing a love for birds. In between traveling, they manage the Terlingua Creek Kennels, in Texas.

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