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Letter from the rebel territory of Oaxaca, Mexico


It has been exactly five weeks since I left Montana in a tiny and loud Toyota Tercel to catch a flight out of San Francisco.  That also means I’ve been in Mexico for exactly four weeks, and the country has, for the most part, ceased to feel strange.  I’ve spent most of that time in Oaxaca, a city that has clawed a vibrant life out of a dry desert valley surrounded by mountains a seven hour bus ride south-west of Mexico City.  The city’s center is compact and walkable, but its barrios sprawl for miles up and down the hazy hills.  El Centro is beautiful with brightly painted buildings and countless massive and ornate stone churches.  Next to almost every church is a large park, with benches and trees, interesting stonework, and often a fountain or a statue.  It is these outdoor spaces that I find most impressive, not only because of their physical layout and number, but because it is here that Oaxaca’s tremendous energy is showcased.  This energy fascinates me. Oaxaca is a whole city that doesn’t want to go home.

In a letter to my mom and dad, I wrote that if I had one wish for the United States, it would be that something similar existed there.  Now, my line of argument here is drifting uncomfortably close to the flimsy liberalish sentiment that things would be okay if people just got together, face to face, and talked.  It is an idea that suits the poseurs and the lazy well because it suggests no action and does not demand the taking of “unacceptable” positions.  It is an idea that I have always distrusted–the ride is too smooth to be trustworthy–and have often done my damnedest to throw a wrench into the easy-working gears of.  Still, what I have seen here in Oaxaca has cast the thing in a different light.

In Oaxaca, life takes place outside the house, on the streets, in the sprawling markets, in the zocoló—the town square—and countless other parks.  Some of the wide cobblestone streets allow no cars, and at almost any time of day, these calles are so crowded with slow moving people that it is difficult to get anywhere quickly.  Few people hurry down these streets, especially in the afternoon and evening; there is nowhere really to get to but lots of time to go.  Even the bars and cantinas are not plagued by the daytime depression that hangs like a sick cloud around bars in the US and which is dispersed only by the coming of night.  In the bars that are open in the day, people cheerily pass the hot and empty hours with beer and friends as they might in their living room.  And, of course, there is the zocoló, which is crowded all day but which really hums and shines in the four or so hours around sunset.  The zocoló is the center, the weird sun around which Oaxaca’s energy orbits and radiates.  Once, on my way home from a day trip to the village of Mitla, I got off the bus in the dark in a part of the city I did not know.  I followed the throngs of people as they grew steadily larger, the increasing noise, and an unnamable sense for energy–and I landed in the zocoló.  From there I knew my way.

Maybe this lively character of life in Oaxaca is in part the result of the housing conditions that poverty has forced on the inhabitants of this, the capital of the second poorest state in Mexico.  The vast majority of Oaxacans live in housing that ranges from modest to dilapidated and utterly inadequate.  Large families squeeze into small, cinder block shacks in Oaxaca’s barrios.  As of March, 2012, 19% of houses in Oaxaca state had dirt floors and over 46% suffered from some kind of overcrowding.  Having your “own room” is certainly not taken for granted as it is by many in the US.  On top of that, jobs are scarce and  rent is high compared to wages, which, I am told, average around 100 pesos per eight hours of work–that’s between eight and nine dollars.  It is common for children to live with their parents until well into their twenties or longer.  Personal space and the separation family members need from each other, scarce at home, are sought in the city.

But there are other reasons for Oaxaca’s liveliness; the one I have mentioned casts it as something forced and undesirable.  And it is anything but those things.

If one grows used to Oaxaca’s wild energy and ceases to notice it, there is a weekly reminder.  It comes on Sunday when the streets lie silent and almost empty.  Traffic slows and where once were open-air storefronts, there are only sliding metal security doors.  Almost everything is closed; the most notable exceptions are the brightly lit and open multinational corporations—McDonalds, Burger King, Wal-Mart, and others—that colonize the Oaxacan cityscape.

Oaxaca has never been the quaint, peaceful, market city that is described by travel blogs and guidebooks.  It has long been the hub of a radical intellectual culture, and for many years defiance has been a prominent feature of life here.  Combative faculty unions and student groups at the Universidad Benito Juarez Autonoma de Oaxaca have disrupted years and routines with frequent strikes.  A strike by Oaxaca’s teachers, for everything from higher wages to better education for indigenous students, has been enshrined as an annual, springtime event.  While here, I witnessed several street marches and rallies by workers from the Universidad Benito Juarez in the lead up to a strike that was settled after just a day or two.  In fact, there are so many demonstrations here that I can’t keep track.  One day, I was walking down the street and ran across city workers painting over spray painted slogans and stenciled street art—“Zapata Lives! The Resistance Continues!”—the aftermath of a march the day before which I hadn’t even heard about.  When George Orwell travelled to Spain late in the 1930s in the heat of the anarchist revolution in the province of Catalonia, he wrote that the Catalans were a people with an innately defiant spirit and a natural tendency toward anarchism.  I am tempted to write something similar about the people of Oaxaca, but after only four weeks here, I have neither the experience nor the words.

In the spring of 2006, the annual teachers’ strike exploded into a city-wide revolt that sent the Oaxacan government into “bizarre sort of roaming exile, floating between luxury hotels on the outskirts of the capital” (“Teacher Rebellion in Oaxaca,” In These Times, 08/21/2006).  In the following months, Oaxaca’s spirit of resistance came to the surface in a long flash.  Since 2006, even the name Oaxaca is surrounded by an aura of rebellion.

During the revolt, Oaxaca’s building fronts and blank walls became a battleground when protesters appropriated them with the poetry, slogans, and art of rebellion.  In the five years since the heat of the movement burned off, the street art–or at least the tendency to make it–has not been completely eradicated.  Political graffiti and murals are still common in Oaxaca’s streets and many buildings, alleys, and street signs are marked with the circle A of the anarchists.

Another key strategy of the Oaxaca movement was control of media sources.  On August 1, 2006, over 3,000 women seized CORTV, the state television station, and turned it into a movement station.  Protesters also maintained a broadcast from the radio station at the Universidad Benito Juarez Autonoma.  These stations served as a “vital means of coordinating resistance to the police” and organizing actions, and they were critical to shaping an alternative narrative of the revolt (“Broken Barricades,” Collective Reinventions, ).

On October 29, the Policia Federales entered the city.  Their first move was to seize the zocoló, which had been, not coincidentally, at the center of the movement since the beginning.  Next, the authorities ordered the painting over of all graffiti.  Then, they moved to attack the university to shut down the movement’s last radio station.

The Oaxaca revolt appropriated the city’s cultural center, its walls, and its airwaves for a reason: it was the only way to build and circulate a narrative and an aesthetic counter to those circulated by the powerful forces threatened by the revolt.  The federal authorities attacked in these three areas for the same reason.

Certainly there are lessons to be learned from the strategy of the Oaxacan rebels–but I stumble when I try to take the comparison to the U.S. too far.  Compare the zocoló and the culture it represents to the cold isolation in the U.S.  In the states, the city and its other inhabitants are obstacles standing between us and our obligations.  We go out to work or school and get home again as quick as possible.  As a result, our cities are predictably boring.  And there is also the way this isolation affects the way we receive information.  The French philosopher Jacques Elul recognized that one of the most important features of propaganda broadcast over the radio is the unconscious awareness on the part of the propagandees that they are part of an audience.  The same is true of television and to some extent, newspapers and the internet and other “vertical” sources of information.  In this audience, the listener has no neighbor to turn to and compare thoughts, and so each listener confronts the propaganda alone but nonetheless measures her reactions against those of the “audience.”  And, of course, the expected audience reaction is implied in the propaganda itself.

This is not true in the zocoló or any other place where people are together.  The individual, in these situations, is not subconsciously part of an audience; he is a participant in the exchange of information.  The truth is something to be debated and considered.

All of this is not to say that the culture of the zocoló is inherently radical.  The 2006 revolt in Oaxaca only took the zocoló to its most radical potential.  But maybe it does make subversion easier.  Or, more accurately, maybe it makes control more difficult.

Joseph Bullington grew up in Montana where he became interested in radical politics, rebellion, and writing, and he fled to Olympia in 2011 to pursue these interests. 

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