Oaxaca Allegre… Oaxaca Hermosa… Oaxaca Cultural…
But Oaxaca was dead. Strangled by repression and corruption. And forgotten by the rest of Mexico. By the rest of the world.
For those of us who live here the repression hasn’t ended even though nearly a decade has passed since “the Night of Horror” when over 4,000 Mexican soldiers and as many more police and paramilitaries stormed through the center of the city teargassing, arresting and beating fleeing demonstrators, students, amas de casa and passers-by. The daily Noticias reported that during the summer and fall of 2007 “between two and three businesses are closing daily in the center of the city.” Many of them had tried to keep going despite Oaxacans’ diminishing spending power and the failure of the tourism industry to revitalize after the negative publicity that the protests, plus the drug violence in other parts of Mexico, had generated.
Many also had fallen into debt with Mexico’s social security system, with unpaid property and sales taxes and with Telmex, the communications monopoly. Even the stalls in the central Abasto and the communal markets were semi-deserted. As a vendor of cheeses and chocolates told me, “Sí pues, they [the people] come but not to buy, just to chat. And if they buy it is just little things. Nothing that costs much.”
The bottoming out was not just financial. It was psychological. The city of 300,000 or more seemed wrapped in fumes as gray and pervading as the tear gas and smoke that had choked the Centro Historico during and after the militarized purge. Police patrolled the streets in pickups with pivot-mounted machineguns glistening above their hoods.
Sidewalks, alleyways and parks filled with ambulante salespersons and stalls: blouses, pulseras, pirated CDs, out-of-style jeans, junk jewelry, sunglasses, greasy tacos, chapulines. Vendors young and old staged running battles with police attempting to dislodge them. Others paid “quotas” to be allowed to ply their trade, non-remunerative although it often was.
Parts of the city resembled London after World War II V-2 raids. Sweating workmen mauled sidewalks and asphalt, piling debris on streetcorners and across intersections. Potential customers had to wedge their way across tenuous plank bridges and stumble across exposed drainage pipes, rebar and ripped apart lumber to get to those businesses that hadn’t closed. Stalled cars blocked alleyways and parking lot exits; pedestrians wore surgical masks or wrapped handkerchiefs or shawls around their faces to keep from choking on the dust permeating everything.
Although supposedly restoring the central part of the city to its pristine touristiness after the degradations generated by the protests and the occupation of the city center by thousands of striking state teachers’ union members, the state and municipal governments shoved unspent health, education and public welfare funds into replacing drainage systems, rerouting traffic and altering parks and right of ways.
“Sin obras no hay sobras…” (“without construction projects there aren’t overages to pocket,” an overused but still valid phrase attributed to former federal government manipulator Carlos Hank-González) remained the rule of thumb. One day as I teetered along what remained of sidewalk I bumped into an imperious Don, overweight and balding, who echoed my curses about the treacherous passageway. We edged side by side into the doorway of an abandoned clothing store to watch three or four sweating young workmen hand carry stacks of paving stones past us.
“Seventy pesos a day, that’s what they pay them.”
A network of deep wrinkles cobwebbed his eyes as he explained that artificial hips made it difficult for him to walk …I don’t think the pinches doctors got them in right… then he added in somewhat slurred Spanish, “The contractors could use machinery but no, they pay the mozos nothing and on the books say they’ve spent millions.”
Like many others in Oaxaca, the Don—an affable old ex-papelería (stationery store) owner—equated government with corruption.
“You get dragged in. You want to be honest but it’s all mierda—shit—and you have to handle the stink.”
Also like many Oaxacans he deplored what the protests had done to the city although his sympathies inclined towards the strikers and the People’s Popular Assembly that had formed to support them.
“Mierda,” he kept repeating, “it’s all mierda.” The Popular Assembly, he insisted, was an “aberration,” a horse with eight or nine heads each pulling in a different direction.
“And the government?”
“Pendejos! (ignoramuses).” But, he asserted, the government thieves know what they’re doing. They plan. Coordinate. Cover their tracks. People outside of the government know they are victims but they don’t how they became that way. Or why.
“They have the power”—the they being the government or whoever’s propping the government up—but the victims can’t unravel the differences between the “They…” who have the power and themselves. When they try to organize they bicker, pout, accuse each other, segment into conflictive coteries, lose track of who and what they’re supposed to be opposing. And as a result are victimized even more.
The right have discipline, the left have children… a venerable old socialist told me years ago. He was speaking figuratively: Deviation against the right brought imprisonment or assassination; deviation against the left created splinter groups that re-splintered with every new deviation. That’s what happened in Oaxaca with the Popular Assembly. Theoretically it formed spontaneously around the striking teachers’ union. Those involved insisted that they governed “horizontally” and “without leaders” and celebrated their temporary takeover of the city as a manifestation of “los de debajo”—“those from below,” the pueblo, the common people.
But the “They…” in power, the government, the entrepreneurs—infiltrated the assemblies, suborned splintered leaders, bought off fence sitters. After a four-month holiday of control of the central part of the city by los de debajo over four-thousand armored troops dispatched by Mexico’s federal government backed by hundreds of local police and local paramilitaries brutally restored the disciplined “They…” to power.
The undisciplined Popular Assembly continued to meet and stage occasional demonstrations and marches but the energy, the optimism, that had characterized their formation as a people’s authority had shredded. Oaxaca seemed to want to return to an imaginary innocence where employment and music, tlayudas and mescal, laughter and calendas prevailed.
Like a couple unhappy in their marriage who seek diversion rather than reality, escape rather than solutions, Oaxaca groped for the trivial, the workaday, the habitual. Television sets clicked on before breakfast and remained on until after bedtime. Priests reiterated homilies about sexual abstinence, God’s will, paternal authority. Clown duos bounded from bus to bus performing suggestive skits about bumbling seducers, over-aged virgins and ingenuous gays. Trique children in traditional dress wandered the Centro Historico with trays of chewing gum, cigarettes, lollipops and cheap chocolates. Parks, markets and the Zócalo filled with men arguing about the national soccer team and reading the Nota Roja, women clustered laughing, complaining, avoiding going home.
A pantomime, a zombie world of forgetfulness. Block out the real world with all of its evils, its problems, the wounds that it’s caused and become an automaton. Not an automaton without emotions, without desires, without hopes and expectations but a non-participant encased in a self-enclosed microcosm. An automaton without connections to a collective past, an automaton that had accepted defeat and had excised everything that had led up to those defeats.
Years ago a hotshot hydraulics entrepreneur told me that the way to make sales, to become successful, was to make customers afraid not to buy. In post-protest Oaxaca pivot-mounted machineguns, escuadrones de muerte, middle-of-the-night telephone threats and arbitrary arrests constantly remind one why he or she should be afraid. Being innocent no longer mattere because innocence didn’t exist. In the eyes of the law—i.e., the “They,” those in power—everyone is guilty and those in power have the right—the ability—to punish those who lack power.
Complaints by human rights organizations mean nothing because the human rights organizations have only voices, no power. Both Governor Ruiz and Mexico’s president Felipe Calderón affably shook hands with human rights critics and parroted phrases about “political accords to resolve problems…” and “following the letter of the law…” but neither of them nor anyone in their administrations made any attempts to identify or prosecute assassins, torturers or nightriders.
State secretary general Manuel García shrugged away suggestions that those incarcerated on and after the Night of Horror were political prisoners. He insisted that the state’s records showed that those arrested were “common criminals” against whom charges for robbery, destruction of property and other offenses had been filed. They had been convicted and sentenced by competent judges following the dictates of criminal law. Their release from custody had been effected through “legal processes.” As far as he (and the rest of Governor Ruiz’s administration) was concerned police brutality had not occurred because none of the law enforcement personnel had been charged with any infractions.
“I cannot invent crimes,” he protested and told state legislators that all 141 of those flown to maximum security federal prisons had signed admissions of guilt before they were released on bail. He did not mention that had they failed to sign they would have remained unjustly incarcerated.
In Mexico paternal authority, though challenged, dominates social and political life. In Oaxaca the millions with too little to eat and precarious or non-existent incomes traditionally turn to the father for support. Even when they protest the father’s failure to give them the support they need their protests acknowledge the paternal authority; they challenge the father, not the system that the father represents.
Disobedience to the father—i.e. the state—like disobedience to traffic laws reaffirms the right of those in power to establish rules, even bad ones; evading them becomes a maneuver like those devised by sons and daughters to circumvent paternal dictates. One could submit to authority, fight authority, plead with authority—even ignore authority—but not challenge its existence any more than one could challenge the existence of God who, in classical Catholic tradition, is a—or the—paternal authority.
The populist challenge not having succeeded Oaxaca slid into acceptance of having been a disloyal child who, though with cause and moral justification had protested paternal authority, now submitted—if sadly, unhappily, resentfully—to its control. Calenda bands accompanied by huge papier-maché dancing figures escort newly married couples through the streets of the Centro Historico, streetcorner braziers offer empanadas, blandas, tlayudas, youngsters in torn pants and ragged tenis kick half-deflated soccer balls against makeshift goals, hunched grandfathers totter on canes towards corner newsstands to buy the Nota Roja and joke with shoeshine boleros.
Most of them ignore—or try to ignore—flak-jacketed police cruising their neighborhoods. Some curse, some spit, others make jokes about the father-figures; some talk fondly about their participation in the abortive uprising or disparagingly about humiliating treatment and/or imprisonment but their doing so acknowledges that the battle had been lost, that they have shrunk again to insignificance as far as the reigning powers are concerned.
Beside me on hard seat of a forty-year-old converted school bus clattering uphill towards the Oaxaca barrio in which I live a pregnant teenager answered my “when-is-your-baby-due” question with a taut smile, a mumbled “en seis semanas” and a suddenly defiant, “I hope he becomes a policeman so he can steal what he needs for his family.”
Oaxaca Allegre. Oaxaca Hermosa. Oaxaca cultural…
Robert Joe Stout has written about Mexico for a variety of publications, including America, The American Scholar and Notre Dame Magazine. He lives in Oaxaca, has served on human rights delegations there and traveled extensively throughout the country. His most recent books are Hidden Dangers from Sunbury Press and Monkey Screams from FutureCycle Press.