Oaxaca: Contininuing Conquest, Continuing Resistance

12/8/06-- In southern Mexico they say "The Spanish were the invaders, but the Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, and Jesuits were the conquerors."

Those words echo through my mind as I look at the police encampment beside the Santo Domingo cathedral in the Zocalo, the historic center of the city of Oaxaca City, capitol of the state of Oaxaca. The guide books speak without irony of the beauty of the city's colonial architecture.  Colonial is the operative word.  The architecture is a triumphant monument to violent attempts to subjugate the Zapotec and Mixotec people of the region.

The Spanish conquest of Mexico coincided with the height of the witch burnings in Europe  --  in both Europe and the Americas, the eradication of sacred traditions that saw the world as alive was necessary to transform the land and the minerals beneath it as commodities to be bought and sold.  On three continents, intertwined powers of church and state jailed, tortured, and executed practitioners of nature-based religions, and divided up the land among the members of a rising white middle class.  Starhawk describes some of the forces at work:

"In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, new economic stresses caused by the influx of gold from the Americas challenged the power of the old ruling classes, which was based on land.  A new power began to arise, based on money, trade, and the beginnings of capitalism.  With it came a new ideology, the mechanistic model of the universe, which saw the world as made up of separate objects that had no inherent life, could be viewed and examined in isolation from one another, and could be exploited without constraint.

"For this new economic order to be accepted, old ideas of the dynamic interrelatedness of the universe and the sacredness of nature needed to be broken down."

                            (Starhawk, The Earth Path. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2004)

The same ideology that drove witch hunts in Europe led British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonizers to try to wipe out the traditional religions of the Americas.

There was strong resistance to the conquest among the Zapotec communities in the mountains north of Oaxaca City, and the language and traditions of the Zapotec remain strong today.

In many ways, that same clash of cultures and ideologies is playing out in Oaxaca again today, 500 years later.

From June through October of this year, Oaxaca was largely under the control of a provisional popular government guided by traditional indigenous means of decision making.   Federal police retook the capitol city in a military-style invasion at the end of October.  At night, police ride through the streets of the city in white pick-up trucks, kicking down the doors of suspected movement sympathizers, beating them, and sending them to prisons on the other side of the country where they are subjected to torture.   But signs of resistance are everywhere -- most visibly in the form of the graffiti that appears every night on walls that had been whitewashed just hours earlier.

On its surface, the uprising in Oaxaca was initially a response to a brutal pre-dawn police attack on striking teachers and their families camped out in the Zocalo on June 14.  Enraged Oaxacans came to the teachers' defense, literally beating back the police and retaking the square.  

But anger had been simmering in Oaxaca for a long time.  The state is desperately poor -- in the countryside, many homes have dirt floors and lack electricity or running water.

Corruption plays a role in that poverty.  The Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) has ruled Oaxaca for over seventy years, maintaining control through a system of cronyism that would make a Chicago politician blush.  Jobs and land are awarded to party operatives. The current Governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, is believed to have looted the state treasury in order to help fund the campaign of his party's presidential candidate, Roberto Madrazzo.

The state is rich in resources -- timber, uranium, gold, silver, water.  But most of those resources have been sold off to U.S. and Canadian companies, with the people of Oaxaca seeing very little benefit.

But the biggest force responsible for Oaxaca's poverty is a global economic system bent on eradicating subsistence agriculture, replacing small farms with massive plantations, and turning farmers into low wage factory workers, all in the name of economic efficiency and maximizing profits.  The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) destroyed Oaxaca's millennia-old corn growing culture in the 1990's.  Oaxaca is the place where the world's first corn was grown.  But when tarriffs and other protections were dropped, small farmers growing traditional varieties of corn to feed themselves and sell to their neighbors could no longer compete with massive government subsidized corporate corn farms in the Midwestern U.S. growing genetically modified corn using petroleum fertilizers and pesticides.   To add insult to injury, when a few farmers planted the corn they bought from the U.S., the pollen from their fields contaminated neighboring corn fields, ruining Oaxaca's genetic treasury by turning heirloom varieties of corn into strange hybrids.  

A few years later, Oaxaca's coffee farms took a hit when Vietnam began producing cheap, abundant coffee on the advice of international financial institutions, making the bottom fall out of the coffee market.

In recent years, most young Oaxacan men and many young Oaxacan women have been forced to leave their communities to search for work in the U.S. or in the maquilladora factories of northern Mexico.   150,000 people leave Oaxaca every year.

The handful of young Oaxacans who go to the university and become teachers are among the few members of their generation who remain in their hometowns.

Miguel Angel Vasquez of the human rights and popular education organization EDUCA says "“if migration is the individual response to this economic crisis, the conflict in Oaxaca is an example of a collective response.”
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In the town of Zaachilla, outside Oaxaca City, the people drove out their Municipal President and installed a popular government in July in the culmination of a long simmering dispute over the possibly illegal and definitely unpopular sale of community land to a company partially owned by the Governor and the outgoing Mexican President's wife for the construction of upscale housing developments to be inhabited by Oaxaca's business elite and U.S. retirees.

The Municipal Palace is now decorated with a colorful banner painted by the town's young people proclaiming the community's support for the Oaxacan people's struggle to drive out the corrupt government and take back the power to govern themselves.  On both ends of the banner are the figures of longhaired men with clenched fists whose breath is a powerful wind -- images that recall the Zapotec gods.

There are arrest warrants out for dozens of people in Zaachilla -- the members of the provisional municipal government, most of the town's teachers, even a woman in her eighties who was photographed at a march in the city.   Plainclothes police drive through the town on motorcycles, snatching people up.  The men who are arrested are beaten, the women who are arrested are sexually assaulted, both are sent to prisons in the distant state of Nayarit, a twenty hour drive away.   Thugs believed to have been hired by the ousted Municipal President have vandalized the schools, and state and federal police have gone into classrooms searching for teachers involved in the popular movement.  
But the people remain strong.   They take turns standing guard over the Municipal Palace and the schools at night.  And on December 10 they plan to brave police roadblocks to go into the city to join a massive march demanding freedom for political prisoners.

My friend Todd sat up late at night with one of the artists who painted the banner on the Municipal Palace.  The teenager pulled out small figurines of animals, relics from the archaeological site near the center of town.  "These are a gift from my grandparents,"  he said, "The gift my grandparents gave me is resistance."

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Friends tell me that at the height of the uprising, the Zocalo was bustling with energy, filled with music, bright banners, and families camping under plastic tarps.

Today there are tanks in the middle of each of the streets leading into the square and police tents along the wall of the cathedral.
There is a giant display of poinsettias on one side of the square, the government's attempt to give the appearance that the people of Oaxaca City welcome the Federal Preventative Police.
Police in grey uniforms play arcade games and lick ice cream cones, assault rifles strapped to their backs.

Teenage girls sit on the steps of the cathedral, smoking cigarettes and flirting with the police.
A friend asked a store owner what he sees when he goes through the Zocalo, and the store owner muttered under his breath "A lot of children without fathers."

A handful of confused European tourists who didn't read the news coverage of the uprising or believed the Mexican government's claims that the situation was firmly under control wander in and out of shops and restaurants.

But overwhelmingly, there is silence.  And a palpable sense that things could explode at any minute.  Even when they are flirting with the teenagers, the police keep their helmets and riot shields nearby.

And inexplicably there is graffiti on a wall a few feet away from one of the tanks.

Asked to characterize the current moment in Oaxaca, Miguel Angel Vasquez says,

"There are legends in Oaxaca of people hiding beneath the rocks, and then coming back as animals.  So maybe that's what's happening right now, people are hiding during this incredible strife that is happening right now.  But perhaps they will return."

A people who have survived 500 years of outsiders trying to eradicate their culture are a force to be reckoned with.

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Postscript 12/22/06 -- Reports say that the PFP have moved their tanks out of the Zocalo and their camp to a military base at the edge of the city.  Today the APPO was supposed to be staging its last demonstration before taking a break for Christmas.  The movement has come too far to turn back -- it remains to be seen what a new year of struggle will bring, especially as APPO's delegation returns fom the EZLN's intergalactic encuentro . . .

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Sean Donahue is a poet, healer, activist, and freelance journalist wandering through New England.