A Letter from Oaxaca

October 15, Oaxaca

Dear Friends,

oxaca1.jpgWe’ve been in the city two weeks now, arriving in late September amid intensified threats of a military intervention. A few days later Naval helicopters flew overhead, circling over the city center for two days. Since then, a strange, uneasy calm has prevailed. Most of the Oaxacans we know have a beleaguered attitude. The orchestrated attack on the teachers’ encampment was four months ago — long months of hardship, anxiety and uncertainty. In a city where tourism supports tens of thousands directly or indirectly, the economic consequences have been dire.oxaca2.jpgIn the main square, a shoe shine man explained the mathematics this way: ‘there are sixty of us here, in the sindicate of shoe shine men. None of us gets more than eight customers a day. Before, on a good day, we would shine twenty five pairs of shoes.’

There have been seismic changes since June, and the tired faces you see are not the consequence of idleness. Directly following the June 14 attack on the teachers’ union, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) was formed. Formally constituted at the baseball stadium in front of a crowd of 5000, the Popular Assembly, of which the teachers’ union is a key element, has had the difficult task of leading a broad and diverse social rebellion with roots stretching back decades in every region of the state. Readers of Narco oxaca3.jpgNews know already of the accomplishments — six enormous ‘mega marches’ in the capital; the first ‘popular guelagetza’ in the state’s history; the occupation of all state government buildings; the taking of town halls in hundreds of municipalities; the women’s takeover on August 1st of the state TV and Radio station; the formal establishment by APPO of a ‘parallel government;’ the 600-kilometer march to Mexico City by several thousand teachers; the barricades, set up as a protection against the ‘caravans of death,’ built nightly on more than a thousand streets in every neighborhood of the city… This is a beleaguered city, but it is exploding with a spirit of rebellion and possibility.

There are, as of today, three radio stations in the hands of the Popular Assembly (down from a total of fifteen a month ago) and on the airwaves a constant chorus of voices can be heard as people call in from across the city and the state. A dozen or more anthems have already been penned, and on the streets surrounding the zocalo vendors sell the CD’s, along with DVDs documenting the struggle. The whole of the historic center is barricaded, oxaca4.jpgthe buildings a dazzling mix of graffiti and banners, and daily there are marches, forums and outdoor discussions. In the last week gunmen have opened fire twice; the first time on a student demonstration in the afternoon wounding four, the second on a barricade at night wounding two, one of whom died yesterday afternoon.

Two weeks ago, most of the country’s newspapers ran a photograph on the front page showing a group of young men, their faces covered, making molotovs at a barricade at night. The Secretary of the Interior, in an interview, sounded almost passionate in his determination to free the people of Oaxaca from the grips of such a dangerous group. Having failed, the month before, to convince anyone that the rebellion was being led by an assortment of previously unknown guerilla groups, he was now offering a new image — the urban anarchist. But the facts on the ground are different, and the Interior Ministry knows this, despite its tired antics. This is a genuine social rebellion, and whatever else might be said about it, its composition is indistinguishable from the general population. The people oxaca5.jpgsitting at a thousand barricades each night reflect a profound fact — life in Oaxaca has been turned upside down, and it will not be easy to turn it back again, with or without a military intervention. A different picture might have been published in the papers, but perhaps it is the image that most frightens the powers that be. It is the image of women knitting, as they are at every barricade, night and day, and who can say what power lies behind those knitting needles.

Today, Sunday, the rumors of an army attack are at fever pitch. The long process of negotiations between the Popular Assembly and the Federal government has reached an end point. A Senate commission (3 senators, one from each party) visited the city for a whirlwind investigation on Thursday. The governor with his entire cabinet met them in a hangar at the airport saying that his schedule was too busy for a proper sit down at his state offices (offices he hasn’t been able to step foot in for months). The senators scarcely entered the city, and would not have seen a single barricade if they hadn’t been spotted at a late night taco stand and brought into the center by the APPO. They are set to make a pronouncement on Tuesday as to whether there is or is not ‘governability’ in the state of Oaxaca. It’s a thumbs up or down proposition. Thumbs up, the governor wins; thumbs down, he loses. But will the army or the Federal Police (PFP) really come in? On the streets nobody knows, and their positions change daily. My own sense is that they would have come long ago if they felt they could win. As some of the banners downtown read: ‘Oaxaca is not Atenco.’

Perhaps they will come in, but if they do, they will find it very difficult to undo so much knitting.

Much love,

David, Elizabeth, Leila and Maria

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