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Issue Date:  October 20, 2006

Pealing church bells and gunfire

Letters from Oaxaca: Second in a series


Around three o’clock in the morning of Aug. 22, my husband and I awoke to the sound of alert rockets popping in the night air. Our children slept blissfully unaware; here in Mexico, numerous fiestas are punctuated with fireworks. But this was different. These warning signals were being released by members of a teachers’ union, which since mid-May has paralyzed the state of Oaxaca in a strike, joined by a broad-based citizens’ coalition after government repression June 14 (NCR, Oct. 13). Shifts of protesters were now camping out in the Zócalo, or main square, and vigilance committees were guarding radio stations held by the mobilization. As the signals kept bursting over and over, a church bell started ringing. Then another. Then another. Our neighborhood parish joined in. The peals of church bells -- mixed with the sound of gunfire from high-powered assault weapons -- reverberated through the whole valley.

The night before, 60 armed men had entered the Oaxacan Radio and Television Corporation, which broadcasts Channel 9 and Radio 96.9 FM. Movement protesters inside were forcibly expelled and equipment destroyed. An attempt by state authorities to take back the media, “Operation Clean-up” was popularly called, instead, the “Caravan of Death” for its convoy of vehicles bearing police, cholos (delinquents enlisted by authorities), and porros (members of a right-wing university mafia).

We ran to our radio and tuned in to the movement’s station. We listened as terrified broadcasters related unfolding events. Throughout the neighborhood, other households had tuned in as well, and the synchronized transmission echoed off the walls into the night sky.

This is Oaxaca, a state whose cultural patrimony boasts 16 indigenous ethnic groups, from whom it derives the practice of tequio: voluntary collective work projects. Now, up and down the street, we heard cars revving. Neighbors raced out to the Periférico, the main artery that circles the city. Some sped to the Zócalo to reinforce blockades around the encampment. The bravest among them rushed out to the radio transmitters. Most stayed closer to home to block the entrances to San Martín. They used whatever materials they could find -- corrugated metal, boulders, old mattresses, slabs of concrete, tires, tree trunks -- to set up barricades, helping to isolate the convoy on the Periférico and protecting our neighborhood at the same time. They lingered at the roadblocks until dawn, drinking coffee and exchanging ideas. Since that night, some 1,500 barricades were put up around the city each evening in a new expression of tequio.

Along with the Guelaguetza of sharing that gave rise to the coalition (the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca), moments like this reveal a fusion of cultural roots and contemporary improvisation in an otherwise discouraging time of fragmentation and fatigue.

The radio and television station was “taken” by the caserolas (mostly housewives, they bang pots and pans with kitchen utensils) when on Aug. 1, they went to the state-owned TV station asking to be interviewed. (Miriam, of my base ecclesial community, said, “The staff would not interview us. We convinced them we weren’t going to leave -- so they had to!”) For three weeks, “Radio Caserola” broadcast documentaries about local women’s issues and the causes of women in Palestine and Cuba.

The megamarchas reached their height during these weeks, with an estimated 800,000 to 1 million protesters -- roughly a quarter of the state’s population. But during a megamarcha, protester José Jiménez Colmenares, a mechanic and the husband of a teacher, was shot and killed by police when he set off to chase porros and cholos who were hurling rocks. His coffin, lifted high, was carried over a sea of hundreds of thousands who gathered at the Zócalo for a Mass presided over by Archbishop José Chávez Botello.

In the meantime, the coalition continued to grow. The Oaxacan chapter of the national health care union (Section 35 of the National Union of Health Secretariat Workers) joined the strike, bringing 5,000 workers into the movement. Public health services were curtailed; the clinic where my husband works saw more patients.

The night my husband and I were awakened by the alert rockets, the “Caravan of Death” opened fire on barricades of teachers and members of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca guarding “La Ley” radio station. Lorenzo San Pablo Cervantes, a civil engineer and architect who worked for the school system, was shot and died later that morning.

A loose coalition of 300 or 350 groups (there is no official roster), the Popular Assembly contains a mix of backgrounds, objectives and ideologies, unified by a single goal, namely, the dismissal of Gov. Ulíses Ruíz Ortíz from office. Their demand is not outlandish -- twice in the past 50 years, Oaxacans have removed governors from office. But as weeks and months dragged on, there was no sign that the governor would resign, and no response to pleas from both sides to the federal government.

The alliance between the teachers’ union (Section 22 of the National Educational Workers Union) and the Popular Assembly became more determined to substantiate the only grounds on which Ruíz could be impeached: the ungovernability of the state of Oaxaca.

How does a mobilization prove ungovernability? By blocking the entrances to bridges, roads, offices, banks, department stores. By commandeering buses and government vehicles. By shutting down government offices. By covering every inch of wall space downtown and in major thoroughfares with political graffiti. And by closing preschool, primary and secondary schools indefinitely.

On one hand, actions like the takeover of buses sound worse than they are. A friend from a nearby shantytown is a bus driver. His bus was “taken” -- but he was deputized to “guard” it. At night he sleeps in the vehicle, parked at the bottom of the dirt road. On the other hand, cars, buses and trucks have been vandalized, stolen, even torched. Our comadre (godmother of our children) was stopped on a bridge that was being taken. For two hours, she and others sat captive as their cars were scratched with iron rods.

Oaxaca’s signature tourist attraction, the Guelaguetza (a celebration of indigenous song and dance), was canceled this year because of vandalism done to the auditorium.

Robbers have found these weeks an opportune time. Our neighbors who organize the nightly tequio of roadblocks formed a neighborhood watch committee. When caught, burglars are turned over to the Popular Assembly’s “mobile brigades” to take to the Zócalo for public display.

It does not help the cause that the mobile brigades are themselves, as a movement friend confided, at times uncontrollable. In one incident, brigadistas stormed into the computer lab of the public high schools, known as COBAO, and roughed up office workers, who begged for time to turn off the computer network. The men said, “Oh, is this the COBAO? Sorry, wrong office” -- and left. It would be funny if people weren’t getting hurt.

People are tired. Tired from nightly vigilance. Tired of hours in traffic. At one point I found myself getting annoyed with the rhetoric on the radio. Teachers began to skip shifts, leaving only Popular Assembly members with body piercings and Ché Guevara T-shirts on the Zócalo. Attendance at the fifth megamarcha was optimistically calculated at 300,000. “ Ulíses, te estás tardando ” -- “Ulíses, you’re taking too long,” wearily reads one piece of graffiti.

And then there’s the economic drain. At the time of this writing, the teachers have missed two months of salary. Even before U.S. and Canadian travel advisories, tourism by U.S., Canadian, European and Mexican visitors had screeched to a halt. Over 1,000 business owners pledged to close their doors in a 24-hour shutdown, not because they support the Popular Assembly, but to show their displeasure with the state and federal governments’ failure to resolve the crisis, which has cost an estimated $300 million in revenue.

If bigger businesses are suffering, imagine the toll on working families and neighborhood businesses. Our papelería (stationery store) across the street, owned by an enterprising young woman, closed its doors for good -- students were no longer shopping for school supplies. A couple that owns a credit investigation company has not worked for weeks (no one needs credit checks since consumers have stopped buying) and have taken to canning jalapeños to sell from the trunk of their car. Yet they continue to support the movement for the sake of the common good, believing that this sacrifice will create better lives for their children.

It was with relief that we heard, at the end of that awful week when San Pablo was killed, that the federal government would hold negotiations with the teachers’ union and the Popular Assembly, overseen by the interior secretary. The overwhelming majority of Oaxacans desire a peaceful resolution. Even those who do not support the movement are against another armed intervention. And while not all those who support the movement condone all of its actions, the teachers’ union and the Popular Assembly undeniably lead a struggle that touches the deep longings and the cultural core of the people, el pueblo.

Fourteen teachers and 14 Popular Assembly representatives were delegated to attend negotiations, which have stopped and started in a nerve-racking manner over the past month. In early October, it seemed the dialogue was a lost cause: Interior Secretary Carlos Abascal Carranza repeatedly dismissed the delegates’ central demand, the resignation of the governor. Military helicopters circled overhead and 3,000 personnel of the Preventative Federal Police of the Mexican army were moved into position. Civil associations of the Popular Assembly coalition organized a “camp-out for peace” in the world heritage landmark Santo Domingo Esplanade. As the sit-in on the Zócalo wound down, a peace walk set out for Mexico City with a couple thousand teachers and Popular Assembly members expected to arrive Oct. 9.

On Oct. 4, movement leaders stood up the interior secretary and others gathered for a meeting that, according to Abascal, was to replace negotiations. Apart from the insult of being invited to chat while simultaneously being threatened with military force, only four chairs were set aside for the movement -- 21 others were allotted to business tycoons, the archbishop and government leaders (including the contested governor and his two predecessors). Movement representatives asked for, instead, “alternative negotiations.”

While all parties hope that the immediate conflict will end soon -- the head of the teachers’ union, promises that classes will resume five days after the governor leaves office -- many in the movement have come to realize that the crisis of the past four months has initiated a collective, long-term process for social change. “What we want,” a Popular Assembly leader told me, “is a different Oaxaca.” The resignation of Ruíz is not enough. But it would be a start.

Deirdre Cornell and her husband, Kenney Gould, are Maryknoll lay missioners in Oaxaca, Mexico. This is the second in a series of letters from Oaxaca.

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2006

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