Oaxaca's Rising

January 17, 2007
Oaxaca's Rising
Vibrant as the Paint on the Walls

By JOHN ROSS
Oaxaca

The walls of this city of painters have been freshly whitewashed on orders from a much-lampooned governor, the whiteout financed by transnational tourist moguls to promote the illusion that peace has returned to Oaxaca. Neat squares of blankness cancel out the visual rebellion that exploded on the streets of this colonial city, once declared the patrimony of humanity by the United Nations. There were seven months of dramatic confrontations between striking teachers and their allies in the Oaxaca Peoples Popular Assembly (APPO) and security forces backing the despotic governor Ulisis Ruiz whose removal from office the insurgents demand. Over 200 prisoners were taken during the skirmishing and another 60 are listed as disappeared. 19 dissidents have been gunned down by Ruiz's death squads.

But despite the savage repression, if one keeps an ear to the ground and an eye to the whitewashed walls once plastered with revolutionary slogans, tags, full-length murals, throw-ups, and ingenious stencils, it doesn’t much sound or look like the Oaxaca Intifada is done with yet.

The anger is palpable in the markets and on the streets of this handsome state capital. "Boleros" (shoe shine men) crouch over boxes bearing the APPO's initials in the central plaza, defiantly cursing the state and municipal cops who patrol in pairs, prepared to subdue any expression of support for the popular movement. A woman in a polka-dot dress stands hands on hips on a downtown street corner and glares at a phalanx of police in vizored helmets and bullet-proof vests to which are pinned tear gas canisters, as they install a metal barricade, their shields and batons at the ready to "protect" the few tourists in town from the rage of the popular classes. "This city is only for the foreigners and the rich now. The workers out in the periphery who make a lousy 400 pesos a week ($40 USD) can't even come downtown anymore" she complains to a passerby.

A second woman, fuming because her car has been blocked by an illegally parked Nissan, screams at a speeding motorcycle cop to rescue her but the officer only laughs and zooms off to ferret out APPO subversion. "Pinche policias!" she snarls, "they only work for the killer Ulisis." The irate companera explains that a cousin disappeared last June 14 when the governor dispatched hundreds of police to push the striking teachers out of the plaza and concussion grenades rained down on the demonstrators from low-flying helicopters.

"He never came home. He's dead. I just want his bones now" she mourns.

The bitterness of those who have suffered seven months of depravities at the governor's hands finds distinct outlets. "I'm not a guerrillero yet but we shall see. We shall see" belts out Fernando Guadarrama, a "Jarocha" or Veracruz-style singer to the rollicking tune of "La Bamba" at a local cantina. A poetry reading advertised as being clearly seditious draws swarms of supporters of the popular movement to a downtown cultural center - some have outstanding warrants pending and risk arrest by attending.

Oaxaca is a city of painters, the cradle of the late master colorist Rufino Tamayo and the very much-alive Francisco Toledo who stands with the resistance movement, and during the long struggle the walls of the city were transformed into a dizzying open-air gallery of popular art. Despite the thousands of gallons that have been expended to blot out the rebellion in a doomed campaign to assure tourists that "no pasa nada aqui", that nothing is happening here and it is safe to return, the images, like the anger, endure just beneath the surface. "The white paint cannot erase the blood of our comrades" defiantly advertises a spray-painted wall scrawl. A remarkable archive of over a thousand images of the struggle for the walls of Oaxaca offers poignant witness to the ongoing resistance.

Some of the works were spray painted freehand, others stenciled onto every available space, still others printed out on paper and fastened to the walls with a wheat glue tough as steel so that to remove the offending art requires dismantling the buildings to which they were affixed brick by brick. Although Ulisis's obliteration teams stalk the streets, new art goes up every day right under the noses of the police.

Indeed, Ulisis is everywhere on these walls - as a burro, as a rat, a raccoon, a chimpanzee, a skull and crossbones, with shit on his head. A mammoth Mayan head was painted to scale by an apparently well-coordinated team of throw-up artists, a Playboy nude appeared curled up on the wall of the Cathedral rectory and tagged as "The Pope's Girlfriend" - the Church played an equivocal role in the Oaxaca uprising.

Some murals are left unfinished, the work of the artists disrupted when Ulisis's goons - mostly off-duty police - swung around the corner in the deep of the night spraying automatic weapon fire at the barricades. Some, in fact, were painted from the ashes of the tire fires the protestors burned all night on the thousand or so barricades piled up in and around the city.

Still stippling public walls posted with "Do Not Post" warnings and private businesses (a Neurotics Anonymous billboard was an appealing target) is a ubiquitous image of a supermarket-shopping cart filled with rocks and ready for the next march. Anarchist A's are everywhere. A little girl in a pink dress hugs a large bomb. The machetes of San Salvador Atenco are a repeated icon. A stencil of a protestor aiming a slingshot at a helicopter. A stencil of a kneeling youth spray-painting a wall.

The Mexican penchant for mocking death is pervasive - a humming bird sucks nectar from a grinning skull. A horribly mutilated dove of peace. A stylized assassination scene featuring hated Teachers Union boss Elba Esther Gordillo. There are many women's' fists (tagged "the weaker sex") and a mysterious war between stenciled "chapalines" (grasshoppers) and "priratas" (PRI rats.)

Zapata in a gas mask is still up there just under the whitewash, Benito Juarez with a Mohawk. Mug shots of Gandhi, the old anarchist Ricardo Flores Magon, the martyred guerrillero Lucio Cabanas, the Zapatistas' Comandanta Ramona. Sometimes the walls functioned as the morning newspaper. One day, Oaxaca arose to find life-sized photo-real figures of three presidential candidates dressed as boxers in a ring. The stolen July 2 election was a touchstone for the street artists.

This ebullient outpouring of graphic resistance to the caprices of a governor whose sanity is openly questioned, and the connivance of a government under the "hard hand" of a president much of the electoral considers a usurper, is firmly rooted in the popular traditions of Oaxaca, the most indigenous entity in the Mexican union with 17 distinct and largely destitute Indian peoples fueling the socio-political mix.

Last summer, enraged because Ulisis and his predecessors had turned the Guelaguetza, a dance festival with millennial antecedents, into a crass tourist trap at the height of the struggle, the APPO and the teachers forced cancellation of the event - and held their own "Peoples' Guelaguetza" on the streets of the city.

The November 1-2 Dias de los Muertos, a deeply rooted ritual in Oaxaca, were transformed into anguished protest and solidarity with the victims of Ruiz's murder machine. One altar was created for the freshly slain U.S. independent reporter Brad Will.

Similarly, this December 23, "the Night of the Rabanos" (radishes), when Oaxaca artisans fashion the giant roots into fantastical shapes, the APPO set up tables in the courtyard of sprawling Santo Domingo church and carved the radishes into figures of Ulisis as Satan and other nefarious personas. The governor responded by ordering his police to break up the celebration.

But perhaps URO's (Ulisis Ruiz Ortiz) most offensive slap at Oaxacan and national tradition came January 6, the day the Three Kings bring toys to all Mexican children, when the despised governor sicced 500 cops on the APPO to disrupt a toy drive for the children of the protestors, many of whose parents are still in prison. In spite of Ruiz's Grinchiness, the popular movement was undeterred. Barred from using Santo Domingo despite having the Bishop's permission, protestors marched through the downtown streets and occupied a nearby plaza to hold their fiesta.

What’s on the plate for Oaxaca in 2007? There is much speculation about a political solution - that Ulisis will appoint an interim governor of his choosing and step up into President Felipe Calderon's cabinet or maybe an ambassadorship to Fiji, and that APPO's politica prisoners will be amnestied (including the three Sosa brothers who Calderon has fingered as the ringleaders of the rebellion) and everyone will live happily ever after.

Certainly the release of all the prisoners is a condition of any settlement but whether the popular movement which has battled back valiantly with its "fuego y palabra" (fire and word) for so long. will be ready to deal for such a hollow and symbolic "victory" remains to be seen.

The Oaxaca Intifada smolders on into the New Year and despite the whitewash job, the writing on the walls is perfectly clear. "I'm not a guerrillero yet" lilts Fernando Guadarrama on stage at the Nuevo Babel, "but we shall see. We shall see."

John Ross will be traveling the southwest (February), the south and Midwest (March), and the Right Coast (April) with his latest opus Zapatistas! Making Another World Possible - Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006. For bookings and suggested venues write johnross@igc.org. (Note: the dates are disappearing fast.)

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey