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An August ('06) Day in Oaxaca

an article by Garry Caplan which gives a feel for conditions in the City of Oaxaca in light of the recent protest activity. August 31, 2006.
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When you awake you don't know what the day will hold, regardless of your plans. Will the bank be open? What kind of detour will I be taking to get to where I'm going? Will I get there, or turn around and come home? What will the media, neighbors and friends be reporting about road closures, violence, blockading of supermarkets and gas stations, the federalis poised just outside of the city waiting for it to all boil over (as if it hasn't)? But with guests in the house, there must be another option for the day's activities—sure there is, because in Oaxaca there are always things to do, a contingency plan which will fascinate every tourist and house guest, no matter how bad the reports are. Most travelers who have never visited here don't understand this fact until they're here.
It's we residents, much moreso than the tourists, who are upset, because it's our city which is being affected. It's my friends who are out of work, and my acquaintances in the villages who are lamenting about a decrease in revenue from tourist dollars of 75%, minimum. I'm the one who hears about the groundswell of support from "the people," yet I hear an entirely different story from the vendors in the markets who are supposedly the ones suffering at the hands of the governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. They seem to me to be suffering at the hands of the protesters.

Blockade on Av. Hidalgo.   photo by Alan Goodin

7:30 AM -- Awake and begin the morning routine which hasn't changed, except there is a conspicuous absence of phone calls to the house. Friends generally don't make plans to go out like they used to and we're not all that interested in socializing either. Certainly going downtown to a restaurant in the evening is out of the question for residents. While we'll drive downtown, there's no way our Oaxacan friends are interested in seeing the destruction and defacing. Many haven't been downtown since June 14th, the day the government tried to restore order with tear gas in the zócalo. They're afraid, as well. The media blows it out of proportion, but even so, they know the history of unrest in the country better than we do, so perhaps they have more reason to fear.
9:00 AM – My wife calls a friend whose niece, our god-daughter, is in hiding from the maestros, or perhaps the government. We're just not sure. In Oaxaca everyone is confused about everything relating to the strike and protests, and once you start talking, even the wisest and most educated will admit as such. Ask what's necessary to resolve everything, why it's escalated to this, why the teachers don't negotiate 5 year contracts instead of one each year, how many have actually been killed, why Fox doesn't do anything, and will it really resolve matters if a resolution is reached with the teachers, in light of the fact that there is now an umbrella group known as APPO which has it's own agenda. One thing that's become apparent is that it's no longer about the teachers, and not even about whether Ulises steps down. That won't be enough for APPO and the maestros. How can it be? What's to say someone just as bad or worse will not be appointed, unless it happens right now, before Ulises has been in power for 2 years. Most say after 2 years, PRI gets to simply appoint another governor, and what's the likelihood of APPO and the maestros agreeing to his PRI successor? And what's the likelihood of PRI agreeing to letting Ulises step down now, because it apparently would mean another state election and PRI would likely be out of power rather than have another 4 years of governing? And if the teachers return to class tomorrow, how does that help anything, even if they do get 10%, 15% or more of an increase? Does that really help at the end of the day? Sure if the government pays for the mandatory school uniforms it helps, and it's easy to see the change it makes for regular folk.
So yes I can confirm 2 deaths, notwithstanding media and gossip reports that there have been many more, and that there have been none. Our pregnant god-daughter is being sought in conjunction with one of them, and that's why she's keeping a low profile. The husband of a maestro was killed at a rally near a medical clinic where our god-daughter's father-in-law works. He became belligerent when there was a threat to torch the clinic, or perhaps his attitude and comments were what caused the threat. The next thing you know someone is dead. So reports have it that they're looking for a doctor and a pregnant woman. Every family here is affected one way or another. In the case of our god-daughter, apart from her predicament, two of her uncles, businessmen, are out of work so one became a cabbie (not the best time to drive a taxi either), and an aunt, a judge, isn't working because the courts have been blockaded for several weeks. A lawyer friend goes to her office in the morning, and that's it for the day since there's no court.
10:00 AM -- I go out onto the terrace. No, I haven't been burning paper and plastic in the oil drum down the hill. That was yesterday. Oh ya, it's the smell of smoldering tires from several blocks away, from the night before. But we're not downtown. We're in a quaint semi-rural peaceful neighborhood, immune to all this. That was until a few weeks ago when they torched a bus in front of a local Dominos Pizza. After that incident the unrest got closer to home. I didn't see the burning bus, but was by there minutes earlier. Our daughter didn't see it either, but passed by a couple of hours later when it was a charred wreckage. For my part, I was on my way to gas up the truck after hearing that the next day the gas stations would be closed (you never know if it will occur, or if it's just the maestros telling us and then changing their plans, or the better answer is they're just toying with us, with trained urban guerillas amongst them, advising how to disrupt a city to the maximum, using a formal handbook which we know exists). A bus was blocking the way, but I managed to squeeze through just before a second bus was placed behind it. There were a few men wearing bandanas over their faces, running about, but I didn't know why. Just another blockade, only this one out of downtown? I returned from filling up using another route. Next morning our daughter told me what she'd seen, and the front page of Noticias newspaper had a photo of the burning bush—bus rather, but by this time it had in fact become more like a scene from The Ten Commandments than reality.
10:15 AM -- These particular house guests are here for 10 days. In 10 days you can sleep in and still get to see "everything", or at least the lion's share of the city and outlying villages. Today I'll drop them at the museum beside Santa Domingo, and in the afternoon we'll head out to The Center for the Arts and Oaxaca Paper Workshop in San Agustin Etla. Perhaps we'll be able to fit in a bit more. Then for a quiet dinner downtown sans kids. Heading out after breakfast we see that the street is pretty bare leading to the downtown core. One bank is open, and another is closed. The day before there was a city-wide closure of all businesses, in support of a plea to the feds to step in. I guess some banks decided to stay closed another day for one reason or another. People were lined up, however, in front of the Telcel Client Services Center (the nation's largest cellular phone operation). Last night it had been broken into, phones and accessories had been stolen and destroyed, and they managed to disrupt the Telcel airwaves for a few hours. Not our concern, though, so let's just continue.
On the left, one of the major suburban thoroughfares, B. Dominguez, is closed, with a bus, some logs and bricks cutting off traffic from turning onto it. Past the gas station we make a right and go around perhaps the fifth charred patch in the middle of an intersection, seeming like a low pile of disintegrating charcoal with filaments of what look like thin metal strips on top of and around the darkened patch—burned tire leftovers. The main pedestrian walkway in the city, M. Alcalá is pretty barren. Restaurants are offering 2 for 1, using large colorful posters as promotion. Some stores are closed, though it's much too early for the traditional 2 – 4 siesta shutdowns. Our favorite jeweler is also closed, as is his wife's twin shop across the street. Tomorrow he'll be open, thanking me for bringing our friends in and wondering how much longer he can hold out without the tourist business to which he is accustomed. He comes across as wealthy, but then again he must project an air of success in that business. He doesn't take vacations. His preoccupation is getting his kids through private school, and hopefully post-secondary education at a university with a national reputation, out of Oaxaca. Not at all unlike the hopes and aspirations of most of us, except that we manage to fit in a vacation or two each year.
10:50 AM -- I park, which is uncharacteristically easy on a downtown street close to the zócalo. With our friends doing a tour, I can do a quick walk around the zócalo by myself. A major hotel is still shut down. It's now been over 2 months. The travel agency is still open, but with only one person working there, the wife of our plumber. She's lucky. She's still got a job, although she's getting paid 50% of her usual wage. The hotel restaurant is also closed. So is one of the fanciest and well known in the city, only 2 blocks away. Perhaps two tables at each café around the zócalo have people in them. Once again I see specials for comida, costing about a third less than usual. The odd whiff of garbage, the grafitti on historic stone buildings. On the one hand in places it seems like a third world refugee camp with blankets, sleeping bags, hibachis and tarps, yet a few yards away there's a carnival atmosphere. With no police presence, anyone can set up anything they want to sell, anywhere. I think to myself that if there were more tourists here they'd have a field day with buying great crafts at bargain prices. I feel very safe as I knew I would, and resent the commentators on travel websites warning against coming here. I periodically have questioned the tourists I do see on the street, and none feel threatened. I'll just walk up to them and start talking. I think they think I'm nuts, but I really want to gauge the pulse of tourists who are here. I still wish they could see the Oaxaca that drew me here initially. The grafitti is almost entirely telling Ulises to get out, calling him an assassin, and so forth. The troubling one is "turista go home; oaxaca anti-capitalista." All the international newpapers covering the story manage to have a photo of that grafitti painted on a nice old stone building. Some grafitti now spells Ulises with swastikas where there should be s's. How can it be that there is this attitude to him on the one hand, and yet our daughter and I have ripped down anti-semitic posters? But that was in the midst of the brief Lebanon-Israel war, when Israel was getting some bad press. Each street vendor now has a sign up saying "fuera Ulises" (Ulises get out), but don't they realize that if he goes and order is restored they'll be out of work because once again street vendors will be regulated? Or are they not doing their regular jobs and are relegated to flogging stuff on the street because they've been laid off by hotels, restaurants and the government. After all, for the past several weeks state government offices have been closed, as well as the courts, the municipal offices, and even the tourism offices. How do you pay your taxes? What happens to those wanting out of jail? Without police patrolling, if this was an American city it would be Rodney King all over again. What is there about Oaxaca that while there is certainly some vandalism, there is still order in terms of businesses still functioning if they want to and in terms of people being able to walk around downtown without fear or otherwise safety concerns. It's rather uncanny, but a relief knowing that despite my upset, tourists with nevertheless leave and at home reflect on an enjoyable, albeit very different vacation in some respects.
11:30 AM -- Time to head home for a bit. I turn on the radio. I'd forgotten that my favorite station 96.9 is off the air. A few weeks ago it was taken over by APPO and I could only hear anti-capitalist propaganda. Don't they realize that capitalism is why Oaxaca exists? Then they took over more radio stations. Now some stations are functioning I think, but it's hard to tell what's really going on. The reported break-ins of a TV station, a newspaper, government offices, and so on, is difficult to figure out in terms of the allegations flying all over about it's the maestros, it's APPO, it's the government sending in troups disguised as protesters. Who the hell knows. Everyone has their own version but as suggested earlier, those who are most introspective and rational realize that no one knows who's doing what for sure, to whom, or why. Let them keep doing it to each other as long as we can go about our business and our guests and other tourists can still enjoy the city and the villages. We can tolerate the inconveniences and delays. It's not the end of the world.
A main arterial road to the northern suburbs is blockaded with 2 buses and a truck. I'd forgotten, so have to contend with even more traffic to get to the sidestreet route to which I'm accustomed. You know the way you have your regular route going to or returning from work, but use an alternate route if there's an accident or otherwise an inordinate amount of traffic? Well that's where I'm heading. Making an illegal left, I even come across cars going the wrong way on one way streets. Everyone understands. Then even my usual sidestreet route is not available due to a couple of disabled buses blocking the way, or just branches and laminated metal strips. A week ago an executive of a bus company lamented in a newspaper feature that 12 of his buses have been destroyed and another 40 damaged, all because his company had sold advertising for the sides of the buses to PRI during the federal election campaign.
1:30 PM -- I've been home to check emails and do some house straightening and now I'm picking up my wife and then our guests to head out to into the country. The blockade on one street has been removed. How can you get a bus out of there so quickly? They're organized for sure. Where will the heap of metal next be found?
Our guests enjoyed the museum and then walked along the pedestrian walkway, and found some jewelry for the daughter, a couple of dresses, and a few other souvenirs. The son got a 20 peso pirate DVD to watch this evening. They had a good morning. Even stopped at Italian Coffee for cappuccinos. They were all smiles and telling us about the museum audio-assisted tour, things we didn't know or had forgotten about the history of our city, and about their purchases. I guess it's not all that bad downtown, at least for those who haven't been here before and can still enjoy the quaint city buildings, museums, galleries and cafes, and vendors in their traditional regional dress plying their wares. However they have nothing to compare it to; the way it used to be for us, with even more life downtown, limited grafitti, cleanliness at a different level, tourism kiosks, and of course, not having to crouch under tarps when you're close to the zócalo.
On a normal Wednesday we would have not taken them downtown but rather would have spent the whole day on the Etla route as I call it, visiting the green pottery village of Atzompa, the ruin at San Jose el Mogote, and perhaps the workshop of sculptor Adolfo Cruz in Magdalena Etla. But today we'll only have time for a couple of other sites along that route, hopefully, other than what I had planned. Not because of any disruptions, but because in my wisdom I thought today a half day downtown and a half day in the country would work best for them. With our visiting friends, and with B & B clients who are open to my assistance, I like to mix up their vacations, with a day or two in the city, then a day in the villages, and so on.
I know that the main road out of town is blocked, so we'll use another route which under normal conditions is easy and fast. But this time there's lots of traffic since everyone knows it's the only other relatively easy route out of town from where we were coming—probably. The day before I'd heard from our plumber that we'd encounter problems along that roadway, further out. Sure enough, the main highway leading out of the city and towards Mexico City was blockaded in one direction, the way we were heading. Thankfully it was not a rush hour time when we took the dirt road detour. We were told by someone along the road that the blockade had something to do with taking over an important antenna, but who knows. And why only in one direction?
Without much real difficulty we finally arrive at the magnificent Center for The Arts and Oaxaca Paper Workshop in San Agustin Etla, in a wonderful lush mountain setting. The main building was a textile mill from 1883 until the 1970's or thereabouts, and has been restored. It has waterfalls outside and inside of the building (even in the washrooms), amazingly. It's a gallery, printmaking workshop and learning center with accommodations on site for visiting professors, the brainchild of famed Oaxacan artists Francisco Toledo and the late Rodolfo Morales. It's absolutely spectacular. We had a walking tour of the factory where paper made by hand out of locally grown plants and trees is produced for purchase by artists for their works, and regular consumers for stationary, invitations and even wall-hangings it's so unique and wonderful. The daughter of our friends, the eternal shopper, even found jewelry made of paper to buy. Seeing the entire site took much longer than expected because our guests were so impressed with everything, marveling at the buildings themselves, how the waterfalls and poolings of water all came together so well, flowing into and out of the buildings at different levels, all without pumps, eventually flowing down from the complex, servicing Oaxaca. And of course there was the art on display. An incredible setting in which to show art.
3:30 PM -- It's a bit later than I'd hoped in terms of other stops, but about 10 minutes up the highway we still manage to get to the Wednesday market at Etla, the smallest regional marketplace, but still one of our favorites because of just that, it's size, and we've had fond memories of it over the years. Our friends had been to a chocolate factory downtown, but just to buy a bit and hadn't had a chance to see it being made to order. So we stopped by the factory in Etla of compadres who were as usual thrilled to see us. Our friends watched our god-son Salvador made an order for a waiting woman, to her specifications regarding quantities of cacao, sugar, almonds and cinnamon. Then it was their turn. After sampling they opted for a recipe with less sugar than the norm, and more cinnamon. Our compadres haven't been suffering much from the strike they say, because while there are less tourists and Oaxacans in their shop, especially on market day, residents who live there, or further out of Oaxaca, rather than drive to Oaxaca will do their shopping in the Etla. For them it all evens out so they can't complain.
Finally we get to walk through the Etla market. Our guests once again help the local economy, we stop at an ice cream place where they taste some exotic flavors, and then finally at close to 5 PM, lunch at our favorite haunt in town, Chefy's. The moles are great as usual, and the house mezcal is absolutely wonderful.
6:30 PM -- We finally make it home from a pretty full day, easier getting back than anticipated. First relax for a while, then decide to venture out for a late snack without the kids, maybe downtown, depending on what's open.
9:45 PM -- It's easy getting downtown, party because of circumstances and party because of the hour. However, restaurants that I thought would be open are closed, presumably having closed earlier than usual for lack of business. So we head back to a neighborhood close to ours, to one of the suburban places we recommend in the guest guide and enjoy frequenting ourselves and with friends. It's packed rather than the usual 5 or so tables being occupied. This is where the locals are going these days, to reliable suburban restaurants, bars and cafes. There are quite a few up our way, so it's good to know we can still get out and enjoy an evening where there's a bit of action. The night before we went to one of our favorite downtown spots, where usually it's packed and sometimes you have to wait for a table. This time, counting us there were only 2 tables occupied. It doesn't make for a particularly upbeat dining experience, no matter how good the food.
11:30 PM -- Home in time for the last 15 minutes of The Sopranos.

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