Friday, June 15, 2007
Protests and blue tortillas
This is Oaxaca. I took these photos on Thursday, June 14, the anniversary of the “fallido desarojo,” or the beginning of the government's heavy-handed and eventually violent crackdown on the protests that took over the city of Oaxaca last year. So it’s not all tamales and salsa here.
The situation in Oaxaca then and now is almost impossible to decipher from an “objective” perspective. Perhaps everyone can agree on how it began, that the annual teacher strike turned into a months-long demonstration by the APPO (Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca), a coalition that grew to include teachers, indigenous groups, and others agitating for the removal of the Oaxacan state governor, Ulises Ruiz-Ortiz, as well as the more usual demands about wages. But I can’t sift through the little I’ve read in Spanish-language papers, the New York Times, and the State Department warnings for American travelers and say, “I know what happened next.”
On June 13, my teacher Octavio told us what he saw and did during the protests last year. He leaves you in no doubt whose side he is on: he was both a journalist and a supporter of APPO. The class sat in silence as he told us about the people who were killed, about families who still do not know where their relatives are, about being beaten himself by the police. He scoffed at news reports that the protesters were terrorists or guerillas. “I saw a pregnant woman, she was 7 or 8 months pregnant, about to give birth right there, pick up a rock and throw it at the police. I saw a 70-, 80-year-old woman protesting. These people are terrorists? No, they are not terrorists.” Octavio’s tone wasn’t polemic, more half-smiling, half-laughing: “People would call me at home and say, ‘Cuidate, te vamos matar’ (Be careful, we are going to kill you), and I would say, ‘Esta bien’ (That’s good) and hang up. But don’t worry, nothing’s going to happen tomorrow. The government will be careful, everyone will be careful. The world is watching now.”
He had been trying to get us to play a game where we, using various past tense forms, were to tell fantastic yet true stories about our lives.
The next day, after class, I walked down to the zocalo. No one really looked at me, another gawking tourist with a camera. The plaza was packed, with a crowd any American organizer would have been proud of, and there was fresh graffiti on the walls of the cathedral, but it felt more like a carnival than a protest. There were clumps of people sitting around, some listening intently, some less so, to the people reading point by point the pieces of paper in their hands, forming small teach-ins. There was a mini-parade of signs, a few women in indigenous costumes, and a bunch of anarchist teenagers, some masked and armed with spray paint. The people in the bandstand were making speeches that no one seemed to be listening to, and there were people hawking CD’s and T-shirts of the revolucion, as well as your usual balloon and candy sellers. Most comical of all, at least to me, were the large, blown-up photos of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. Stalin?!?!? The others, I could understand, but Stalin?
On June 13, I’d been moved by Octavio’s story. On June 14, I remembered why movements always annoy me.
And then I went home to have lunch with my family and ate blue corn tortillas for the first time.
There’s so much I can’t see or know as a tourist, not now or ever. I wish it really were as simple as this: