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Protest in Oaxaca: Watch out for the wind

Stan Gotlieb

This was written around Christmas of 1994. The banner hangs outside an opposition union office in Oaxaca.

After ten days, the occupation ended. The teachers, some ten thousand strong, went back home to the villages and towns of the state of Oaxaca, their demands only partially met and their mood not much improved.

They came here, to the seat of government, asking for a 100% pay raise (not a lot, considering how little they are paid), more vacation time, and smaller classes. Of course they didn't expect to get all they demanded. Still, they hoped for a reasonable increase in pay -- and to be treated with seriousness and dignity. They also demanded, as does every group who comes here to confront the government, to be told the fates of comrades arrested without charge and disappeared without a trace.

For the first few days, they were met with silence by their government. What followed was the longest - and largest - occupation of the center of this city in recent memory. As the days wore on, the crowd grew larger. The encampment spread out from the town square in front of the government palace. By the final day, makeshift plastic-tarp leantos covered a significant area of the central business district, sheltering men, women and children lying and sitting on cardboard in the streets and on the sidewalks. A spontaneous corps of tamale sellers and other food carts appeared. Port-a-potties were brought in. Soup kitchens were established.

Some restaurants provided access to their kitchens during off hours, as did many householders. One sympathetic gringo told me that he had about ten people as house guests. They slept in the patio (he has a small house), and organized themselves in relays cooking, cleaning (I saw the kitchen just after they left, and it was spotless), and running raw supplies in and cooked food out using bicycles, pickups and an ancient red Radio Flyer wagon.

Most of the merchants and restaurateurs acted more predictably: they padlocked their public restrooms, hired armed guards, and took brooms to those who stopped to rest on the sidewalks outside their establishment. At first. After a few days, the crowds were so large that many simply closed their doors and went home. The flocks of tourists who usually occupy the sidewalk cafes around the town square were barely visible.

On the last day, when the crowds were largest, and the early results of the negotiations which the governor belatedly undertook were about to be announced, Federal Judicial Police, dressed like SWAT and armed with automatic weapons, appeared in force on all the rooftops surrounding the square. The news began to circulate that several demonstrators had been killed that morning in a nearby province when police and federal troops opened fire on a crowd. People, understandably, began to get nervous. Ranks of "auxiliary police" (thugs wearing uniforms and known for their love of physical violence) began to appear on the edge of the crowd.

In one spot, some auxiliaries feinted a charge, and the crowd surged back. A few hapless tourists who were (foolishly) sitting in the sidewalk cafes, went down along with their tables. In the midst of the crowd, a few people got seriously injured when they fell under the heels of fellow demonstrators. Tear gas was used, and some heart attacks were reported.

Within an hour the auxiliaries were recalled, the federales disappeared, and the crowd resumed the calm peaceful cheerful demeanor they had maintained throughout. In the afternoon, the agreement was announced (less than half their original demands), and the folks began packing up to go home.

The next day, Oaxaca was back to business as usual. The tourists crowded the tables in the sidewalk cafes, the slogans had been whitewashed from the walls, the children were back in school. The restrooms were open, the town square had been cleaned up, the auxiliaries had been sent home. Nothing remained of the presence -- or the hopes -- of Oaxaca's teachers, save an announcement issued the night before, that the teachers intend to return, better organized, and in larger numbers, at a later date.

The following is part of an essay ("Chiapas: The Southeast in Two Winds, a Storm and a Prophecy", August 1992) by Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), translated and reprinted in the Anderson Valley Advertiser of Booneville California. I offer it for whatever light it may shed on what is going on here in Oaxaca, and in the rest of Mexico (and much of the world).

"Antonio dreams that the land that he works belongs to him. He dreams that his sweat earns him justice and truth; he dreams of schools that cure ignorance and medicines that frighten death. He dreams that his house has light and that his table is full; he dreams that the land is free, and that his people reasonably govern themselves. He dreams that he is at peace with himself and with the world. He dreams that he has to struggle to have this dream, he dreams that there has to be death so that there might be life. Antonio dreams and wakes he knows what he has to do. He sees his wife squatting to poke the fire, he hears his son crying, he looks at the sun greeting the east, and he smiles as he sharpens his machete.

"A wind comes up and everything stirs. Antonio rises, and walks to meet the others. He has heard that his desire is the desire of many, and he goes to look for them.

"The [governor] dreams that his land is agitated by a terrible wind, and that everything rises up; he dreams that all he has stolen has been taken away from him, he dreams that his house is destroyed and his government overthrown. He dreams and he doesn't sleep. The [governor] goes to the feudal gentlemen and they tell him that they are dreaming the same thing. [He] can't rest, he goes to his doctors, and among them they decide that he is suffering from indian witchcraft, and only blood will free him of its spell; so [he] orders murder and imprisonment and the building of more jails and barracks, but his dreams continue to keep him awake.

"In this country everyone dreams. Now it is time to wake up."

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Photography by Diana Ricci

Published or Updated on: January 1, 1995 by Stan Gotlieb © 1995
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