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Planting the seeds of democracy in Mexico City

Karina Ioffee

"El ombligo del universo" the ancient Mayas used to say about Mexico City. "The bellybutton of the world." Within this city of 17 million, there are many central spots, but, in my opinion, none stand out as much as the Zocalo. Literally the center of all the action in the city, it houses the presidential palace, ancient ruins, an elaborate cathedral, and multiple museums. It's a pinch of the new mixed in with the old and is representative of the layering of influences that have shaped the city and its inhabitants.

When you walk past the plaza, you can't help but notice the giant Mexican flag boldly flapping in the wind. Beneath it, face-painted clowns and feathered Aztec dancers entertain the crowds that form on any given day of the week. But the plaza is also home to activists who use its central location and proximity to the presidential offices to raise a multitude of concerns.

On the Saturday before the presidential election in July 2000, representatives of the EZLN gathered in the Zocalo to stage a protest of all of the delegates, including Cuahtemoc Cardenas, who has been the most vocal of all the presidential candidates about indigenous rights. "We're here to voice our cause to the Mexican government," said a student from Chiapas, one of the many supporters of an autonomous indigenous state there that day. "We don't support any of the presidential candidates," she continued. "Instead, we just want a chance to control our own destiny."

And although the Zapatista struggle may take awhile to penetrate the Mexican government, the actions in the Zocalo that day were one step closer to actualizing their dreams. Teenagers painted signs on stretches of white cloth, while the older activists laid out books, pamphlets, pins, and stickers for tourists and supporters to buy. Another woman was busy explaining the military occupation of many of the territories in the state to a group of genuinely interested locals. Pointing to a map covered with red dots, she indicated the regions that were being held by paramilitary forces. "Look," she pointed out to the bewildered crowd that was growing bigger and bigger each minute. "They cannot continue living like this."

The weekend came and went, and with it the historic elections, in which the party that had been running the country for over 71 years was tossed out of power. But the activists were back again, this time demanding fair wages from a government that they said was too controlling. Libres, also known as "free" taxi drivers converged on the Zocalo, staging a strike that lasted for over 3 hours, in which they refused to move their cars from a large portion of the street. Libres only receive 75 percent of their earnings, compared to sitio (another type of taxi) drivers, who get to keep 100 percent of what they earn.

"The only thing we want is that they keep our wages fair," said Adan Rodriguez, a libre cab driver. "But they keep on insisting on lowering the prices, to stay competitive." With the slogan "Tarifas Justas" or Fair Rates" that was painted on all of the drivers' windshields, the strike was but one example of an emerging democracy in a country that badly needs it. Here was a chance for workers to get together and form coalitions before presenting their case to the governmental offices of the Federal District.

"We will meet here every week and do the same thing if we have to," said another taxi driver, "until they respond to our demands." But their anger found a good outlet and the more the taxistas talked, the more they saw themselves coming together to form a genuine movement to combat what they considered unfair. After all, this was the Zocalo, where they could gather under the mighty Mexican flag and ponder about how to make life better. And the unrelenting Mexican sun kept shining on them -discussing, planting the seeds of democracy and deciding on the best way to nurture them. "This is an effort that represents everyone of us," said Adan Rodriguez. "It's the beginning of something new."

Published or Updated on: November 1, 2000 by Karina Ioffee © 2000
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