Welcome to The Oaxaca / Mexico Newsletter

Writing by Stan Gotlieb and Photos by Diana Ricci

Volume 7, No. 13: August 1, 2002

Last year, in this Newsletter, we showed the front page of a brochure passed around by the folks from the municipio (township) of Loxicha, in the southern mountains of Oaxaca near the coastal crossroads of Pochutla. It was titled "Los Dos Caras (the two faces) of Oaxaca". It was a surprisingly sophisticated propaganda piece, in English or Spanish, that asked the reader to look behind the "mask" worn by "tourist Oaxaca" to the poverty, oppression, marginalization and exploitation of the vast majority of Oaxaqueños who live "out of sight" in the outlying barrios and in the mountains.

Last month, the long-standing (4 years) "plantón" (permanent demonstration) in front of the governor's palace vanished overnight, replaced by a new, larger, and clearly more organized contingent from the municipio of Teojomulco in the mountains near the town of Sola de Vega (see Issue #11), where 17 men, boys, and an old woman were recently arrested and charged with the massacre of an equal number of neighboring villagers. The arrests, the demonstrators say, had more to do with a settling of accounts against community organizers and human rights workers, than it did the massacre.

Selling fruit cups in front of the government palace. The cross says "Poverty, Impunity, Injustice, Paramilitaries"

The increase in the number and composition of "plantonistas" and the amount of disruption they are causing suggests a significant change in the character of the exercise of Constitutionally guaranteed dissent. It also suggests access to resources not normally available to poor, often illiterate mountain peasants who for the most part do not speak Spanish as their first language.

When they came, the Teos (editorial license: short for folks from Teojomulco) came in large numbers, and they brought materials for a long stay: tables, chairs and cooking equipment for a restaurant; materials to build outhouses over the sewer drains; several household-size water containers; a huge stack of firewood for cooking; well-designed and assembled booklets for sale, which tell their side of the story; bananas and other native crops for sale to each other and the locals. As is customary, they occupied the portales (covered promenade) of the Government palace, scrawled graffiti on the walls, and put up banners. For over a month, they lived their lives in the portales. And then came the Guelaguetza.

These dancers are getting ready for the grand parade, the night before the dances start.

Every July, the last two Mondays are designated Lunes del Cerro (Mondays on the Hill), days when the stadium up on a hill above Oaxaca hosts a dance festival featuring the best dancers of each of the seven "regions" (tribal areas) of the State. In between, there are dance, music and literary events. Starting the Friday before, and ending two weekends later, booths are erected in the same portales, where artisans chosen by the state arts council display their work. Demonstrators pack up and leave for the duration. At the same time, there is a Fiesta de Mezcál, where Oaxaca's fiery beverage is promoted and consumed in great quantities in El Llano park, the rest of which is given over to artisans from around the country.

This year, the Teos refused to move out, to the surprise of this reporter and the consternation of the "City Fathers" and the tourism bureau. When the day for setting up the booths came, so did another hundred or so more Teos. They overflowed the portales, and occupied the southeast quadrant of the Zócalo. After a quick huddle, a compromise was reached. The Teos moved out of the western half of the portales, and the booths that would normally have occupied the eastern half were built on the street.

There is a curtain across the street, to hide the Teos from the tourists shopping the puestos (booths) of the artesans, but one can smell the outhouses even if one cannot see them; and the normally well-attended Terranova restaurant, closest to them, is deserted. Support groups of various political stripes, ranging from radical students to ambulantes (itinerant, unlicensed peddlers) have taken up the "two faces" theme at demonstrations all over the city. The Guelaguetza, they say, is just a propaganda piece for the tourism interests and the business owners; another "carpetazo" (sweeping under the rug) to hide the terrible conditions under which most Oaxaqueños live, and the growing rebellion that those conditions inevitably create.


Last Friday morning, an obnoxious and possibly deranged individual named "Mike" who happens to attend one of the AA groups renting meeting space in the Library classroom walked through the always-open gate and onto Library premises. There was no AA meeting in progress.

By the time he left, he had verbally and physically abused library staff and volunteers, and otherwise acted in an unacceptable manner. In an attempt to find out more about him (for example, his name and where he lived), the Librarian approached a long-time member of the Library, who had in the past served in a volunteer capacity and is considered by many as a leading figure in the twelve-step community. He responded that it is the policy of AA to respect the anonymity of its members, and that he would not divulge any information about individual members, even if he knew it.

All the following pictures were taken in Jalapa.

The President of the Library Board, Ron Catterall, whose wife was one of the victims of Mike's behavior, took it upon himself after very brief and inconclusive correspondence with other members of the Board, to attend the next day's AA group meeting and present them with an ultimatum: either they appoint someone as the "responsible person" to see that Mike and others like him be barred from AA meetings on Library premises, or they find other quarters. The group, clearly disappointed that they should be held collectively responsible for Mike's behavior, chose to relocate, asking for the unused portion of their rent back (they had paid in advance for the entire year). Ron told them that their refusal to comport themselves in a manner that he considered reasonable was a violation of their (implied) contract (there was nothing in writing), and that he was not inclined to refund any money, although he would take it up with the Board at the next meeting in August. Whatever happens from here on, it is extremely unlikely that the AA groups will return to the Library under its present leadership, thus ending a relationship that has existed since before I came to Oaxaca in 1994.

Subsequent e-mails between Board members suggests that a significant number feel that AA should leave the Library given the present situation, although it is unclear how they feel about a refund. For many of us, this seems like an ill-conceived move.

I am a Jew. Suppose I walk into a building that you own, and cause a disturbance in one of the shops that rent from you. Suppose further that Jewish Family and Children's Service rents offices in the same building, and I use their counseling facilities, but I am not scheduled to go there today. Would you then go to them and demand that they take responsibility for my behavior? If you did, you would be exposing yourself to charges of racism at worst, or at least of being insensitive to the nature of the organization. Mike is neither a representative nor an officer (they don't have either) of AA, nor did he have any special permission from that organization to be there on Friday. He was just a crazy off the street who happened to have attended some AA meetings.

AA regards itself as first and foremost a resource for persons who are attempting to deal with their addictions (here, I am lumping all related programs: narcotics anonymous, alcoholics anonymous, overeaters anonymous, al-anon, etc. into one often unhomogenous ball called AA), and as such they do not permanently eject disruptive members, or expose them to others, preferring to eject them when behaving badly and await their more co-operative return. They are not police. It is the police that should have been called, not the AA.

The Library is nearly broke (if you discount the money in the building fund, not meant to be used for daily operations), with no immediate prospects for new funds. At the present rate, there will not be enough money to pay both staff and rent in October. While the AA is not a big money maker, losing their rent is a step in the wrong direction, but that is not the most serious likely repercussion of this tempest.

There are, at present moment, as many as twenty Library members in AA. In the winter, there will be a lot more. Many of them have been strong Library supporters: I personally know of several who, over the years, have been extremely generous with their money and their time. At a time when old wounds from past Library fights have not completely healed, additional disaffections will add to the feeling, still strong in the community, that the Library is a divided, and divisive place to be. This was the wrong fight, at the wrong time, and over the wrong issue.


However you spell it, the pronunciation -- ha-LA-pa is the same. At a slightly lower elevation than Oaxaca, Xalapa is nonetheless cooler on the average, probably due to the amount of overcast and rain it receives. This also means that it is a good deal greener, especially in the winter; there are many waterfalls nearby; and the air is generally cleaner and clearer.

The pollution from cars and buses is bad downtown, however, a combination of narrow streets, frequent demonstrations on the Cathedral plaza, which happens to be at a key central intersection, and the extra traffic drawn to town because it is the state capital of Veracrúz.

We stayed in the Hotel Limón, absolutely the best deal for the money we have yet encountered in Mexico, with the exception of the hot-pillow joint we stayed in, on the road from Cuernavaca to Cuautla. For 110 pesos single, and 20p for each extra person, you get a spotlessly clean, very small room with bath and tv in a pleasant building with accommodating staff, just a couple of hundred feet up from the Cathedral. I was told by previous visitors that when the Limón is full, they will direct you to a similar setup at a similar price.

Food is a little cheaper than in Oaxaca, although it is quite possible to spend a lot for a meal if you wish. Our favorite was the indoor / outdoor restaurant on the far corner of the Parque Juarez, above the "Agora", a gallery and arts center. The picture of the hills. looking toward Pico (peak) de Orizaba, was taken from the terrace. The menu is small, but prices are reasonable, and watching the overcast burning off while eating breakfast is not a bad day-starter.

Part of a mural on the main staircase of the state government palace.

We didn't find the central market, so we can't testify to the quality and price of fresh ingredients, but judging from what we saw in Verucrúz, and what we ate in Jalapa's restaurants, it probably compares pretty favorably with Oaxaca. While on the tourist trolley (a great way to get a quick overview of the town center, wherever you see a "cable car" with Tranvia painted on it), we spotted a bakery and a restaurant, both French; and there was a "middle eastern" bar and grill on the Callejón Diamante, a walking street featuring tourist shops, jazz clubs, and small eateries, the most famous of which specializes in all kinds of stuffed jalapeño (or should I say xalapeño?) peppers.

Sunday in Parque Juarez is delightful. Jalapeño families crowd the roomy square, grazing off the food carts, buying trinkets, and enjoying the clowns and musicians. The park itself is very welcoming, with trees, flowers and benches all around.

The Anthropological Museum is a treasure trove of Olmec civilization. Built on a slightly downhill slope (the whole town is), the building is a well-lit open space that gives maximum display to the artifacts, and the grounds are well planted and meticulously tended. Diana took so many pictures that she is planning a new "pictures" section to house the best of them. It should be on-line by next Newsletter.

The University campus is extensive, and very pretty. There are a lot of small parks all over town. The architecture is generally not as interesting as Oaxaca. One impression: a lot of one-room-wide houses of three or four stories -- and the one room isn't very wide...

We will definitely return to Xalapa for a longer stay. Two days was just not enough time to do any real exploration. For those who don't mind a slightly cooler, wetter, less sunny atmosphere, or going up and down hill a lot, Xalapa just may be a better deal than Oaxaca.

THERE ARE MORE MEMOIRS posted on my website, mostly about sex and drugs... Click HERE or, go to our "front page" at http://www.realoaxaca.com and select "writers and artists" from the menu bar on the left.