Oaxaca, Mexico:
An Expatriate Life

Writing by Stan Gotlieb
Photos by Diana Ricci

THE OAXACA / MEXICO NEWSLETTER
Volume 15, No. 12: February 24, 2011

The market at Tlacolula:

The Sunday market at Tlacolula has to be just about the most colorful one this side of Guatemala.  All the photos in this edition were taken there a few days ago.

[The market takes up most of the town's center. Most of the vendors set up on the street. A few have permanent stalls in the covered market]

Playing presidential hardball:

Our  beloved president, Felipe Calderón came to town on February 15.  He didn’t need to: the private university and the children’s hospital addition for which he cut the ribbon would still have been inaugurated without him; the meeting he had with our governor, Gabino Cué, could have been held on Skype.  Still, he came, along with his phalanx of personal guards, bolstered by scores of heavily armored federal enforcers.

It’s unclear whether he wasn’t informed by his intelligence people that he would likely be challenged by hundreds of protesters, mainly from the teachers’ union and mostly angry about his pet neoglobalist project: destroying the public schools and replacing them with for-profit schools that serve only those who can afford them; or if he was just too puffed up on his own self-image to stay away.

His presence brought out several hundred teachers, who demonstrated in front of the government palace.  The feds, joined by elements of the state coppers, decided to break it up, and a riot ensued.  Windows were broken, a police vehicle was burned, and tourists relaxing in the sidewalk cafes scattered, while shots rang out and tear gas billowed over the kiosk in the center of the Zócalo.

Videos taken at the scene clearly showed the authorities allowing known PRI enforcers to enter the area with weapons, who later shot at and beat up on demonstrators.  A well-known dissident, Manuel Coache, was hit in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police at point-blank range: there is little doubt he was deliberately targeted.

The teachers, who are far and away the largest and most powerful union in the state, declared war on the governor, vowing to disrupt daily life with marches, blockages, and occupations throughout the state of Oaxaca.  As one editorial in Noticias pointed out, this was probably a mistake: Gabino is no Ulises.

In 2006, when the teachers were occupying the city center, as they had done every year in May, to enhance their demands for better wages, working conditions, and basic needs of their pupils, Ulises decided to remove them by sending in the troops and dropping tear gas on them from helicopters.  The ensuing popular uprising – Oaxacans did not take kindly to this offense upon their right to petition for redress of grievances, in spite of their distaste for the teachers’ tactics and the closing of the schools – lasted for months, until it was violently put down by federal troops.  Ulises became an outcast in his own capitol, and the teachers never let up on him.

Gabino, an astute politician – he claims politics as his career – is not a thug or an assassin like Ulises.  He got voted in on promises to – among other things – not use repressive tactics against the people.  He has moved swiftly to condemn the attack against the teachers, and vowed to punish those responsible, both in and out of the police.  He has submitted a bill to the state assembly that outlines rules of engagement for law enforcement, and is setting up a “reconciliation commission” to investigate the events of 2006.

Whereas the population in general was more in favor of the teachers than not in 2006, there seems to be little support for their current efforts.  This is partly due to Gabino’s popularity, and in part because some of the teachers’ core demands are perceived as unreasonable.  In particular, they have demanded that Gabino fire four of his cabinet ministers, for being too closely tied to their arch enemy, national teachers’ union head Elba Esther Gordillo; a demand that Gabino is resisting on the apparently sensible grounds that such demands are improper interference in his administration.

The people seem to be in general agreement with Gabino, as they perceive – I think correctly – that the leadership of Section XXII is more interested in its own power than in reforming society and educating their kids.

All this while at the same time an audit of all government agencies Gabino started ostensibly to root out corruption, is said to have discovered donations of over one million pesos, mostly “in kind” donations of materials and labor to maintain Section XXII headquarters, automobiles, and other such, from the Education ministry under Ulises.  This, if true, would tend to confirm the persistent rumor that their leader, Chepi, had secret deals going with Ulises.

This may not be the best time for the teachers to become intransigent, implacable enemies of the man they just helped to elect.

Opera at the opera house:

The Met has come to town.  Or, should I say the virtual Met?  Oaxaca’s Macedonio Alcalá theater, a grand horseshoe entertainment palace, built in the heyday of dictator and railroad builder Porfirio Diaz as one of many monuments to his greatness, has been outfitted with a giant screen, on which, once a month during the Season, is projected a high density, larger than life, simulcast of “live from the Met” grand opera.

The price is not unreasonable (150 pesos), especially when compared with this week’s live performance of Swan Lake by a Russian ballet company (450 pesos), but bring a sweater to ward off the chill.

The Alcalá is very under-utilized.  Sometimes weeks go by with nothing happening.  Now that they have a big screen, perhaps they’ll start showing movies…

Tours of the facility are now available on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Noon and 1 p.m.  They are free.

Michael Higgins, presente!

We mourn the passing of another friend: anthropologist, linguist, raconteur, and all-round good fellow.  Michael was an old “Oaxaca hand”, who repeatedly journeyed down from his professorship in Colorado, until he retired here a few years ago.

He was in Brazil with his wife, linguist and educator Ángeles Clemente, when he broke his foot in a rafting accident.  The orthopedic surgeon who worked on it did not, it turns out, give him any medication for clot prevention, something that is indicated in older folks, and particularly for orthopedic surgery.  He died of a pulmonary embolism: a blood clot in the lung.

Neither Michael nor Ángeles knew about blood clots.  Most folks don’t.  I didn’t until after I had a surgical procedure, when I was told “take this to prevent clotting”.  Where you and I come from, such things are automatic.  It’s important to remember that medical practices can vary from place to place (heck, they can vary from your hospital to mine where I come from); and to make sure you are getting what you need.

Not-so-cheap thrills:

Want to experience the “real” Mexico?  I guess that depends how you define “real”.  Some tour companies are now selling “adventure tourism”, where the adventure is a harmless imitation of real – and often heart-wrenching – events experienced by real Mexicans, sanitized for gawkers.

For instance, you can take a tour of the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City, a thieves market known for its violence and economic desperation.  A sort of Disneyland ride for the jaded and smug.  Or, if you’d rather, you can play at being an illegal immigrant, wading a river at night and being chased by the “Border Patrol”.  This co-optation of the desperate and terrifying journey that the real migrants endure used to be produced nearer the border, but the actual conditions there – roving bands of killers who kidnap and rob travelers – has resulted in the whole disgusting ersatz experience being moved to a “safe” forest tract in the central state of Hidalgo.

There are real, valuable on the ground experiences to be had, such as those run by Global Exchange and other people-to-people organizations, where tour members have a chance to interact with Mexicans who are, in one way or another, struggling for a better future for themselves and their families; to learn from them what life is like at the bottom of the social pyramid; to observe projects that are building for the future.  Thrill tourism is part of the problem.  Boycott it.  Be part of the solution.

Notes:

**Bishop Samuel Ruiz died on Jan 24th.  Known as “the Bishop to the poor”, Don Samuel was a fierce defender and ally of the Zapatistas and a thorn in the side of the reactionary head of the Church in Mexico.  For an extensive biography, read the obituary notice at published by Laura Carlsen on the Americas Blog.

**Another Newsletter that may interest you comes from Oaxaca Cultura  Concentrating on the Central Valley of Oaxaca, and featuring tours and events, as well as favorite shops and artisans, it is a well-organized and easily searchable site -- and it's free...