New issue of “From the Field”:

The photo in the masthead is of a sculpture that Michele Gibbs recently acquired while in Tanzania . As well as this photo, the latest issue of Michele and husband George Colman’s excellent quarterly online magazine includes photos of artisans, sketches, prose and poetry. Michele concentrates on Tanzania and Zanzibar . George writes about Pete Knoll and CORAL, the non-profit organization dedicated to diagnosing and treating hearing deficiencies in Oaxaca children – a topic we also covered in an earlier edition of the Newsletter. You may access “From the Field” by clicking here. When you are done, just click on the “back” button of your browser to return to this page.

Zócalo passes through “Stage One”:

[The photos of the Zócalo and the area around the Cathedral in this issue were all taken within the last few days.]

As predicted earlier, then hedged about in the last issue, the tin did indeed come down around the central plaza before Guelaguetza. In fact, it was – as governor Ulysis promised – removed on Saturday. “Stage one”, as he called it, was declared to have been completed. Now, sitting once again at our favorite tables at the Restaurant Primavera, we are left to contemplate the mess that will supposedly evolve into “stage two”.

This is the general picture, to date:

The concrete under-surface has been poured all around the square. There are various sewer manholes and cistern covers sticking up from the concrete, and – to my untrained eye – it looks like when the piles of paving stones are finally laid, the current obstructions will still be higher than the road surface.

The “sidewalk” around the portales (sidewalk cafés) is wider, making the tables a little less crowded. However, any hope that there would be a smooth transition between the “sidewalk” and the “roadway” can be completely discarded. The “seamless” transition from sidewalk to roadway to park, one of the architectural justifications for the project, is a non-starter.

While almost all the bay laurels ringing the park have been saved, the interior of the square is practically denuded. Several small trees have been planted, and eventually there will be more shade in the middle – but not for a few years. The interior walkways appear to be wider, leaving less room for plantings. Garden spaces have also been reduced on the flanks.

Then there’s the benches. As you know, the old steel benches were removed, and replaced with concrete settees of slab design. A cartoon by Darío Castellejos in “El Imparciál” a few days ago showed a man labeled “INAH” (the Spanish acronym for the antiquities ministry) and governor Ulises contemplating the new benches. “The benches will be our crowning glory” says Ulises. “Are you going to put them on top of these tombs?” asks the guy from INAH.

Fear not, bench lovers, for our very own artistic enfant terrible, Francisco Toledo, has come to the rescue. Unable to rouse himself when the offal first hit the fan back in April (some say he actually gave his approval to the project), Don Francisco marched into the Zócalo with a few of his followers last weekend, carrying a “new” bench made of wood on a metal frame. The Zócalo redesign, he pronounced to the crowd of reporters assembled for the occasion, is “mediocre” (no doubt much more pejorative when uttered by an artiste than it seemed coming off the printed page). At the very least, he said, the concrete benches must go.

And so it came to pass that on Monday, the governor’s people announced that work would begin on removing the new concrete benches, and replacing them with newer more aesthetically pleasing wood and metal models. Neither Toledo nor the redesign people have offered an explanation of why they couldn’t simply put back the old metal ones.

Most tourists won’t notice much difference unless they get up from their chairs in the sidewalk cafés and walk to the center of the square. First time visitors won’t have much of a reference point. Oaxaqueños are – as they should be – more irked at the way money that should have gone for badly needed infrastructure improvement was lavished on an unnecessary public works boondoggle

Is the Zócalo destroyed? No. It is only severely beaten and bruised. Most of the wounds will heal with time. As one Oaxacan friend put it, “this is not the first such remodeling I have seen, and it will not be the last. People complained bitterly when the last big redecoration was done about 30 years ago. Many of them complained this time, too. We will all get used to it, and after a while, it will seem like it was always this way”.

My fearless prediction: re-construction (a very Oaxacan art of making adjustments to a project after it is completed, requiring much longer repair times than if it was attended to right away) will drag on, with accompanying noise, dust and other disruptions. Final completion will be sometime in October, in time for Days of the Dead.

Yet another airline weighs in:

Two of Mexico’s giant billionaire businessmen, Carlos Slim (he owns, among other things, Telmex, the national telephonemonopoly) and Emilio Azcarraga (Televisa, the largest tv network), have teamed up with Pedro Aspe, finance minister under Carlos Salinas, who owns the concession (but no planes), to fund Vuela airlines, a no-frills low-cost carrier which will compete in the internal market. They announced that Vuela will start operating in 2006.

For a 25% share, Salvadoran carrier Taca International will operate the airline, a strong move since Taca has been a reliable and trouble free air carrier for decades, operating between Central American ports of call and U.S. gulf airports.

With two of the very deepest pockets in Mexico behind it, look for Vuela to come out strong, and begin to gobble up some of the smaller competition in the first few years of operation.

[The shoeshine brigade has made it out from underneath the government palace promenade, and once things are a little more finished, they will be able to spread out like they were in “the old days”]

Ulises three, Noticias nada:

I may not be keeping score correctly, but you get the idea: “Noticias, the voice and image of Oaxaca ”, is getting the stuffing kicked out of it. When last we left the ongoing saga, the so-called union forces had forcibly occupied the main offices of Noticias, beating the mostly-management staff and – according to some ofthe holdouts – smashing computers and other equipment.

It appears to me that this action came when it did because Vicente Fox, president of the Republic, had declared the day before that he was going to ask the PGR (the Mexican equivalent of the FBI) to look into the dispute. Fox and governor Ulises (pretty much universally agreed to be the puppet of ex-governor Murát, who hates Fox with a passion, a sentiment that is generously reciprocated) are not buddies, to say the least, and so the “union” (CROC in its Spanish acronym), a holdover from the days when the unions were part of the PRI machine (the head of CROC is also a PRI state representative), decided to escalate.

A few days after I published the last Newsletter (what a difference a day can make), the AFI – the paramilitary wing of the PGR – invaded. While some 30 black-uniformed, flack-jacketed machine-gun toting federales lined up outside, a dozen more of their number invaded the premises and ejected the CROC occupiers. They were carrying warrants issued by a federal judge, based on statements by the Noticias workers that crimes – to wit assault and damage to property – had been committed therein.

The building has been emptied of invaders. The doors are sealed, and bear two notices labeling it a potential crime scene under investigation. So, why don’t I score a point for Noticias?

The legal system in Mexico grinds long and slow. Given the corruption of judges and the influence of the PRI in Oaxaca , a finding of “guilty” doesn’t have much meaning, and even if such a verdict is handed down, it will be only the first step of an endless dance of appeals, injunctions and reversals. Effectively, Noticias is now without an office in Oaxaca , and relying on a tenuous lifeline that stretches from the homes of its reporters and management to its printing plant in Tuxtepéc, a four hour drive north into the mountains on the Oaxaca / Veracrúz border. Already reduced to a run of 15,000 papers (there are 30 times that number living in Oaxaca city alone, and the paper has a statewide distribution) and operating on a reduced budget after the government stopped paying Noticias for publishing government notices (a handful of advertisers loyal to Noticias, and also to Gabino Cué, who Noticias backed against Ulises in the last governors’ race is all that’s keeping the paper going), the paper’s fortunes are not likely to increase any time soon.

[Along the back side of the Cathedral, where there used to be a parking area, there is now a spacious prominade. The metal sculptures are part of a traveling show, and will not remain]

Worth watching out for:

Guelaguetza, now over for another year (although the thousands of temporary vendors probably won’t be gone until next Monday), brought more than dance to the forefront in Oaxaca . There was the annual Mezcál Festival, held in El Llano park, where, for a small entry fee, one can if so inclined taste Oaxaca ‘s premier liquor hasta oblivion. There were all sorts of graphic arts shows. There was a lot of music in the streets, including the Tuna Antequerra (music students from the University dressed in medieval costumes singing medieval melodies), several rondallas (large groups of stringed instrumentalists and singers performing modern and slightly-less-than-modern romantic offerings).

On Monday, in one part of the Summer Instrumental Music 2005, we attended a unique concert and exhibition at the Casa Ciudad (city house) on Morelos and Porfirio Diaz. The performance was by two absolutely brilliant performers, Aaron Shorr on piano and Peter Sheppard Skaerved on violin. Beethoven’s sonatas 1 and 3 were the featured works, both written for piano with violin accompaniment, and both were beautifully done by musicians with nerves of steel. In between, Peter performed a set of variations by Paganini.

[This photo and the next one were taken near Santo Domingo church. I like the composition…]

Each piece was prefaced by a lengthy description of the times, the performance venues, the musings of Beethoven and others about what was going on (it’s important to remember, said Peter, that when these pieces were first performed, they were popular, not classical music).

Afterwards, there was a reception and a showing of photos by Richard Bram, whose specialty is photographing musicians while they are performing. We elected to wait, and see the show when it would be less crowded. We’ll let you know what we think in the next Newsletter. Meanwhile, if you get a chance to see these two fantastic musicians perform, be sure to let them know you heard it here first.

Señor Condón scores again:

Bill Wolf, director of the Frente Común Contra el Sida (common front against AIDS), has announced a new web site: www.frentecomunoaxaca.org As you may know, we here at Realoaxaca have been the host for the Frente for several years, and while we will miss them, we applaud their resolve, because designing and maintaining a web site is never simple; and congratulate them on the finished product.

Two new parties:

Last week, the national election commission ( IFE ) certified two new political formations.

Nueva Alianza (New Alliance), with tight connections to the teachers union denies that it is a stalking horse for the possible candidacy of Elba Esther Gordillo, the embattled head of the union and current Secretary General of the PRI, who has hinted that she will split the party if she is denied her natural succession to President of the Party when current head Roberto Madrazo steps down to run for the PRI endorsement for president of the Republic.

Alternativa Socialdemócrata (social democratic alternative) is believed to be a new incarnation of Mexico Posible (a vision for Mexico ), a pro-feminist, pro-peace, and generally very progressive party that failed to win enough votes in the last presidential election to retain its certification.

Either or both of these parties could end up running Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas. Stay tuned. The presidential follies are just beginning to heat up. Only Tuesday, López Obrador handed in his official resignation, as of Friday. From the frying pan of MexCity into the fire of national candidacy.