Zócalo, the nearly final chapter:

Last week, I briefly attended a symposium on the controversial reconstruction of our town square. Unfortunately, the affair was held in a narrow, high-ceilinged auditorium in a wing of the ex-Convento de Santo Domingo (now morphed from the Regional Museum into the Cultural Center), with brick walls and a plaster ceiling: the echo was halacious, and, not being able to hear the words, much less translate them into English, I didn’t last long.

In the masthead photo, the baloon sellers in their new location at the west end of the Alameda, in front of the post office. Here, the repainted and re-lighted kiosk viewed from the Marques del Valle side, looking south toward the ex-Government Palace, soon to be another museum..

However, I did make away with a program, and later talked with folks who were there that day or the day before. From that, and some newspaper articles, I managed to gather some idea of what it was about.

Called “Conserving Historic Cities”, and organized by the Committee of Vigilance of the Historic Center of Oaxaca, it was a review of the arbitrary, from-the-top decision making process that led to what many felt was an unnecessary and ill-advised project; an analysis of the legal and political factors that worked against a more open and participatory process; and a call for a broad-based coalition of interested civic organizations, architects, urban planners, and others to form a sort of permanent oversight of future plans.

The conference was interrupted late in the afternoon by a group of “non-students”, generally thought to have been hired goons, who came with their own cadre of photographers and reporters, with the apparent object of scaring the participants a little, and putting together a little counter-propaganda. After a brief hiatus, the conference went on, uninterrupted.

Still on the Marques del Valle side, looking toward the Bar Jardin.

The next day, word came down that the organizer of the conference had been fired from his job as director of the Instituto de Artes Graficas of Oaxaca (IAGO). Apparently, the director, Fernando Gálvez de Aguinaga, offended the chief funder and founder of IAGO, Francisco Toledo, by calling for the re-integration of the Vigilance Committee with PRO-OAX, Toledo’s group, which had come under fire from many activists for its silence on the issue of the reconstruction until the late stages of the resistance. The Vigilancers appear to be the larger of the two groups, most of whom had been PRO-OAX supporters. Toledo , it would appear, was glad of the split. Much easier to control a small and beholden staff…

Meanwhile, the work itself went on apace. Although it did not reach completion by the predicted (by the governor) opening of Guelaguetza, it is now nearly done. It will not please everyone. There are fewer trees in the center area. All the benches are on the periphery. It should not have been built. The money would have been much better spent doing something about the water system, traffic problems, etc.

Still, here we are, and I, for one, am – given that I opposed the project as a boondoggle – pleased with the outcome. The square has lots of seating on the walls enclosing the flower beds. The Kiosk is now plainly visible from the periphery. The sidewalks are wider, and smoother. There is more lighting. The fountains are functioning, and lighted. The drainage has been improved. There is more of a feeling of open-ness; of spaciousness. Where some people decry the diminution of shade, others applaud the increase in light. And, while it may be just my imagination, there appear to be more Oaxaqueños lounging in the square than there used to be.

Along Independencia, on the north side of the Cathedral, what used to be parking places is now a broad pedestrian stroll.

Alas, my biggest problem with the current ambiance is the sterility: the “ambulantes” (itinerant peddlers) are gone; the musicians have been removed; the Triqui indians no longer sell their woven wares. A few brave souls do attempt to violate the new “clean” laws, but the very real danger of having their entire inventory impounded keeps them moving quickly and furtively.

Aside from removing some of the most endearing “atmosphere”, these draconian “Giuliani laws”, as some are calling them, are also destroying the lives of some of Oaxaca’s most needy families. Furthermore, nobody asked us Zócalo lizards – or any of the tourists – whether we wanted these changes. If they had, I believe that they would not have done it.

The problem of illegal puestos (booths) in the city center is a serious one. Nobody wants to see the Alameda and the streets around the Zócalo crowded with sellers of plastic combs and blaring boom-boxes hawking bootleg cd’s of bad Los Lobos imitators. Still, there is a feeling that things have gone too far.

There is talk about “relocating” about two hundred street booths to a new “center” down on Aldama street, but so far not much has occurred. Rents for garage-door store fronts in the heart of the city are astronomical, and pirate sellers who crowd the sidewalks, and steal electricity, while paying no rent – except, of course, the usual “mordida” (bribes) – are unfair competition, and clearly something needs to be done about them. Clearing the Zócalo of the ambulantes only makes the problem worse, as the refugees go looking for a place to set down a blanket and do business.

So here’s the bottom line: it’s not the old Zócalo, but, with all its short-comings, it’s a darn good Zócalo, and still one of the best in Mexico.

This is the courtyard of the ex-convent attached to one of the churches on the tour (see below). Some of the rooms are being used for the restoration of religious objects (mostly wood carvings) from churches throughout the area.

AMLO declines to fight Marcos or Cárdenas:

In the last Newsletter, we talked about how much the media and the opposition would like to see a rift between Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)and the left wing of the PRD; and between AMLO and the EZLN. Since then, AMLO has responded. He will not, he says, trade insults with Subcomandante Marcos, nor will he say anything derogatory aboutCuauhtemoc Cárdenas.

In a press conference held in the MexCity airport, he opined as how he has plenty of ready targets to shoot at, including president Vicente Fox Quesada, PRI president Roberto Madrazo, PANleader Diego Fernandez, “and many others”; and feels no need to take on any more at this time. His own plan, which he has stuck to ever since he made his presidential ambitions official, is to build, city by city, chapters of supporters based on issues. Although it seems certain that he will have the official support of the PRD, he is not saying so, preferring to talk about “grass roots” organizing. His lead in the polls continues to grow.

Meanwhile, he doesn’t flinch from making statements that are sure to make both Marcos and Cárdenas unhappy. PEMEX, the national oil monopoly, is in the opinion of many going to run out of oil reserves in about 10 years; 80% of its’ revenue goes to the government in taxes, a figure that represents about 25% of the money the annual federal budget. On Saturday, Fox announced that the government is so dependant on PEMEX income – and so strapped for funds – that he was cancelling a proposed 5 billion dollar re-investment by PEMEX for much needed infrastructure repairs and exploration. And yet AMLO just said that within three years of taking office, he will be able to offer the U.S. – along with Mexican industry and consumers – significant reductions in crude prices. It will be interesting to see how he expects to do this without huge and desperately needed investments in infrastructure – which means acceptance of some foreign investment, which means further angering Marcos and Cárdenas.

This is a panel to the right of the Cathedral’s main door, and a fine example of how native carvers managed to preserve their pagan images right under the noses of their Dominican slave-masters.

And here’s a flash: on Saturday, the PRD, the PT (Labor Party) and “Convergence”, a left-leaning split from the PRI, announced a new Leftist coalition for the 2006 election. Cárdenas was present, and AMLO was on the road. However, the head of the PRD said that AMLO was the settled candidate of the PRD, by far the most senior partner of the three; and Cárdenas said that he will abide by the choice of the coalition. AMLO’s reaction was cautious, saying that he couldn’t comment since he didn’t know the details; but that he was not “desperately running for a government job”, and that if a better candidate emerged he would be happy to step down.

Also on Saturday, Marcos announced that his criticisms in no way should be taken to imply that he favors boycotting the elections.

In the opposition PRI, things appear to be going a little better for party front-runner Roberto Madrazo. The rift between Madrazo and his deputy Elba Esther Gordillo (he has postponed his resignation as party head to delay her constitutional accession to the number one spot) became less severe yesterday, after they met in MexCity, and announced their plans to set a date for transfer of power. Gordillo made a big speech about the need for party unity, and promised not to push Fox’s reform agenda, which is what got her in trouble with Madrazo’s people in the first place. However, the increasingly bitter exchanges between Madrazo supporters and those of ex State of Mexico governor Montiel, whose backers describe his candidacy as “anybody but Madrazo”, are alienating large segments of Madrazo’s potential support – and may ultimately affect the ability of what was described as the world’s most perfect dictatorship until Fox won in 2000, to get out the vote in 2006. And, of course, Gordillo can always change her mind…

Meanwhile, “independent” candidate Jorge Castañeda was denied a chance to run for president, when the Supreme Court upheld a federal election commission ruling that in order to run, a candidate must have the endorsement of a political party. If he still wants to be president he must find a party that will have him. With Cárdenas also flirting with various small parties, this may yet be quite a little cake walk…

Linda Martin and me, taking a brief break aganst the wall of the basilica of Soledad.


Who says religion can’t be entertaining:

If you like your martyrs to be folksy, you could do a lot worse than to spend a couple of hours with Linda Martin, a transplanted Chapulina (chapulinos, or grasshoppers, are a symbol of Oaxaca). The basic tour covers the Cathedral; the first Jesuit church in Oaxaca; Oaxaca’s oldest surviving church; a glimpse at a saint who protects drug dealers and murderers; perhaps the most revered church in town (Benito Juarez was married there); and the basilica of Soledad, patron saint of Oaxaca.

Diana and I have been in just about all the churches, and knew something about all of them, but Linda’s tongue-in-cheek tour added to our store of knowledge. One example: the basilica of Solidad (basilicas are places where a Pope has given mass) was not built by an order of the Church (most of our old churches are Dominican). It was built and paid for by the citizens of the city (and this is a big, big pile of bricks). Also featured were several ways in which the enslaved masons and carpenters introduced their own “pagan” symbology and pantheon into the wood and stone.

Along the way, Linda points out other sites of historical interest, such as the hotel where D. H. Lawrence stayed back in 1922, the house where the dictator Porfirio Diaz was born (he was deposed by Oaxaca’s only other president, B. Juarez), and the bullet holes in the campanile (bell tower) of the church that became the headquarters during a time of rebellion.

The theological details, when combined with a bit of history, anthropology, archaeology, and wry humor, make for an informative and entertaining late morning walk. Linda performs her magic every Tuesday and Saturday. Tours start at 10:00 a.m. in front of the Cathedral, and end at Soledad around noon. Cost is 90 pesos per person, and ALL the money goes to support CANICA, a locally -run and -controlled shelter for homeless children that has no religious affiliation.