A Small Ceramics Gallery in Oaxaca:

From time to time, we feature a particular artisan or gallery. It’s been a while since the last one, mostly because the press of current events and travel stories have pre-empted the space. Today, we are pleased to feature “Tierra Quemada” (literally, “burned earth”), a gallery run by a family of potters, opened about a year ago in the small mall in the front part of the Plaza las Virgenes, a multi-use building containing the venerable Posada Margarita hotel, across from Labastida Park. The first few photos, starting with the masthead, come from Tierra Quemada.

Tierra Quemada is a showcase for the works of one branch of the Pablo family, a father (Vicente), his two sons (Jorge and Omar) and Jorge’s wife Eliz. One of Eliz’s pots can be seen in the outdoor photo, below.

[These works are the creations of the father of the family, Francisco]

New Pope? Ho Hum….

The daily “El Imparciál” (the impartial: in this case, doublespeak) conducts mini-polls on line. It’s very anecdotal stuff: nobody knows who is voting; one poll may be on the site for a week, and the next for two days: you get the idea. Still, it’s always fun for us to see what the latest poll may (or may not) reveal about what’s on the minds of our neighbors.

Recently, just after the ascension of Clement to the top of the Catholic heap, Imparciál conducted a poll on the future of the Church. The question was, what is the most important thing the new Pope should do for the good of the Church? The choices were recruit more priests (10%), stop the defections of priests and parishioners (15%), strengthen religious education (25%) and don’t know / don’t care (50%).

I do get the sense that Americans (America being defined as all the land in our hemisphere south of the Rio Bravo), if they care at all about the Catholic church, are very disappointed at not getting one of their own appointed to the number one or number two spot (Ratzinger’s old job went to an arch-conservative U.S. cardinal), especially as they make up at least half the members. Many see the appointment of Clement as racist, and most understand it as a slap in the already-bruised face of Liberation Theology, a current in the church that preaches a more equal share for the poor (who, after all, make up the vast majority of American Catholics.

The likely result of all this is a further erosion of Catholics into the arms of the hard-charging evangelical protestant denominations that are proliferating at an ever-increasing rate.

[Benito Juarez valley behind Eliz’s vase]

The Teachers are Coming … Again:

For some of you, according to the old song, May brings flowers, but down in Oaxaca May is the month of the Teacher. As in strike; demonstration; roadblocks; general disruption and prolonged occupation of public spaces. Every year of the ten-plus that I have lived there, Oaxaca has hosted the stalwarts of local 22 of the National Teacher’s Union (SNTE), and this year is not likely to be an exception. Each strike has ended with promises that have only been partially kept, and thus each year they return looking for a little bit more.

First, traditionally, comes the Day of the Teacher, celebrated on May 15, with parades and speeches. This year, according to one estimate in the national daily newspaper La Jornada, 45,000 teachers marched in Oaxaca. If true (that’s an enormous number), that’s one of the biggest marches ever.

Each year, thousands of teachers have flooded the Zócalo for stays of up to three weeks, sleeping on cardboard under plastic tarpaulins and blocking the doorways of businesses for blocks around the square. One year, the crowd was estimated at over 10,000. For the last few years, Iliana de Vega, the chef /co-owner of El Naranjo, one of Oaxaca’s more famous eateries, has simply closed her doors for a month rather than deal with the strikers.

This year, with the Zócalo all torn up and the restaurants that ring it blocked off by tin walls, the strikers declare they will gather in the mud, starting on May 23, the official opening day of the “indefinite” protest against smaller numbers of scholarships; inadequate uniforms, food and books for students; and low teacher wages and benefits. The Oaxaca chapter also sent delegates Friday’s protest in Mexico City on the 20th.

This year, the government is preparing to crack down. In Monterrey, a PANstronghold, the President got on a stage with Alba Esther Gordillo, the strongwoman who heads the national union and doubles as the second-in-command of the opposition PRI. It was a love-fest. “Teachers get a raise”, trumpeted the conservative Miami Herald Mexico Edition, presenting the miniscule 4% pay raise (plus 1.5% in benefits) as if it has some significance. Pictures of Elba and Vicente smiling at each other appeared in the mainstream press. Outside the hall, a small group of protesters denounced the deal.

In Mexico City, thousands of teachers, led by dissident groups from Oaxaca, Chiapas and other states with “maverick” locals, were demanding a perhaps-Quixotic 100%. (Local 22 is demanding “at least 50%”) Some Chiapanecos carried signs translating as “The government oppressor kills teachers”. Indeed, it has always been a fact of life for teachers that it is easy to be killed for saying the “wrong” (read, “right”) thing, and it looks like the blood will flow this year as well.

The governor of Chiapas has declared that all teachers (already three weeks into their strike) who are not in school on Monday, the 24th , or any other day until the strike is “settled”, will be fired and replaced from a vast army of “qualified” persons waiting to take their jobs (He also has a serious and prolonged walkout by medical personnel in the Chiapas branch of the National Health hospitals). On Friday, 40,000 teachers, students, parents and other sympathizers marched in the capital of Chiapas, Tuxtla Gutierrez, under banners demanding the governor resign.

The governor of Yucatán has also made menacing statements. In Michoacán, where the governor is a member of the pro-labor PRD, ten thousand teachers marche, and then met with representatives of the governor, who is a member of the pro-labor PRD. It is not yet clear what the intentions of our governor, Ulises, are, although several pundits have wondered if the dismantling of the Zócalo might have been timed to create maximum discomfort for the maestros and maestras.

Gordillo is the embattled head of a union where the rank and file have to hold their noses. The dissident elements have in a few states like Oaxaca taken over the state apparatus and tend to vote PRD or further to the left. Added to her strain is her closeness to the PAN’s Vicente Fox, partly due to her having lost a power grab within her own PRI party to current party president Roberto Madrazo. She is seen by most to be in a weak position. She will not be much inclined to come to the aid of the dissident state factions should the governors decide to get “heavy”.

We expect a long occupation somewhere in the city starting today, May 23.

Hail, Hail, and the drains were plugged:

As many of you already know, the worst hailstorm in the ten years I have lived in Oaxaca smashed in a couple of Wednesdays ago. It plugged drains with compacted ice, resulting in major flooding when it was followed by a giant rainstorm. Many people I know either got some flooding, or have neighbors that did. Some roof damage was reported, and a lot of trees were stripped and gardens defoliated. Six people were killed, two of them when the roof of a public market gave way.

I am assured that our house escaped damage, and as far as I can tell, so did the houses of everyone I know. To give you an idea of the heaviness of the storm, a friend reports that three empty buckets that were sitting outside his house were full when he returned from a trip out of town.

Unfortunately, just a few days ago, another whopping great rainstorm did a lot of damage in several of the surrounding villages and suburbs.

[This young man eventually figured out how to put all those empty water bottles into the cart. I was impressed.]

A Potpourri of updates:

*Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has thrown his hat into the presidential ring. He has announced that as of July 31, he will step down as Governor / Mayor of Mexico City, to be a candidate for his party’s (PRD) nomination for president in the 2006 election.

*The election commissioners in the State of Mexico resigned pretty much en masse in the face of accusations of malfeasance: they reportedly gave a contract to construct the ballot boxes for the July elections to a crony of the current governor and not to the lowest bidder. This will hurt the ruling PRI, and presumably boost the chances of the woman running for governor under the “Sol Azteca” flag of the PRD.

*Luís Derbez, a Fox cabinet member who was the U.S. choice to be the head of the Organization of American States (OAS), had his nomination withdrawn from contention after a 9-9 tie vote in the body, resulting in the installation of a Chilean socialist favored by Brazil and Venezuela. Fox’s move was unexpected but not unpredictable. He was – and is – under tremendous pressure regarding what many regard as his subservience to the Bush administration. As a consolation prize, he gave the U.S. state security apparatus more access to Mexico as part of an effort to “improve cross border relations”, particularly as regards speeding the cross-border flow of goods while at the same time preventing “terrorists” from getting through. So far, this oxymoronic policy has proved to be less than successful, as delays at border crossings increase monthly.

*Continued conflict, some violent, between groups claiming to have the exclusive right to operate – and collect fees from – Hierves del Agua has moved the state office of tourism to remove the Hierves page on its’ website, withdraw all pamphlets promoting the site in its’ offices, and advise would-be visitors not to go there.

Who is Les Barba, and why should we care about him?

Les Barba is the nom de plume of a retired corrections officer living in Oaxaca, who wrote a book about his experiences (sort of: fictionalized from his own life -and the lives of others as related to him) in the highland jungles of revolutionary Chiapas and the city and surrounds of Oaxaca during the early days of the Zapatistas. It is a mix of mysticism, realpolitik, romance, adventure and celebration.

Barba, the main character, is a U.S. citizen and Vietnam war veteran who leaves the U.S. for a life of leisure in Oaxaca, finds romance with a mysterious Mexican woman who turns out to be a comandante in the Zapatista Liberation Army, and ends up smuggling arms to the revolutionaries in the jungle. Along the way, he is abused by the Mexican army, discovers a CIA agent in the Zapatista ranks, is shot at by, and kills, the enemy, and — well, I won’t reveal the ending.

Barba tells a good story, even if occasionally in un-necessarily turgid language. The book, “Life Imitating Death”, subtitled (why, I am not sure) “Making Dollars and Sense in Chiapas”, is a well-sustained story. Not great literature, but a good read. You can buy it from Amazon, through our website, at no extra cost to you, by clicking HERE

[At least a couple of times each week, the garbage truck comes through the neighborhhod to collect stuff we want to throw away. Everything but stones is accepted. These folks are fortunate: for some, the truck comes at 6:00 in the morning]

Zócalo redux:

Work on the “secret plan” for the urban renewal of Oaxaca’s central plaza is, or is not proceeding, depending on who you talk to. I’ve been having a difficult time getting any reliable information, and so I don’t want to add more fuel to the rumor mill fire at this time. There is a “peaceful occupation” planned for Sunday, apparently sponsored by four different groups. I will do my best to get some coverage of that, and report it to you (including a more-or-less-history of the struggle) in the coming week. I hope to devote an entire Newsletter to it.

Oaxaca subscribers please note: your attendance and report will be most appreciated.