The never-ending story:

Oaxaca is a story with many beginnings and no end in sight. Such stories are difficult to write, except as “dispatches”. Since I of necessity must read scores of reports – often contradictory and even more often inconclusive – every day, I am loathe to crowd your e-mail inbox, even though sometimes, in a fit of perversity, I think about doing so. The thing about “dispatches” is that once you get started, it’s hard to stop. Just when you get one sent off, a new piece of information floats in contradicting it, and necessitating another, correcting e-mail. And so forth, and so on…

[Four months in, and they keep on marching. There is a march or demo somewhere (and usually, downtown) just about every day.]

On the other hand, the Oaxaca story doesn’t lend itself very easily to publications such as this one, either. We’re used to putting out more definable, quantifiable information, and the very volatility of the situation makes it almost impossible to follow our usual format of “item” reporting.

Still, we know from your e-mails (and the hundreds of inquiries we have received over the last four months from non-subscribing Mex-o-philes), that you are concerned about the situation, and about us personally; and we know from what we read in the so-called Press, that there is a dearth of real information out there in English, and that what there is, is hard to find; and besides, we are one issue behind on our yearly count-down; so here goes:

[First, a disclaimer: in case you hadn’t noticed (and none of our more conservative readers have failed to do so), I have a bias. I see a world in which too few have too much and too many have too little. Oaxaca, and Mexico, certainly fit the model. Therefore, my tendency (but not without a jaundiced eye: I’ve left too many self-serving self-proclaimed “peoples’ movements” not to be skeptical) is to give the “little guy” the benefit of the doubt, and the “State” small credibility. That is the context in which I do my best to get at the few available nuggets of what passes for truth in this the most hectic of all possible worlds.]

Like you, I read mass media who lie and distort in favor of the corporate bosses that feed them. So-called information services such as AP, put out articles in which “gunfire was exchanged” between hooded, masked police dressed in civilian clothing carrying AK-47 attack weapons and middle-aged teachers and peasant activists armed with clubs and machetes (no guns), across barriers which the peasants are defending against attack. They paint a picture of a town under siege by armed guerrillas; of civil war; of streets running red with blood. Here is a statistic for you: yesterday, one mud slide in Veracruz killed six people: about as many as have been killed in the entire Oaxaca conflict so far.

There is a drum-beat of hysteria being foisted on all of us. The U.S. State Department, and it’s little brother in Canada (my apologies to our Canadian neighbors; you deserve better from your government), issue “warnings” to their citizens not to come here because of the violence. Among the ex-pats, there are some who can’t stand the idea of “those people” acting out in demand of their rights, who thought that Mexico knew how to control ” them” better than “they” are controlled at home. They write anonymous e-mails to the expat community, accusing people like us and friends of ours of being Communists and saboteurs plotting to bring down “revered public institutions” such as the Oaxaca Lending Library. As they do where you live, they have an influence beyond their numbers or their importance. They write to their friends urging them to stay away, and sometimes they get their lies and vituperation printed in hometown newspapers.

Yet we, and almost everybody we know (many abhor the graffiti and the evidence of embattlement – ashes from burned tires and wood cook fires in the middle of the street, sandbags, large stones, barbed wire and galvanized steel barricades across some intersections, etc. – and avoid coming downtown as a matter of taste) wander freely and safely through the city during the day and early evening. As I have said many times before, we live downtown, only four blocks from the nearest barricade, and we have never been hassled in the slightest way by anyone.

[There was a call for a 72 hours“human rights” encampment” of international organizations and individuals When we last saw it, on the 2d day, it was pretty thin]

As of this writing (Saturday, October 7), things are calm but tense. We know that the federal government has moved as many as 20,000 troops on to bases within striking distance of Oaxaca city. We know that a meeting is scheduled for Monday between the dissidents (APPO and the Teacher’s Union, hereafter known as APPO for my convenience) and the Interior Secretariat. We know that there was a convocation on Wednesday at Interior which included the three most recent Oaxaca governors (Murat, Diodoro and Ulises), the arch-bishop of Oaxaca, the billionaire Alfredo Harp Helu (ex-chairman of Banamex, board member of Citibank, and cousin of third-richest-man-in-the-world Carlos Slim), Oaxaca art commissar Francisco Toledo, and representatives of some indigenous organizations. The object was to get all attendees to sign a “Pact for the Governability of Oaxaca”, devised by Interior. APPO refused to attend. Toledo and the indigenous left early, refusing to sign because the “Pact” did not include provisions for Ulises’ abdication. The press reported the meeting as a failure.

Since then, Diodoro, now a PAN senator, and Zermeño, the PAN congressional whip, have come out for Ulises’ resignation, an apparent break with party leadership which could spell Ulises’ end: the Senate has the power to remove him from office.

In spite of some provocative appearances (a patrol of two army trucks with armed soldiers “guarded” the glitzy up-scale shopping mall at Plaza del Valle for about 20 minutes yesterday) and a few over-flights by Navy helicopters in the last week, APPO remains calm and thousands of volunteers are hanging out in the Zocalo during the day, and at strategic peripheral barricades at night. Most folks expected the government forces to attack by now, but they haven’t…

[This “Tejatera” (maker of Tejate) is plying her trade at the Pochote organic market. Bet she has a wicked right cross. Tejate is a drink made of toasted cacao seed, corn, and other nuts and flowers, cut with watetr to keep it liquid. She’s standing in front of a Pochote tree, which somebody who sounded authoritative told me is a species of kapok]

Diana reports that the downtown area was very lively last night, with all the restaurants and bars open, and that things were very festive (about 8:00 pm, well after dark, but still early by Oaxaca standards). On our walk yesterday, we visited an encampment of international and national human rights workers outside the Church of Santo Domingo. About 30 individuals were watching something on a tv, and copies of the latest news reports were posted. The Zócalo was very active, with many meetings going on, lots of stalls selling things, and a small number of people hanging out in the sidewalk cafés. The “walking street”, Macedonio Alcalá, is now completely open, since the APPO gave up one of their radio stations a few nights ago, to allow the occupiers / defenders to move to the defense of the Zócalo.

The deadline is Monday. It seems unlikely that the APPO will accept the latest deal, but in any case it means we have a quiet weekend ahead of us. And that is how we have learned to take it, one day or two at a time.

Whether or not a settlement is reached soon, whether or not a massive repression will come down soon, whether or not Ulises resigns, this story hasn’t nearly come to any kind of end. With upheavals all over the country, and a new president about to take office whose legitimacy is laughed at by much of the populace, and a current president whose last two months will be not “lame duck” but just plain lame, the demand for more equality – economic, political, legal – will keep on increasing. Even if they are crushed, the APPO has “won”: they have advanced the struggle one more notch. Whether or not Ulises is deposed, he has “lost”: he’s an embarrassment to the political class that serves the Mexican oligarchy; a guy who not only failed to deliver the goods, but whom everyone, from every strata of Oaxacan society, despises.

Whether the powerful decide to crush the “movement” at this moment (there is little question that they will, at some moment, somewhere, decide they have less to lose by doing so than by not doing so) depends on many things, including how much pressure the international community puts on them to behave. Amnesty International has weighed in heavily, and the Organization of American States has been petitioned to put a “permanent office of human rights observation” in Oaxaca. APPO-like formations have sprung up in other states and in other parts of Oaxaca, and pledged their support to APPO.

One thing is certain: APPO is part of a genuine grass roots movement. Whenever a “red alert” is declared, signifying imminent military invasion, more people stream to the Zócalo. If Ulises does go, and if there are some concessions made to the needs of what the Zapatistas call “the people of the color of the earth”, the credit must go to the APPO. If…

A belated announcement…

On the 20th of August, we inaugurated our new patio by hosting a combination birthday party and house opening for 36 pals. It was a potluck, and the food was outstanding. The company was pretty good, too.

The birthday folk, all of whom were born on either August 17 or 18, were Librarian Ruth Gonzalez, George Colman, whose works appear on our website, and our hostess, Diana Ricci. That’s Diana and Ruth on the left, in our living room..

This year (it has become a sort of tradition for them to celebrate together), I rented tables, chairs, and service for 40. Dishwashing is included in the price (just put the dirty dishes in the cartons provided), so cleanup was a snap. We thank John, a subscriber, for the photos.

A potpouri:

AVOLAR airlines, which has been operating since August, now has non-stop flights available from Tijuana to Oaxaca. With hubs in Tijuana and Toluca, Avolar advertises round trips to and from any of its’ destinations for about $145 dollars U.S. However, you might have to book well in advance to get the bargain rate. I checked out several dates and the cheapest I could find was about double that rate. For those of you who don’t want to make the trip to the airport, there are 800 numbers in Mexico and in the U.S. These can be found on their website at

A NEW EXPRESS VAN SERVICE has announced they will start running in November, using 16-passenger Mercedes super-vans, with destinations in various villages in the Oaxaca valley and its surrounds. The owners are “association bosses” in the Abastos market, and will run to and from a terminal in that vicinity. When they are up and running, we will be sure to use and review their service.

AN ART SHOW by original Oaxacan artists, which was to be held in the Oaxaca Painters Museum downtown as part of the bicentennial celebration of native son Benito Juarez, was canceled recently. The directors of the Museum, which is a state-owned enterprise, claimed that they shut it down because of the “danger” represented by the occupation. In point of fact, they reached this decision after many of the artists threatened to withdraw their works, provoked by the rejection of a large Warhol-esque canvas showing Juarez, in a punk haircut, crying “fuera Ulises” (out with Ulises). Artist Ana Santos, well respected by other exhibitors, who saw the rejection of her piece as censorship.

THE MUSIC SCHOOL of the Oaxaca Historical Organ Institute asked me to remind anyone intending to visit this fall / winter that they will be conducting classes for intermediate and advanced piano students. Also, we hear rumblings that SACHMO has redecorated, and is preparing to offer classes again.

[Help us solve this mystery! The vine is growing right out of a Bouganvilla. There is a close-up below here. Anyone know what its name is?]

Care to share the burden?:

For four months, I have been spending hours and hours every day chasing down all the internet sources I can find to keep on top of the situation. I have done so, as much because of the emails I get as for Newsletter purposes. I’ve decided to divide the labor a bit.

I have placed a page on our web site. It contains links to some of the most relevant sources that I use, to try to figure out what is going on. Some of the sources are in Spanish, some in English. I will include this link in most of my responses to email inquiries. Other than the link, the responses will be as brief as circumstances allow. When really significant events occur, I will send out email updates to my subscriber list.

How fast they go downhill:

In the context of discussing the “unexpected consequences” of falling tourism, I gave some examples of “bargains” available to those of us who are brave, foolish, or prescient enough to be here (you choose). I mentioned “Las Danzantes” restaurant. Well, we went back the other day, and I found it disappointing. The service was not as good, they didn’t offer the mescal or the coffee, both of which were on the “daily special” menu, and the sauce on the chicken was bland. So, was it just a “bad day”? I don’t care. There are still all those wonderful comida corrida restaurants right in our neighborhood that do very nicely for a bit less money…

Lake Chapala revisited:

It’s been years since we spent any time along the shores of Mexico’s largest lake. We hadn’t intended to go there, but our friends Margot and Aran invited us along on their journey, and of course we said “you betcha” (that’s Minnesota Finnish for “thanks, love to”). It was a whirlwind trip, just two days and two nights in the area, but it did leave some lasting impressions.

First, the lake is in better shape in some ways, and worse in others. The level is up, thanks to some heavy political wrangling that cut back on the rate the lake was being piped to Guadalajara and Mexico City, although it still has a good 30 yards to go to reach the old sea walls that lakeside residents once built to contain it. The pollution is also up, and it’s easy to see why. As you approach the lake on the main road from the east, which leads you along the north shore of the lake, you pass factory after factory manufacturing fertilizer and pesticides. Inevitably, poison like most everything, rolls downhill. It’s sad.

The two main towns on the north shore are Ajijic and Chapala, but there is no countryside between them (there was a few years ago). Small towns, and developments posing as small towns, fill in the gaps. What used to be small colonias hugging the road have expanded up the hillsides as the demand for retirement (and investment) property grows.

Ajijic is a town made for gringos, by gringos. English is the second language, but not by much. In one restaurant we went to, quite large, there were no non-English speakers, including the waiters and the bus-boys. On the breakfast menu were Jimmy Dean sausages and other gringo delights. No salsa picante on the table, or in any of the dishes that I could see. Still, it is a picturesque town with a very pleasant but not very well attended Zócalo, and it was quite possible to find other, smaller restaurants, where more “Mexican” fare is available, and the prices are more reasonable. There are many small hotels with reasonable prices within walking distance from the Zócalo, and on the street where we stayed the houses were mostly occupied by local folks.

Ajijic has a bull-ring, and a soccer field next to it. On the day we were there, they were holding the annual “festival de globos” in the soccer field. Dozens of contestants arrived with their miniature, un-manned hot air ballons, made of paper over light wood frames, with a fire pit in the bottom. The object is to build them so that they don’t tip as they go upward, thus avoiding touching the side with the flame and turning a journey to the stratosphere into a flame-out. About 80% of the entries flamed out. Only one landed, burning, in a nearby tree and causing a brief fire in the upper branches. There were very few gringos among the large crowd.

Ajijic is home to the Lake Chapala Society, an English-language organization that owns a building housing a Library, puts out a weekly Newspaper, and offers myriad activities geared toward the gringo community. It’s not that one cannot interact with the original community in Ajijic, it’s just that one doesn’t have to…

Chapala, the largest town in the chain of towns surrounding Lake Ajijic, is a mostly Mexican place. The Zócalo, while equally pleasant, is quite busy. Chapala is a much more “commercial” place, and markets and open air restaurants surround the square. We were there on a Saturday, and there were a few gringos in the crowds of Mexicans. One fellow sat down with us while we took a liquid break, and told us he had been living around the lake for decades, but had moved to Chapala only recently, because of the lower prices for houses, and the lower numbers of gringos. Still, he went at least a couple of times a week to Ajijic, a twenty-minute drive on a low traffic day (and up to an hour when crowded), to borrow a book at the Society and catch up on what’s new in the lakeside communities. He reads no Spanish, and speaks very little. It’s not that one cannot live in Chapala and have gringo connections, it’s just that one need not if one doesn’t wish to…