Artwork to die for:

Last year, we went to, and reported on, a work in progress by well-known Oaxaca artist Alejandro Santiago. Famous for – and sustained by sales of – his paintings, maestro Alejandro was creating thousands of ceramic figures to commemorate all the Mexicans who have died in the U.S. or in the attempt to get there. He has since received a large corporate grant to build a giant kiln which has greatly speeded up the work.

Opened recently at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca (the Oaxaca Museum of Contemporary Art: MACO), a show featuring several hundred of his army of the dead, titled “2,501 Migrants”, roughly corresponding to the number of Mexicans, Central Americans, and others who have lost their lives before, during, or after their attempts to “illegally” enter the U.S.

Placed for maximum effect, in clusters, files, coffins and piles, these Zapotec-sized ceramic people – men, women and children –are given all the many rooms of the museum, an act of homage that itself speaks of the respect this artist and his works are given.

Santiago has expressed his desire to take these figures, en masse, to the border, as a sort of epitaph for the fallen.

This is, unfortunately, a perpetual work in progress: one more death report, one more ceramic figure.

Bye-bye Tsuru:

We are pedestrians again. Last week, simply tired of fighting the traffic and the tension of driving in a situation where the immediate consequences of an accident could be (in the event of personal injury) imprisonment until the insurance company got up off its corporate duff and settled all the claims, we turned in our risky wheels for a less convenient but less stressful pair of walking shoes.

[The Zócalo is finished, except for some more plantings. We like it.]

What with parking meters sprouting up all over downtown, and the difficulty of finding a parking space anywhere close to anywhere you might want to be in the inner center of Oaxaca, even folks who live out in the Etlas or Huayapan might want to consider leaving the car at home and hopping the bus or colectivo. That choice, as are so many options here, depends on individual temperament, money (in the long run, we figured out, it is just as cheap or cheaper to rely on public transport for most trips than to maintain a car), and whether you come down in a vehicle from the U.S.

The big advantage to having a car is being able to get to a lot more places in a single day – for instance, when the kids come to visit for a week and want to see everything – but unless you do that sort of thing often, it might well be less expensive to rent a car or hire a car and driver.

We are basing our decision on our individual experience, which may be quite different from yours. You may be more astute at picking just the right vehicle, or a better bargainer (resulting in a lower purchase price, or a higher sales price), but for what it’s worth, here is our experience:

We bought a 10-year-old Nissan Tsuru 4-door sedan 2.5 years ago after having it vetted by our mechanic. We paid 40,000 pesos (about 4,000 dollars) for it, and spent another 5,000 pesos paying outstanding warrants, late fees, and our invaluable advisor German.

[The “laundry room” at the ex-convent now known as the Camino Reál Hotel. It’s fun to wander the grounds: a great place to visit, but at $200+ dollars a night, I wouldn’t want to live there…]

I figure that it cost us about 15,000 pesos to keep the car in shape, renew the registration, and buy insurance. That brings our investment to about 60,000 pesos, of which we recovered 30,000 pesos when we sold it. That’s a net cost of 30,000 pesos. For that, we got many trips to various Mexican destinations and one to Pensacola Florida; infrequent excursions to “mall row” to shop for those items that somehow we haven’t learned to do without; and a great many trips to points around town that we could have gotten to by bus (although we more often than not left the car at home in favor of public transportation).

What we will miss are the more-convenient day trips to various tourist sites. Many of those may end up being overnights now, and that may actually be for the better. But, for better or for worse, the deed is done, and while I am still having withdrawal symptoms, Diana – who always prefers the bulk of a bus when on the road – is delighted.

From The Field:

Another edition of George Colman and Michele Gibbs fine quarterly publication is now availableONLINE, featuring “Oaxacan Women Against Violence”, an essay by George Colman; “Exodus”, a short story by Tanzanian writer and journalist Morris Mwavizo Msavia; “Dying to Leave”, a poem by Michele Gibbs, and a new Gallery: “Walls of Oaxaca”, photos by Michele Gibbs .

[Some folk dancers waiting to claim their prize won in a local competition. Walk the streets of central Oaxaca, and you are likely to see brightly clad pretty young women such as these from time to time.]

“Opening Mexico”:

When you think of the main-stream “names” in Mexico reportage, Sam Dillon and Julia Preston, of the New York Times, come to mind. “Opening Mexico” is certainly their largest, most ambitious, and most popular piece of writing, a combination of original sources and hearsay; subjects’ spontaneous remarks and prepackaged plausible-sounding propaganda; flash insights and agonized second guessing. This makes their writing a lot like mine – except that I have no particular pretension to knowledge, whereas they do claim to have a cogent, complete and reliable analysis of 100 plus years of Mexican history.

This book is a huge undertaking, full of valuable and often entertaining historical material by and about the “leading figures” across the whole history of the Partido Revolucionario Institucionál (PRI), which ruled Mexico for more than seventy years. Preston and Dillon were on the scene for many years and provide many insights into the inner machinations and inter-relations of the Party and its’ leaders during that period. And there is the rub: too much hob-nobbing, too much insider status, too many confidences revealed in exchange for either anonymity or retelling in a “correct” form (propaganda). Exposed in the late 90s by Al Giordano of Narco News as having failed to report mis-doings by his friends in power (Preston was both his wife and his bureau chief), Dillon was withdrawn from Mexico and re-assigned to “special reporting” by the Times.

[Every Wednesday at noon, most Wednesdays in the evening, and on many other occasions, Oaxaca’s venerable and ubiquitous master of ceremonies, a poet and a declaimer excepcionál known to us as “Señor Schultz” holds forth, sometimes at length, between songs or dances. His melifluous voice, heard from a distance, lifts the heart with the knowledge that “something is going on”.]

Now, in an attempt to rehabilitate themselves (and, judging by sales, put by a nice little nest egg), the authors have told some (by no means all) in a book that is useful, interesting, and entertaining – provided that the reader keep a few things in mind.

The book is based on a questionable (if not false) premise: that Mexico had a Revolution in the early 1900s. As I pointed out in my review of the first part of Earl Shorris’ book, “Life and Times of Mexico”, Shorris believes – and builds quite a case for – the theory that what the Mexicans call a revolution was in fact only a shift from one set of dictators to another; that the Constitution was a pretense at democracy, since anyone with enough money or influence can receive an “amparo” (an exception), and that the Constitution was designed to institutionalize the disenfranchisement of the poor in favor of the powerful.

Thus it’s not the “facts” in the book that are questionable, but the conclusions reached, and the logic used to get there. If you assume that the Constitution was indeed “progressive”, and that the Revolution really was an attempt to open Mexico to a more democratic form of government, you are then free to see the changes, such as the movement of peasants off the land, the cacique system of local PRI rule, and “labor peace” as steps along the road to a more idyllic nation. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) then becomes part of the opening of a previously insular and lawless country: an imposition of international norms in the service of greater wealth, greater sophistication, greater integration into the global economy; the first stage of the new more hip Mexico.

[El Sol y La Luna, re-opened at last on Constitutión, around the corner from the last location, is Oaxaca’s hot spot for cool jazz. Marta Saenz, Susan Creamer, and Miguel Sampiero (with a guest bass player) do the old standards and more, in English, Spanish and French. A small venue with drinks, no food, and a cover charge, it is one of many fine spots for music, including the Nueva Babél and Temple]

But suppose you see the Revolution as Shorris saw it. The Revolution becomes a bloody and pointless fight among army factions and regional warlords; the PRI becomes a fascist dictatorship with a “gentle face”, much as did Tito’s Yugoslavia; history since the revolution becomes a narrative of the attempts, bloody and brutal, of an aging oligarchy to hang on to as much as it can in the face of pressure both from below and from without. NAFTA becomes a quasi-legalistic method of squeezing the last drops of blood from the poor and middle classes. Instead of “opening”, one can then talk about “draining”.

Both books dismiss the Zapatistas as being either irrelevant, counter-productive, or just plain anti-democratic. Dillon and Preston characterize them as “spoilers” that made it more difficult for later presidents such as Salinas and Zedillo (whose sins are constantly excused as attempts to further “open” the country).

“Opening Mexico” is a must-read book, containing much that is unavailable in other writings about modern Mexico. I have embraced an idea it contains almost as an afterthought; more between than in the lines: that the Mexican people really do long for a more democratic, more just, and more egalitarian country; that this longing may be frustrated for a term, but it will not go away and eventually it will come to fruition. Unlike the authors, I believe that when it comes, change will come from the bottom, not the top. Read “Opening Mexico” for its’ insider glimpse of the “perfect dictatorship”, but don’t forget that you’re being fed a lot of neo-globalist propaganda along the way.

Speaking of politics:

On Sunday, the people of the State of Mexico, the most populous state in the Union, which surrounds the Federal District on three sides, went to the polls to elect local and state officials. While their numbers were small (59%) for a Mexican election, their choices were significant.

The Party of the Democratic Revoluion (PRD) made a strong showing, taking the largest (although not necessarily the most influential) city, Ecatapec, while retaining control of the second largest, while the National Action Party (PAN) kept the helm in the next three most populous cities including the state capitol of Toluca. The PRI, while losing some cities, retained the largest number. It lost seats in the state legislature to both the opposition parties, but here again the big gains were for the PRD.

Coming as it does on the heels of the latest Mitofsky poll, which shows Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) leading by about 10 percentage points at 42% (increasing, while both the PRI and PAN candidates’ share has decreased dramatically), this has to be staggering news for the campaign of third-place PRI cacique Roberto Madrazo, since the State of Mexico, including the DF, holds about 20% of the population. AMLO’s strategy of appealing to the poor (many of whom live in vast slums outside the DF) appears to be paying off.

[Llano park on March 6. Still too early to tell what new uses it will be put to, if any.]

Meanwhile, the Other Campaign of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) continues to hold AMLO’s feet to the fire, chastising him for his choices of campaign staff, political advisors, and potential cabinet ministers; and his party for failing to support the San Larrainzar accords granting limited autonomy to indigenous regions.

With elections less than four months away, it’s a great season for political-observer types such as I.

Coming Up:

More on the rental market, including a couple of good hotels at 300p, and some short term monthlies; a review of Carole Turkenik’s “Oaxaca Tips”, the (delayed) Frente Común story, and news of a new magazine a-comin’.