The Two Faces of Oaxaca:

There are two “realities” in Oaxaca: “ours” and “theirs”. At one extreme, “They” are sleeping in houses with dirt floors and no running water, eating tortillas and beans (if they are lucky), and are at the mercy of the police, the gangs, and the corrupt system of governance. “We” sleep behind walls and gates, eat whatever we like, and command the assistance of the authorities and the government agencies – and do not wish to trade places with “them”.

This issue illustrates that situation, which is the common denominator for all of us ex-pats (even the “dedicated” social engineers who come down to live “with the people”: when they leave to return to their lives in the first world, they do not need a coyote to help them cross the border). Diana and I try to be respectful of our hosts. We try not to take advantage. We do our best to keep up with the political realities. We like to think that we are at least moderately successful. We live on the edge between two realities, and it is this Oaxaca that we try to pass on to you.

[This picture was taken in front of the old governors’ palace (now a museum, after the governor moved his offices to the less accessible suburbs) after the police chased the teachers out on June 14. Some wag put up the “put your garbage i the receptacle” poster. The mainstream media use similar pictures to illustrate teacher “excesses” but in fact it was not of their creating.]

Staying the course:

The teachers are continuing their occupation of the Zócalo, although their presence is smaller and less intrusive in the city center than it has been. They have announced a new strategy, starting tomorrow (Tuesday). They will use “flying squads” to completely block cross-country traffic on all major highways, and intend to isolate Oaxaca city from the rest of the state. They have given no indication as to how long the siege will last.

[These maestros are ready for action. They had just retaken the center of town from the police, and didn’t intend to be moved again. The police never did reappear…]

We have a few quick impressions to share with you. For a more “in depth” analysis, those who are interested may access reprints of two newspaper articles I wrote recently, the first written for “Pulse Twin Cities” (a weekly) in Minneapolis, and the second for “South Side Pride” (a monthly) in the same city. Just click on

We love the “new” Zócalo. The teachers’ occupation has transformed it from the sterile place that renovations and new anti-poor regulations had made it under the current political regime, back to the “old” Zócalo we missed so much. The itinerant sellers are back, wending their way through the tables in the sidewalk cafés hawking everything from comales (clay dishes used for cooking over an open fire) made in the nearby pottery village of Atzompa, to back scratchers made in China. The Triquis in their colorful red traje (costumes) once again vend their weavings and embroidered blouses on the street (literally) in front of the tables. Bicycle carts sell everything from cooked corn to fresh fruit to hot dogs. The balloons are back from their exile in front of the post office. It’s a grand fiesta once again.

While it is true that some hotels and a few restaurants have closed, it is not true that the teachers closed them. Their owners did that. The vast majority are doing o.k. , and the loss of custom at the sidewalk cafés has a lot more to do with the normal May-June slowing down of tourism than with the strike. While some waiters and maids have been laid off, many more street entrepreneurs have found a good livelihood previously denied to them by the powers that be (egged on by the (mostly absentee) owners of the “established” businesses).

So while some have suffered during the current troubles, many more have benefited; while we don’t like to see anyone suffering, we can’t help note that the wealth is being usefully redistributed; while the streets are not as clean in some places as they used to be, they are being used by more people.

Of course, a lot the reason we frequent the Zócalo more these days is because we are now living closer to it…

Too close to call:

Yesterday was Election Day. Along with a few Governors and a lot of Senators and Deputies, Mexicans chose a new President. As were millions of our neighborss, we were glued to our television last night, awaiting an announcement at 11:00 p.m. (the polls closed at 8:00; Mexico has only one time zone) by the head of the Istituto Federál Electorál (federal board of elections; IFE). We passed by several voting stations on our trips to the market, the Zócalo, and the piano concert in the atrium of the regional museum at Santo Domingo. The lines were long, the voters were civil and serious, and preliminary reports indicate that a very high percentage of qualified voters exercised their privilege.

[Mom is busy selling. The kids are playing. Cute, huh?]

After a long introductory in which he praised his organization for running such a clean election and assured his television audience that only the most “scientific” methods had been used to sample the vote, Sr. Carlos Ugalde, head of the IFE, announced that with about 95% of precincts reporting, the two leading candidates did not have enough difference between them to declare a winner within the statistical margin for error. This means that there will be no official winner until Wednesday, when all the votes will have been counted.

Of course, this led to giant celebrations by the stalwarts of the two leading contenders, Felipe Calderon of the PAN and Andres Manuel López Obrador of the PRD. Horns honking and banners waving, parades of partisans traversed the streets celebrating “victory”. Fireworks punctuated the late-night tranquility.

Today, the claims and counter-claims of vote buying, ballot box stealing, and false reporting will begin. Each side will accuse the other of cheating, and demand to be declared the winner. Reports of insufficient ballots at polling places have already surfaced, and apparently some frustrated voters captured and held the local IFE head and some of his staff for a time. For three days, the uncertainty will deepen, as will the strain. By the time the winner is announced, the legitimacy of the election will be in doubt. Some commentators are already referring to the “Florida-ization” of Mexico.

Whomever wins, he will face a divided legislature. Making any changes to the status quo will be difficult.

Be it ever so palatial:

There’s no place like home. We are now “permanently” ensconced in our dream home in the heart of Oaxaca. The move went quite smoothly, with the help of friends and the services of a professional mover. Pictured in the masthead is “carga ligera” (light hauling) driver Romeo, up in the truck, along with one of the helpers provided by friend and well-known handyman-to-the-Gringos Cipriano Ramos, loading the last run of our major pieces.

[That’s a heavy ceramic piece, and the wood weighs a bit too. Luckily, we know a couple of strong young men who can handle the task of putting it up in our entryway. The artist is Luis Valencia, of San Antonino, Ocotlan, Oaxaca.]

Almost everything is in place. We still lack some kitchen cabinets and shelves, and some furniture (when we rented this place, only the bathroom fixtures, the kitchen sink, and the hot water heater were provided). Our last place was “furnished”.

All the jobs that needed doing as of the last Newsletter have been done, with the exception of the telephone, which of course is going to be installed “soon”. Meanwhile, we have a borrowed cell phone, and I do our internet and Email work at a nearby cybercafé, using Diana’s laptop (DSL at 8 pesos per hour). Not having our own DSL really cramps my style: dipping into the Web several times a day for brief periods, rather than schlepping the laptop and having to get it all at once.

[Here we are in our office, all wired up and nowhere to go – until we get our phone…]

We have been keeping all our receipts. We throw them in a manila file folder, and every once in a while, we sit down and figure out who owes what to whom – and how much we are spending during this transition. By the time we are done, we will have spent the equivalent about two years’ savings in rent. Half of that is in “unrecoverable” expenses such as phone, moving, electricity and plumbing, and screen door and windows. The rest will cover stove, furniture, furnishings, etc: stuff we can take with us if we have to move (Heavens forfend!).

Music, music, music:

Last night we attended another of the regularly scheduled concerts by the teachers at the academy of the Organ Institute (IOHIO). Every other month, they play a grand piano in the beautifully restored back courtyard of the Regional Museum. Alternately, they offer an organ concert in the Cathedral. All concerts are on the first Sunday of the month. Entrance is free, with a voluntary contribution solicited.

Does anyone know this man? An itinerant photographer and illegal immigrant, no-one is proposing an amnesty for him. He does bear some resemblance to my old friend Max, who took the pictures of the teachers…

On the fifteenth, there will be a night of bebop at La Biznaga, and on the sixteenth, an afternoon of cool jazz in the garden at Casa Colonial.

Later this month, the music of traditional dance will be presented all over the city as the various dancers participating in the Guelaguetza presentation show off their stuff on small stages erected at street corners and in parks.

All of this will now be more available to us, from our new house on the “right side” of the international highway. There is much to be said – air pollution aside – for living in the center.