Here comes the sun:
We’ve survived another rainy season. Marked by terrible flooding, destruction of roads and bridges, mud slides and general havoc, it ended particularly badly this year, as two tropical depressions crossed from the Gulf to the Pacific just west of us.
Now, less than a week before the Days of the Dead, the skies are blue, the weather is moderate, and the winter tourists are beginning to trickle in. The cultural calendar is filling up. The patio furniture is out. It’s a good time to be here.
[A few weeks ago, we were invited to be special guests at a show of photos mounted by old-time Oaxaca resident Russell Ellison. The original photos were of a series of tableaux organized by the late Bill Wolf, in which I appeared in a supporting role. Bill had worked for years as an AIDS educator and treatment facilitator before losing his own life to lung cancer. As a tribute to Bill, there were many Muxi (transvesites) from Juchitan present, serving snacks, mezcal, and cervecitas (half-bottles of beer). This young man performed, singing and dancing, and talking about her plight, and that of women in general, in macho Oaxaca.]
If you’re here or coming here:
Don’t forget to consult the Oaxaca Calendar where a good deal of what is going on culturally is listed. Among the art show openings, religious and civic festivals, musical and dance performances of note is the first annual Oaxaca Festival of Independent Film and Video.
Starting on November 5, and running for nine days, the organizers promise to screen 140 films in 8 venues. As well, there will be workshops, and – tucked into the visual events – a series of literary presentations.
Two separate but concomitant contests, complete with prizes, were held, one in Spanish and one in English. Around 270 submissions were received. The winner in English was submitted by Charles T. Whipple, a U.S. citizen living in Japan. Whipple, a published writer, will be in Oaxaca for the first time, to accept his prize, and while he is here he will give lectures on Japanese culture and literature, as well as a workshop / meet-and-greet for local writers.
The English contest was sponsored by the Lending Library, which will be hosting a benefit gala at the Rufino Tamayo museum on the 10th that will include a showing of the film Twenty Five Hundred and One, at which artist Alejandro Santiago and director Patricia van Ryker will be present. Tickets – minimum 300 pesos – are available at the Library.
[Full disclosure: we’re being comped by good and generous friends who are sponsors.]
[The funeral march of Heriberto Pazos. We estimate about 1,000 people participated. It was a big day for florists.]
Civil war among the Triqui:
The last few dissidents from San Juan Copala are either dead or evacuated. Over 100 family dwellings have been burned. Dozens have been slain or disappeared. Women and children are encamped on the Zócalo. They have removed their traditional red huipiles (tunics) in an attempt to avoid being assaulted when they leave their encampment to buy charcoal for their cooking fires. Soon, if the governor has his way (he’s generally thought to be paying the paramilitaries that destroyed their lives), they will be scattered throughout the country, lost among the vast underclass that NAFTA has created.
San Juan Copala was a municipio (county) in the Mixteca Alta mountains of western Oaxaca state, of which the town of San Juan Copala was the county seat. Like many of the municipios in this area, it is locked in a struggle over who gets to control the natural resources, between the “traditional” indigenous who want the land conserved so they can stay where they are, and their “modern” neighbors who want to take the money and run. Add this to the much older land disputes and clan feuds, and factor in the possibility that there are illegal substances being grown in the area, and the analysis gets vastly more complicated.
[Marching in their traditional huipeles (tunics), these women are carrying the green flags of their political party, the PUP, a “front” for the still-ruling PRI.]
In the late ‘40s, the municipio was split up between three surrounding counties by state authorities. The Triqui indigenous who occupy the area had no say in the matter. Considered the “untouchables” of Oaxaca state, they have little say about anything. This is true in our town as well, where Triqui merchants have been “relocated” several times in the short span of time that we have been here, at the convenience (whim) of the local authorities.
Things seethed along for decades in Triqui country, marked by shootings, rapes, and dispossessions, and flight to the north, until a few years ago when, influenced by the experience of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, a significant portion of the population of San Juan Copala declared their independence from the state government, took over the municipal headquarters by occupation, and set up an “autonomous” municipality. Soon, some of the other villages in the area declared their adherence to the new order.
It is important to note that there was never anything close to consensus among the citizens of San Juan Copala about all this. History of clan and political party conflicts played an important part in creating the current conflicts, a situation which the ruling PRI, anxious to continue bleeding the area’s natural resources and maintaining the income stream from illicit agriculture, was quick to take advantage of for its own gain.
The advocates of autonomy split from the existing MULT, a creature of the State, and formed MULT-I. UBISORT, the group that formed the paramilitaries that are doing most of the killing, came out of MULT as well. Armed with the latest in military weaponry, the UBISORT began using women and children in Copala for target practice. There was some attempt at armed resistance, but it proved ineffective. Now, under the watchful eye of UBISORT, MULT once again occupies the municipal palace.
With the tacit approval of the State police and the hands-off attitude of the federal government, the MULT-I adherents are gone from San Juan Copala, and the UBISORT killers are setting their sights on the other villages whose adherence to the idea of autonomy have made them targets.
A few days ago, another in the series of assassinations that mark this conflict took place not very far from our house, in the Cinco Señores neighborhood. In a classic “settling of accounts”
MULT leader Heriberto Pazos was gunned down by two guys on a motorcycle as he was being driven down his street.
It is unclear whether Gabino Cué (pronounced “kway”) has the will or the ability to stop the killing when he takes office in December. As the Secretary of Government in the administration of Diódoro Carrasco he presided over the vicious repression of more than one community suspected of harboring “dissidents”.
[This altar was designed and its construction supervised by Bill Wolf. It dominated the Alameda when I first came here in 1994.]
Muertos is nearly upon us:
The annual celebration of the Days of the Dead will take place on the first two days of November. There will be altars in the shops and homes, as well as in the cemeteries and sand paintings along the Alcala and in front of the Cathedral. Dancers and dramatic troupes will perform legends old and new. Busloads of tourists will visit the cemeteries in Xoxocotlán and San Felipe, as well as village festivals. There will be parades. This is the kick-off for Oaxaca’s busiest tourist season, which extends pretty much through New Year’s, and is our favorite time of year.
[We hate the intrusion of Halloween into the local culture, another sign of the intrusion of TV driven commercialism; but the kids are having fun with it.]
This year, as we have for several years, we will join our friend Anita for a Muertos feast featuring foods from her native Mixteca Alta. On the day before (Monday), Diana and I will go to the Panteón General, Oaxaca’s largest boneyard, to celebrate the life of our dear friend Thornton Robison, taken from us in a car crash at an early age a few years ago. Thorny managed to find a resting place there, as per his wish, in spite of the seriously overcrowded conditions. There will be mezcal, lots of flowers and other decorations, and tamales (although we are likely to be too full to partake of them) at graveside; and the company of many old friends and acquaintances. Other “absent friends” will be remembered, no doubt.
Afterwards, we will stroll among the decorated graves and large altars erected for a juried show in hopes of winning cash prizes, exit the cemetery into streets filled with stands selling food and decorations, and walk the mile or so to our house, pooped but sated.
Incidentally, Diana and I first met at a Muertos party, back in 1994…