The people’s Zócalo:
In the last couple of months, while I have been battling illness (successfully), I have had some time to reflect on the events in the public spaces and streets of Oaxaca. I have been weighing the balance between tourism and desperation; between the right to protest and the right to engage in commerce; between grief and chaos. I confess I am no closer to reaching a conclusion than I was when I started.
I can, however, offer you some bits and pieces, which I invite you to assemble into whatever coherence you can make of it…
**Two weeks ago, on a Sunday, Diana and I took our usual noon-day walk to the Z, to listen to the State Band’s Sunday concert, have a cappuccino, and visit with friends, some of whom are “Zócalo Lizards” like us. As we passed the Parque Alameda, in front of the Cathedral, there was a large rally just winding down, sponsored by Morena (brown; also the Spanish acronym for “movement for national renovation”, Mo-RE-Na). Morena is the personal invention of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), having been organized from the ground up during years of public appearances that included at least one visit to each and every municipio (county is as close as I can come to describing it) in the country. Morena is very strong in the state of Oaxaca.
AMLO got cheated out of the Presidency in the July 1st elections, which were rife with vote buying, ballot box stuffing, and other nefarious practices. More on that below. What struck us first was how short and brown and poor the participants looked; how quiet and well behaved they were; how serious; how determined.
Just after we got seated in the Primavera, there was a demo: a few hundred members of the #Yo Soy 132 student movement, pictured above, with placards, some in English, passed by our table, boisterous but peaceful, with no spray cans in sight. About ten minutes after they were gone, there was another parade, of richly clad Tejuanas celebrating a religious holiday, coming the other way.
So, in less than half an hour, we encountered a rally, a march demanding that the winner in the presidential election be disqualified by the election commission’s court, and a stately procession of women holding high their saint’s banner; the State band in concert on the north side of the Z; a planton (occupation) of folks demanding justice for those killed while interfering with a catastrophic mining project in San Jose Progresso, on the south side of the Z; and some good friends at our table.
**Mexico held elections on July 1, and the results were as predictable as they were disheartening. Chicago politics at its worst is practically good governance compared to Mexico on an average day. AMLO, a relatively honest politician (an oxymoron: one past president said that a poor ($) politician is a poor politician), is a dedicated reformer and a perceived threat to the power structure. Thus, the massive fraud designed to keep him out of the presidency. While we were sitting at the Primavera, a near-riot broke out. It seems the voting table in the Z never received any ballots. This was true of at least two others that I heard about, all three set up especially to accommodate folks who could not return to their home district to vote. Out of district voters tend to vote for the PRD. Shouts of “Fraude” were heard and at one point some folks were chasing some other folks, and the police came and calmed things down.
[Many of Oaxaca’s finest artisans are being showcased at the newly opened San Pablo complex. This Jaguar is part of the permanent collection of the Banamex Foundation Museum in the Federal District (DF).]
The fraud was neither original nor inventive. Rather, it was the scale and the blatancy that were so shocking. For instance, instead of paying off in bicycles or bags of cement, voters were given prepaid credit cards redeemable at Soriana big box stores. Long lines of paid-off voters were observed, waiting to get in. Hands with a black thumb (signifying that they had voted) held little pieces of plastic that testified to their perfidy. In some cases, card holders were heard to complain to clerks that the amount on the card was less than the PRI official promised them.
Thousands of pages of eye witness testimony as to the cheating, which also included substitution of pre-packed ballot boxes for the ones removed from the polling places, and dumping of boxes holding a majority of AMLO votes, have been handed over to the Elections Court. AMLO won Oaxaca handily, even though by some estimates the fraudulent and suppressed votes amounted to over 200,000 ballots.
AMLO has gathered evidence of literally millions of stolen votes throughout Mexico, more than enough to have handed him the victory over PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto. The elections court is scheduled to rule on whether to invalidate the election or not, but few people, born and raised in The System, hold out any hope for real justice…
[This classic example of the work of the ceramicist family Aguilar was also in the show. Every single part is fired clay.]
**The Guelaguetza season has come and gone. It was very much a winning time for the tourist industry, with more visitors over the ten day period than ever before. Hotels and restaurants were at high capacity, and tour operators’ vans scurried all around the area, taking visitors to the many ruins and craft villages in the valley and beyond. Absentee landlords and well-off local impresarios banked beaucoup bucks, and some of the money trickled down to the waiters and valets in the form of tips. Although some hotels raised their rates as much as 50%, wages for workers remained the same.
The state spares no expense on our annual dance extravaganza. The costuming and the dozens of free, small performances during the rest of the week (the two main performances are on subsequent Mondays) as well as the parades, were supplemented this year by the annual national Danzon competition, held in the Z. Danzon is a very stylized waltz, and is most popular in the southern states, most particularly Veracruz. Expensive fireworks displays are part of the entertainment, and this year they were truly spectacular. All this costs money, and the bureau that runs the Guelaguetza had to spend public funds to make up the deficit incurred after all the ticket sales were counted. [about a third of the seats in the amphitheater went for $35 dollars and up; the rest are free]. The event producers predicted that next year the Guelaguetza will be “self sustaining”. Vamos a ver.
Meanwhile, several communities held their own celebrations, as did the teacher’s union section XXII. All were well attended and free. The costumes were not as fancy, and the musicians may have been a little cruder than at the “main event”, but then authentic events in a place where there is much poverty tend to be that way…
**The lowest indigenous caste in Oaxaca is the Triqui. Clustered in the area of Tlaxiaco, west of Oaxaca city, in the Mixteca Alta mountains, an unforgiving landscape of erosion and rocky soil, their villages are poor, and to a large extent empty of working-age men, most of whom end up around Salinas and Los Angeles, or Baja California.
Known for their colorful and closely woven red huipiles (overgarments: blouses, dresses, etc.), they give a great visual boost to life on the street here at home. Mostly, they subsist by selling things, and when I first came here they were occupying the strip park just north of the IAGO (Instituto de Artes Graficas de Oaxaca: the graphic arts institute), which houses among many other things an extensive library of books on art, anthropology, and design. There they sat, at their back-strap looms, while their completed works were displayed on the wall of the school on the other side of the parklet. At one point, Francisco Toledo, our civic minded virtual cacique (boss) of the art scene in Oaxaca, decided that they were an eyesore, and got them evicted by tearing up the space for a “remodel”. When it was completed, they were not allowed to return.
Since then they have been “relocated” a few times. Their longest run was on the south side of Labastida park (above), a great location in the center of the tourist flow along the walking street, Macedonio Alcala. Labastida park itself had been home to various painters, sculptors, antique dealers and others – also evicted – and so the two acted as attractions for each other. There were problems. The place was very narrow, posing a threat of pickpocketing. It was difficult to keep clean, for the same reason: too many feet to sweep around.
The powers that be decided that the scene was unaesthetic and unhealthy, and closed it down, just before the Guelaguetza. For a few weeks, it was unclear what would happen to the vendors (by then, they were selling mostly imported or factory-made clothing and decorative items). We discovered their new location (for at least some of them) in a government-owned building on Morelos just west of Cinco de Mayo. It’s unknown how long they will be allowed to remain there.
The upper classes in Oaxaca do not, by and large, care to rub elbows with the indigenous, except perhaps as servants. They apparently believe that the tourists should not be exposed to them. The “white” people do not seem to get it that the tourists come here, among other reasons, because they find the Triqui – and other brown people -exotic and intriguing. The “gueros” (whites) would rather have a Benetton, and assume that the visitors would, too.
[This box intrigued us, but we can’t remember where it was. Still, it makes a pretty picture…]
Max Uhler, Presente!
My pal of 50 years has left us. He moved down here six years ago, against our advice. When I visited with him nearly a year before he made the move, he was being hospitalized frequently. He had a degenerative heart condition, and his circulation was at best inadequate. He was on Social Security Disability, or he could never have afforded the cocktail of drugs he was taking, or the fees for ambulances and emergency room admissions. I told him that he would have to pay for all that, here; that while medical treatments cost a fraction of what they do in the States, he wouldn’t be able to afford them.
[Max in his kitchen in Huayapan about two years ago.]
Max’s response was, “I’d rather die in Mexico than live in Minnesota”. And so he did.
Max loved Mexico, the way any anarchist-minded cantankerous person chafing under the over-regulated regime of laws in the US would. He loved the noise, the food, the outrageous combinations of colors on the buildings, the kindness of strangers, and most of all the cheap mezcál. Max was a lifelong alcoholic and smoked more than two packs of cigarettes a day.
When he came down, the doctors had given him at most three years to live. When he died, he had been here more than six years. He had abandoned most of his medications years ago. “Oaxaca”, he used to say, “ya gotta love it”; and many who came to know him loved him back. It’s not easy dealing with a dedicated drinker, and most of us backed off at one time or another, but not for lack of affection for this brilliant, gentle, generous man.
[Alcoholism is a huge problem among the expat community here, as it is in the local population. Nobody wants to talk about it much, but it has to be apparent to even a casual observer. I think about it often, but so far I am unable to get enough of a grasp on the situation to explain it. For example, what came first, the expatriation or the drinking habit? Weigh in. Tell us your “alcoholic me” or “alcoholic him/her” story. Do you find the problem any more advanced in Oaxaca (or wherever you are expatriated) than where you came from?]
I’m back, once again – only this time I never left:
As many of you know, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer about three years ago. Weeks of external beam radiation and a radioactive seed implant have apparently banished the cancer, but caused other problems in the meanwhile. Without going into too many of the gory details, let’s just say that there has been occasional blockage of the urethra due to the aftereffects of the treatments and that after a couple of months of pretty painful urination and inability to sit at the computer for more than a few minutes at a time, I underwent corrective surgery recently. The surgery appears to have worked. Hence, this Newsletter.
Next issue, I intend to talk some about the medical system here, the cost and accessibility of treatment, etc. This issue is long enough for now.
Thanks to all of you for your patience, and for your well wishes.