All roads in Oaxaca state lead to the south side of the Zócalo, facing the state Government Palace. On most days, there is a march and demonstration there by one disaffected group or other. This banner, erected there by a teachers' union, says "We struggle for justice, democracy and liberty. Death to Neoliberalism (a political philosophy which calls for less social infrastructure and more privatization of heretofore public state industries)." [Photo by Diana Ricci]
As a foreigner living in Mexico (as opposed to a tourist), I am required to verify my address, marital status, working status (not) and financial resources once a year. Dealing with the Migración (the department of immigration) is always interesting, if sometimes frustrating, but this year, thanks to thorough preparation and an early filing, I received my renewal ahead of schedule. Humming a happy tune, I boarded a bus on the corner near the Migración office and headed for the Zócalo to reward myself with an ice cold dark beer. I should have walked.
Oaxaca city, being the capital of Oaxaca state, is host to a great many demonstrations. Virtually all either demand some sort of relief from the authorities, or demand that the same authorities go away. It is not at all unusual to see more than one march in one day, of more than a thousand persons. Virtually all marches are well organized, orderly, and while often noisy, they are rarely violent. In four years here, I have seen hundreds of marches, and while I have noted an increase in the number of state police guarding the entrance to the government palace, I cannot recall more than 10 for which the riot police were present, and only one in which they were called into action. Until now, the demos at the Zocalo were something I had observed from the tranquil sidelines, lounging at a table in one of the nearby sidewalk cafes.
The bus was quite crowded, as it had come from the main University campus, bound for the center of the city. I was standing at the back, enjoying the music of an itinerant guitarist busking for pesos. The day was one of those perfect blue-sky / yellow sunshine Oaxaca spring gifts, and everyone was in a good mood as we rocked along the uneven pavement.
While waiting at a red light, marchers appeared. A huge red banner was carried at the front. "Antorcha Campesina" (That which lights the way for the peasant, according to my dictionary), a national association of self help groups connected with the ruling PRI party, had sent in a delegation from the southern mountains of the state. There were a few thousand of them, and I was reaching for the bell to get out and walk as the front of the line rounded the corner and marchers filled the street in front of us.
Suddenly, the bus began to move forward, toward the marchers. People on the bus began shouting at the driver to stop. By the time he finally did stop, he had blocked over half the intersection, choking down the line from eight abreast to 3. The campesinos, more bewildered than angered by this behavior, began to bang on the side of the bus with their placards. The passengers, alternately demanding that the back door be opened and that the driver back the bus up to get it out of the way, were vocally evaluating his performance as a driver and as a human being to be very low indeed.
After a couple of minutes, the bus began to rock on its springs. I began to eye the very small windows (metal frames screwed into the sheet metal of the body: no emergency exit there) and estimating my chances to get to the ground in one piece. The passengers began to address the demonstrators as "amigo" and point out to them that innocent people could get hurt if things got worse. Tempers appeared to cool, but the slapping of placards continued.
The bus driver, meanwhile, stood his ground. "I have work to do", he shouted at the demonstrators (as if they did not). "Get out of my way". "Support your brothers", the passengers shouted, "Respect the rights of others".
Finally, a man in a white shirt boarded the bus. He was obviously a city guy, probably an organizer of the march. Big, muscular, very calm but determined. "Back it up", he told the driver. The driver refused. He told white shirt to get off his bus. White shirt refused. The driver got up and pushed white shirt. White shirt grabbed him and threw him out the door. He ended up flat on his back on the street, surrounded by silent, expressionless campesinos. He had stopped shouting at them. His expression reminded me of Bob Hoskins in "The Long Good Friday", when he realizes that this is his last ride: a combination of incredulity, resignation, fright, and defiance.
For whatever reason, the demonstrators by the front door of the bus would not allow the passengers to depart. I thought I detected a mood change among my fellow riders: apprehension. Time to take extreme measures. I pulled against the folding rear doors but couldn't move them enough to get out. Seeing me struggling, one of my fellow passengers leaned over me to help, and between the two of us we folded them back far enough for me to get my leg in the gap. With both of us pulling and pushing, we managed to force the door back against the piston that held it closed, and once fully opened, the door stayed that way. Thus we disembarked.
When I left, the bus was still blocking part of the intersection, the driver was still on the pavement, and there were still a thousand campesinos approaching the corner. Later, at the Zócalo, the marchers, banners high, entered, gathered in front of the government palace, and began a rally. I saw it from one of the tables in a sidewalk café. When the fund-raisers came by with their "official" cans, I made a contribution. It was a beautiful Oaxaca afternoon.
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