Mexico Tìpico

Posted on April 18, 2014


Children zigzag through the crowd hurling sausage-shaped balloons over the heads of teenagers snuggling on the low wall surrounding the city of Oaxaca, Mexico’s cathedral. Vendors in indigena dress meander among blonde tourists, the majority of them focusing digital cameras on church spires and colonial balconies. A little orchestra pumps out sentimental classics as militarily attired police—restless, uncomfortable, most of them barely out of their teens—smoke cigarettes or suck lollipops and comment on the tacos de ojo (sexy young women) examining trinkets and blouses spread on blankets along the walkways.

Festive one wants to say. Mexico típico. But if one looks closely one perceives that many of those sitting at the sidewalk tables that border the Zócalo have nearly empty cups and glasses in front of them. Waiters lean against the pillars watching, waiting, as painted clowns with false noses and oversized shoes burlesque for a circle of spectators. Around the central kiosk stoop-shouldered men sit slightly apart reading the evening paper’s Nota Roja.

“We come here because it’s so dismal at home,” a short, stocky Oaxacan grimaces as I sit down near him. From his backpack he pulls plastic bottles of fruit-flavored drink and tortas his wife made. She is thin, with worry lines around her eyes and mouth; her smile seems pained as she explains that she works in a boutique nearby and that he works most nights as a private security guard after finishing ten-hour shifts in a vidrería. Here in the Zócalo one can forget—at least temporarily—that she or he has little money to spend, sleeps three or four to a room, accrues 25 percent monthly interest on about-to-expire credit cards.

“Welcome to Rome in the time of the Caesars,” a thin, wiry university graduate grunts mockingly. He introduces himself as “José Octavio” and says he has been working as a landscaper while studying to pass his law exams. “We live under a state of siege,” he insists, lifting his hand to enumerate examples on thin, almost child-like fingers.

Armed paramilitaries…arbitrary arrests…disappearances…bullet-riddled community radio transmitters…       My thoughts drift back to interviews I conducted in Central America twenty years before. Shopkeepers, taxi drivers, schoolteachers, farm workers described the dictatorships with frowns, shrugs: “We avoid them [the militarized police] as best we can…” “All the young men are gone, there are shortages of everything, but we work, go to the market, go to mass…” “If we protest we are arrested or killed so we don’t protest, we endure, we hope things will change…”

Over two-thirds of the state’s population earns too little to provide basic necessities for their families. Oaxaca spends millions of dollars to promote tourism but violence throughout Mexico has greatly diminished its popularity as a place to visit. Like Americans and Europeans, middleclass Mexicans throughout the country have curtailed expenses: Travel and tourism has become a luxury, not a recreation.

There have been—and there continue to be—protests in Oaxaca but engraved in the city’s collective memory are brutal repressions directed against the civilian population. Throughout November, 2006 teargas filled the streets, police, armed soldiers and paramilitary sicarios arrested, assaulted, and kidnapped over 600 citizens, many of them members of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca. Hundreds more fled into exile and thousands who lost their incomes migrated to the United States.

For nearly six months, from May 2006 until November of that same year, the Popular Assembly (APPO for its initials in Spanish) had taken over what government existed in the city of Oaxaca.

“The citizenry was behind them,” a professor from the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, the state university, remembers, “but unfortunately their timing was bad.” Bad because Mexico’s newly elected president Felipe Calderón needed the support of state governors to resist challenges to his election by opposition candidate Andrés Manual López Obrador, who had accused Calderón and the Bush administration-backed rightwing Partido Acción (PAN) of electoral fraud. Ruiz supported Calderón and the federal government sent over 4,000 heavily armed federal troops to Oaxaca.

“Brute force won out over pacific resistance,” Oaxaca newspaper columnist Ernesto Reyes wrote. The Popular Assembly fell apart because the backbone of its membership, the Oaxaca section of the national Education Workers Union, pulled back after the state agreed to reclassify the salary base of its 70,000 teachers. The more radical elements of the Popular Assembly broke away amid denouncements of treason and selling out. What was left of the splintered movement boycotted the 2007 state legislature elections and Governor Ulisès Ruiz’s candidates scored a unanimous coupe, winning every district.

“Criminal law is a prostitute who only accommodates those who are able to pay,” Abraham Cruz, another aspiring attorney, quoted Plato in describing Oaxaca’s legal system. Despite the election of an opposition coalition governor IN 2010 the assassinations of twenty-six Popular Assembly members remain unsolved. Former governor’s Ruiz’s political party, the Partido Revolucionario Instituciónal PRI) still wields a powerful influence and controls many city and municipal alcaldes and presidents.

“Oaxaca exists in a larva stage,” Cruz insists. The worms are eating everything. In the Zócalo, in the suburbs, in rural communities succumbing to alcoholism, beggary and premature death, one feels the infrastructure being gnawed away. In Huajuapan, in the Sierras between the city of Oaxaca and Mexico City, a desolate mother crouches on church steps twisting a torn shawl into tiny knots. She started to go inside to pray but, she tells me, she changed her mind because God, the saints, even the Virgin of Guadalupe, mock her loss of her children, her newest grandchild dead because her daughter’s car broke down and she couldn’t get to the hospital in time.

An installer for the Federal Electricity Commission in the same city sold his car and most of his furniture to pay ransom for one of his children. He did not go through the police because the kidnappers, he says, were police. “Oaxacan justice!” he snorts, turning his head to spit a bitter taste out of his mouth.

Yet in Huajuapan, as in other cities throughout the state, one hears music, laughter, church bells ringing. Thin children with bulging eyes sit amid broken curbing and parked motor scooters playing accordions and singing in loud, scratchy voices, plastic donation cups on the sidewalk in front of them. Teenagers race past armed policemen walking two abreast under the streetlights. The restaurants are empty, only the cantinas that sell beer cheaply have customers. Pedestrians pause in front of store windows, cups of steamed corn or paper plates of tiny tostadas or napkin-wrapped hotdogs in their hands. Many who hold regular jobs moonlight as ambulantes—street merchants—selling trinkets, food, t-shirts or sunglasses to supplement their incomes.

Life in Oaxaca, the correspondent for a rural newspaper tells me, is sordid, the music, the laughter, is forced, a dancing on the coffin of the dead. The Archbishop of Oaxaca reiterates in weekly homilies that the deterioration is the result of the breakup of families and family values but Ugo Codevilla, author of 2006-2009 The Adverse Juncture, insists that citizens who perceive that their leaders are corrupt and are lying to them cease to believe in the system and begin to feel that the only way to obtain what they want is to become as corrupt, as dishonest, as lacking in morality, as those leaders.

“Whether it’s day or night, or whether police are present, doesn’t matter to the mafiosos who rob and kidnap,” Cruz laments. “Meanwhile drugs gnaw the intestines of those most valuable to society: the youth.”

Despite increasing drug use among teenagers, despite the police state,   thousands of closed businesses, mass migration and numbing inflation, daily life in Oaxaca superficially resembles daily life in most other cities in the world. Lines forty and fifty people long form in front of the ATMs on paydays and in front of the shopping mall cinemas on Wednesday “half price” nights. Store owners moonlight as taxi drivers and taxi drivers complain that the citizenry “is too cheap” to hire taxis.

The abastos—centralized marketplaces filled with stalls selling vegetables, flowers, cheeses, clothes, pottery and mescal—are so crowded shoppers barely can squeeze through the aisles but “nobody buys anything expensive,” the pudgy owner of a chocolate and spice stall told me, “or they just come here to see each other, to chat, to ask about prices, shrug and move on.”

For years Mexico’s federal government and the Catholic Church have focused the little attention they give the indigena population on “Mexicanizing” them. (Over 40 percent of the state’s population is of indigena descent and nearly one-fourth speak one of Oaxaca’s sixteen indigenous languages.) The nation’s federalized school system does not recognize or teach any of theselanguages and only a few rural Catholic churches offer mass, confession or instruction in any language other than Spanish. Bitter land disputes between neighboring indigena communities have killed thousands over the past century; state and federal reaction has been to shrug and “they’re only indios, let them murder each other.”

When the Popular Assembly formed after Ruiz’s municipal and state police attempted to crush a city of Oaxaca sit-in it endorsed the indigena communal “usos y costumbres” (“uses and customs”) way of government. Many indigena groups joined or supported the Assembly. These groups remained intact after the militarized federal purge but continued to struggle against military forays, Ruiz-controlled state police and indigena caciques supported by the state and federal governments.

Dissident radical groups also continued to function. According to a former state official who declined permission to publish his name, Ruiz encouraged the internecine attacks these groups were making on each other and on members and policies of the teachers union. State-paid agents infiltrated them and “Ruiz’s smile grew wider every time they publicly denounced each other,” the ex-official remembers.

In 2008 Mexico’s president Felipe Calderón, faced with soaring inflation, drug cartel takeovers of major cities, a rising unemployment rate and pressure from foreign governments to open Mexico’s oil and electricity industries needed the backing of the country’s governors to amend Mexico’s constitution and allow foreign investment. Government Secretary the late Juan Camilo Mouriño told Ruiz in no uncertain terms that Calderón couldn’t afford another “desmadre” like the teacher’s strike to affect these negotiations. (“Desmadre” is a Mexican term for a catastrophe or other destabilizing event.)

Police and paramilitary raids diminished and an apparent calm spread through the state but the once-thriving tourism industry—“factories without chimneys”—never recuperated its pre-repression popularity. Businesses continued to close, Oaxacans to migrate to other cities or the United States, robbery, prostitution and drug sales to increase. The teachers union turned its attention towards national politics as Calderón’s government attempted to federalize union activities, including the union’s right to assign teachers to schools. When militarized police violently crushed a teacher-led takeover of highways and other public functions in the state of Morelos, the leader of that movement accused them of “Oaxacanizing” their protest, the word “Oaxacanize” meaning to exert undue and brutal force against a civilian population.

Despite their negative analyses, lawyers-to-be Abraham Cruz and José Octavio flash moments of optimism. The law is a prostitute that’s sold itself to authoritarian tyrants but it didn’t crush everybody, it didn’t crush the thousands of students who participated in the protests, it didn’t erase from the memories of the innocent victims of the purges what the authoritarian government had done to them.

“It’s true,” Cruz asserts, “that we live under a terrible deterioration of values and principles that should sustain society and its institutions. But it’s also true that a generation of Oaxacans that organized to put an end to this absolutist and totalitarian police state that tries to crush social protest are vitally alive and are working to create change.”

Festive Oaxaca. Festering Oaxaca. As I turn to watch the waitress who’s brought me a beer in a noisy bar-eatery a few blocks from the Zócalo sashay towards other customers a round-faced little boy, perhaps five or six years old, appears beside me, a tiny straw basket filled with penny chewing gum in his hand. “Please sir,” he pleads, “buy a Chiclets. I haven’t sold a single one all day.”

He is lying, of course. And of course I buy and because I don’t like Chiclets I give them back to him and watch him work the same cute scam at another table.

Oaxaca. The way things are and the things we do to survive.

First published in Ontologia, 2013

Posted in: Life in Mexico