Revolution #79, February 25, 2007
Report from Oaxaca
Part 3—From the City to the Mixteca Mountains
At the end of last year, we went on an investigative reporting trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. We were part of a human rights delegation investigating and documenting the repression in this southern Mexican state, and had the opportunity to meet and talk with many different kinds of people. The first two parts of our report were written while we were in Oaxaca. (“Part 1—The Prisoners of Tepic” in issue #75, and “Part 2—Days of Fear, Joy, and Determination” in issue #76, online at revcom.us.) Part 3 is about our encounters with one of the striking teachers and with indigenous campesinos who joined the struggle against the government.
A tin jar rattles on the stove. You can hear the sound of the rapid boil, as bubbles race to the surface. Jorge’s mother, Maricela, wears a long black braid with silver strands. Her traditional Oaxacan ruby and pearl earrings swing from side to side as she cuts a slice of chocolate from a large homemade bar. She drops the chocolate in the hot water and makes a thin layer of foam with her wood molinillo.
Jorge had invited us to his house for breakfast. He is a teacher who participated in the encampment at the zocalo, the town square, in Oaxaca City when the teachers went on strike in May of last year—as they do every year to demand improvements in the education system, school supplies and meal programs for the kids, and a pay increase. But this time the teachers’ strike was met with unprecedented repression. In the pre-dawn hours of June 14, over 2,000 police brutally attacked the encampment while most of the teachers, their families, and supporters were sleeping.
Many--including elderly people, pregnant women, and children--were injured as police dropped teargas from helicopters and charged with their batons. The teachers were dispersed from the zocalo. But they quickly regrouped and, joined by university students and local residents, they successfully fought their way back into the zocalo.
This sparked a wider struggle that has impacted Oaxacan society as a whole. For over 7 months, people from throughout Oaxaca have rallied around the call to drive out the governor of Oaxaca, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO). URO is widely hated because of his violent repression against the struggles of the indigenous people and because he represents the continued domination in Oaxaca of the PRI, which had been the institutionalized ruling party in Mexico for over 70 years until 2000.
The sun fills the patio outside Jorge's house—the air is crisp and cool. It’s winter break and some of his relatives stop by to visit. They pull up chairs to talk once they find out that we’re there to learn more about the struggle of the people.
Jorge tells us that when he first started teaching he had to travel by foot for hours to reach the small village where he was assigned to teach. Most new teachers are sent to remote and rural areas deep in the countryside for their first assignments. The journey is hard and dangerous--some teachers have been mauled and killed by wild animals and others have simply disappeared, their bodies later found along the river.
Once in the villages, the teachers become first-hand witnesses to the destitute conditions people face in the countryside. Many of Jorge's students had to walk for up to 3 hours to attend school. Many didn't have as much as a notebook. After school, they have to help their parents or look after their siblings—there’s little time for play and even less time for homework. Seeing these conditions on a daily basis has had a profound impact on Jorge and many of the teachers we spoke to—in many ways this is what has continued to fuel their desire for change.
“The government doesn’t give anything on its own, even though that’s what they’re supposed to do,” Jorge says. “It’s not until we strike, it’s not until then that they authorize some breakfast programs for those places that are really marginalized. These are places where it’s like they don’t even exist, and in fact people don’t even have food to eat. We demand breakfasts, uniforms, school supplies, and shoes because there are little children who have to walk barefoot in the hills.”
Throughout the morning Jorge, his wife, his brothers and sisters angrily expose the brutality of the government, particularly the massive sweeps the Federal Preventative Police (PFP) conducted on November 25 at the zocalo. They also proudly recount stories of the struggle and the camaraderie of building and defending barricades that kept the police and government agents out of the neighborhoods. The conversation keeps on one track for a while, then breaks off into different streams of thoughts and ideas over a range of topics. The kitchen counter is small, but surrounding it are big discussions over where the struggle might be headed, what the installation of the new president Felipe Calderon will mean for Mexico, and the need for more fundamental change in society and the world.
During our trip we had a chance to go to the Mixteca region. The indigenous Mixtecan people—sometimes called the “cloud people” because many live high in the mountains—speak various languages and have distinct cultural traditions. The Mixteca is a large area in the western part of Oaxaca, with communities that extend to the states of Puebla and Guerrero.
Purple flowers grew wild along the winding black asphalt highway to the Mixteca. An old man herded sheep in the distance, and sandy-brown valleys and rocky red hills covered the landscape. It's not an easy journey to come down from the mountains, but hundreds of campesinos did to join the struggle in Oaxaca City last year. As we made our way deeper into the countryside, the spray-painted messages on ancient rocks added new dimensions to the story of the struggle of the people in Oaxaca: “¡Fuera URO por asesino y represor!” “¡Que viva la lucha de los pueblos de Oaxaca!” (“Drive Out URO, Assassin and Repressor!” “Long Live the Struggle of the People of Oaxaca!”)
At first some of the people we talked to in the Mixteca were a little quiet, unsure if they could trust us. There was little eye contact, but a lot of curiosity about us.
When we asked Manuel, 60 years old, where he is from, he pointed to the top of one of the mountains in the distance. He said that it’s not easy to make it down from the mountains, and it takes days for news to reach the people in the remote villages in the forests.
“I didn’t support the teachers at first. I asked ‘why,’ since they only want more money,” said Manuel. “When they first come to the pueblo, they sometimes treat us poorly—like we’re ignorant.”
Manuel told us that some of the teachers who come from the city look down on the campesino—and often resent having to work in such extremely impoverished conditions. At the same time, Manuel said that sometimes the teachers are given disproportionate influence in local affairs and land disputes, because they are literate and educated.
However, these social contradictions among these different strata of the people did not prevent the campesinos--who have first-hand experience of URO's repressive measures--from seeing the injustice committed against the teachers and uniting with the demand that URO be driven from office.
Manuel was outraged when he heard about the vicious repression against the teachers on June 14. He joined other campesinos in strategizing about supporting the teachers and others in Oaxaca City and connecting their own struggles with the larger movement “against the repression and for something more just.”
Manuel’s friend Sebastian said, “When the PFP came in is when we decided to go to Oaxaca. There were some teachers that had started to give in. We decided that we had to be there because we’re campesinos—because we live in the conditions we do and because of how we’ve been treated all our lives…us and our grandparents.”
Floricela, a young woman who lives in a small community in the heart of the Mixteca, talked about what she and others did after the June 14 police attack on the teachers: “We participated in blocking roads. We went into the communities to denounce the repression. There came a time when 16 [peasants] were arrested in a community and we were shot at, so we took over the government offices.”
This marked a turning point in the struggle as a whole. It was no longer a struggle of just the teachers and their supporters in the city. The campesinos from the countryside came down from the mountains—from the Mixteca and from all over Oaxaca.
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