Editor’s Note: This blog is the seventh part of a series, “Migration, Trade and Brutality: A Journey through Mexico and Central America”, written by David Schmidt regarding his travels in the summer of 2012. The goal of this series is to educate and inform readers about the reasons why immigrants come to our country so that we can better understand and relate to them. Read his previous entries here.
“Todos los hombres nacimos desheredados y nuestra condición verdadera es la orfandad, pero esto es particularmente cierto para los indios y los pobres de México. El culto a la Virgen no sólo refleja la condición general de los hombres sino una situación histórica concreta, tanto en lo espiritual como en lo material.” -Octavio Paz, El Laberinto de la Soledad [“The Labyrinth of Solitude”]
Dark summer rainclouds are gathering over the Zócalo, the central plaza in the middle of downtown Oaxaca City.
As I write in my journal, a boy no older than seven walks up to me with a cardboard box of Chiclets. I politely decline to buy any from him. In the restaurants around me, tourists are being served cocktails, steak dinners, lattés and sweet breads. A nearby band continues to play the folksong “La Llorona” on the marimba, singing of the famous ghost who wanders across Mexico, crying for her lost children.
“No sé qué tienen las flores, Llorona, las flores del Campo Santo,” the musicians sing in a minor key. The song describes the mystery of the flowers that grow in the graveyard—when they are swayed by the wind, they seem to cry with sorrow. Some scholars have suggested that La Llorona, the spectral Crying Woman who appears in ghost lore across Mexico, is the mother of the Mexican nation. That, as she cries “Ay, mis hijos…” she is crying for all the abuses and injustices that her children have suffered.
As I sit on the wrought iron bench in the gazebo here in Oaxaca City, listening to the haunting music behind me, watching local children selling trinkets to the visiting tourists, I think of La Llorona—the crying mother of a nation. I think of other ghosts—the ghosts that haunt this Zócalo. I think back to when I was here in Oaxaca City in 2006, back when the entire city was in the midst of a transformation.
It was a very different time.
* * * *
2006 was the year of the movement known as the “APPO”. What began as a protest of schoolteachers for better educational resources turned into near-revolution.
It all started that spring, when the governor of the State of Oaxaca refused to hear out the demands of the teachers’ union. The teachers—calling for more resources, better pay, more educational materials for the thousands of rural, indigenous communities in Oaxaca—eventually set up a protesters’ camp in the capital city. The governor brought in helicopters and riot police, and drove them out. Then the striking teachers came back to Oaxaca City. They were joined by others. Many others.
By the time I visited Oaxaca City for the first time, in late summer 2006, the protest had snowballed into a statewide movement. Thousands of people from labor unions, peasant farmers’ organizations, religious groups of various denominations, and indigenous rights associations had joined the teachers in protesting against the state government. What began as a simple protest for better educational resources had turned into a movement calling for an entirely different sort of state government—one that would actively include the indigenous communities that are the backbone of Oaxaca. The movement adopted the name “APPO”, a Spanish acronym meaning “The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca”.
I came to Oaxaca City in 2006 to interview the protesters. The entire city was under siege—the protesters had taken over local radio and TV outlets, and had occupied most of the capital city with vast encampments. The members of the APPO who were camped out in the Zócalo, right around the central gazebo, invited me to stay with them. They lent me some pieces of cardboard to sleep on, and made a space for me underneath the tarps that kept out the rain.
It was an exciting time to be here in Oaxaca, an exciting time to be alive. People everywhere had hope that things could finally change. A sense of euphoria had blanketed the capital city, brought on by the dream of a very different kind of Oaxaca—one where everyone had a voice, where farmers got a fair deal for their work, where there was room enough for everyone.
Every night, I would go to sleep in the protesters’ camp here in the Zócalo, to the sounds of the loudspeakers set up all around the gazebo—a pirate radio station had been set up to broadcast news of the movement. All night long, my ears would fill with protest music, political speeches about the rights of the poor, the disenfranchised, the indigenous people, women, and the disabled.
Off in the distance, however, beyond the reach of the radio station’s speakers, I would hear more ominous sounds. Gunshots, screams, breaking glass. Every night, the protesters were attacked by paramilitary thugs hired by the government. Plainclothes policemen and former criminals were set loose to roam the streets, trying to demoralize the APPO members with violence.
But the APPO held their ground. The camps remained.
* * * *
When we talk about the APPO, we are talking about the kind of people who often migrate to the United States. These are the sorts of people who protested in Oaxaca in 2006. Poor, disenfranchised farmers. Rural peasants. Indigenous people who aren’t able to study in their own language. Farmers who can’t get a fair price for their products.
These are the people who feed us with the products they grow in Oaxaca. When they can’t support their family with their own crops, they migrate north and work in someone else’s fields. They feed us from both sides of the border.
When you hear people say, “Why do they have to come here? Why couldn’t they just stay at home and try to fix their own country?” When you hear that question—“Why don’t they fix their own country?”—that’s exactly what the APPO was trying to do. The protesters in 2006 were trying to change things at home, in Oaxaca—trying to make a more democratic, inclusive government; trying to get farmers a fair price for their labor; trying to expand the rights of indigenous cultures—so that nobody would be forced to risk their life migrating to a foreign country in search of work.
When I stayed with the protesters in their encampment in the Zócalo, I spoke at length with one of the APPO members. He was a Zapotec indigenous man from a small village. I asked him why he was there.
“All I want is for us to have a state government that includes people like us,” he said. “I want to be able to farm my crops and feed my family. Is that too much to ask for?”
* * * *
Nearly two months after I interviewed the protesters in Oaxaca City, everything came to a head.
The entering president, Felipe Calderon, sent in the Federal Police with military-grade equipment and riot gear to dislodge the protesters. Street by street, city block by city block, the police ran the protesters out of Oaxaca City with tear gas, rubber bullets, and toxic chemicals sprayed from tanks. Street by street, they reclaimed the city for those who had always been in power. Mammon and Caesar, once again, were declared the rulers of the land.
The APPO had been crushed.
The protesters who had been trying to “fix their own country”, who had tried to change the way politics and economics are done in their homeland, were met with boots on the ground. Clubs, tear gas, fists, shots.
Prophetically, much of the riot control gear that the Federal Police used against the APPO in 2006 was originally bought from the United States. Back in 1994, Mexican President Carlos Salinas bought the hardware from U.S. President Bill Clinton. This included tanks that were designed to break up protests by spraying chemicals on the crowds.
Keep in mind, this was the same year that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed. 1994. And by 2006, twelve years after the military-grade equipment was bought, when the children of NAFTA were protesting for getting a bum deal, the same equipment was used to drive them out.
It all comes full circle.
* * * *
A light rain has begun to fall as I sit here in the gazebo of Oaxaca City, remembering the ghosts of 2006. I look around: the protest signs have been taken down. All the protesters’ tents were long ago dismantled. Most of the revolutionary graffiti has been painted over. Once again, all the storefronts are filled with foreign tourists drinking lattés and Coronas.
The musicians have stopped playing “La Llorona” and are storing their instruments in large plastic bags to protect them from the rain. All I can hear is the soft patter of water from the sky, the distant clink of silverware, the soft laughter of Germans, Brits, and French couples enjoying their vacation.
A young boy walks up to me in the gazebo and offers to shine my shoes. His hair is soaked and clings tightly to his scalp. He can’t be more than eight.
“Ahorita no, gracias,” I tell the boy. I stand up from the bench and walk off towards my hostel, into the pouring rain.
This article is part of a series, “Migration, Trade and Brutality: A Journey through Mexico and Central America”, written by David Schmidt regarding his travels in Summer 2012.
David Schmidt is a freelance writer and multi-lingual translator in San Diego, CA. He is a proponent of immigrants’ rights and fair trade, and works with worker-owned coops in Mexico to help them develop alternative, fair sources of income. He can be contacted at [email protected]
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