When 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College vanished in Iguala in the state of Guerrero on September 27, 2014 the cry went up: IT WAS THE STATE. The federal government, under the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional created and defended a fake narrative. Parents of the 43 refused to accept the lies. Journalists risked—and lost—their lives. Against the backdrop of government corruption and narco-collusion, the narrator, an elderly American expat living in Oaxaca, recounts her prior life, the ghosts of the missing, and the bitter facts of the deaths and disappearances that pervade the Mexican landscape.
Tourists to the Rebellion
In the summer of 1996, two and a half years after the Zapatista armed uprising, Subcomandante Marcos, on behalf of the EZLN welcomed to the Lacandon selva four thousand non-Mexicans, from forty-two different countries, clad not in ski masks but perhaps in the hippie clothing of their parents, retrieved from a quarter century's storage in attic trunks. Along with them came the widow of French President Mitterand, half a dozen world-class writers and intellectuals, and caravans from Pastors For Peace. Invitations were out to Garcia Marquez and Oliver Stone, to attend an upcoming discussion grandly called Encuentro Inter-Continental por la Humanidad y Contra el Neoliberalismo: an intercontinental meeting on behalf of humanity and against the policies of neoliberalism.
Marcos knew from the beginning. He waged the first internet war, summoning protection by foreigners, who must not witness government massacres and brutality. Mexico consists of thirty-one states, plus Mexico City. Most Americans scarcely know what occurs south of our border. Some like my friend Frank came upon the scene in Chiapas, Mexico by accident. Those who responded to invitations to assist the Zapatistas in their first years of struggle perhaps knew more, many did not. Some like Emily went for personal escape from impoverished lives. Some of us like Billy went for reasons which in antique times might have been called “a quest”. Some like Martin undertook an exalted version of quest. Like Martin, few of us knew what we sought, nor where it might be found. We knew anger, on behalf of those whose lives bordered starvation and extinction; rebellion provided them the only answer.
This narrative investigates personal discoveries of Americans who were not repressed, assassinated, imprisoned, penniless, or starving. They were ordinary middle-class people, like you, like me, who went to learn what compels us to attack our governments, compels us to shout Ya Basta, compels us to seek that which we have yet to name. Since 1994 the Zapatistas established their own local good government, their own food supplies, their own education. They survive as an alternative, another way to live and govern. As neoliberalism crumbles around us, the Zapatistas grow stronger. Those of us who witnessed their initial years of struggle were privileged indeed.
Messages in a Small Town
In this collection of short stories and essays, Nancy Davies, the author of political commentary collected in The People Decide, steps away from the turmoil of the Oaxaca uprising of 2006 to meticulously evoke intimate aspects of life in Mexico.
As both journalist and poet, she describes the lives of Mexicans riding the stream of cultural change since the year 2,000. Some stories, like Messages in A Small Town, deal with universals: the unchanging aspects of love, marriage and betrayal, presented by Davies with the soft humor of lovers using the technology of cell phones to surreptitiously communicate.
In the story The Dogs Were Barking, she explores the sadness and resentment of those left behind, in this case a solitary elderly widow, whose sons migrated toward the United States and never were heard from again. Finally she finds solace with the help of a mysterious boy who appears from the nearby hills and helps the old woman reconnect to her missing children as she sits in her beloved garden.
In The High Wall and The Woman Next Door, Davies approaches the difficulties of immigration from the point of view of an emigrant. A writer comes to Oaxaca to compose her first novel. But a feral cat routinely pees in her garden. The neighbors advise her to poison the cat, but this method is culturally unacceptable to the writer. She searches for other solutions. In The Woman Next Door, a middle-aged woman whose elderly husband does not try to integrate or acclimate to their new life, tries to connect with their enigmatic neighbor who is cordial at first, but later appears to be toying with her, an alien in an alien culture she can’t quite decipher.
Both stories offer intimate explorations of the outsider struggling to assimilate.
The Story Sleeping Beauty, on the other hand, explores cultural changes all Mexicans (and indeed people in other nations undergoing rapid change) confront. In a sweet sequence of events the story introduces us to the sleeping virgin in a coma, the man who travels to his father’s home village and while there builds a dream bier for the virgin, and to the university graduate who becomes his fiancée. In a masterful narrative Davies leads us, like her characters, from one scene to another until we arrive at a new world-view through accepting the old.
These stories and vignettes employ intimate events and intimate glimpses into the lives of others. They portray mundane aspects of life in ways we recognize as part of the human experience.
"The universal manifesting in the personal is Davies’ forte.” —The Oaxaca Reader
The People Decide
For five months of 2006, from June 14 to November 25, Oaxaca City (and much of the southern Mexican state that bears the same name as its capital) was a “government-free zone.” This cultural and geographic pearl, cradle of the Zapotec and other ancient civilizations, was not governed from above, but rather self-governed by a popular assembly. In other words, the people managed their affairs without a bureaucracy or a state…
The rebels didn’t merely explode in spontaneous “days of rage” against tyranny. They carefully championed an alternative: self-organization. And this is the story that Nancy Davies—a resident of Oaxaca for the past eight years—tracked discreetly while hordes of reporters swarmed into the war zone chasing the wafting aroma of teargas to the next street skirmish. Instead of rushing off to the barricades (although her reporting also contains her eyewitness testimonies to what she saw, heard, smelled, and felt at those occupied intersections), she headed more frequently to and from the assembly hall. There, she chronicled the birth of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO, in its Spanish initials), and how it engaged in self-government, supplanting the state for all those months…
By looking below, and carefully listening to what the participants in this history were saying, Nancy Davies got the big story that the pack-journalists missed, and made a lasting impact that will help the Oaxaca revolt of 2006 be better understood, replicated and improved upon for years to come.