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The Porto-Potty Election Rally

Oaxaca Vignette 2; February 11, 2000


Along the north side of La Catedrál stood shoulder to shoulder a dozen porto-potties, an astonishing amenity in this city. Labastida left nothing to chance. He must have been told that the most recent three-day sit-in, on the sidewalks of a main street where Llano Park faces the modern Chamber of Deputies building, brought busloads of campesinos down from the hills, and they pissed all over everything. The Llano Park Hotel was furious, and in fact although they washed down the walls and pavement, the odor lingered for days.

      Or maybe he knew of the permanent sidewalk camp of women and children in front of the Municipal Palace in the zocalo. They live there. They wash their yowling kids in pails of cold water and hang their laundry on the bushes. But although nobody suggests that their men be released from prison where they’re being held for some non-crime, most of the newspapers and local PANistas complain about the use of the zocalo park for a toilet during the past two years.

      So it’s come to porto-potties, the industrial solution to crowd control and political crimes, past, present, and future too, judging by Labastida’s firm grip on the re-election as the PRI candidate.

      Friday noon the area in front of La Catedrál was filled with people wearing Labastida plastic sun-visors and Labastida T-shirts, and holding Labastida pennants. Some women sat on the benches or curbs nursing their babies, some sat just to be sitting, out of the mid-day sun, their legs stretched. The Oaxaca women were identifiable by the cotton aprons they wear to cover their dresses, like ads for soap fifty years ago. The campesino women stuck close to their townsfolk, protecting their heads from the sun with their folded shawls. The campesino men wore stiff hats, felt or straw; they occupied the street corners and the areas around the buses.

      As the moment for the grand entrance neared, the Labastida advance men on the grandstand drove their voices to laryngitis calling for enthusiasm: VIVA LABASTIDA! Dead silence. VIVA LABASTIDA! More silence. VIVA OAXACA! Still silence. As we watched, the various group bosses told their flocks to stand at the curb, and they stood. He told them to wave, and they obediently waved the flags on sticks. I guess nobody explained about the shouting part. They didn’t get it. In Spanish I asked one woman of a group where she was from: San Miguel, in the mountains. Where were the men? Across the street in the men’s group. Did they get paid for coming? Yes. Did San Miguel receive money because they came? Yes. Was she going to vote for Labastida? Blank stare. She didn’t know who he was, despite the flag in her hand. She didn’t know there was going to be an election. She didn’t comprehend “vote”. She simply did as her community was obliged to do. And before the conversation went further, another “leader” intercepted me, and that was that.

      Well, I don’t know. My Spanish is lousy. But there was no mistaking the leaden lack of enthusiasm. There was no mistaking a restaurant full, a sight I’ve never before seen in Oaxaca, with campesino men in their stiff white hats eating the afternoon meal. There was no mistaking the buses labeled for the press, the figure of Labastida flinging up his arms, the band playing and the perfunctory flags. Until suddenly it was all over. Labastida withdrew. And then we scuffed around the zócalo in the vast sea of trash, watching a few patient women bundle the flag sticks and carry them home for firewood before the clean-up crews arrived.

      In the evening the second demonstration left its buses in front of the Chamber of Deputies and wound its way on foot down from Llano Park. It was for Cardenas. Its banners demanded freedom for jailed UNAM student strikers. It included a handful of the women who live in front of the Municipal Palace, whose banners also demanded freedom. It included a few dozens of campesinos with other demands. It was half the size of Labastida’s showing, fewer buses, serious faces, organized but authentically unhappy. They walked out of view, the women carrying children in the rear.

      In the zócalo this time a rock band blasted the latest Latino hits at a volume that made the paving stones reverberate underfoot. Clearly Cardenas thinks of himself as appealing to the youth. A few youngish Oaxaqueños jiggled as if a dance were coming. But it didn’t materialize. The band left and the crowd was only strollers in the warm evening air.

      And the trash was left, and the Labastida porto-potties. The huge election banners tacked to the side of La Catedrál disappeared, and the grandstand came apart with the usual alacrity, for trucks to haul away, and the sound system vanished into the back of a pickup. A few balloons lodged as always in the trees above the balloon sellers on the plaza. The hot dog vendors reappeared, and the vendors of hot corn. The wives of the imprisoned began to round up kids wearing Labastida sun-visors like fairy crowns, and still playing with the last fragments of broken sticks.

      On Saturday they took away the porto-potties. The famous came to Oaxaca, and left.

      Oh, I forgot to mention there were no porto-potties last week when Madeleine Albright was in town. She only came to see the ruins.

P.S. The magazine Processo (in Spanish) reported on the campaign of Labastida in its Feb 27, 2000 edition. The article was entitled Labastida: Triste Campaña. Labastida: Sad campaign.

N.D., February 11, 2000



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