Weather Update for Oaxaca
April 14, 2000
Frequently, thunderstorms pass at dusk, raining furiously onto the dry geraniums and spotting the patio chairs with falling drops of mud; and this is the dry season, prelude to the July elections. We are in the capital city of one of the three most impoverished Mexican states on the anniversary of the assassination of Emiliano Zapata.
Not to imply there might be normal non-anniversary days, days without five o'clock thunder or a protest march demanding justice. No way. A woman killed a little boy in a hit and run accident and her husband then claimed the vehicle was stolen and the killer wasn't his wife at all. No police investigation. The next day's demonstration starred six and seven year old kids holding signs. It's all ages, all types, all grievances: marches for the university students in jail, the political prisoners, the teachers on strike, the garbage workers' demands.
April 11's manifestación was the Broad Front for Popular Struggle by the Antorchistas, meaning Torch Carriers. They carry on the struggle of Emilano Zapata, dead eighty-one years. A passing American acquaintance alerted me: there was a huge deployment of sindicalists in the zócalo, and the last time a manifestación of this size occurred four people were killed. Of course I trotted right on down, but it was not sindicalists, (unionists we would say), but socialists. Nobody killed as far as I could tell, but a few plainclothes fellows on patrol carried sidearms hidden in shoulder-bags (not holsters, bags like you and I tote). How did I know, if they hid the guns? By their haircuts. Normal people don't wear those military brush cuts nor wear walkie-talkies on their belts.
One woman demonstrator sang the International for the crowd, waved pictures of Emiliano Zapata, shouted "The people united will never be defeated", demanded the end to caciquismo and land reform. The crowd appeared self-possessed. Instead of having porto-potties like the government brought in for the big political guys (Labastida, Fox, Cardenas), a young woman circulated in the crowd handing out slips of paper advertising the local public bathrooms, reasonably priced.
We've been trying to learn more about the rural situation, the caciques, etc. Caciquismo is a system of local bosses who extort money or crops or both from their rural towns, a phenomenon left over from the Revolution, left over after the murder of Zapata. The caciques may hold office, but whether they are officials or not, they are well-connected, playing the role of godfather to various children, controlling workers and crops, preventing roads into rural areas to forestall competition, demanding roads to bring out coffee, forging power lines vertically and horizontally. Caciquismo remains in force alongside the campesinos' struggle to maintain self-sufficiency‒ farmers with no capital investment beyond an ox. They are starved from both directions: externally by the large capitalized haciendas and/or NAFTA imported food; and internally by the local cacique extortionists. They are not sharecroppers, but their poverty puts one in mind of sharecroppers or tenant farmers, perhaps because so many gave up, and now hire themselves out as cheap labor for owner/renters. The PRI government reformed Land Reform; the communal land is being sold or stolen. "Zapata Lives".
On the previous day, Monday, while sitting in the zócalo to enjoy the noonday concert I struck up a conversation with a woman visiting from the neighboring state of Guerrero, where Acapulco is. Where Acapulco is, she isn't. She cleans house for a living, and earns 450 pesos per month, for a six day week. That's $47 US. She's a single woman living with her mother and sister, she's visiting a cousin in Oaxaca who’s having a nervous breakdown. She faced the sun; I was sweating, she was not. She wore a sweater over a homemade cotton blouse and skirt, her black curly hair was neatly brushed. While we chatted, another woman sitting near us leaned over and offered Socorro, my new friend, 66 pesos per day plus room and board if she'd relocate to Oaxaca. Names and addresses were exchanged. Socorro thought some sort of miracle was occurring; she made mention of religion and sects but my Spanish was not adequate. I only hope she didn't take me for a heavenly messenger, although I agreed that Oaxaca is full of magic. I asked her about the situation in Guerrero vis à vis the caciques, and she repeated what others have said: intimidation is fearsome; if you cross one of these guys he will have killed not only you but all your family, Mafia style. She smiled while she spoke.
On the demonstration day I first circled around by the House of Deputies, and saw the wagons circling; or to be more accurate, a combination of hired busses and private trucks, many of them rigged with arched roofs like covered wagons. Some looked like houseboats, with square superstructures of canvas on the flatbeds. On the side of each freshly painted truck neat letters told the name of the town they came from; both west and east.
Zapata vive, vive! La Lucha sigue, sigue! Busloads had already disembarked, filling the park across the street with women wearing plastic shoes and the traditional embroidered blouses and full skirts of the Isthmus. Many carried children or nursed their babies on the benches. Men congregated with their townfolk, in their poor clothing, hatted with starched manila palm from the Isthmus or soft felt from the mountains, wearing huaraches or other sandals showing thickly callused gray feet, the young in jeans and running shoes. Many hunkered down on the grass to wait the marching signal. Zapata lives, the struggle goes on.
This part of the demonstration was in the hands of the socialist workers. "Communists", an old man whispered to me. "They're lazy, the country people. They can't do anything. I worked all my life and I put money in the bank. They want to take the land." I liked the look of those lazy country men, their bristling moustaches and alert eyes.
The signal was given; I followed on down to the zócalo. Loudspeakers were set up, platforms, banners, sound systems. The throng was perhaps five thousand. Behind my bench where I watched rather than heard, lizards scrambled up and down the heavy trees in a frenzy of lizard newscasts. The banners proclaimed in all colors a cry for electrification, an auditorium, pavements, potable water, credit to farmers, Union of Poor Campesinos, Alliance for the Rural Areas, United Front for Defense of the Indigenous, Popular Council of Oaxaca Indigenous, Indian Organizations for Human Rights, Committee for Defense of Human Rights of the People, Broad Front for Popular Struggle, United Mazateco Front, and finally, Zapatista Front for National Liberation. "Every day," a campesino told me, "we demand fulfillment of promises for the poor, but nothing happens."
Certainly other armed rebels hide in the mountains; men without the social base of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, they are Che Gueverra-style guerrillas, or drug runners. Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero are heavily occupied by federal troops. Every time I chat with a Oaxacan I'm asked how we like the city, and each time I reply, Very much. "It's calm," my questioner nods and smiles in recognition; "it's tranquil." The crowning glory, it's calm, it's tranquil. When armed rebellion happened in Chiapas, Civil Society mobilized to demand the government decree a cease-fire. Mexicans remember their civil war, only ninety years ago. They value "peace".
Peacefully enough, the odor of wood cooking fires emanated from the Government Palace portico. The demonstrators were setting up housekeeping. In the zócalo, some were already napping on the grass, others stretched out on cardboard pallets. Someone had sawed through one of the iron fences around a tree; at another tree the fence was being used for a toddlers' play-pen. Speeches began.
Mid-afternoon a sound truck labeled PRD arrived, and blasted full volume music. It was palpably a sneering display of superior strength, until it moved to the other side on the zócalo. Next to the Catedrál the truck set up with its own speech-makers, another demonstration, another group carrying placards and banners. Suddenly, silence. Within the strange non-noise the newer group with its Cardenas buttons and stickers marched across to join the socialists. In the background booths for the literacy book fair pulled open their canvas covers. The only sound was the voices of French tourists asking, What is it? What is it? A yellow and black butterfly fluttered past me.
I walked toward the merged group, and abruptly Socorro materialized, magic of course. We greeted one another and I asked how the job interview went. But the lady of the house was never home, and today Socorro was returning to Guerrero. I asked her what was happening with the demonstrators. "They are all together," she replied. The same smile. "Perhaps we'll meet again."
In the evening she was nowhere to be found. The book fair was in process, speeches on this side of the Catedrál were about literacy; children in white danced folk dances and others, wearing Salvation Army style capes, sang Mexican folk songs. Across the square sound trucks and loudspeakers echoed, Zapata Vive.
By Wednesday just the faintest smell wafted at noontime from the camp set up under the portico of the Government Palace. Many buses had left, but hundreds of men and women remained, some using the trucks like mobile homes, some dozing behind the banners under the portico, some on cardboard pallets slept on the sidewalk.
I sat on a bench next to a well-fed middle-aged man in a business suit and shined shoes. He patted his briefcase as we chatted. He is from Mexico DF, his name is Walter. Mexico is a disaster. Neither the government nor the citizens have the will to deal with so overwhelming a problem as this city of pollution, bad water and crime. The PRI is also totally corrupt. Walter is here in Oaxaca to sell IBM computer programs to the government of Oaxaca. He had an appointment with the Governor in his office an hour ago. Walter nodded toward the crowd surrounding the portico. We chatted about computers, about Bill Gates, about the wealth of the United States.
The Governor is nowhere to be found. Walter pulled out his business card, shook my hand and left. Dutifully I placed the card in my wallet before heading home.
When I returned to our apartment our landlady was there. A new source of information. The present governor is caught up in a vendetta with the previous governor, a man from the Isthmus, and the previous governor sponsored the demonstration at the height of the Easter tourist season to intimidate the present governor. My sparse information about caciques, plus the expense of buses and trucks, plus the participation of the PRD and the teachers, left me remembering the family Christening party our landlady had invited us to in a rural small town. A lot of money on display, godparents, guests who looked weary. The Christening parents were teachers, and have more money than teachers have.
By Thursday the zócalo deeply and sincerely stank of piss, shit and garbage. Everywhere around my bench I could see hummingbirds, butterflies, blazing scarlet bougainvillea, a snow of pale purple jacaranda blossoms. We should be in Paradise but we're not.
Friday morning the demonstrators were gone. The trucks were gone. Our Lady of Sorrows, the sixth Friday of Lent, and a traditional pageant electing the Queen of Oaxaca was taking place at nine o'clock. The state band played Viennese waltzes and the girls carried their nominating bouquets of flowers. Surrounding the crowd, unobtrusively, the municipal police in riot gear held onto attack dogs, evil-looking Rottweilers in muzzles. The police stood heavily armed, motorcycle cops were ready.
The police are very young. I asked one guy, then a woman, then a second guy, and received the same answer from all: it was normal, they always keep attack dogs on guard Fridays during Lent. To guard the girls from insane lovers, one told me. In the place where the manifestación had been, men nailed together booths for Easter relics. In the supermarket the clerk said of course it was very unusual to see guard dogs and riot gear. But nothing happened.
In Oaxaca it rains in the dry season, and I’m reluctant to try to put together two and two. Inevitably the result is five or three. As I walked back up the hill toward home a schoolboy stood peeing against the side of a parked car. He nodded and I nodded. Así es, as they say. That's how it is.
 The World Economic Forum lists Mexico as among the 10 most corrupt countries among 59 measured in the world, according to a Reuters report of September 30, 2000. The Mexican system of justice occupies eighth place for bribery of judges and courts. On a scale of 1 - 7, for corruption in payments for imports and exports, business licenses, control of money changing, fiscal licenses and police protection, it has a rank of 3.7. The World Bank placed Mexico in fourth place among the most corrupt of 21 countries ranked.