A California native, I’ve frequented Disneyland since my toddler years, enchanted by the bright colors, tinkling music and familiar cartoon faces. When, as a freshman at Santa Monica High, I first traveled with the marching band to play in the Disneyland Christmas Parade, I eagerly anticipated entering the mysterious wonderland of backstage Disneyland. I left horrified: Minnie Mouse is a man, Cinderella smokes and behind the painted façade lies an inhospitable land of concrete and metal tubing. This is how I felt after returning to Oaxaca after a year and a half to find my beloved city knee deep in a violent political struggle.
Books could be, and have been, written about the causes of Oaxaca’s conflict, but I will try to explain it in brief. The conflict sprang up last May when the mighty teacher’s union of Oaxaca, Syndicate 22 of the national organization, went on strike – as they have for the past 26 years – for better wages and benefits. Unlike past governors of Oaxaca, who gave the teachers enough of what they wanted to send them back to their classrooms, current governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO) – called Ulises Ruin or simply asesino by many Oaxacans – refused to negotiate. Sympathetic to the teachers, other popular organizations joined their protest and formed the Popular Assembly of the Pueblos of Oaxaca – known as the APPO – which defeated a state police raid and took over the city’s main roads and plazas on June 14. The city mayor fled, the police pulled out and the APPO ruled the city for close to four months. During this time, the APPO would apprehend people suspected of covert government activity, force them to confess to a plethora of crimes and drag them through the Zócalo with a sign reading, “I am a rat.” Governments across the world issued warnings to steer clear of Oaxaca, leaving the state’s tourism-based economy in ruins.
The violence finally reached a critical mass in October, when New York journalist Brad Will’s name appeared on the list of the dead, and URO sent in federal troops to retake the city by force. The next few weeks turned the quaint, cobblestone city into an occupied war zone, where uninvolved civilians mistaken for APPO members were arbitrarily detained, beaten, psychologically tortured, held without charge, refused contact with their families and finally, again arbitrarily, released. When the dust settled, the APPO counted 71 dead, at least 300 detained and over 100 “disappeared.” An uneasy calm returned to the city, and the teachers finally reached an agreement – though they had to bypass URO and go straight to the federal government – and returned to classes in December. The APPO could do nothing but peacefully gather and insist that it would fight until the “fall of the tyrant.”
When I arrived in Oaxaca in January and began exploring the city, I noticed how it has suffered. Once described as “charming,” the city bears evidence of the violence of the past several months: angry, anti-government graffiti, blackened, hollow buildings and closed up, empty hotels. Permanent police barricades surround the Zócalo, the main square, and though life goes on, there exists a subtle tension among the city’s inhabitants. Luckily for the thousands of waiters, maids and craftsman, tourism has started to trickle back into the city.
Despite the image that the media projects of a Oaxacan people united in the streets for the fall of governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, every person I talked to had a unique perspective. Though some faithfully and completely identified with either the government or the APPO, most Oaxacans feel torn by the stark contrast between the rhetoric of the APPO – an uncorrupt government of the people, support for the indigenous, the working class and the farmers of Oaxaca and a halt to the repressive violence of the police – and their destructive actions, including building barricades of burning tires, covering the storefronts and houses of the city with graffiti and blowing up the antennas of pro-government media organizations. As I interviewed people from all strata of society, it was hard to find a single assembly, political group or labor organization whose position I agreed with. In this murky, convoluted conflict, all are at fault.