“Observations From Southern Mexico”
I sat up with a start.
I had been sleeping and
then heard noises coming from out-side the house. It was dark. I
jumped out of bed and stepped onto the balcony. Felipe was awake and
alert, his ears and tail straight up. He was looking out across the
city. It sounded like lots of voices chanting, yelling a “consigno,”
one of the marching, war chants of the teachers’ strike, for example.
It seemed a couple blocks away. I looked at the clock; a few minutes
The noises came and went.
It was not an organized chant, as such, but a considerable shouting and
noises. I thought, Oh God, he’s done it. The governor of the state,
Ulises Ruís, has been threatening to clear out the teachers and I
remembered in a flash that pre-dawn raids are a common tactic of despots
Just then the phone rings.
Wow, at this hour?
A young woman said, Excuse
me, is Ayax Cruz there?
“Um, well … Who’s calling,
“Eh, you see, I know his
parents are both teachers and, well, you see, they’re attacking the
zócalo, and I must …”
“One moment please,” and I
called to Ayax, waking him up. He came upstairs and took the call. I
stood on the balcony, looking out on the city and hearing the noises and
I put it all together.
“They’ve attacked,” said
Ayax, hanging up. “Many wounded. The teachers are fighting back. Can
I use your phone?”
“Yes, of course.”
Over the next several hours,
we watched the sun come up and helicopters fly over dropping tear gas
canisters and heard the shouts, and then the gunshots, and Ayax talked
to just about everybody in his family.
It’s a big family, both his
parents were teachers, and he has lots of uncles and cousins in and
around the government and the education department and health and
security departments. They all had the latest news and lots of opinions.
He brought up his radio and
we started listening around the dial. Almost all the stations had live
coverage of the fighting downtown, and we flipped from station to
station. They had people on mobile phones calling in to their studios.
A bus had careened into the demonstrators and crashed into the front
pillars of the hotel Marquis de Valle in the zócalo. Another had
crashed on Bustamante Street. We looked out the balcony. Dark billows
of smoke were rising from several places in the city.
At one point we went
downstairs to Ayax’s TV and watched some footage of people running from
tear gas canisters in the early dawn light. It was morning coverage
from Mexico City.
Aside from the noise of
fighting in the distance, the city was eerily quite. Not a car was
passing on Crespo Street. The radio announcers were saying “stay in
Then a strange thing
happened. I was listening to the radio about nine o’clock, and
switching the stations, when the announcer said something like, “er …
that will be all for a while … er … and now this.” At that point they
began playing a previously recorded interview with someone from DIF
Estatal, which is the state government run family support project, and
it was a very positive puff-piece about how helpful the state government,
and the governor, Ulises Ruís, is being to the people of Oaxaca.
I said, “Ayax, listen to
We switched around to some
others. One by one over the next half hour, all the radio stations
abruptly ended their coverage of the teachers and switched to happy news
or, more commonly, music. We couldn’t believe it.
All except Radio
Universidad, our old friends in their little cabina in the fields
out behind the big University UABJO, and were we’ve had lots of
connections over the years. For over a year, Ayax and Edgar had a
weekly, half-hour interview show by the Frente Común and we were out
there a lot. Then too, that’s where we recorded the first nine tapes of
our information in the native languages. We have a great affinity with
the little station and the kids who run it.
They remained the one voice
wtill open to the teachers and call-in listeners about what was really
happening. They, too, were taken off the air at noon that day, but came
back on at around one. There would be long adventures through out the
next few days ad crowds of students tried to fight off police thugs sent
to close the station and the roughing up and arrest later that night of
three of the kids on the air, but the would remain for all the days of
the strike and one heard them in the streets coming from stores and
Meanwhile, we listened to
the news and watched the city burn.
Later in the morning there
descended an eerie calm over the city and word was the police had been
repulsed from the city center, after burning the teachers’ goods and
supplies, and retreated out to the edges. The teachers had regrouped
near the center and were holding ground.
A little after noon, Ayax
and I went out a bit to look at the streets and it seemed fairly calm.
He decided to go over to his family’s house and I said, sure, go ahead.
I walked on a couple blocks for cigarettes, heavily on my mind while
trapped in the house, of course. While I was out I ran into Susan
Kaufman, strolling down the street.
“Is it over?” she asked.
We chatted. I didn’t want
to alarm her unnecessarily and she said she was going to her gym. I
said see you later.
She would later report her
gym was closed and she had to come back.
So, I sat around with
Felipe and Dottie and listened to the news and ate tuna and had one of
the worst days of my life.
I talked to Sergio on his
cel-phone; he was with the teachers and we would check in from time to
time. At around two, Nancy called.
“Oh, hi, Bill,” she said.
“I guess you’re about ready for your nap, huh Bill? Shall I call back
later and let you have your nap now, Bill?” She was quite hesitant and
unsure of her words.
“Uh, no, Nancy, I’m not
having a nap right now. We can talk,” I answered.
“Well, I just thought, … if
you want to … take a nap.”
“No, Nancy, I’m fine.”
“And Russell’s coming,” she
said brightly. I figured he must have called her.
“Eh, yeah, in a couple
“That’ll be nice.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Well, I’m just here on Crespo, Nancy, trying to stay out of things.”
“Eh, … that’s good.”
“And, the office is closed
today. We didn’t open, of course.”
“Well, that’s probably a
Finally I said, “Gee thanks
for calling, Nancy, I’m just fine and I appreciate the call.”
“You’re welcome, Bill.”
And we hung up.
So I sat around with the
dogs and smoked cigarette after cigarette and it was one of the longest
days of my life. The fires over the city proved short-lived, trash
fires mostly. I later learned the police had gathered up all the tents
and belongings of the teachers and burned them in the zócalo. An eerie
Finally, I took a sleeping
pill and went to bed.
* * *
Graffiti during the strike:
ESTÀ EN TU CORAZÒN…
…LAS PIEDRAS ESTÀN
EN EL SUELO.”
“VOVERÈ Y SERÈ MILLONES” –ESPARTACO
“NO ES CUESTIÒN DE RESPETO DE LA LEY,
SINO DE LA JUSTICIO.” – H. D.
* * *
On July 15, I wrote, “We’re two days
from the Guelaquetza and no one knows if they’re even going to have it,
On July 17, I wrote, “Guelaguetza
* * *
Another long night started
at around midnight of Monday, August 21, after ALL the radio stations
had earlier been taken over by the strikers. Russell had come home,
rather late from the studio and I had gone to bed with the cat. Pretty
soon, the bells at nearby Soledad began sounding like crazy. I woke
with a start as Ayax came running up the stairs. We turned on the radio
and heard that a number of attacks were under way. We all sat up for a
long time, listening to the sounds from the street and the news from the
radio, and them tried to get some sleep, to be woken various times in
the night, and up early, unable to sleep.
The population is ready for this to
* * *
On the 24 of August, I wrote to a
Whatever you’re reading about Oaxaca can not possibly describe how awful
things really are here at the moment. The teachers’ strike, which was
still fairly benign when you were here, has been joined by a large
popular movement and has evoked violent and bloody reprisals by the
state government. It is extremely tense and unpleasant. The city center
is a disaster. Roving gangs of hired thugs and civilian-dressed police
are moving into the neighborhoods throughout the night and threatening
the populace. There is NO uniformed police anywhere in the city. I would
not recommend anyone visit the city under these conditions.
There is a feeling that we are closing in on a resolution of the
problems but it could take some time and most probably will get much
worse before getting better. I suggest you keep your eye on the
situation but look into alternatives for your group.
As I say, if the governor were to resign, the problem would be resolved
very quickly and the city could bounce back in a day! Unfortunately, he
shows no inclination do to so and his powerful friends appear determined
to hang on at any cost. Unfortunately, the situation in the rest of the
nation is so tense over the election fraud that there is very little
notice about Oaxaca, federal officials are content to look away and
Ulises is taking advantage of their indifference to launch full-scale
attacks on the population.
Like most businesses and organizations in Oaxaca, the Frente Común has
experienced a dramatic reduction in activities; visitors to our Center
are down by a good 80 percent. However, our group is strong and have
expressed solidarity with our cause and our determination to stay open,
offering our important services to the public. (Our public stance is
expressed in a brief “monthly letter” newly posted on our website, by
Meanwhile, we are healthy and working hard. …”
* * *
September came and Ayax and
I loaded up our second “monthly letter” from the Frente on our website.
Saying, well, things haven’t changed much and this would be a good time
to make a donation to the Frente Común. We’ll see. We wrote:
We at the Frente Común greatly
appreciate the many messages of concern and support which we are
receiving these days. Many of you are aware of the terrible
socio-political situation currently gripping the state of Oaxaca, and
which was mentioned briefly in our last monthly letter. Some people
have contributed generous donations to our organization in these
We are sorry to say the situation
has not improved and looks to worsen even further, possibly soon. We
recommend your read about it through whatever search engine of the
However, as we reported last month,
our group is strong and have expressed solidarity with our cause and our
determination to stay open, offering our important services to the
public. Our beautiful, bi-lingual Website remains an active and
positive project at the Frente.
Again, thank you for you interest
and best wishes for the important work of the Frente Común, and do
consider making a contribution to our ongoing activities.
Finally we say: Work hard, members
and volunteers and Amigos of the Frente Común, because we are:
“Unidos en la Luchas
Contra el SIDA.”
* * *
On September 16, I wrote:
… The city of Oaxaca has never looked
worse. Huge piles of trash in the streets. Heaps of smoldering tires
burning at each corner, the dirty wire hoops left over when the rubber
has burned and, of course, smoke and soot everywhere. Lots of political
graffiti covers every wall in town, “Ulises OUT!”, and such, and then,
too, the tag artists have free reign and cover everything else, and
BIG! Wall-sized letters and initials and doodles. Piles of stones and
rubble on the corners to block the cars and traffic at night.
The local police were
ordered out of uniform shortly after the attack in mid June, and since
then there have been no police on the streets. Many have organized and
refused to attack the populace. These are being held in “quarters.”
Those who obey are wearing sky-masks or bandanas and drive around in
pick-ups in the night terrifying the neighborhoods, especially out of
the city center, shooting indiscriminately into the air. Crime is
A lot of the streets have
hung across them big banners which read, “This block is watching you,
Thief!” where the neighbors have gotten together and organized to
prevent robberies and assaults, now that there are no police anywhere in
Businesses close early and
the streets are no-man’s-land after dark. An eerie silence falls at
night as the people sit in their homes and listen to the radio. News of
disturbances and shootings are reported every night from the out-lying
communities. The people’s movement has taken over more than thirty
cities in the state. Recently the governor announced that the three
branches, executive, legislative and judicial, would be moving to the
Isthmus city of Juchitán, as all government offices in the capital have
been closed by the strikers. Within hours, communities throughout the
Isthmus began organizing in protest and the mayor of Juchitán was forced
to announce that “conditions did not exist” to allow the government
office to open there. The next day the idea was dropped. State affairs
are being conducted in private homes, or the occasional hotel meeting
hall, all outside the city. …”
* * *
We were walking back from
the studio to the house, my dog, Felipe, and I and my friend Chucho, who had come
by to help me walk him. Felipe always likes him and likes to walk with
him. It was a nice day, Sunday afternoon, and I was carrying the papers.
On Morelos Street, a few
blocks from the house, we looked up and some kids were running toward us,
sticks in their hands. Then more, and men and women soon, all running
up the street and turning up Reforma. I thought, Oh brother, let’s get
It’s been tense. The day
before, governor had issued his “last ultimatum.” The teachers would go
back to teaching school on Monday or be permanently fired. Everybody
was wondering what was going to happen tomorrow.
A kid ran by with a big machete. I
looked at Chucho. He shook his head. He lives right in the center,
like me, a couple blocks away, and has three little kids. I asked him
how his family was taking all this. We stay in, he answered. We picked
up our pace.
We were soon back at the
house and I thanked Chucho and said see you soon. He smiled and took
off up the street.
I went in and turned on the
radio. Turns out it was the governor, Ulises Ruiz, and he had been in
El Llano park earlier, trying to give the impression everything was calm
in Oaxaca. There would be photos of him in the papers the next day,
smiling and laughing. But soon some protesters saw him and a crowd soon
gathered and began yelling and chanting. The governor was hurried into
some waiting vans and rushed off.
From there his caravan took
him to the Hotel Camino Real, the biggest and fanciest hotel in town,
near the center, a couple blocks away, and hurried him inside. Now word
got out, thanks to the radio stations, and lots of people started
descending on the hotel from the nearby zócalo. That’s when we had seen
them running by.
A large crowd formed around
the front of the hotel. The big front doors were closed tight. The
crowd began chanting and calling for Ulises. They took up a No-Parking
sign and soon broke open the doors, pouring into the hotel lobby. They
found the place empty, no workers, no guests.
Meanwhile, some of the
crowd ran around the block to the back entrance where they found Ulises
and his bodyguards hurrying into their vans. They began running towards
them. That’s when the guards of the governor pulled their guns and
opened fire on the protesters. Three were hit before the vans went
careening off, none seriously.
Inside the hotel, the crowd
found a few of the employees huddled around the back doors. They also
encountered a few guests hiding in their rooms, including one who later
was identified as a national reporter with his film crew. He made the
stupid mistake of saying he was with the government and showed some
papers to that effect. He was hauled away by the protesters and taken
to the zócalo. He was held about two hours before it was cleared up,
the protesters apologized and let him go. He left town in a hurry.
An improvised rally formed
in the zócalo, with a lot of shouting and yelling. Roadblocks were
reinforced. It was a long night and tense. The governor’s ridiculous
attempt to appear in the city had clearly backfired. Everyone was more
angry than before. Including him. The next day he promised to use the
“public force,” his civilian-clad police and security forces, to end
this, and soon, he said.
The next day the papers
were full of it all. It turns out in the melee, a big fancy van was
left behind. It was seized by the protesters and taken to the zócalo.
It was registered to Rito Salinas, president of the PRI faction of the
state legislature (!), and inside was found expensive, wrapped gifts
with the names of state officials and a big, bound bundle of cash which
came to five-hundred thousand pesos in large bills.
* * *
Ayax and I were walking
home through the zócalo when someone came running up and tapped me on
the shoulder. It was Nicéfero Urbieta, the artist and long-time friend,
who I’d been observing in the papers as being very involved with the
strike and the APPO assembly. I gave him a big hug. I told him I
greatly admired what he was doing. We talked a bit.
He was doing a poster, he
said, and wanted to know if I could help get it printed, as it was going
to cost quite a bit of money. I didn’t care much for the design, but it
was for the big march which was currently on its long, slow way from
Oaxaca to Mexico City and this was to be distributed along the route and
encourage people to join. He asked me if I could help.
I thought a minute. I
certainly had NO money to help.
I asked him if he knew
Claudio Sánchez, the printer and strong supporter of the cause. He said,
yeah, a little.
“Listen, come by my studio
tomorrow and we can ask Claudio if he’ll print it,” I suggested. He
thought that was a great idea and said see you tomorrow. I said one
o’clock, and we waved goodbye.
I was a bit nervous about
offering Claudio’s help and so went over there early to see him. He was
great, as usual, and said, sure, Bill, bring him over. I kissed Martha.
When Nicéfero showed up
promptly a one, we walked over together and I presented him to Claudio.
Claudio agreed to print two thousand copies for free by Saturday and
Nicéfero was very grateful. We said, see you later.
* * *
At about 4:20 in the afternoon on
Saturday (Sept. 30), two big military helicopters appeared in the sky
and began making big zig-zags across the city and circling the downtown.
The city gasped.!
After a few turns of the helicopters,
one could see the native rockets and fireworks being shot off in their
direction, always falling short, of course, but the image was disturbing,
to say the least. Roaring and shouting could be heard from the zócalo.
At 4:30 I told the people in the
optical shop they should close at once and that I was on my way to our
store to close it also. They agreed.
Carlos was alone in Condón-Manía when I
got there and looking out kinda wide-eyed. How you doing? I asked.
“Did you see the helicopters?” he asked.
I convinced him to close the shop and
helped him count up the day’s sales. Chuy had sold two, Carlos one.
By 5:30 I was walking back to the house.
All the streets I could see had been closed, blocked with buses or
stones and rubble in the street.
Later at 6:40 pm, a lumbering slow
military transport plane of some sort began circling the city center.
Its low, bass rumbling engines were shaking the houses. Lots of noise
was coming from the zócalo.
At 7:30 it was almost dark.
By 7:50 it was completely dark, a half-moon
At 9:00 there was complete silence in
Around 10:30, I listened to a little
Count Basie and tried to read. A short time later I took a sleeping
pill and went to bed.
The next day, Sunday (1
Oct) morning at around 10:30, a single helicopter appeared and zoomed
the downtown for about 45 minutes.
That night around midnight, I sat up.
The big, deep sounding military cargo plane was back. In the utter
silence which is Oaxaca these days, one could hear it making big circles
around the city, then flying off way up the valley, only to return in
half-hour for more circles of the downtown. This was repeated at around
1:00 and again at around 2:00 am.
The next day, several people commented
to me how hard it’s been to sleep.
* * *
More recent graffiti:
“El gobierno es una
institución necesaria para defender los intereses de la clase
- Ricardo Flores Magón
“Los gobiernos no pueden
hacer otra cosa que cobrar contribuciones para pagar soldados y esbirros
que protejan los intereses de los capitalistas.”
- Ricardo Flores Magón
“Más vale morir de pie que
vivir cien años de rodillas.”
- Emiliano Zapata
* * *
Then the most cynical of the killings
to date: On October 5, a teacher, Jaime René Calvo Aragón, who was a
part of an “alternative” group of teachers supporting the governor, on
his way to one of their meetings near the crossroads of Cinco Señores
and the University, an area that’s had a lot of violence recently, was
gunned down by government thugs and APPO slogans painted on the walls to
make it look like the teachers had done it.
Ulises Ruiz had killed one of his own
supporters for nothing more than the small pleasure of trying to make
the teachers look bad.
The city was aghast.
* * *