Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Oaxaca II

The past eight months have been tumultuous for Oaxacans, and some say a sharp divide remains amongst fellow citizens. There is disagreement even within some families in the quiet now after the unrest. It is unclear at the moment to what extent the protests will continue. In the meantime, the streets are quiet and a heavy police presence remains (This written yesterday, today a group demonstrators who entered the city clashed with the riot squads still stationed in numbers).

The interviews I will share are not intended to reconstruct a day by day of past events. I think it more interesting to hear some different voices and sort the facts later. I have done my best to capture the residents´ perspectives who did share their experiences and opinions. Many people are reluctant to open up to an inquisitive outsider, and are suspicious of interest, however innocuous, in a political climate that has included too many crackdowns and arrests. Others, whose tales I deemed too paranoid- consistently attributing astoundingly precise execution of ´black ops´ to a government that was inept at every other juncture- to be real, would add little aside from the suggestion that whatever did happen took a heavy toll on the collective psyche.

Going in with the little knowledge I could glean from the press, and with no contacts, I was free to imagine a romanticized version of APPO (The Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca), the decentralized coalition in the demonstrations against the governor. I pictured teachers, students, and artists manning the barricades like the Parisians in the summer of 1830, though even the limited coverage the protests received back home suggested the reality of APPO was less than the ideal. I have found people who have maintained most sympathetic views of APPO despite some of the needless mayhem to which they made a contribution. These broad brush stroke accounts, though at times poetic, left little room for subtleties.

It is a strong possibility my less than proficient Spanish detracted from ability to take in the complexities. This is a big reason I left Oaxaca earlier than planned to get my Spanish skills up to speed in one of the ubiquitous and supposedly excellent schools in Guatemala.

By the accounts I gathered at the home of Raul Herrera, a local painter and supporter of APPO, there was no need for nuance in understanding the Oaxacan conflict. A noble battle had been fought, and for the time being, the good guys had lost. Raul´s home and studio that he shared with his wife, also a painter, and two photographers, is situated around a pleasant interior courtyard which seems far removed from the city center at their front door. Herrera´s slightly paunched frame, silvery hair, and deep meditative facial lines, jarred my mental image of the typical protester I expected to encounter from last October’s riots. This graying revolutionary would make a worthy protagonist for any story about a revolutionary movement. Herrera had been in the front line facing the riot shields, and as he brought himself back to the event a fire began burning in his eye.

He delivered his account with the command of an artist in command of his medium. He spoke little as he preferred to let his sketches drive his narrative. The deliberate words he did choose acquired the weight of Zen koans. The Chinese and Japanese influences in his paintings along his speech, appearance, and manner- in which he spiraled around the events in question- all lent him the air of an eastern esoteric. It took some time to get to the subject of the protests. We spoke about Oaxaca and its charms, the galleries, his studio. He’d move closer to the topic of demonstrations, and then would back away.

After explaining that an art movement springing up around the anti-government demonstrations, Raul talked for some time about his methods and influences in art. A few cigarettes later, Raul went for a book that contained his sketches inspired by the demonstrations. His sketches, in ink and charcoal, were in a neatly bound hardcover book. The drawings were minimalist though they captured an astounding range of action and emotion. The first scene showed the masses of demonstrators in a bulging formation that surged towards the fraying police line. The officers were shown holding their shields to protect their backs as they scrambled in disorderly retreat.

¨First we retook the square. Then, they returned in their chariots, ¨ Raul said as he turned the page to show a monstrous armored vehicle from the perspective of the crowd. The reinforced riot squad returned with overwhelming force. The following sketches were busier than the first. The pen strokes were more fragmented. He showed me image after image of broken limbs and writhing bodies. You could hear the bones crunching; smell the teargas as the pages turned.

The more people I talk to, the more I am piecing together something of a consensus that can be drawn from the citizens of Oaxaca. I will attempt to recount this common ground in a later post. In short, the governor has no support, APPO had little organization, let alone leadership, in the streets-- it became a good cause gone awry-- and the presence of hundreds of federal troops is little better than the preceding anarchy. The middle ground here is limited. There are some bitter disagreements over crucial moments in the days leading up to the violent clashes between the federal troops and the protesters.

One of these points, where an American is concerned, is over the death of the American independent journalist Brad Will. The account that Reuters provided, and what was also posted on indie media sites, is that plain clothes officers shot Will while filming at one of the barricades. There is some speculation, however, that he may have been shot by APPO to escalate the crisis.

Later on I’ll provide reflections from two residents whose contrasting stories diverge from the ´consensus´, yet both shed interesting light on the some of the contentious issues as Oaxacans reconstruct the recent past.

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