Protesters march through Oaxaca in late July, 2016.
“It’s so quiet,” said Sofia. Not that I would have known the difference. Oaxaca, in my first experience, felt like a city that was usually quiet. The old aqueduct, the beautiful colonial church, the brightly painted buildings on cobbled streets. The town seems right out of a Yankee tourist brochure. In July, with the state’s biggest festival just starting to swing, it had everything except the Yankees.
But any thrill I might have felt about this beautiful place ran up against the crushing reality of its cost. Sofia, who is from the area and has lived there most of her life, reminded me that nobody was making any money. People in this city, in this state, depend on tourism. Especially in July, when tourists from Mexico and the U.S. come down in droves for the annual Guelaguetza Festival. But walking around town in July, it was clear that as far as Americans went, I was an exception.
* * *
On June 19, Mexican Federal Police opened fire on a group of teachers in the town of Nochixtlan who were protesting sweeping education reforms, killing several people. Maybe eight. Maybe a dozen. Maybe more, depending on your sources. The stories in the American news talked about the violence, and quite simply scared the hell out of the gringos. Across the news networks, the story was about the violence in Oaxaca.
Nochixtlan, where the shootings took place, is in the northern part of the state of Oaxaca. In Oaxaca City (many state capitals in Mexico share their name with the state they are in), the explanation for the Yankees staying away was pretty simple: Americans heard the word “Oaxaca” and either assumed the violence was in the capital city itself, or simply assumed that the whole state was on fire.
I saw this firsthand when I told people where I was going. For some Americans, the mere mention of Mexico as my destination (outside of a saccharine, sterilized tourist resort) was tantamount to proclaiming a desire to scale Everest. The immediate response, often from people who had never set foot in the country, was something along the lines of “Be careful.” This statement often came from people who lived in cities with a much higher rate of violent crime than where I happened to be going.
And yet today, four months later, the story has virtually disappeared from the American news cycle.
* * *
For Oaxacans in the city, the conflict was, and remains, all too real and at right their doorstep. Most people I spoke to supported the teachers’ union (Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Education, or CNTE), which has been locked in a battle with President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government over the reforms that had been put in place in 2013 (and to a larger extent, since earlier reforms in 2006). Much of this is about power in the region. The union is seen as the major political force in a region that has been historically marginalized by the federal government. More than half of the country’s entire indigenous population lives in the state of Oaxaca, and many of them count Zapotec, Mixtec, or another indigenous dialect as their primary language, with Spanish as their second. Even those who supported some of the reforms put in place by the government were reluctant to support them after the violence erupted, particularly since the government’s original statements placed the blame with “guerrillas” who had mixed in with the protestors and fired on the police (video footage contradicted this story, and the government was forced to pull back the Federal Police).
But even those who supported the union were frightened for the local economy. Tourism is one of the area’s economic engines, particularly in July when the month-long Guelaguetza Festival goes into full swing. A celebration of the traditional dance, costumes, food and drink of the region, it’s the high season of the tourist trade, and everyone from trinket sellers to waiters to tour guides to language teachers depends upon the business. With the CNTE blocking the major highway between Oaxaca and Mexico City, the business was spare, and people were frustrated.
Dancers in traditional dress during the Guelaguetza Festival.
Tourism work is feast or famine work. When the season is on, you make money. In the off-season, you spend the money you stored away when things were hopping. You do this on the assumption that there will be work again in the future. You don’t think about the bottom dropping out.
But the danger of that kind of economy is the same as the danger for an agricultural one. What do you do if the rains don’t come?
In July, the tourists weren’t coming, and the town felt thirsty.
* * *
In August, as the school year began, the teacher’s strike continued. Roughly half the schools in Oaxaca failed to open their doors, and nearly all of the schools in Chiapas remained shuttered. In Oaxaca, a tent city in the Zocolo continues to be a presence, as it has, more or less, since protests began rolling in the region in 2006.
And yet, outside of Mexico, stories about the protests and their effects are few and far between. Other than an excellent article in Al-Jazeera earlier this month, it is very hard to gauge the situation if you follow English language news.
But gauging the situation in the capital back in July wasn’t much easier. There wasn’t a great deal of press coverage in Mexico, and the city continued to function. There were rumors, there was a sense of something being wrong even as the town forged ahead with its festival. Not for the benefit of the tourists, but simply because that’s what has to be done to keep things going.
And the protest goes on. As it did in 2006. As it did in 2013. As it did this July. A study of the government’s education reforms by the Georgetown Public Policy Review found enormous faults with them, claiming that “the policy instrument presented by President Peña Nieto disregards completely the current teaching model.”
President Peña Nieto is extremely unpopular in the country (his popularity rating in August was a dismal 23 percent), and his tenure ends in 20 months. Perhaps that could crack open a dialogue between the union and the new government.
In the meantime, the roadblocks in Oaxaca come and go as the protests wax and wane. The government continues its track to implement its reforms, despite the historic unpopularity of their architect. And those of us far removed from the situation have the luxury of hearing nothing of the continuing conflict.