Oaxaca Journal Redux: V. 15

By    Wednesday October 27, 2010

In a blink, two years has past since our departure from Oaxaca. If I went by the reports about Mexico in the US press we would have been too terrified to ever return. Between the drug war murders and the swine flu pandemic (Oaxaca State was said to have the first reported death from H1N1) one would have the impression the entire country was a disease-ridden war zone, Nonetheless, we've visited several times, most recently last February and according to local lore, we will always return throughout our lives because we ate the chapulines (fried grasshoppers).

On each trip we found a warm reception from the friends we'd developed during our years living there, and felt so at home it seemed we'd never left. Which isn't to say nothing was amiss. Contrary to all hopes and those long months of battle by strikers, the governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz wasn't forced to leave office. No thanks to him, Oaxaca City seemed like a giant construction site with many major streets torn wide open for yet another renovation that would undoubtedly line the pockets of the governor and his cronies. Beyond this visible evidence, there were other examples of deterioration under his administration. There had been incidents of off-duty police robbing citizens and an increase in other criminal activity, including kidnapping threats.

Tourism had dropped to levels similar to the time of the 2006 teachers' strike and many businesses and individuals were struggling to survive. Yet, our visits were uplifting. The city had endured first the conquistadors and recently, federal troops, and still glowed under an eternal spring. The museums and galleries had vibrant new shows and updated protest posters and anti-URO graffiti adorned the walls in defiance of the government and in celebration of the peoples' will to keep fighting.

Sipping coffee at sunset with my friend Antonio Turok at one of the Zocalo's many outdoor cafes, time melted away as we watched vendors and street musicians ply their trades. The fragrance of baking tortillas, and mole sauce, floating on the warm breeze accompanied by a distant mariachi band triggered a rainbow of fond memories.

Left: Day of the Dead grave decorations. Right: Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, at the Zocalo. Photos: Peter Kuper.

Suddenly, my state of bliss was shattered by a crowd of suits and flashing cameras, trooping past our table. I leaped from my chair and found myself a breath away from Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, the very person who had brought so much grief and turmoil to this golden city. I raised my Cannon Sure-Shot and snapped away, imagining being an assassin in another life with a perfect opportunity to right a million wrongs embodied in this politician.

Then I awoke to reality. He and the bodyguards surrounding him were the real life assassins who had facilitated the murder of journalist Brad Will and countless others. As my camera flashed and he turned to face me, I realized that I was the one who could be easily disposed of in this life. Flash -- had he seen my book Diario de Oaxaca? Flash -- had he caught my appearance on Mexican national television a few months earlier or any of the dozens of articles that had my photo and quoted me condemning his actions as I made my way around Mexico promoting the book?  I quickly pocketed my camera and blended back into the crowd, checking over my shoulder as I returned to my tepid coffee.

A new governor, Gabino Cué, won the election last July, ending an 80-year run by UROs conservative PRI party. Whether this signifies a change in Oaxaca's political scene is everybody's hope and anybody's guess. The people of Oaxaca have endured six long years of Ulises' term and many lifetimes of other oppressive regimes, but haven't lost heart. When Day of the Dead rolls around again this week, they will laugh, cry and celebrate those who have passed with art, mescal and songs. They will create floral arrangements around the graves to commemorate family and friends, light candles and bring color to the darkness. They will welcome back the dead, embrace their history and endure.

Peter Kuper's illustrations and comics have appeared in many magazines world-wide including MAD magazine where he has written and illustrated "SPY vs. SPY" every month since 1997. He has been teaching courses in comics at The School of Visual Arts since 1987 and won last year's Society of Illustrators Gold Medal for sequential art. Peter lived in Oaxaca, Mexico from July 2006-2008 during a major teachers' strike and his work from that time can be seen in can be seen in his book Diario de Oaxaca. He is the co-founder of the political comix magazine World War 3 Illustrated and is co-curating a 30th anniversary retrospective of its history opening at Exit Art in NYC December 7th, 2010.

Editor's note: Diario de Oaxaca first appeared as serial reports, in slightly different form,  in DART, running from November 2006 to June 2008. As Day of the Dead approaches, Peter kindly agreed to update the story.