Oaxaca Journal, V.1

By    Friday November 10, 2006

The first question I'm usually asked these days is, "What made you decide to live in Oaxaca, Mexico?"

This brings to mind some dialogue from the movie Casablanca:

Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains): "What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?"
Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart): "My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters."
Captain Renault: "The waters? What waters? We're in the desert!"
Rick: "I was misinformed."

My daughter, wife and I didn't move here last July for the waters, but for a year-long sabbatical. We picked Oaxaca, (pronounced wah-HA-ka) because it's a gorgeous colonial town we'd visited a few times and loved. It's close to home (five hours from New York City, about a half-hour flight southwest of Mexico City); it's a lot cheaper living than NYC; and the language is Spanish, which we all wanted to learn. What we didn't come for was an exploding political situation, but we got one anyway.

A quick history: For the last 26 years Oaxaca's teachers have gone on an annual strike for a pay raise so they can maintain a (barely) living wage and get supplies for their schools. Every May, the teachers set up an encampment in the town center Zocalo), and presented their demands for better wages and conditions. After a few weeks, or at most a month of their living in the town square, the governor would meet their demands and the teachers would agree to go back to work in August. This year, however, the new governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, decided to take a different tack. On June 14th at 4:30 a.m. he sent in riot police and tear gas was dropped from helicopters in an attempt to forcibly expel the teachers.

This attack completely backfired. Not only were the strikers not evicted, they were bolstered by thousands of sympathizers from APPO (Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca), a coalition of unions, and both groups were supported by most of the Oaxaca citizenry. The strikers' demands also expanded and gained focus. They would not end the strike unless governor Ulises stepped down.

Since June, tensions (our own included) rose and fell with periodic police actions against the strikers. There were blockades set up by APPO throughout the city and on any given day the normal route we'd drive through town would be barricaded by buses and other debris designed to impede surprise attacks by police.

Barricades were also set up around a few TV and radio stations that had been taken over by the APPO and teachers to disseminate information otherwise censored by the government. When August rolled around, with none of the teacher's demands met, public schools across the state failed to open.

After more that five months of unrest, the xit hit the fan. On Friday, October 27th undercover police, called "Porros", (thugs working for the governor Ulises) attacked strikers manning a barricade on the outskirts of town, killing three teachers and an American journalist who was filming a documentary about the situation. With the death of an American, the story suddenly made international headlines. This pressured Mexico's president Vicente Fox into ordering federal troops into Oaxaca the next day.

The Policia Federal Preventiva (PFP), as the federal troops are called, attacked the strikers on Sunday night October 29th, took over the Zocalo and tore down blockades throughout the city. As of this writing the town center is no longer an encampment of teachers, but has been replaced by an encampment of military forces. The strikers have moved up the street in front of the landmark Templo Santo Domingo and continue to protest for the governor's departure. Ulises has refused to leave office, even as pressure mounts from all sides, including his own party.

So our move has been everything we'd hoped for - barricades, mayhem and lots and lots of riot police - all trumped by everything else this adventure has to offer.

We are spending more time together as a family and every day has brought a wealth of new language, culture, incredibly friendly people and artistic inspiration that I'm only just being able to digest after four months here. Not only do we plan to stay, we're contemplating extending our sabbatical another year.

Water or desert, Oaxaca remains a fantastic choice.

Here are some examples of my attempts to capture this experience on paper:

Top: Summertime and the bustling Etla market a few miles from town. The Mexico we dreamed about.
Middle: Oaxaca, a city of contrasts. Colonial architecture from the 1500s, indigenous people living life as they have for centuries, fresh graffiti on every wall telling the governor to leave, and dogs, barking perpetually.
Bottom: Like I said - Oaxaca, a city of contrasts. Federal police barricading the Zocalo.
Drawings ©2006 Peter Kuper

To be continued...

This is the first installment of a regular communiqué from Peter Kuper, a cartoonist and illustrator whose work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines including Mad, where he has drawn Spy vs. Spy for the last decade.

Peter's recent books include graphic novel adaptations of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Sticks and Stones which won the Society of Illustrators gold medal in 2005. His first children's book, Theo and the Blue Note, was published this fall by Viking.