Oaxaca Journal, V.2

By    Monday November 20, 2006

It’s a beautiful mid November afternoon and I’m sitting at an outdoor café in the Zocalo. Scanning the bustling scene I see a woman in a dazzlingly colorful dress, carrying a basket of fruit on her head. Near a baroque gazebo, an old man is selling hand- carved animal figures next to a group of musicians playing some perfect Latin rhythm. The sun is dancing between tree branches and tanning my face as I sip my iced coffee.

This serene picture is shattered by the footfalls of marching soldiers. They parade past a grey steel tank and a line of helmeted riot police with shields and automatic weapons guarding each and every entrance to this town square.

Welcome to Oaxaca, Mexico.

Perhaps you are wondering how it came to this? Okay, let’s roll it back a few weeks, to the “calm” before the storm…troopers.

It was Friday, October 27th when my friend Antonio Turok called to see if I wanted to join him for a behind the scenes tour of the barricades that had been set up around town. Antonio is a photographer who has covered situations in Chiapas and El Salvador and had been documenting the teachers’ strike that has engulfed Oaxaca for months. He promised to ring me when he reached the town center where we’d rendezvous. I waited as the hours passed but he didn’t call.

Towards the end of the day it began to rain and I volunteered to pick up our nine-year-old daughter from a play-date. As I drove along the bumpy cobblestone streets, a mild shower suddenly became a torrential downpour. I’d never experienced a flash flood — that is, until that day. As I skirted yet another newly erected blockade, I was met by a raging river where a street had been only minutes before. After many twist and turns I found a route through and managed to extract my (happily) drenched daughter from her friend’s house and retrace my steps. Just as suddenly the rain subsided, but then the dam broke. A news report hit that while it was raining uptown, a different kind of storm had struck downtown. ”Porros”, paramilitary police working undercover for Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, had attacked strikers manning barricades. Three Oaxacanos and an American journalist, Brad Will, were shot dead. Will, who captured the horrific event on film, wasn’t the first to die in this ongoing conflict, but the first American. [Ed. Note: This site presents Brad Will’s footage of his final walk through the barricades.]

Antonio called as night fell to say he was holed up in an office building with a group of journalists and others who had taken refuge when the shooting started. Needless to say, we wouldn’t be meeting as planned.

The next day the president of Mexico ordered 4,000 federal troops to be flown into Oaxaca. The teachers and their supporters who had been encamped in the Zocalo since May were about to face an overwhelming new threat.

Weeks before, we had planned a birthday party for my wife on that very Saturday, and encouraged by our guests, we decide to proceed, the current situation notwithstanding. Better to hang out together than hang separately! Pam, another American on sabbatical with her family, was planning to bring her mother, who was arriving that day from the States via Mexico City. Talk about timing. Virtually everyone who made it to our house had a different story about what was happening in the city. One person said the airport was shut down, another that all the roads in that direction were blocked. Then news came on the Internet that planeloads of federal troops had landed in Oaxaca. 

As the PFP (Policia Federal Preventiva) marched towards Oaxaca’s town center, they were met by men, women and children mostly armed with banners denouncing the governor and this new invasion. Throughout this  strike for better wages the teachers had managed their protests peacefully, but were regularly attacked by governor Ulises’ forces. Though we live only fifteen minutes uptown from the Zocalo, it remained a world away. I was reminded of how we felt in 2001, living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side while a short subway ride downtown, rubble from the Twin Towers smoldered.

Courtesy of cellular phones, word reached Pam in the middle of our party that her mother‘s flight was boarding. PFP or no PFP, Pam headed out to pick her up. Antonio had gotten home safely that morning but called to say it was impossible to join us now. In fact, many roads were blockaded throughout the city and about half of our guests couldn’t reach us. Amazingly, before the birthday candles were lit, Pam returned with her mother. We had a toast to their safe arrival, my wife’s birthday, and above all our fervent hope that Governor Ulises would be forced to resign and bring the situation in Oaxaca to a peaceful resolution.

To be continued…

Words and pictures © Peter Kuper 2006
Top: Zocalo blues, the story today, with the PFP encamped in the town square.
Middle: Fuera Ulises! A barricade telling the governor to leave, put there by teachers and other supporters encamped along the streets leading up to the Zocalo. These blockades are now all removed and the teachers have moved their encampment further up the street.
Bottom: One of the many tank-like assault vehicles still positioned around the town square.

This is the second 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.