Oaxaca Journal, V.3

By    Friday December 15, 2006

Oaxaca, Mexico has had a long history of conquests and political struggle, from A-Z (Zapotecs to Aztecs, that is). Then there were the conquistadors, who slashed their way to power and built the gorgeous 16th century colonial capitol you see here today.

For those who rule this state, the biggest change since colonial times has been the method. Instead of swords, wheelocks and horses, they maintain control using tear gas, automatic weapons and tanks. The circumstances for most indigenous people, on the other hand, haven't changed all that much. The state of Oaxaca is the second poorest in all of Mexico, and many people still live in homes with dirt floors, in villages without electricity or running water. When they dare to defend their limited rights, they usually do so through marches, and violence is usually limited to throwing sticks and stones.

Which brings us up to November 2006.

A teacher's strike had been going for five months. During this time, teachers were encamped in Oaxaca city's town square, or Zocalo. Federal troops (PFP) had been brought in after an American journalist was killed by governor Ulises Ruiz Ortez's police, and nerves were wearing thin. The troops pushed strikers out of the Zocalo, but the strikers regrouped further up the street and made camp around Santo Domingo church, continuing their protest for better wages and demanding the removal of the governor.

As the end of November drew near, tensions mounted. On December 1st the new president, Felipe Calderón, would assume power and should governor Ulises be forced to resign, he would be able to appoint his own successor. For me, every visit to downtown Oaxaca was a surreal experience. To enter the Zocalo meant passing lines of riot police backed up by tanks with water hoses ready for assault. In front of Santo Domingo, strikers had strung tarps in their encampment to give shelter from rain and sun. Every few feet, televisions were playing DVDs of the history of the strike, with videos of marches to Mexico City, construction of barricades around town and altercations between police and strikers. One DVD showed the major conflict from November 2, when the PFP attempted to take over the last remaining radio station manned by strikers at a university. It was a scene of complete mayhem, with helicopters hovering overhead and tanks rolling through the streets amid clouds of tear gas. Strikers set up burning barricades and hurled rocks at lines of marching police. In a bizarre twist, riot police are seen throwing rocks back at strikers, who use corrugated metal or wood as makeshift shields. This particular DVD was a favorite among strikers and played on a continuous loop, since the PFP were successfully repelled that day and the radio station continued transmitting.

On the last Saturday in November, my wife and I got a surprise dispensation in the form of a sleepover for our daughter. It was a rare weekend date; with our daughter out of harm's way, we decided to go out and walk around town. We knew that strikers had planned a march that day and we wanted to see for ourselves. So far, I had gone out solo, witnessing events as they unfolded to do drawings and take photos. This was a good opportunity for my wife to join me and apply some of her good sense to my fool-hardy tendencies.

Crowds were already forming as we arrived, and people were making their way toward the police blockades that surrounded the Zocalo. The marchers' plan was to encircle the Zocalo in a non-violent action that would impede police movement for 48 hours and bring wider attention to Oaxaca's situation. I pulled out my sketchbook and camera, snapping photos and drawing as the crowd swelled. It had the feel of a traditional Day of the Dead parade, with protesters wearing face masks and dressed in layers of colorful clothing. Some carried hand-made signs calling for the expulsion of Ulises and bottles of half-flat Coca Cola (a proven remedy for tear-gassed eyes). As usual, people of all ages, children and the elderly alike, made up the strikers' march today. Although it had a festive quality, the weight of the long struggle and the price so many people had already paid hung heavily over the proceedings.

At 4:30, after milling around for a while, my wife and I headed home. Fortuitous timing as it turned out, since minutes after we departed, the PFP suddenly attacked. Firing from rooftops, they shot marbles - yes, marbles - from slingshots, and volleys of tear gas. Instead of their usual slow march forward, the PFP moved quickly in the confusion and surrounded the encampment at Santo Domingo. It was payback time for their humiliation at the university; they quickly arrested over one hundred people. During the next few hours, they pulled down the encampment, then continued to round up protesters in outlying neighborhoods as well, jailing anyone they caught on the streets. During the melee, PFP clubbed and wounded over forty protesters and at least four people were killed by gunfire.

The world press reported that violent protesters attacked first and set numerous buildings ablaze, but given the force they encountered, the protesters would have had limited opportunity to cause the damage newspapers described. As we had left the scene before the fires began, I have no way of knowing who was behind every action. Curiously, two of the buildings that were razed contained all of the papers of Governor Ulises' business dealings as well as the previous administration's, rendering an investigation into missing funds that was underway impossible to conclude. It has been very instructive to watch the spin on events in the press. It reminds me how difficult it can be to find out what's happening in distant lands-let alone right around the corner!

Since that explosion a few weeks ago, it has been eerily calm. Still, a shadow hangs over Oaxaca and many protesters are languishing in prison without hearings or sentencing. Nonetheless, rumors that Ulises will be removed from office by the new president continue to swirl about and there has even been a trickle of tourism returning to downtown.

Even as this upheaval nips at our heels, we haven't decided to pack our bags. I do, however, keep my sketchbook and camera handy at all times.

To be continued...

Illustrations, top to bottom:
The PFP, encamped in the Zocalo for over a month and bored out of their minds.
Day of the Dead, revisited: On November 25th, protesters meet the PFP.
The calm after the storm troopers.
Illustrations © 2006 Peter Kuper

This is the third 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.

DART apologizes for posting Thomas Woodruff's book signing party, which was not a public event. His book, Freak Parade, is available through and