Oaxaca Journal, V.9

By    Thursday January 24, 2008

It has been over a year since the U.S. State Department lifted its travel warning against visiting Oaxaca, Mexico. This had been a death sentence to the economy, which is largely dependent on tourism. Hotels were empty, restaurants empty, tour buses empty, pockets empty.

Flash forward to the end of last December. The streets are now full of vendors selling an explosion of colorful clothing, wooden animals and various other fantastic tchotchkies. The owner at Casa Oaxaca restaurant informs my wife and me there are no tables available for the next several nights. Flights into town are booked and hotels are packed during the holidays -- once again a continuous fiesta from Day of the Dead through the Dog Days of Summer.


Above: Pages from Peter Kuper's Oaxaca sketchbook, courtesy of the artist.

It's not that I long for a bygone era of burning buses, tear-gassed streets, federal troops and curfews. But I will admit there was a special feeling of being among the intrepid few foreigners who braved the historic events of the seven-month teachers strike that began in 2006.

Certainly, there had been nothing pleasurable about being the lone couple seated in restaurants that teetered on the edge of bankruptcy or walking through empty streets past barricades and the burnt skeletons of buses. Still we felt a sense of solidarity and inclusion in the town that transformed us from mere tourists to members of the community.

Our gringo status has now returned along with a rising economy. Which isn't to say all is hunky dory. The governor, who triggered the entire mess, has spent the last three years lining his pockets (with three more years to go) as Oaxaca continues to hold second place, right behind Chiapas, as the poorest state in Mexico. Many strikers remain behind bars and a number of the businesses that suffered during the siege have vanished.

The opportunity I previously had to draw police in riot gear, encamped teachers and smashed storefront windows has been replaced by sketches of teaming market stalls, dog-filled streets and a million other aspects that help me remember the entire picture, as the last months of our time in Mexico evaporate in the heat.

Happily I've discovered that by observing and drawing my surroundings, I'm slowing the passage of time. I'm certainly hoping this parade of images will have taken up permanent residence in my brain; when we return to the U.S.A. I'll need the glow of Oaxaca to remain as a mental retreat when Manhattan turns to ice.

This is the ninth installment of a regular communique from Peter Kuper, a cartoonist and illustrator. Peter's coming-of-middle-age graphic novel, Stop Forgetting to Remember as well as a collection of his first decade of "Spy vs Spy" strips have been recently published. His work is included in "LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel," on view at the Norman Rockwell Museum through May 26, 2008. Peter will be appearing at the University of North Dakota Writers Conference with Salman Rushdie, Amiri Baraka and Junot Diaz, on the subject of 'Revolutions,' March 26-28th and at the Jewish Community Center, San Francisco, May 5th, in conversation with monologist Josh Kornbluth.