14 de junio no se olvide
I was here.
Never forget June 14th. The words are spray painted in Spanish on a stucco wall near my Air B&B. I stop and wait for cars and pedestrians to pass before snapping a picture with my cell phone. I still get funny looks from Oaxacans on their way to work, school or market. Why is that tourist taking a picture of some ugly graffiti?
I want to stop them and explain. I’m not just a some misery tourist, you see. I was here.
* * * *
On June 14, 2006, I was living in a 12×14 foot cinder block room six blocks from the central plaza, or zócalo. I’d been in Oaxaca for two years already. I had a sweet gig teaching English to employees of the Oaxaca-Xoxocotlán International Airport—“international” thanks to one daily Continental Express flight to Houston.
That morning I awoke to the smell of insecticide. I assumed my neighbors were spraying for cockroaches, but when I stepped onto my third floor balcony, I saw smoke rising from the zócalo.
Up and down the street, my neighbors stood on their roofs and balconies. We heard shouting coming from the zócalo, a muffled roar that rose and fell like the crowd at a football game. Together we watched as a black helicopter swooped low over the plaza. A silver canister dropped from its hull, plummeted through the lush green canopy and exploded, feet from the kiosk where every Wednesday elderly couples gathered to dance.
For the previous month, the zócalo had been occupied by teachers from Section XXII of the National Education Workers Union (SNTE). The sit-in, or plantón, was annual event. The teachers pitched tents on the plaza, or slept on flattened pieces of cardboard under the 16th century arcade. They cooked meals on short metal stoves called anafres, and strung their laundry to dry between telephone polls. Usually the plantón only lasted a couple weeks, until the governor granted a token pay raise or funding increase for rural, indigenous schools. But Oaxaca’s new Governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, refused to negotiate. Just before dawn on June 14th, Governor Ortiz ordered 886 elements of the municipal police to break up the strike. Armed with night sticks and tear gas grenades, they drove the teachers from their encampment. The teachers regrouped and fought back with sticks, stones, PVC pipes, and the shells of grenades lobbed by police. At least 92 people were injured in the battle, but by midday, the teachers had retaken the zócalo.
Afterwards, my colleagues and I waded through the wreckage of the plantón: fallen tarps, overturned chairs, pots and pans. PVC pipes protruded like broken bones from flattened tents. A city bus had crashed into a storefront, blocking most of Independencia Ave. Fires burned in front of the Governor’s Palace and the Marquis de Valle Hotel. The smoke rose higher than the crowns of the India Laurel trees. Teachers walked around carrying sticks, machetes, and PVC pipes. When they saw our white skin they rushed up and spoke in broken English. “We want the whole world to know what happened here,” they said. A red-eyed woman in a white surgical mask encouraged me to take a picture of blood soaked rag on the sidewalk. “They’re saying nothing happened, but we will never forget.”
* * * *
PVC pipes protruded like broken bones from flattened tents.
If this were my country, I promised myself, I would act.
It’s been ten years since I left Oaxaca for grad school, but I recognize the smell as soon as I step off the bus from Mexico City: sweet, smokey, overripe. The morning sun is strong, but the stucco buildings cut crisp shadows across the cobblestones. I can see where graffiti has been painted over with swathes of green gray paint that doesn’t quite match the tone of the cantera verde stone. Three blocks from the zócalo, I can already hear the organ grinders and the squeals of happy children. I enter through the Alameda, where the balloon venders line up in front of the cathedral, cellophane bouquets swaying against the blue sky. There are food carts selling grilled corn on-the-cob, hotdogs, popsicles, and hot potato chips drizzled in chile. A bubble machine cranks out iridescent orbs that float up between the branches of the Laurel trees. A woman in a long, red and white striped tunic tries to sell me a scarf. All is right with the world, until I spy a familiar yellow and green logo beneath the 16th century arcade: Subway. I can’t believe it. I turn back toward the kiosk, where someone has written Malditos policias puercos (Damn police pigs) in purple spray paint, above Libertad por presos politicos (Freedom for political prisoners).
In the last ten years I’ve written about June 14th from almost every prospective, except my own. My graduate thesis was a failed novel about young expat woman who did what I was unwilling, or afraid to do in 2004: take to the streets alongside the teachers. Other expat friends marched in solidarity, but I told myself it wasn’t my fight. I didn’t want to be another earnest foreigner, making matters worse through well-intentioned meddling. If this were my country, I promised myself, I would act.
“Do you think it could happen again?” I ask my friend Armando over a breakfast of Nescafe and entomatadas. “What happened in 2006.”
“I don’t think so.” He explains that the focus of the conflict has shifted from the state to the national level. In 2013, President Enrique Pena Nieto enacted a series of National Education Reforms, including a new standardized licensing exam for teachers. The union claims that the exams are biased against rural and indigenous teachers.
“It’s mostly pretty quiet, but with the Guelaguetza coming up, (the teachers) will start up again, you’ll see, because they know they’ll get attention.”
The Guelaguetza, said to have originated as a pre hispanic harvest festival, is Oaxaca’s biggest tourist attraction. Every July, thousands of national and international tourist descend on the city for a weeklong celebration—or commodification, depending on your point of view—of indigenous culture, culminating in a traditional dance performance.
“Maybe the teachers think the government won’t massacre them with the whole world watching?”
“Maybe.” Armando doesn’t sound very sympathetic. Oaxaca ranks only above Chiapas in student achievement. A third of adults are illiterate. His own son, Iker, attends a private school, or escuela particular, where his education isn’t interrupted by work stoppages and demonstrations. Armando shows me a video on his phone of Iker, in a straw hat and white shirt, performing with his second grade class in last week’s Children’s Guelaguetza. Tall and awkward like his dad, Iker waves his red handkerchief like a distress signal.
Tall and awkward like his dad, Iker waves his red handkerchief like a distress signal.
Memory tries to preserve the past only so that it will be useful in the present.
The next morning, I’m supposed to meet my friend Sofi in the zócalo, but she texts to says she can’t come, because the teachers have barricaded the highway near her home.
In the meantime, I take a walk around the centro. The street where I used to live, Calle Vicente Guerrero, looks more upscale then I remember. There are new coffee shops and boutiques, freshly painted blue, white and yellow. One wall, across from the church of San Augustin, is untouched. Black letters read in Spanish: Memory tries to preserve the past only so that it will be useful in the present. Let’s make sure the collective memory serves for liberation, not subjugation.
In 2006 there was a barricade here: strips of sheet metal spray painted with the words Fuera URO (Out with Ulises Ruiz Ortiz). I crossed it every morning on my way to buy coffee from the ladies in the courtyard of San Augustín. Sometimes I got catcalled by the teachers who guarded it; sometimes I had to step over or around them while they slept, stretched on pieces of flattened cardboard or with their backs against the church wall.
The barricade was one of hundreds erected around the city to protect the teachers and their allies from government paramilitaries. In some places they commandeered buses and other state vehicles and parked them across the streets, but mostly they improvised with whatever they could find: scrap metal, tires, old sofas. The teachers came together with other community organizations to form the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, commonly known by its Spanish acronym, the APPO. For six months the APPO controlled the zócalo and the surrounding streets.
During the day, the occupied zone almost felt like a carnival. Unlicensed venders arriving from as far away as Veracruz and Michoacan. They sold fresh fruit, juice, homemade tamales and hot chocolate for a fraction of the price as the cafe’s in the zócalo, which were now boarded up. They invented the Jicaleta, a broad slice of jicama root impaled on a popsicle stick and dipped in your choice of topping: chile, mango, sugar sprinkles.
After the 9 p.m. curfew everything changed. I was awakened by breaking glass, shouts, and explosions. I learned to distinguish the sound of firecrackers, which the teachers used to communicate among the barricades, and the short, sharp blast of gunfire
Time doesn’t move in a straight line, it turns like a screw.
The next morning I follow the sound of trumpets and firecrackers to Avenida Independencia. I watch from the sidewalk as women twirl their shiny satin skirts and toss candy from wicker baskets balanced on their heads. These festive processions, known as calendas, are common in Oaxaca, but this one is different. Participants carry red and yellow banners that say COS, the Spanish acronym for Coordinated Social Organizations, and its motto: organization, consciousness, and struggle. I follow the procession to the zócalo, where about 200 displaced residents of the town Vicente Guerrero Villa de Zaachila camp out under dirty white tarps. Voices rise, banners bob up and down among the leaves of the Indian Laurel trees. It might as well be 2006, or 1521. Time doesn’t move in a straight line, it turns like a screw.
The day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, I drove to Boston to join the Women’s March. It was a surreal 50 degree February day. Bubbles poured down on us from the steps of Arlington Street Church. The bells played “We Shall Overcome.” I saw cops smile at the signs with the cleverest puns (my personal favorite called Trump an “Hijo de Putin”). One was even wearing a pink pussy hat.
At the end of the march, I discarded my cardboard sign, “Don’t Deport my Friends,” by the wrought iron fence along Boylston street. My friend and I stepped back and admired the spontaneous folk art exhibition, thousands of signs with sassy slogans, colorful uteri and cats, the work of toddlers alongside that of professional artists and everyone in between – all dramatically backlit by the setting sun.
Then we went for beer and Nachos.
No one was arrested at Boston Women’s March, but in the following months Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has detained over 143,000 immigrants, including more than 100 in my home state of Massachusetts. Most of the detainees are not criminals, as the government claims, but family men like Lucio Perez, who has taken sanctuary a local church to avoid deportation to Guatemala and separation from his wife and kids.
I’m trying to keep the promise I made to myself in 2004. I’m part of an underground network that supports families like the Perez. Sometimes we can offer, food, legal aid, rides to bond hearings or to visited loved in ones in a far off detention facilities. Sometimes all we can offer is solidarity.
* * * *
“Is Trump really going to build a wall?” Sofi wants to know. She Armando and I are at Micheland, a new bar in Colonia Reforma that specializes in Micheladas—beer flavored with salt and chile.
“I don’t think so, not literally. It’s expensive and impractical. Not even all the Republicans support it.”
“From where we sit,” Armando says. “It seems like half of America is racist.”
I try to explain the electoral college over the cumbia music. “I’m not saying there isn’t racism, but a lot of it is just displaced anger about economic conditions.”
“So not everyone hates Mexicans?”
“No, in some states, like California, most people are Mexicans.” They can’t argue with that, like most Oaxacans, they have relatives in California. Thanks to NAFTA and the decline of small scale rural agriculture, there are now as many Oaxacans in California as in Oaxaca itself.
The Guelaguetza is five days away. The garbage still has not been picked up. The sidewalks are piled high with black trash bags, like bloated corpses, oozing foul fluids.
Three days before I’m scheduled to depart, the Governor calls for a tequio to clean up the city in time for the Guelaguetza. The concept of tequio—shared labor for the benefit of the entire community—is fundamental to indigenous Mexican society. Hundreds of volunteers, wearing white shirts emblazoned with the official “Tequio por Oaxaca” logo, descend on the city center, armed with buckets of bleach and cans of paint. They go to work on the graffiti, scrubbing at the gang tags and political slogans alike. I keep about a block ahead with my camera, snapping pictures of my favorites before they are censored; We will not adapt to this system; While you’re walking, the gasoline is increasing and salaries decreasing; Education will not be a privilege of those who can pay. They rip down prints by the Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca (ASARO); black and white silkscreens of Emiliano Zapata and the Virgin of the Barricades (an image of Mary wearing a gas mask, her cloak alight with burning tires); they paint over the angry indigenous girl in the act of tying a bright orange kerchief over her mouth beneath the words Here we breathe struggle.
Before the paint is dry another protest is underway. This time it’s taxi drivers from the Mixteca region. They park their white vans up and down Avenida de Independencia. No more blood, they write in Spanish on the windshields, Governor Murat implicit in piracy. The taxi drivers hold a press conference in the zócalo, but they don’t have a microphone and I can’t hear them over the laughter of the children and music of the organ grinders.
Four days before the Guelaguetza, two days until I’m scheduled to depart. A new barricade goes up in front of the first class bus station. I talk to some of the teachers seated along the curb. They turn out to be normalistas, student teachers, like the 43 who disappeared from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero. Has anything changed since 2006, I ask. “It’s gotten worse,” says one young man. I shake his hand and wish him luck. My heart is heavy as I walk away, wondering what will nightfall will bring.
But the next morning the barricade is gone. Armando drops me off at the terminal early, so he can pick up Iker from swim class. I buy a couple more nips of mescal from the Beneva stall while I wait. My bus departs for Mexico City on schedule. From there I return to the US, to my own struggle. Now, more than ever, I cannot forget June 14th.