The Real Thing
The people take back their own celebration

by Nancy Davies  <>
17 July 2006

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    The struggle for true popular autonomy in Oaxaca is, as Judith Cid Flores characterized it, “in defense of life because it is life itself that one finds threatened by bad policies and bad governments in the service of the dominant classes.” [1] As such, the struggle must be multi-faceted. It must encompass and revise not only the form of social government – politics – but all aspects of cultural expression, including the satisfaction of basic health needs, of environmental beauty and sustainability, of love and respect for one another, of mutual aid and compassion, everything that gives richness and meaning and continuity and joy to life. The picture shows the popular movement in occupation of the center of Oaxaca just about three and a half weeks after the failed attempt by state police to drive the occupiers out on June 14. Nancy Davies, an on-the-ground observer and reporter of the political struggle in the city,[2] is also a poet of the revolution whose essay here reveals the determination of the people to recapture and make authentic the fiesta of the Guelaguetza. —G.S.

Fourth of July, 2006 in the zócalo at the center of Oaxaca. A real Independence Day! (Norteamericanos take note!) Independence of mis-government by politicians and their always-corrupt parties vying for personal wealth and power and their "people-be-damned attitude". The banner says, "For the defense of the rights of the people. We are all going to strengthen the popular assembly." Photo by Nancy Davies, 4 July 2006.

“10:20 SE POSPONE GUELAGUETZA 17 de Julio de 2006”
10:20 am news announcement

Hey, here’s some fun: Channel 9 [the Oaxaca State television station] is showing last year’s Guelaguetza. Meanwhile there’s about 5,000 people up on the hill in the stadium having a party – Radio Universidad says people are bringing them food, water, coffee etc because they’re camping for the whole week! Cement stadium – somebody should bring them mattresses. The blockades are now being accomplished with captured buses turned sideways across the streets.
1:55 pm e-mail from Nancy on 17 July

And here is Nancy’s commentary:

      When the first little girl stepped out onto the platform, holding high the orange satin skirt of her costume and clutching on top of her head a basket of flowers, she was grinning with such evident combination of pride, glee and terror that tears sprang to my eyes. I had to get out of my folding chair on the crooked pavement and go stand in the back of the crowd so’s nobody would notice my attack of sentimentality.

      The rest of the children trooped out. The females, child and adult, in these Guelaguetza events are invariably dressed to represent the indigenous 19th century version of a Spanish lady, and the guys always wear white cotton to represent very clean campesinos – so why scoff, it’s tradition. As I watched the kids step around to the creaky recorded music it was impossible not to understand how well-loved they are, in a way one cannot imagine for adult performers, not for adults who dance at Radio City Music Hall or the Sands Hotel.

      These kids learn their parents’ traditions, and even when one confused boy turned the wrong way, and one girl’s braid fell off, the audience applauded heartily. And the audience wasn’t all parents – at least not parents of these particular offspring – some were tourists who never imagined traveling a thousand miles to see children dance.

      I stood back in the crowd of maybe three hundred people who, with formal events cancelled, had wandered to this splendid corner in Oaxaca – the handsome campaniles of Santo Domingo church strong against the cloud-and-clear sky, the first bats swooping forth at twilight. I suddenly remembered my pre-television teen years of a summer night, when on the street corner a crowd of boys would stand and sing “Irene Goodnight”, surrounded by black-clad old women in chairs set out on the hot sidewalks, old men in their suspenders. Good night, Irene. It was like that.

      So where was the real guelaguetza? For those of you who don’t know the word, it’s an old one, originating long before its people learned to read and write, let alone give it upper case billing. It means mutual aid – like, if there’s a wedding, the neighbors help out by bringing food and drink and music and a gift or two for the young couple; they do it knowing full well that in time the neighbors will reciprocate, and the reciprocity will circulate forever, like bread cast on the waters, or if you’re a Hindu, like a kind of edible karma. Last night when the Teachers’ Popular Movement took possession of the auditorium on Oaxaca’s Fortin Hill, the “neighbors” brought food and coffee and whatever they had, to help ten thousand or so occupy the hill last night and persist until today, Monday, the day Governor Ulises Ruíz set aside for the commercial Guelaguetza.

      The movement wasn’t having it. In this stubborn struggle, in which Ruíz has ahold of the police, the media, and the money, the popular movement has ahold of the people. I listen to callers on the Radio Universidad phone lines (lousy technology: “Bueno? Bueno? Bueno? Estás en el aire! Digame! Estás en el aire! Adelante, compañero!” [“Hello? Hello? Hello? You’re on the air! Speak! You’re on the air! Go ahead, comrade!”] for two minutes before the conversation gets rolling. And then, after the technology struggle, what do we hear – “This Guelaguetza is not for the people, it’s for the hotels and restaurants! I can not afford this, it’s for the rich only! Why should our tax dollars go to support neoliberalism!” What? What? Tax dollars going to support neoliberalism? I did listen one day when there was a discussion of what neoliberalism is, and what it means, and I guess it took only that one lesson, because everyone caught on so quick. The best tickets to the Fortin auditorium sell for 400 pesos, in a state where the minimum wage is forty-six pesos per day – that’s barely over $4.00.

      For the first time, the upper-case Guelaguetza, maximum party of the Oaxaqueños, refused to cater to the tourists and the wealthy, and the people took back their fiesta. Ulises Ruíz Ortíz at 10:20 A.M., in a black suit (And if that doesn’t prove he’s mad, what could? Who wears a black suit on July 17?) was revealed in living color with a Mexican flag on his desk, on his state TV channel 9, between acts of the televised 2005 Guelaguetza. His white, white teeth showed beneath his black, black moustache as he transmitted the cancellation message, his defeat obscured by a variety of falsehoods and slanders.

      Ruíz Ortíz claimed that his decision was made to avoid attacks on visitors who might come to see the show. The cancellation was described as a re-scheduling, although with no date for a future event. And he repeated his willingness to “maintain dialogue” – there is no dialogue – and “find a solution to the teachers’ demands” – although the “demands” are not from the teachers but from the people, who have only one demand: Out. Ruíz out.

      The governor, or as the people refer to him, the ex-governor, informed the Channel 9 audience that he has already requested the federal government’s intervention – to recoup the economic damage caused to Oaxaca by postponing the biggest tourist draw of the Oaxaca calendar.

      Except it’s not postponed, it’s just going on free and in different venues and on different days. Historically the Guelaguetza was held on the last two Mondays in July, and that’s when the people will observe it. It’s called Monday on the Hill – Lunes del Cerro, and only in 1951 was it assigned the people’s stolen word, guelaguetza, as it became a commercial event. Now the APPO (Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, Asamblea Popular de Pueblo de Oaxaca) has scheduled a series of free fiestas, the biggest one set for July 24 – Monday, on Fortin. [Nancy wrote me on the 29th, “sadly ... , the Monday event on the hill couldn’t go on as planned, some government porros had done such a job on the stadium (cement in the bathroom plumbing) that the pople couldn’t get it ready. So they held a morning rally on the hill, and an evening guelaguetza in the Tecnológico stadium (so that's another student group backing the movement) to which, according to La Jornada, twenty-thousand ordinary citizens flocked.” —That’s the Instituto Technológico de Oaxaca. –G.S.]

      Participants in the Guelaguetza come into Oaxaca city from the seven regions of Oaxaca: the Central Valleys, the Sierra, the Cañada, Tuxtepec, the Mixteca, the Costa and the Itsmo, delegations of dancers that display their professionalized regional dances and their professionalized regional costumes, their dance routines, and the fruits of the earth representative of each area, such as a pineapple hefted on a dancer’s shoulder – and please don’t point out that Mexico’s national bureau of government statistics (INEGI) says there are eight regions – the people say seven, and before the governor tore it down, they used to have a monument to prove it – Siete Regiones.[3]

      It used to be their hill, too. Unfortunately, Governor Ruíz decided that widening the access road from two to four lanes would be a good idea. Nobody was consulted (he likes widening roads, in a state where ninety percent of the people cannot afford an automobile), apparently not even a civil engineer. The sad result was that dynamite blasting revealed a substantial geological fissure in the hill, and off the top of the hill rolled – no, not the houses, not yet, although people were temporarily evacuated – rolled down several white stones. It happens they were the white stones placed to form the last word on a sentence printed out in white stones, on the side of Fortin Hill. The sentence is a famous quotation of Benito Juarez, the indigenous and much-cherished (benemerito, worthy, is his appellation) President of Mexico, a poor humble Zapoteco boy from Oaxaca. The famous sentence, visible for miles, read, “Respect for the rights of others is peace.”

      The peace fell off. The outcry that followed surely compelled the retaking of the guelaguetza, to revitalize it like the popular assemblies are being revitalized. Next week we’ll see young men leaping in their feather headdresses, women’s naked shoulders, flaring skirts and stomping heels – all that will play out free in the rotunda de la azucena, the people’s auditorium on the people’s hill.

      No tickets required. Just come. Bring the kids.

End of Nancy’s commentary

International solidarity with the people of Oaxaca

      The first, and possibly the most important need of the incipient revolution in Oaxaca is for people in the rest of the world to know what has been happening and why it may be a profoundly significant development, if it is not prematurely crushed. Our task – those of us who have some international contacts – can be to help get the information and understanding out. Widespread dissemination of honest information is both crucially needed and greatly lacking, unlike slanderous, calculated misinformation, which, as usual, abounds.

      One already-organized solidarity effort you might like to consider joining is that of the Oaxaca Study-Action Group (OSAG),[4] which initiated a Yahoo discussion listserv. OSAG describes itself as (in English): “an international non-governmental network in solidarity with the communities of Oaxaca. OSAG’s network communicates with thousands of people around the world, by using the internet and personal contacts. OSAG is a part of civil society, not affiliated with any government or political party”, y en español como: “una red internacional no-gobermental en solidaridad con las comunidades de Oaxaca. La red de OSAG comunica con miles de las personas alrededor del mundo, usando el internet y los contactos personales. OSAG es un parte de la sociedad civil, no afiliada con ningún gobierno ni partido político.”

[1] Judith Cid Flores, “We are Constructing a Movement in Defense of Life”, posted at . Versión original en español se ubica a . Su c.e. es <>.

[2] Nancy Davies’ reports and commentaries on this phenomenal Oaxaca uprising appear primarily on the indispensable Narco News website, which is at . A list of dispatches on this subject, with links, is available at . I will attempt to update the list and links at that URL from time to time.

[3] Siete Regiones. My guess is that the Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e Informática (INEGI), The National Institute for Geographic and Computational Information (topographic, demographic, etc. maps and tabulated statistics) probably counts the Sierra Norte and the Sierra Sur, which lie to the north and south of the Central Valley, as two separate regions.

[4] The Oaxaca Study-Action Group website is at
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