Middle-class sympathies: 2 Oaxacans and 2 Americans in Oaxaca City

assembled by G.S.  <george.salzman@umb.edu>

3 December 2006

this page is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/2006-12-03.htm

      A few days ago I sent an e-mail to my ‘large’ distribution list with two letters from a oaxaqueño friend, letters expressing his pain at the current situation here. His economic, social and intellectual status in oaxacan society is unambiguously middle-class. Since then I received two statements, each by an American who lives in Oaxaca City and each of whom, I think, would consider herself to be in the middle-class (possibly in the upper middle-class range). A oaxaqueño reporter, also middle-class, was interviewed at length by an American journalist. The interview is published. Both middle-class oaxaqueños are sympathetic to the popular struggle typified by APPO, and both middle-class Americans are more critical of APPO than of the governments’ repressive policies. I believe these conflicting sympathies point to cultural differences that override simple class categories. The four items that follow are:
1: Two letters from a teacher in Oaxaca City.
2: Letter from an American resident to a friend in the U.S.
3: Response to the letters from the teacher, by an American resident, Shirley Gray
4: Interview of journalist Jaime Medina by David Bacon for Truthout

1a. Subject: Urgent help!
From: [a teacher in Oaxaca City]
Date: Sun, 26 Nov 2006 02:48:09 +0000
To: arg@derechos.org, hri@hri.ca, koaga@derechos.org, dh@derechos.org, tb-petitions@ohchr.org, indigenous@ohchr.org, marga@derechos.org, unicmex@un.org.mx, unicdc@unicwash.org, pdirube@spiupa.org
CC: editorial2007@terra.com.mx, jodeortiz@netra.net, ugalde@servidor.unam.mx, CEPOS_22@hotmail.com, marcoras@alcubo.com, oaxacalibre@hotmail.com, webmaster@oaxacalibre.org, dialogosporoaxaca@gmail.com, cdiego_omar@hotmail.com

      Today, a few hours ago and still right now, the Federal Police attacked the Oaxacan people that were in a peaceful march protesting the virtual siege state that the Fox Goverment has installed in our city to keep in power the PRI that has been in power since the 30s, keeping our people in poverty and in need. Oaxaca State has economic and social indicators that put it in pair with the poorest nations in Africa or the Caribbean.and our politicians from all colors are more interested in robbing and making sure that nobody will take this power away from them. Lately, the local Oaxacan Congress, in an unconstitucional move, decreed that they will stay in power for two more years, the Governor include

      I live in the downtown area and we all suffered the tear and mustard gas coming from the canisters that the police threw all over the area, without regard that there are many families living there. The marchers were all kind of people: youngsters, old ladies, common workers, woman and even children. For anyone living in Oaxaca, it is known that most people is against the governor that not only took power illicitly, but that put in key posts all the PRI people that were defeated in elections. The Federal Police climbed to the roofs and from there THEY STARTED attacking the marchers with marbles thrown with slings! They were laughing there. This kind of unrespectful attitude made many youngsters quite angry and from there open attacks with gas followed. Right now, at this moment, PRI thugs protected by the Federal Police and police in plain clothes are wandering the downtown streets on motorcycles starting fires in many buildings, many of historical and artistic value. All the Oaxacan people have gone to their homes or are at the Siete Principes Church where they are protected and helped by the really christian priests and organizations. I'm sure that tomorrow the national press and TV will say that the APPO people burned the colonial jewels!

      I ask the most urgent help to the Oaxacan people. Help us get free from this dictatorship interested only in money and power and let us build peacefully the just society that we all want, specially we, indian peoples.

1b. Subject: Urgent action.
From: [a teacher in Oaxaca City]
Date: Thu, 30 Nov 2006 16:32:40 +0000
To: arg@derechos.org, hri@hri.ca, koaga@derechos.org, dh@derechos.org, tb-petitions@ohchr.org, indigenous@ohchr.org, unicmex@un.org.mx, unicdc@unicwash.org, pdirube@spiupa.org
CC: jodeortiz@netra.net, editorial2007@terra.com.mx, ugalde@servidor.unam.mx, oaxacalibre@hotmail.com, jmiranda@woodmaster.com, juliohdz@jornada.com.mx

      I’m a Oaxacan teacher somehow left out from the repression that is taken place right now at my city. The Federal and state police are taking prisoners and doing house searches with blank aprehension or searching warrants. They write names on papers once they catch a person that they believe could be a rebel based only in appeareance (being young, wearing a black t-shirt, long hair and sneakers makes you a prime suspect) or in reports by people made on the PRI illegal radio. Then prisoners are taken to clandestine jails. Some of them reappear later on in far prisons at the other side of Mexico without any valuable legal help and with no communication with realtives, friends or NGOs.

      The police are cruising the city streets heavily armed and they are taking teachers even when working at their schools. Today there are no classes for this reason at all the public schools in the Central Valleys. Ther are not classes at the Oaxaca Regional Technological Institute, and classes at the Benito Juarez University (UABJO) are closed at 40 %. There is no way of making public protests and the population is intimidated.

      There are rumors about mass graves, but nobody can really testify about the truth in this case. But there are many tales about people having seen corpses in the streets on the night of November, Saturday the 25th, mainly at the Fuente Siete Regiones in front of the UABJO Medicine School.

      This is ourageous! The assassins are celebrating in the rich suburbs of the city, and the poor people is left without any rights.

      My country, Mexico, can not be taken into account as a civilized country...I'm sure that sanctions as the ones impossed to South Africa in the XX century should be implemented on my poor country in order to make the corrupted politicians give way to a democratic country.

2. Subject: Nov 29, 2006
From: [Forwarded to me without the American resident’s name or e-mail address]
Sent: Wed, Nov 29, 2006 8:32 PM

A brief rundown--

      On Sunday morning, I sat in the sun on my front stoop, enjoying wonderful warmth for a change. Then the helicopteros began flying directly over my house, and low. They weren't after me, happily; it turned out they were monitoring Llano Park, about eight blocks from here, apparently because the really evil--and really loco--governor, Ulises Ruiz was in the park. Despite being regarded with hatred by everyone, he refuses to leave office. The fly-over continued for about an hour and utterly ruined my concentration on something in Spanish I was trying to read. Later in the day, I learned that there had been major confrontations, clashes, and destruction of property the previous night, including the burning of some buildings.

      On Monday, I had some errands at the library and downtown, so I thought I'd see how far I could get without walking into hot territory. My route took me along the Llano and at one point there was a huge pile of mangled metal, some of it still smoking, being loaded into an enormous dump truck. What I'd heard about the violence of Saturday night led me to conclude that these were the remains of the burned out buses, cars, and trucks I'd heard about.

      The PFP lined every street in the vicinity and a good many were occupying the plaza in front of Santo Domingo church, which had been squatters' camp of the APPO for several weeks some time earlier. Next door to the library was one of the torched buildings, black, charred, the sidewalk covered with black ash. It turned out to be a government office that had contained thousands of documents, now all gone. In this document-ridden culture, this can only mean confusion and trouble for Oaxaquenos for decades to come.

      I asked one of the PFP if the center were safe to walk in and was assured that it was. I did my errand quickly, you can be sure, and then returned home.

      Tuesday, yesterday, was a day of blessed relief from the tensions everyone here is feeling: two friends and I, with good Pablo our guide, drove up to Guelatao, the birthplace of Mexico's revered president Benito Juarez. The day was gorgeous, the stunning mountains in layer after layer growing higher and higher, the well-paved road a continuous ribbon of hairpin curves. Guelatao has some fine monuments, an interesting small museum, and the biggest Mexican flag one can ever hope to see. The museum contains a few artifacts but most interesting and moving were Juarez's own words taken from letters and other documents. Most familiar, of course, is his credo "El respecto al derechos ajenos es la paz" ("Respect for the rights of all is peace.") He was a giant in his time, and still is. How puny are the wretches we now have in power.

      After returning from Guelatao, my two friends and I headed out for some supper. Along the way, we saw some of the utterly senseless destruction that had taken place Saturday night. For example, the stone facing of a wall along the plazuela of the Carmen Alto church had been ripped away and parts of the stone staircase smashed--they must have come with crowbars. Earlier I'd seen in front of a small hotel two large clay pots containing small evergreens that were broken beyond repair. Who did all of this damage isn't clear--rabble coming in from other places, agents provocateurs, the governor's goons (there are plenty of his police now in civilian clothes who can maim and kill at will), out-of-control members of the APPO? (I fervently hope not the latter.)

      Today, Wednesday, I had more errands in the center and the streets, though full of PFP, were as they normally are--people going about their business, vendors vending their stuff, the organ-grinder man cranking out some wheezy tunes and hoping for a few coins.

      I went into the Zocalo and had a cup of coffee in the restaurant where my favorite waiter works (we've known each other for nearly twenty years). Almost all the tables in every restaurant are empty, not a tourist in sight. A couple of women vendors of rebozos, place mats, blouses whom I've known for years stopped by and sat down to chat for a few minutes. They are depressed beyond words. I don't need another thing, but Altagracia, who stopped by first, looked so sad that I bought a small, attractive cotton purse from her--her first sale of the day although it was well after noon.

      Across from the restaurant, the Zocalo is jammed with all the things the PFP need for their days-long encampment there: pup tents, tarps, lines between some of the pup tents from which drying laundry hung. I asked one of the PFP where in the world they could find a place to wash their clothes. Across the street, he told me, in the Hotel Monte Alban. I think I've told you before that the hotel is owned by a good friend of mine. When I was startled to find the hotel open two weeks ago, Alejandrina told me that it's open because she has an understanding with the colonel that allows her to sell the PFP guys toilet paper, soap for showers, and now, clearly, a place to wash their increasingly dirty duds. Plastic shields and heavy helmets are laid out in neat rows along the street.

      To my astonishment, on one side of the Zocalo the Oaxaca state marimba band was setting up for a concert. Usually, concerts take place in the area below the great Indian laurel trees, but all along that side of the Zocalo were enormous kettles of food on charcoal braziers being prepared for PFP comida a while later. I stayed for only part of the concert because I had other things I had to do, but the music was marvelous--and so utterly anomalous in this crazy time we're living through.

      As the date for Calderon to take the presidency, December 1, approaches, apprehension grows everywhere. Already there have been fisticuffs between senators and diputados in Mexico City and who knows what Lopez Obrador, the loser in what may have been a rigged election, may have up his sleeve. The populace seem increasingly glad to have the PFP around to contain some of the violence (around 150 of the perpetrators of Saturday night's horrible events have been arrested and jailed), but everyone is tense--and so sad.

      I'm planning to stick close to home for the next few days. We'll see what we see.

3. Subject: Re: Two letters from a friend in pain
From: Shirley Gray <graysc27@yahoo.com>
Date: Sat, 02 Dec 2006 06:10:50 -0000
To: George Salzman <george.salzman@umb.edu>

[first name of teacher in Oaxaca City],

      I have always liked and respected you. Additionally, this is your country, only my adopted country. Unfortunatley, it seems to me that Ulysses could not have asked for a better thing than AAPO. What does a corrupt politican fear? The rich people. No, they are locked into their family/political obligations. The poor people? No, they can, unfortuantely, be controlled. The newly emerging, independant, working, middle-class is what a corrupt politican fears, and what the poor people can aspire to. (Like it or not, it was happening in Oaxaca because of tourism.) The working middle-class in Oaxaca did not vote as the powers would want them to vote in the last election. However, due to the efforts of the teachers and AAPO, many of them have been economically destroyed, and have left to start again elsewhere. Those that are still hanging on by a thread, are not as mad at Ulysses, as they are at AAPO. I do not pretend, as many do, to understand the positions and thoughts of the Oaxacan people. I live here, and I love Oaxaca. I have many Mexican friends and neighbors, and this is what I have understood.

Best regards,
Shirley Gray

4. The original of the following interview is posted at http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/113006T.shtml

A Sports Writer at the Barricades
By David Bacon
t r u t h o u t | Interview

Thursday 30 November 2006

David Bacon speaks with Jaime Medina, sportswriter for the Oaxacan newspaper Noticias (The News), and representative of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO).

      Matamoros, Tamaulipas - While turmoil in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca has been in the headlines for weeks, little media coverage has noted that at its center is a crusading newspaper, Noticias (The News). The daily's sports writer is now a leading spokesperson for the teachers, doctors, nurses, newspaper workers and others who have joined together to call for greater democracy, and a new direction for the state's economy that can provide a future for Oaxacans other than migration north. David Bacon interviewed Jaime Medina in northern Mexico, where the writer was seeking support from the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.

      David Bacon: What's it like being a reporter in Oaxaca?

      Jaime Medina: I work for the Oaxacan daily newspaper Noticias. I'm a sports writer. I'm going on twenty-three years at the paper now, and I've covered sports all that time. After only three years I received state recognition for being the best sports reporter in Oaxaca. Originally I wanted to play professionally. I got on a soccer team after I finished school, and played two years as a pro. I say pro, but I actually had to work full time in a film-processing lab to support myself. But I injured my knee, and when I wasn't able to play anymore, I decided to write about it. I love it. At Noticias, you have to be a reporter and a photographer at the same time. I was the first photographer in Oaxaca to use a high power telephoto to get good action shots, and got an award for my work. Now everyone does it.

      I'm not really an activist. I'm involved in this struggle because it is for something just, and because we're defending our paper and our rights. But I hope to eventually go back to just writing and photographing sports. Nevertheless, this has been a very memorable experience, and I wouldn't change it for the world.

      DB: Why did your newspaper become the center of this turmoil of social protest?

      JM: The newspaper has been fighting government persecution because it's the only independent newspaper in the state. A lot of papers work with the government, and they control what is printed. That's not the case with us. We report on what we feel is necessary. It started with former governor Jose Nelson Murat. Two years before completing his last term in office, he tried buying our paper. He was refused, and that's when government persecution began. First they suspended government advertisements, but we continued to function with private ads. Then Murat ordered an invasion of the newspaper's warehouses.

      Before Murat left office, we were publishing articles regarding corruption in his administration. That did not mean that the newspaper was against the government; it was simply writing about an administration that was clearly taking advantage of its position. But what a coincidence that Murat is now one of the wealthiest men in Mexico.

      When the present Governor Ulises Ruiz took office, while he was giving his inaugural speech, officials once again raided the warehouses. Still, we managed to survive. I think he also manages the federal aid to the poor to his benefit. That is one reason why the people want to crucify him now. Noticias has always been critical of the government, all the while just giving the facts. That is why we are the best selling newspaper in the state and also why we've been on the government's bad side.

      DB: As workers of the newspaper, you belonged to a labor union, right? Why didn't the union help to defend you?

      JM: We belong to a union [he calls it a sindicato de protección, or protection union - a pejorative term for a sellout union] known as CROC [Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Farmers.] These labor organizations are very common in México. Their purpose more than anything is to protect the employers and the government. Usually when an employee complains, he is fired without the union even getting involved.

      When the attacks on us began, it had been nine years since we'd had any communication with the union. Many workers didn't even know who the leaders were. In nine years, we never even had a union meeting to let the CROC officials know about our needs. The local CROC leader is a member of the PRI. [The Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI) was Mexico's ruling party for 70 years, until it was defeated nationally in 2000. Oaxaca is still governed by the PRI.] He is so close to state PRI leaders that he was given a position as deputy in the state legislature.

      DB: So when the newspaper took an independent approach to reporting, the CROC wasn't in agreement?

      JM: Of course not. The PRI was used to operating in a closed-door fashion, with little interference from outside. The CROC completely violated our rights by not taking our opinion into account, even when they were supposed to be protecting us.

      After Ruiz became governor, the union contract at Noticias came up for renegotiation, and the state government sought to use this to close down our newspaper. The union announced it had made a decision to strike. No one asked for our opinion. There was no vote by us, the workers. Even though we were unhappy with our pay, we saw the game they were playing, and we didn't want any part of it. We took no part in their decision to strike.

      I was involved in one discussion with the CROC leaders, because I represented the workers. A second meeting was open to all workers, but the CROC again paid no attention to us. Then the union decided to strike, without our support. On the day it began, the CROC leaders came in with military personnel dressed as civilians.

      I saw them coming through both entrances. I left because I was afraid of being hurt. There were more than three hundred people that came in to take over. Thirty-one of my co-workers stayed behind, because they were getting ready to print the paper. Some reporters were still finishing up last-minute stories. The newspaper's editor and assistant editor also stayed behind. They were basically kidnapped. We could see them through the windows as they were being assaulted. They were there thirty-one days. On July 18, 2004, they were let go by the military personnel inside, but beaten once again on their way out.

      DB: How did they survive thirty-one days?

      JM: The people in the neighborhood saw the injustice being done and gave them food through open windows.

      At the moment the military came in, its intention was to stop the paper from printing. But workers were able to get two more editions out, that day and the day after. The military blocked the exit that second day and we were no longer able to print. That still didn't stop the paper. We were able to rent out space for six months from another paper in the neighboring state of Veracruz. In the beginning, we were working out of Internet cafes and sent our articles to the editor by email for two months. It was very stressful. After that we moved to a location in Guerrero for four months.

      Even though it was very expensive to produce, it was being printed daily, and people were waiting for it. The newspaper would arrive in Oaxaca between one and three in the afternoon. People understood we were still getting the paper out, and would form lines to buy the it. We, the workers, were very thankful to the people of Oaxaca because they helped us survive.

      I never stopped writing my sports section, although I became more involved in politics because of this incident. But that's not my strength - I think I'm going to die writing sports.

      DB: Why did the conflict with the teachers arise during the same period Noticias was being attacked?

      JM: Oaxaca is a tourist state, so the cost of living here is very high. The teachers had been asking for a pay increase for many years now. When they asked Ruiz, they were offered the same as in years past. He said that if the federal government wanted to give the teachers more, that was up to them, but the state didn't have any more to give. So in May 2005, the teachers decided to strike, and they took up residence in the Plaza at the center of town.

      The federal government is always raving about its educational system, but here in rural parts of Oaxaca, a typical school consists of four poles and palm leaves for a roof. Students sit on rocks, logs, or anything else they can find. The country's educational department does nothing to improve these conditions. A typical teacher earns about two thousand, two hundred pesos every two weeks [about $220.]. From that they have to purchase chalk, pencils and other school supplies for the children. The life of a teacher is very difficult, so the demands they are making are fair. Unfortunately we have a deaf and blind government. If the federal and state governments cared more about their people, we wouldn't be in this situation. People are fed up with the promises made every election, because they get nothing afterwards.

      DB: So there was a lot of anger among teachers?

      JM: I don't think it started that way. They asked for what they needed, but the government's denial infuriated them. When they decided to strike the first time, they almost didn't complete the 2005-2006 school year. But teachers have such a love for their students and profession, they decided to return to class and finish out the term. That year they stopped the strike for that period. But then government tried to force them to do the same during this spring. The teachers refused.

      On June 14th, the government sent in the military to force them out of the main plaza. Two helicopters dropped tear gas and Molotov cocktails from above. This made all labor unions and organizations throughout the state unite in one organization, the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca [Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca]. They came to the rescue of the teachers and were able to continue to occupy the plaza. They all agreed that they wanted Ulises Ruiz to leave his post as governor. The protestors put up barricades blocking entrances to the plaza for fear that they would be attacked, as they had been in the past.

      DB: What was Noticias doing during this time?

      JM: Noticias was reporting the truth, unlike other papers in the state. Radio stations wouldn't allow the teachers time to state their demands and reasons for their actions, because they were basically under the control of the government. So the teachers first took over Channel 9, and then others.

      Meanwhile, they were being assaulted and shot at by police in plain clothes. Finally a US reporter was killed. He was covering the story in Santa Lucia del Camino, a neighboring town when demonstrators were fired on. The protesters defended themselves with what they could, rocks and sticks. After that, federal police were called in.

      First they sent in the marines and army. Three thousand five hundred officers arrived to take over the plaza. They said they would come in peacefully, but they arrived with tear gas, water, and pepper spray, and attacked the residents who were protecting the teachers standing their ground in the plaza. When the Federal Preventive Police (PFP) reached the center of town, the confrontation turned violent. The protesters held off tanks with rocks and sticks, the only arms they had against the guns. During this confrontation, a nurse was killed when he was attacked with tear gas. When federal officials came in to Channel 9, a sixteen-year-old protester was killed. All told, since the attack on the plaza on June 14th, sixteen people have been killed, the majority teachers. Not one government official.

      DB: Were Noticias journalists or photographers subject to reprisals from the government during this time?

      JM: A fellow journalist, Luis Ignacio Velasquez, and two others are fighting charges of defamation of character and libel. I've been singled out by the government for supposedly overstepping my boundaries. We've been persecuted and four of my co-workers have been assaulted.

      But we have been successful in obtaining something that has never been obtained by a group of journalists in Latin America. The Human Rights Commission of the Americas told the federal government to protect us and take responsibility for our lives. Unfortunately they still haven't guaranteed us protection, although they have the manpower to attack our entire state.

      Now we're based on Independence Street in front of La Merced Church, where we've already faced aggression from the state government. About a month and a half ago, two armed individuals came in and fired guns. Four workers were injured. One worker still has a bullet lodged close to her heart.

      DB: But you continue to publish the paper?

      JM: I think we've overcome the most difficult and violent battle. The challenge now is to keep staying true to our stories and maintaining the newspaper in the top spot in the state. We also have to keep fighting for our constitutional rights and pressure the pro-government union to give us back our offices. And we are in the process of trying to form our own independent union as well.

      This country is experiencing so many problems with our ability to freely choose our government. [Newly-inaugurated President] Felipe Calderon is not recognized nationally, because of the way he came into power [There were many charges of election fraud, and there was no full recount of the ballots]. It was the same with Ulises Ruiz. Oaxaca is now experiencing what could well happen nationally. Since the days of the Revolution, Oaxaca has been in the forefront of change and a picture of things to come.

      People here are not looking to win or lose, but to improve their way of living. I think that if it means Ulises Ruiz resigning for the good of his people, then he should definitely resign. Something has to give. It sometimes seems like Oaxaca and southern Mexico aren't even part of Mexico, the way they're ignored by the federal government until some big crisis erupts.

      This could definitely affect the US because we are such close neighbors. If the United States spent more money on the poorest neighboring regions instead of for wars, we wouldn't need a fence to divide us. What is dividing us is the economy. We make millions of dollars exporting petroleum to other countries yet the people don't see that money. If that money went to the people, we wouldn't see the need to migrate elsewhere. It's incredible that many of our people get an education here only to spend their days working as farmhands in the US.

David Bacon is a California photojournalist who documents labor, migration and globalization. His book Communities Without Borders was just published by Cornell University/ILR Press.

All comments and criticisms are welcome.    <george.salzman@umb.edu>

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