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Rebuilding Oaxaca, Mexico

Blasius Erlinger Oaxaca

Photo: Blasius Erlinger

Oaxaca today is just the sort of colonial Mexican city that elicits a barrage of tourist-idyll clichés from guidebooks and brochures, descriptions that usually include the words charming, enchanting, and pristine.

It’s not hard to see why: there’s the 17th-century architecture—churches, government buildings, and plazas—much of it constructed using the region’s signature green stone. Behind adobe walls with leafy courtyards, restaurants serve some of the country’s best cuisine, including rich moles, spiced hot chocolate, and freshly grilled empanadas. A growing collection of contemporary art galleries and rural crafts markets testifies to Oaxaca’s vibrant culture, while the surrounding indigenous villages and Mesoamerican archaeological sites reflect its deep history.

But for those who have known it in past years, the Oaxaca of today also feels oddly quiet. In a city that owes as much as 80 percent of its economy to tourism, the number of visitors is dramatically down­. Their absence is the muted endnote to the devastating turmoil that put Oaxaca on the front pages of American newspapers last year for reasons that have nothing to do with its charms: six months of mass demonstrations and violent clashes that paralyzed the city, left nearly a dozen people dead, and came to a close only with an intervention by the national military last December.

Fought over a complex array of issues, including charges of government corruption and economic disparity, the Battle of Oaxaca, as some have come to call it, raised fundamental questions about the basic identities of Oaxaca city and state—and their relationship to tourism. Despite its enormous tourism engine, Oaxaca remains Mexico’s second-poorest state, and many Oaxaqueños—mostly indigenous, mostly rural—are isolated from the travel industry and the cash it generates. Except for chance encounters on the zocalo, the leafy central plaza where campesinos gather on their way to and from their mountain villages, many Oaxaqueños’ paths rarely cross those of the city’s well-heeled travelers, Mexicans as well as Americans and Europeans. For years, these parallel worlds hardly took notice of each other and were rarely spoken of—that was, until the city erupted in the summer of 2006, revealing the fault lines below the surface of this colonial idyll.

It started, appropriately enough, with a plan to modernize the zocalo, in April 2005. Ringed by open-air cafés and 100-year-old laurel trees, the zocalo has long served as the city’s social, political, and economic center. Any renovations to the plaza would have been fairly risky, given its sanctity among Oaxaqueños. But when the mastermind behind them was Governor Ulises Ruíz, who took office in 2004 after an election that was considered corrupt by many Oaxaqueños and international observers, the citizenry objected.

That was just the beginning. By May 2006, a group of teachers took over the zocalo in order to extract higher wages from the state government, as they do every spring. In Oaxaca, which has a long history of protest politics, such demonstrations are fairly routine: workers protest on the zocalo, the government buys them off with a salary increase or a public works project, and life goes on.

But last year, defying protocol, Ruíz sent in state riot police to clear the teachers out. Many Oaxaqueños, already suspicious of the governor (whose critics cite his cronyism and elitism), considered that an unforgivable violation. As spring turned to summer, the city filled with tens of thousands of demonstrators, this time demanding Ruíz’s resignation (his term is up in 2010).

Ultimately, some 350 local organizations, ranging from mainstream civic and student groups to left-wing radical cells, rose up in solidarity with the teachers to form an amorphous movement called the Popular People’s Assembly of Oaxaca, known by its Spanish acronym, APPO. At one point, almost a million people came out to support the APPO, occupying the zocalo and the beautiful colonial blocks that surround it.

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