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Class and Cleanliness in Oaxaca: The Return of the Tourist Police State?

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Message Edward Pepe
It used to be in Oaxaca at holiday times that the main public spaces filled with temporary stalls selling all conceivable variety of clothing, food, music, trinkets, etc. The narrow aisles were always pleasantly congested by a mixture of locals and tourists. The majority of the stalls were covered over only with brightly colored plastic tarps, which the bare bulbs which provided lighting caused to glow at night. The vendors often came in from outlying villages in this predominantly poor and indigenous (most often the two go together) state and slept on the ground at night so as not to have to pay for lodging they could not afford.

A few years ago, the state government decided that this scenario constituted an inappropriate image for Oaxaca. No matter that, just the year before, the vendors had been forced to pay a "life-time fee" in return for which they were "guaranteed" a permanent space in which to erect their stall. They now were told these spaces would no longer be in the much-visited main square, but rather in an inside space inconveniently located several blocks away. Many tourists never even found the relocated stalls. In addition, the ambulant sellers (those who could not even afford temporary stalls, but simply threw a tarp on the ground or carried their wares with them and sold as they walked) were now routinely harassed by the police and had their goods confiscated if found selling in the "restricted" zone. Main square was "sanitized".

The governor who came to power (illegally, many maintain) two years ago took matters further. Oaxacans awoke one morning to find the main plaza boarded up and under construction. Apparently, to the new governor, it was not only the temporary booths and wandering sellers who were "unsightly", but the public space itself. A year and a lot of money later-much of it of course was paid to a good friend of the governor who sells paving stone-the main square has a modern, distinctly impersonal feel. One would certainly be hard-pressed to explain what is Oaxacan about it-even the stone used is not the typical green stone of Oaxaca, but rather a pink one that has now soiled to gray. Not content with one affront to the local sensibility, however, the governor went on to redo another park in town, and an iconic fountain.

What exactly, aside from the obvious opportunity to make money for himself and his friends, was behind the governor's decision?

Oaxaca, as many already know, has been embroiled for months now in a confrontation between this governor and various groups of Oaxacans in resistance. (It is important to underline that the members of these groups ARE Oaxacans, since the press likes to dismiss them as "leftists" or "radicals", as if only those Oaxacans who support the governor are authentic Oaxacans.) It all started with a demonstration on the part of the teachers' union, who every year occupy the center of the town while they negotiate a new contract with the government. The governor, who this year was busy fixing the presidential election in the state to insure that his party's candidate won, was too occupied (read, too important) to deal with the teachers. Then, taking a cue from Ronald Reagan and the global market ideologues, he decided to break the teachers and sent in a rag-tag group of state police with tear gas to dislodge them from the center. The attempt failed, succeeding only in enraging people. Many other social groups came to the support of the teachers, thus forming the APPO or Oaxacan Peoples' Assembly.

It has struck me from the beginning how much of the negative reaction to the teachers and APPO has been an aesthetic one. Friends complained that the occupation was unsightly, dirty, and smelled bad. They complained of the graffiti. Of course, anyone who leaves the city's center for any period of time knows that the city, and the state, in general is unsightly, dirty and smells bad. Poverty does not generally come nicely packaged. And, in recent years, the city's buildings-even those in the city's center-are more often covered in graffiti than not. But it was clear that, to those complaining, the center of the city was the only part of Oaxaca that mattered. It was the very image of Oaxaca, an image which has been, and continues to be, highly contested. The central square, and the walking street that links it to the church of Santo Domingo, are some of the few things that tourists see. One can watch them shuttling back and forth along this corridor. The guides don't give the groups much time to shop on the way, of course. Things in Oaxaca, after all, are expensive. They have to be, because, largely due to the presence of tourists and foreigners (like myself I hasten to add), it is very expensive to live in Oaxaca. Although hotel rooms can still be had in Guatemala for $12, one would be hard pressed to find a decent room in Oaxaca for under $60, and rooms in the many new designer hotels wander upwards of $300 a night. This may be fine for the tourists, but all prices inevitably rise in such a situation, leaving the poor poorer than ever.

The tourist corridor is always heavily policed-until recently not by military police, but by their modern equivalent-tourist police. These, who might have attended the Rudi Guiliani School of Urban Image Management, insure that proper decorum is maintained within the "restricted" zone. "Acts" that are considered sufficiently quaint-like children playing accordions or blind men singing-are allowed. But beggars, ambulant sellers, anti-government graffiti, etc. are discouraged. Fantasy is easily disrupted, after all, and one wants to make sure that the tourist is having a good time. And nothing disrupts fantasy like life itself and its inconveniences.

The presence of the APPO and the flight of the state and city governments undid all of this. Indeed, the tourist-police state had completely collapsed. Once again, ordinary people were able to set up stands and sell in the streets without restriction. The smell of street food filled the air. Life returned to a dead zone and a decidedly different image emerged-one that, without resorting to an essentialism, much more closely resembled the rest of the city, the state, and the country. It did not, however, coincide with the fantasy of a colonial Mexican city. (Of course, to be really "authentic", they will need to "restore" the latrines that ran down the middle of the streets as little as fifty years ago.)

But it would not be fair to imply that no one shares the governor's bourgeois image of Oaxaca, or even that that image exists only for tourists. Mexico itself has a rising middle class, which, like the Parisian society in the nineteenth century documented by the Impressionists, defines itself in large part through its leisure activities, like snacking in a cafe on the main plaza, or driving a car to outlying malls to shop or watch a(n American) movie or to a discotheque at night. After the "anti-aesthetic" of the insurgency, the second-most common complaint about the insurgency was the inability to drive in the city without restriction (the APPO had set up barricades to protect themselves from government paramilitaries who circulated late at night and shot at their members). Car ownership, of course, is one very important marker of the rising Mexican middle class. Indeed, drivers here regularly betray their class pretensions through an outrageous display of contempt for the safety of pedestrians (if a Oaxaca driver sees that you want to cross the street they are just as likely to speed up or slow down to make sure you can't, or, if the light turns red, to stop exactly in front of you to block your passage. I guess they feel that if they have to stop, you should have to, as well.) The motoring class rules and you are nothing if you don't have a car.

Since November 2, the APPO has been driven out of the city's main square which they had occupied since May. Instead, that space is now controlled by government storm troopers. All decked out in grey uniforms with bizarrely indecipherable (but menacing) logos, their tents and mess halls now occupy the symbolic heart of Oaxaca. Ironically, there are fewer people in the main square now than when it was under APPO control. The barricades have not disappeared, they simply have been improved technologically by the federal police who park their (grey) water canon tanks and maintain a squadron of helmeted and shielded warriors at each exit from the square.

Meanwhile, the restaurant and hotel owners, eager to show their support for the troops, declare themselves reopened. Of course the majority of them were open all along, and, in fact, as already mentioned, they have fewer customers now then when the APPO occupied the space. (Are there really that many people who want to have a lemonade while sitting next to a tank?) Besides, apparently afraid that the APPO, armed with sticks and stones, would dislodge them and their tanks, the police close the main square at nine p.m.

It is striking to pass through the main square and then to walk on to the new APPO camp (set up just a few blocks from the main square!) The movement in this short, but extraordinary, journey is from death to life. As you leave the square the storm troopers-all young, male, uneducated (I am not John Kerry so I get to say this), arrogant, belligerent, and dutiful, perfect subjects of the modern state, in other words-give way to old women selling strawberries. In the new APPO zone, stalls are open, people are walking, talking, eating-living, in short. Threading their way through posters listing the names of people abducted, interrogated and beaten either by the military or the paramilitary, people appear amazingly optimistic and undaunted.

The governor is reviled by most (even by many who support the presence of the federal police because they "feel safer"-ironically the modern state sells itself as some guarantor of public safety and many fall for it). But he is supported by his political party, and has refused to leave his office. The federals, apparently just as inept as the state government, now seem conquered by it all, and are making deals with the devil. The latter now promises to reform his government and to not take revenge against his enemies. I suppose the federal government feels that the governor has shown himself to be so competent, trustworthy, and concerned about his people that there is no problem taking him at face value. And supposedly the federal police, who until now have focused all of their energy on subduing the APPO, will now shift their efforts to protect the citizenry from the roaming thugs. Hopefully, they mean to include APPO members in their "to protect" list, and will admit that at least some of the wandering thugs are paid by the state government. But there is no precedent for this, and no real reason to expect things will be different this time.

Meanwhile, President Fox has declared that peace has already returned to Oaxaca. The Federal Police, after all, have arrived and will return normalcy. Well, I suppose if by normalcy you mean corruption, brutality, racism, and a blatant disregard for the serious problems that face Oaxaca, then I fear they might be right. And, I suppose there has never really been any doubt that one day Oaxaca qua Disneyland was bound to return (the precession of the simulacral, of course).

So, what is one left with? I for one can honestly say that the experience of living in a place and time under a people's government (of sorts) was an extraordinary one. The highlight so far undoubtedly was when the movement's women took over the state-run television station. Before, the station spent a lot of time extolling the virtues of the governor, or flattering the city's bourgeois pretensions of being a cultural mecca. It was a pleasure, and a privilege, to instead be able to listen to ordinary people expressing themselves so eloquently and analyzing so intelligently the vile nature of the modern state. For a brief moment, Oaxaca was a shining example of what could, but likely never will, be. The government, predictably, disabled the transmitting towers several months back, so we will never know how Casserole TV (so named because women here protest by banging pots and pans), would have developed. (I hope to God that someone will produce a documentary on the experience.) Now, the government is desperate to shut down the university radio station as well. To the state, of course, the truth is like a bucket of water to the Wicked Witch of the West.

But, in the end, maybe just seeing the good of which people are capable is enough. In marked distinction to the Bush administration, which thinks that the ends justify the means, I say instead that the means are sufficient in themselves. Acting honorably, challenging invalid governments and their farcical laws, caring about people who have less. These are all things which have an extraordinary value quite apart from whether any movement embracing them succeeds, and which are quite distinct from the personal foibles or deficiencies of any of the individual members of the movement.

And what of the tourist? Should they come to Oaxaca or to Mexico? Should they watch indigenous dancers in fancy hotels without asking under what conditions these people actually live? My own opinion is that they should not. That the United Nations is now expressing concern for the failure of the human rights system is Mexico ought to be sign enough that something is seriously wrong. Instead of spending their money in Mexico, people could instead write to the incoming president and tell him that rampant corruption and state violence in Mexico makes it at this time an inappropriate tourist destination. People could tell Calderon that if Mexico wants to participate in the modern world, then he needs to reform its government. Mexico needs, for instance, to hold its murderous governors responsible for their actions. And it needs to be a country in which laws apply equally to all people.

Mexico is an extraordinary place, full of extraordinary people. There is every reason in the world to want to visit it. But it is fatally tarnished until issues of poverty, racism, and classicism are seriously addressed. Maybe if tourists would examine their own racism and classicism, and then withhold their money, Mexico would be forced to change. It does not seem anxious to do so on its own.
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Edgar Pope is an artist, musician, writer who is old enough to remember when the world really was, or at least seemed, a kinder and gentler place.
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