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Shall We Dance? 500 Years of Genocide in Mexico

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Message Tiburcio Sanz
From July 14 to 16, Oaxacans celebrated an annual tradition dating to pre-Hispanic times, the Guelaguetza. People from all over the state gathered in the capital to dance for each other, each group celebrating its own region’s particular style of dress, music, food, and dance. The female dancers were dressed in stunning traditional garb, and some carried baskets of flowers on their heads. The men wore white and sometimes curious red hats or brightly colored fabric belts or handkerchiefs. Town bands blared out an unexpected mixture of traditional music, John Philip Sousa, and polkas.

Sounds great, right? Except that state and federal police blocked the people from entering the town’s main auditorium. Ironically, that auditorium is called the Guelaguetza Auditorium, because it sits on a site overlooking the city where the Guelaguetza has traditionally been celebrated. Why? Because the government has its own Guelaguetza planned. One in which tickets sell for forty US dollars, even though the dancers are not paid. (People come in from the villages in order to celebrate their heritage, not to earn money.) So where does the money from the tickets sold go? Into the pockets of the elected officials, of course! And who else benefits? Oaxaca’s entrepreneurial class. Hotel and restaurant owners, mostly. Backers of the governor, in other words. Trickle down economics tells us, of course, that the maids and waiters benefit from this too. A few crumbs from the Guelaguetza table for which the masses should be so grateful.

The ongoing popular resistance in Oaxaca, which is trying to unseat the governor here, has rightly denounced the official Guelaguetza as an exploitation and travesty of the spirit of that institution. Guelaguetza is about community. It is about pride of tradition. It came about as the accompaniment to an annual trade fair. And, of course, I mean trade. As in the sense of barter. One item for another. No money. This tradition, like many other indigenous traditions, is radically non-capitalist. Like tequio, in which everyone gets together to work for a day to accomplish a task for the good of the community, or of an individual in the community. Like an old barn raising, really. Or like the mayordomia, in which a rich individual in the town is nominated for a year to a post which requires him to spend his money for the benefit of the community. These traditions, the real heart and spirit of indigenous life, are little mentioned in the tourist pamphlets approved by the government.

So that while Guelaguetza is recreated every Friday night at Oaxaca’s fanciest hotel for the benefit of the tourists and fat-cat businessmen and government officials housed there in luxury, only a very censored form of indigenous culture actually makes its way up onto the stage. Outside the hotel, meanwhile, it is more often than not the case that members of some indigenous community are demonstrating, saying that the government has murdered someone amongst them in order to silence them and their demands. Governments here routinely appropriate the sometimes very rich natural resources of the indigenous communities. And it just would not do if the community were to complain about it.

In what has come to seem simply the modern condition, the culture that is so shallowly and callously celebrated in the sanitized tourist spectacles, that is so spectacularized and emptied of its true meaning in the official, commercial stagings, is at the same time systematically trampled by the government. The old slight of hand. Watch how I celebrate indigenous culture over here, so that you don’t notice that I am engaged in genocide over here. Sad, situations such as these are by now so common that they hardly raise an eyebrow.

So what of the Peoples’ Guelaguetza? The great thing about real Guelaguetza is that it is not organized. There are no tickets, so there is no crowd control. There is no real distinction between onlooker and dancer. So it can happen anywhere. In the streets. In an empty plaza. The procession this year gathered in front of the cathedral. And, suddenly, it set off as if from itself. No one was barking orders. Everyone just fell into place. And off it went into the streets, presentors and bystanders alike. It caused traffic downtown to stop for a half an hour as the procession filed by. People came out of buildings and leaned out of windows to watch. Some timidly, since they are afraid. And rightfully so after the brutal repression of the popular movement last November. And this year there were warnings that the government would once again plant provocateurs among the crowd in the hopes of causing problems.

Governments depend, after all, on painting insurgencies as violent and dangerous, hoping to keep support for them at a minimum. In reality it is always our governments who are violent. It is the federal and state police who bear the arms, the dogs, and the tear gas, not the people. The popular insurgency has no helicopters at its disposal. It cannot claim to be fighting a war on narcotraffickers, so it cannot claim the need for highflying surveillance planes that are used just as much to monitor insurgencies as drug lords. Nor can the insurgency install military checkpoints on the roads that enter the city in order to prevent contingents of would be participants traveling from outlying areas from ever reaching the Popular Guelageutza.

But governments all over the world, in cooperation with business interests and the media, manage to control the image that is projected. Governments protect the people, after all. But from whom? From bad people of course. And who are the bad people? People who disagree with the government. It makes a kind of sick sense.

But the idea the governments truly manipulate the way people think is also just an appearance. Although the state may congratulate itself on its capacity to control the discourse, many of us still know the story to be quite different.

And, thankfully, the people almost always find a way to dance.
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To paraphrase the brilliant title of Marsden Hartley's autobiography, I have somehow had a life. To try and characterize it would be premature. I will leave that to someone to write fifty years from now, if indeed anyone is interested.
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Shall We Dance? 500 Years of Genocide in Mexico

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