Preface: this story was reported and written in late 2006 and early 2007 after some of the worst riots in Mexico broke out in the idyllic city of Oaxaca.
“Your life will be in danger,” my friend Bill had told me the afternoon of my flight to Oaxaca in early December.
His warning was bracing. Traveling in the shadow of fear was nothing new to me; after all, I’d just returned from Iran. But direct danger?
“I could always postpone the trip,” I thought to myself. “Besides, no one really cares about Mexico anyway. It’s all Iraq, all the time.”
I called another friend experienced in situations like these, especially Mexico.
“Listen. Ask questions. Take notes like I taught you. But stay out of the riots and protests. It’ll be great; what are you waiting for?” she asked. “Isn’t this what you wanted?”
The next afternoon I was in Oaxaca.
My taxi from the airport followed a truck filled with soldiers down Avenida 20 de Noviembre. As the truck stopped my cabbie said, ” Su hotel, señor,” pointing at a clean, traditional square inn with purple borders and neon sign saying Hotel Francia to his left. In between dodging several pedestrians and grabbing my bags, I saw gunmetal black and gray hanging on the back of the rearmost soldier. Tension hung over the crowded street.
The story of how Oaxaca, a city surrounded by verdant mountains of pine and streets full of elegant colonial architecture, fell from the pinnacle of Mexico’s tourism industry into its basement began in May 2006 when the annual Oaxaqueño teachers’ strike raised the ire of the state’s blue-blood governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. In June he sent in the state police to disperse the teachers. The police action quickly turned violent; eight people were reported killed (although this claim has since been corrected, it was important in galvanizing public opinion in Oaxaca), and more than 100 were hospitalized. As news spread, Oaxaqueños from all over the region converged on the city and fought off the police, regaining control of the city square.
Two days later, an estimated 400,000 people marched in support of the teachers’ union. A unified movement of almost 200 diverse groups within the state of Oaxaca, calling itself the Asamblea Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca, or APPO, demanded Ruiz’s resignation. A six-month long confrontation ensued, frequently violent, sometimes murderously so, between those without the power to decide for themselves and those with the power. One casualty that suffered in silence was Oaxaca’s tourism industry.
The morning after my arrival I wandered through the streets of Oaxaca. The angry crowds were gone, their chants but an anguished echo in the valley. The gardens of the zocalo, Oaxaca’s town square, were filled with poinsettias, each with a small card attached to it, a spontaneous peace offering from the city’s families, rich and poor. Large armored trucks topped with water cannons guarded the main entrance to the zocalo.
Soldiers uneasily pitched tents under the colonnades of the Hotel Marques Del Valle, under the shade of the huge trees in the Alameda de Leon and beside the northern wall of the cathedral. Squads of gray-clad Federales marched up and down the Alcala Oaxaca’s main tourist thoroughfare while shopkeepers swept up broken glass and laborers, rushed in by the governor, hurriedly painted over the ubiquitous graffiti. Old ladies carried baskets full of pastel Aztec calendars and little boys ran around selling chicle.
Here was Oaxaca in the aftermath: colorful, full of beauty but marred by reality. The big question on the minds of most Oaxaqueños was: Will the tourists return? And if so, will it be safe for them? My search for answers begins at Amate, an American owned, English-language bookstore that has the finest collection of books in English on Mexico I have ever seen. The owner, Henry Wangeman, greets me. He has blue eyes, graying reddish hair, an identically colored beard and a warm handshake. We sit down in a cafe above his bookshop. Santo Domingo is off to my right and I get lost gazing at the mountains in the distance as Henry starts talking.
“(Felipe) Calderon (Mexico’s new president) has a chance to unite the country,” he says.
Indeed, several people in the week I visited Oaxaca had similar feelings. The manager of the hotel where I stayed told me, “Yes, of course we want to be united. We hope to be united. We are all Mexicans.”
However, Henry added a bit of a businessman’s twist to his comments: “I think most people would be happy if the government didn’t steal too much from us and let us work.”
“Is the government that bad?” I asked.
“There is no accountability or openness in the Oaxacan government. The caciques, the aristocracy heavily entrenched here in the state, aren’t going to let go,” Henry replied.
An example of too much government interference, according to Henry , is the Botanical Gardens of Oaxaca. Originally set up as an independent organization to conduct research on and show off the local flora, the government “swooped in” when the gardens showed revenue potential. What was once a vibrant, indigenous expression of curiosity and entrepreneurialism is now just a place full of pretty flowers for people to have their wedding pictures taken.
Henry had a laundry list of other issues he wanted to talk about, ranging from NAFTA to the old gods that still haunt the villages. Indeed, I could have listened to Henry’s enthusiastic digressions all day, but time was short and I came to the point.
“What about tourism?”
“Right now is a great time to visit for crafts many wonderful pieces have languished the last six months.”
“Souvenir hunting is hardly a reason to come visit amidst a riot,” I interrupted. “What would you tell a pair of San Antonians looking for a long weekend getaway? Would they be safe?”
He grew thoughtful, and then smiled.
“Yeah, come visit.”
Paul Leveno, an expatriate technology worker in Oaxaca, wasn’t nearly as sanguine as Henry. With sandy blond hair slicked back, he had an air of intellectual dissipation about him.
“Why do you see it differently?” I asked.
“People think that Mexico is a really great place,” he said, “because they think the Mexicans are spontaneous. But that’s crap. Spontaneity doesn’t exist here. What it is, is lack of control. The peasants, the poor, the working class, they don’t control their lives. They are ruled by the rich here. Essentially they get kicked around. And when they react, people think it’s spontaneity.”
When I met Paul he was deep in conversation with a raffish young Mexican man named Oscar, who was nodding in agreement with Paul’s analysis. I described him in my travel journal thusly, “Oscar looked the character. The very stereotype of a Mexican intellectual with a very Mexican mustache, wire-rimmed glasses and the air of a thoughtful and very smart young man.” Oscar, like Paul, wasn’t afraid to voice his opinions. I put identical questions to Oscar as I did Paul and Henry. To the main question, is Oaxaca ready for tourism? Oscar replied in flawless English, “No, Oaxaca will not be better served if tourism happens now. The city and region need stability first.”
But therein lay the paradox of tourism-based economies: stability is necessary to win tourists, but it’s the money tourists bring with them that provides, in large measure, the stability needed to increase tourism. A rising, or at least stable, standard of living is necessary to prevent Oaxaca-like political instability.
Luis Martinez and his extended family are Zapotec Indians who depend on the traditional carpets they weave for their livelihood. “If there are no tourists, we sell no carpets,” he told me the day we met. Luis’ shop sits further up the Alcala than Amate Books, right in the shadow of Santo Domingo. But Luis lives about 60 miles outside of Oaxaca in the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle, which I visited the next day.
Sitting on the floor of a narrow valley, Teotitlan is about 10 miles off the main southern highway we took out of Oaxaca. The landscape is surprisingly dry, almost semi-arid with plots of agave lining both sides of the road, marked out by rock fences and prickly-pear cactuses. A tangerine tree sits in the yard of Luis’ family home. Saltillo-like tiles adorn the roof of this U-shaped home. The family quarters are off to the left and the weaving wing of the home sits to the right in the shade of tangerine and mango trees. Sylvia, Luis’ cousin, greets us, ushering me into the left wing of the house to sit down. Speaking in Zapotec, an accentless and soft language, Luis translated for her.
“It is a pleasure to meet you. We have not had any visitors in many months,” she told me, adding that she hoped I liked the fresh chocolate drink and pastries she prepared. While talking she whisked the chocolate up into a froth that would have made any Starbucks barista ashamed.
“Business has been bad the last six months?” I asked Luis.
“Yes,” he told me, pointing to several beautiful carpets lining the walls, “all of these carpets are what you call, surplus. They are good carpets, of excellent quality,” he said. “I have won many awards in the United States for the carpets we weave here,” he added, showing me several certificates and photos of a much younger and more ebullient man.
After his parents’ death a few years back Luis became the patriarch of his family. Now he runs the business, provides a home for his unmarried cousin and money for many other family members. He balances the books, and also ran, before the present troubles broke out, a village co-op, which brought tourists (and their precious dollars) from Oaxaca out to Teotitlan. The difference between the man in the photos he showed me and the man before me reveals a person consumed with worry.
The politics of the unrest clearly affect Luis and his family, and on the drive back, I was determined to learn Luis’ views.
“Do you feel like the APPO represents you and your family’s interests?” I asked. Luis’ answer was ambivalent, at best, but hardly hostile. He seemed more bewildered by a wild storm he little understood, only wanting to steer his family business safely to port.
“It’s hard to say,” he told me. “Sometimes I am glad to see my countrymen stand up to the government. I am happy to see them do something. But we’ve all lost so much. The governor has lost his reputation, his good family name. The city of Oaxaca has been damaged, although this can be repaired. And the people, what have we gained? Maybe in six months things will return to normal, but I doubt it.”
“Will things get better?” I asked him.
“It doesn’t matter,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders and turning his head back to the road. “How will I support my family until things return to normal? If I can’t sell carpets, we cannot eat.”
The rest of the ride was quiet, each of us lost in our thoughts, until we arrived back at my hotel. I offered Luis my thanks for a wonderful day.
“It was my pleasure. Hopefully you will tell people it is time to return, but I cannot say. We need them to return.”
As I wandered back through the streets of Oaxaca one last time I saw the poinsettias in the zocalo garden and thought: If anything is proof that it’s safe for tourists to return, this yearning for peace among the city’s families is it. Besides, with so few tourists, Oaxaca is a bargain.
This story was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News print edition in January 2007.