From Oaxaca to Portland

Oaxaca occupies a sacred place in my heart; her mountains, coast, mole and native corns nourished my spirit for a good part of the years I lived in Mexico and her people-mis companeros/as-have been my teachers and friends.

But this has been a sad couple of weeks.

October 31 I found myself locked to the front door of the Mexican Consulate in Portland, Oregon to protest the violent repression against the People’s Popular Assembly of Oaxaca (APPO), a peaceful resistance movement in Oaxaca. The previous Friday gunmen linked to the Oaxaca state government shot dead Oaxacan teacher Emilio Alonso Fabian, Mexican demonstrator Esteban Zurita and New York Indymedia journalist/activist Brad Will. Two days later the same government-backed thugs killed two more protesters. That brings the total death toll since the Oaxacan teachers began their strike-turned-popular-protest to at least nine.

I easily could’ve been one of those nine. I could’ve been Emilio, Esteban or Brad. If you’re someone who has ever thought change was possible, or believed the world could be a little sweeter, or that the poor deserved just a little more justice, well, you could be dead now too. Every day in Oaxaca-like so many places in the world–the line between life and death becomes more politicized and gaspingly thin.

Squarely positioned in the “south of the south,” Oaxaca has kept its head up proudly through period after failed period in the great big Mexican globalization laboratory. In a state where 76% of the population lives in abject poverty, the only thing that seems to have “trickled down” is a broad consensus that neoliberalism has grossly failed the region. It’s no surprise, then, that last June’s teacher’s strike drew widespread support from indigenous groups, students, unions and civil society organizations. When you’re working yourself into poverty and your kids are hungry, it’s not hard to find common ground with your neighbors-something’s got to change.

That change came together in a demand to oust the notoriously corrupt Oaxacan governor Ulises Ruiz, a bastion of elite power in the region. The APPO has been occupying strategic parts of Oaxaca since, establishing a parallel people’s government and rendering Ruiz’s administration ineffectual. Last week the Secretary of the Interior and both houses of the Mexican Congress called for Ruiz to step down. It seemed APPO was on the verge of victory.

Yet APPO’s clear commitment to non-violence and a negotiated solution has been met with fierce military escalation on the part of the Mexican government. As the number of troops, tanks and helicopters began to rise, so too has the tally of ilegal detentions, murders, forced disappearances, torture and police misconduct. On November 2, the police moved in to shut down the movement’s communication lifeline, Radio Universitaria, and retake the autonomous state university. The odds were grossly stacked in the police’s favor but the people of Oaxaca kept the station on air. The “All Saint’s Day victory,” as it was coined, was a win felt worldwide-and judging by the outpour of public demonstrations in the last two weeks I’d bet I’m not the only “guera” (white person) streaming Radio Universitaria into my home office right now.

For those of us outside of Oaxaca, when we tune in we somehow connect to the smell of boiled corn and Oaxacan string cheese. We feel a part of one of the most inspiring social movements in the hemisphere. We’re reminded that there is more than radio waves connecting us. A lot more, as it turns out-especially for those of us in the United States.

As “Oaxaca Vive” dripped from my painted face last week, I renounced my government’s support for the Mexican army, police and paramilitaries. Yes, this is mostly an internal Mexican conflict. Yes, there is corruption in Mexico. Yes, Mexicans have the right to determine their own, autonomous course of development. But let’s not lose sight of the massive power the US wields over Mexico. NAFTA and other US-imposed structural adjustment programs have gridlocked Mexico into a system of economic violence that has devastated regions like Oaxaca. During the time I worked in Mexico, milk, gas, electricity and transportation subsidies were cut, while prices for what most southern Mexicans produce-corn and beans-plummeted. I still carry the image of the first confirmed Oaxacan “Frankencorn” I documented in 2003 (US-produced genetically modified corn came in under the Agricultural Chapter of NAFTA and wound up contaminating the most precious native Oaxacan varieties in what folks proudly consider the birthplace of corn). As one indigenous Mixteco told me this June in Oaxaca, “to sell my land would be to sell my mother.”

All told, some two million Mexican corn farmers have been driven off their land by NAFTA. Just last week, a member of the APPO leadership arrived here in Oregon for his seasonal job in a coastal nursery. Like many Oaxacans, Lucio would prefer to be farming with his family, but instead finds himself watering floral wreaths at an upscale plant wholesaler in the US. We cried together several times over the last two weeks at the cruel ways life seems to have separated us from the struggles that make us feel most alive. Lucio was the first person I called when I got out of jail. He said to me, “You know, the best thing you can do in life is follow what your heart tells you is right. For us borders don’t exist. Oaxaca is right here.”

When I lived in Mexico, my response to international atrocities was a smoother connect-the-dots — I used my blue passport to build binational movements. I funneled news from remote places in Latin America to church leaders, student groups and peace activists in the United States. Like Brad, I was documenting and reporting. Like Esteban, I was accompanying unarmed, autonomous popular movements. And like Emilio, I deeply believed (believe!) in a justice that was (is) inclusive, driven by love, and radically transformational.

But now I live in Pórtland, Oregon. How do you build solidarity with a small place in the world most of your neighbors have never even heard of? How do you express your outrage when foreign governments start picking off your friends in places you used to call home? How do you say “ya basta” to the violence perpetrated by the US government, a brand of militarism and imposition that is as convoluted as it is calculated?

Perhaps one of the best things we can do is create breathing room for blossoming movements elsewhere. Mexican Embassies and Consultates have been the site of protest in Nigeria, Bolivia, Venezuela, and every major US and European city. Twelve were arrested in New York, five in the Twin Cities and myself and one other in Portland. As Martin Luther King said, “We who in engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.”

While those not-so-hidden tensions continue to erupt in Oaxaca, we in the international community vow to bring the story of a victorius people’s struggle home. I truly believe that Portland needs a victory in Oaxaca, and Oaxaca needs Portland to make that victory real-which means we need to get “un chingo” (a whole-lot) more creative, more committed and more direct with our solidarity work. That doesn’t mean everyone needs to run and lockdown at Mexcian consulates, but I think a direct action strategy more closely honors the mutually solidarious relationship we are trying to build with the people of Oaxaca. It is time to “up the stakes” of our protests beyond the well-stenciled banners, mass email alerts, and comfortable calls to representatives that have characterized our activities so far. Do something new this week with your bike lock, hoe, paintbrush or keyboard. As you innovate and dream, you’ll find me beside tens of thousands of Mexicans-without all the answers, for sure, but feeling one step closer to justice.

NIKKI THANOS is a Portland-based popular educator who has been working to change US military and economic policy in Mexico since 2002. She is the co-author of: “Trouble in Paradise: Globalization and Environtmental Crises in Latin America” (Routledge, 2003)



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