The Schizophrenia that is Oaxaca

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Oaxaca is a wonderful place to live in and visit. The broad theme of this magazine is to praise all that is great about vacationing and residing both on the coast, and in the state’s interior. But it’s high time that readers obtain at least a glimpse of the underside, because like all other locales, Oaxaca is not rosy much of the time for many, in particular for full-time residents, whether transplants or native born.

In May of 2006, about 40,000 members of Local 22, the Oaxacan branch of the national teachers’ union, went on strike in downtown Oaxaca. A month later, about 10,000 protesters remained and the government attempted to end the strike by force, dropping tear gas from helicopters and allegedly engaging in beatings and rape. This produced a widespread citizen (especially indigenous) protest, and gave birth to the Assemblea Popular de Pueblos de Oaxaca, APPO (The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca), which united about 350 groups that opposed the government, the governor (Ulises Ruiz) in particular. The protests lasted until November, and 17 people lay dead, 138 were injured, and uncounted numbers were imprisoned or ostensibly “disappeared.” The APPO was severely weakened, but the teachers’ union continues to strike.

The 2016 version of the annual Oaxacan teachers’ strike has impacted not only the state capital and central valleys. This year it has also affected, in a significant way, other parts of Oaxaca, including the coastal resorts where most of this readership either vacations or resides. As much as many in the beach resort towns would downplay its sequelae, what I write has application for all, not just those in the city and interior villages.

Just like the state capital and environs, Puerto Escondido, Huatulco, and the lesser frequented Oaxacan Pacific beach locations boast warm and welcoming people of both Spanish and indigenous descent (and to a much lesser extent French, African, etc.) At the same time many of us, certainly most who live in or near the city of Oaxaca, are ashamed and embarrassed of what our beloved state has at times become, and of how some residents have become inclined to manifest their dissatisfaction. The fact is that more frequently than we ever want to admit, we live in a seemingly un-governable Wild West.

We have a multiplicity of rich and extremely diverse cultural traditions, even within the multiple broad ethno-linguistic groups of pre-Hispanic origin. But alongside and within, there are those who settle political, personal and familial scores with a knife, machete, rifle or shotgun. How can it be that in a quarter century, I have personally known five Oaxacans who have succumbed to violent deaths?

How can it be that I, a white-haired güero, could be punched in the face by an irate union member (and not even of the teachers’ syndicate)? This is part of the undercurrent to which tourists are thankfully virtually never exposed (and to be sure, never will be). To be clear, to my knowledge vacationers are never targeted, or injured except when deliberately putting themselves in harm’s way.

Those on the coast enjoy the pristine beaches, the 300+ days of sunshine per year, the international surfing competition, the multitude of festivals, the coffee plantations, the nature preserves, the fishing, the tropical fruit, and the list goes on. For those of us inland, while lacking the ocean and its appurtenances, together with the hot and humid tropical climate, we have all the rest, and more; umpteen craft villages, a plethora of archaeological sites, cuisine unrivalled elsewhere in Mexico, a strong artistic tradition manifest in workshops accessible to the public as well as in excess of 50 galleries, and of course there is mezcal production, unrivalled elsewhere in the country.

But there is indeed a dark side, from which as suggested above, almost all visitors (and to my thinking regretfully some expat residents) remain insulated. Beginning in the second half of 2006, and continuing to date, a subtle malaise has been permeating the lives and psyches of many Oaxacans. It ebbs and flows, but nevertheless persists. And it impacts even those who do not rely on the economic well-being of the state for their existence. We feel it. Even snowbirds are aware of it. If not, then they are deaf and blind, and ought to get out more, listen to the people and look beyond their faces, deeply into their eyes.

We have Oaxacan-born friends who have contemplated leaving the city, state and country in favor of a more tranquil life abroad. Some have indeed done so. And we also have friends who, since the 2006 shift in ambiance of the core of the capital, are now loathe to drive downtown except when absolutely necessary. Their children have departed the state and country, but it’s much more difficult to make such a major move when you’re in your fifties or sixties. Many businesses in the central historic district, especially restaurants, have either relocated to the tranquility of the suburbs, or opened second branches away from downtown, recognizing that residents are not as amenable as before to enjoying a weekend evening on the zócalo.

On the one hand, it’s the strength of the teachers’ and other unions, as well as the government not enforcing statutory limits to constitutionally entrenched rights, and on the other hand, it’s the media (American in particular) and international state departments (American in particular) which both exaggerate and misstate what is really happening here on the ground. It’s no secret that statewide transportation networks were adversely impacted this past summer. But to warn travelers about the potential for violence against them? Please! It just isn’t so, except of course for the word “potential,” which applies to every visitor to Toronto, New York, LA, Chicago, London, Sydney and everywhere else.

We lament the lack of tourism occasioned by media and foreign governments. Oaxaca relies on it for its very existence. It is Americans who feed the craft villages much more so than Canadian, European, Asian and Mexican national visitors.

But there is a silver lining: We do not have, nor have we ever had, significant cartel issues and associated violence. Oaxaca remains magical. It has the potential to rekindle and return is former glory. Though schizophrenic, the good drastically outweighs the bad … if only governments and media would tell it like it really is. Oaxaca admits it has issues, but stresses that they should not adversely impact tourism.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca

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