Taken from the Preface of “Teaching Rebellion”
It was July 2006, just one month after the police attack on striking teachers in Oaxaca, when we began to weave our way through the colorful plastic tarps that lined the streets. These makeshift tents sheltered a massive social movement that seemed to have formed almost overnight. The tens of thousands of people camped out in protest were reading newspapers, holding meetings, updating each other on the latest events…and sewing. As far as we could tell, the face of the revolution was a sea of embroidering women, patiently awaiting the resignation of their repressive governor. And we wondered, were these the urban guerrillas decried in the mainstream media? Despite the fact that armed attacks against protesters were organized by the government, it was movement participants who were constantly demonized as violent and menacing in state-run and commercial media.
A group of international activists, human rights observers, and volunteers for grassroots organizations, our collective hoped to learn as much as we could—from up close—about the uprising that had taken over a city and captured the attention of the nation. What we saw and lived would transform the way we understood movements for social justice in our own countries and connect us to the people of Oaxaca in ways we had never anticipated.
As the movement took hold across the city and beyond, state brutality continued while tactics of organized civil disobedience intensified in response. The social movement began to seize government buildings and organize alternative systems of self-governance. By August Oaxacans began to erect barricades in neighborhoods all over the city in an effort to defend themselves against attacks. It was around that time when some new collective members from Scandinavia came to join us. They were walking back to the house late on a Saturday night in the occupied city when they got their first taste of community based self-defense. They stopped at the barricade down the block to talk with their neighbors. In addition to securing the streets by preventing the passage of paramilitaries, the barricades also became community spaces where neighbors shared coffee, told stories and listened to the radio. While some of the barricades around the city were made of cars, buses or large stones, the one on our street had a more homemade look: bricks, wooden crates, a cardboard cut-out of a cactus that looked like it belonged in a high school play, a plastic skull. When it was time for the newcomers to head home that night, eight women from the barricade, all armed with baseball bats, escorted them down the street to their house to ensure that they got there safely.
Everyone could feel the tension rising. Glued to our radio during the entire month of October, we listened to the calls for peaceful resistance and reinforcement at the barricades under attack. At the end of October, there was an urgent knock at our door in the middle of the night; a friend arrived seeking refuge. He had been forced to run for his life when forty armed men in unmarked vehicles showed up and opened fire at a nearby barricade. All over Oaxaca, the same thing was happening.
By the end of the month, thousands of federal police troops had invaded the city and their helicopters circled low, stirring terror in all of us and dropping teargas at any confrontation. Radio Universidad urged people to go outside with mirrors to blind the helicopters, and we watched from our rooftop as our neighbors held up their mirrors each time the helicopters flew overhead. The valley below filled with shimmering light as people throughout the city did the same.
We watched as the invasion of federal police violently displaced the barricades and the plantón encampments, turning the once lively, colorful zócalo into a military base. Some bold people approached the rows of armed riot police, handing them flowers, reading passages from the Bible or waving the Mexican flag to remind them that they, too, are pueblo. “You’re skin is dark like ours. You’re being used to do the government’s dirty work, but you’re working class people just like us,” we heard the people shout to the police. We watched as two young girls timidly approached the men with a can of paint. “Should we do it or not?” they seemed to whisper to each other before they began to paint the shields, one by one, to spell the word ASSASSINS.
An old woman who sold tamales nearby shared her disgust as President Vicente Fox appeared on television, thanking the federal police for restoring peace in Oaxaca. “Pero qué tipo de paz!? What kind of peace is this?” she asked us. Then she ran her latest idea by us as she spread salsa over another tamale: “I saw on TV how in Iraq they brought down a helicopter with a Molotov cocktail. Do you think someone could do that in Oaxaca?”
All of us who formed part of the collective had anti-authoritarian leanings—we knew the history of dirty wars, grasped repressive political-economic models, understood the consequences of monopolistic media control. But being aware of this kind of repression hadn’t prepared us for the lived experience—how painful it was, how powerless we felt upon hearing about the arrests and torture of activists, the fear we felt for our friends.
By November 2nd twenty people had been killed and Day of the Dead, one of the most important religious holidays of the year, took on special significance. Defying the armed riot police just down the block, artists made murals in the streets from sand and colored chalk to commemorate the movement’s dead. The most prominent church in Oaxaca, Santo Domingo, was framed by dozens of altars and the flickering light of their candles. These altars, each replete with marigolds, photos and favorite foods as offerings, honored compañeros fallen in the struggle. At the altar of the U.S. journalist who had been assassinated the previous Friday, an old woman asked us, “Do you know what Brad liked to drink?” A friend responded, “I think I once saw him having mezcal.” “Okay, I’ll put a bottle of mezcal for him on his altar, then,” the woman replied.
Later that month, on November 25, 2006, nobody was safe – not protestors, not bystanders, not journalists – as a brutal wave of police repression swept through the city. A group of independent journalists sought refuge at our house, and throughout the city people hid in safe houses as police and paramilitaries combed the streets and gunshots rang through the night.
The following morning the infamous Radio Ciudadana, the illegally broadcasting, government-sponsored radio used to incite violence against people in the social movement, began naming addresses of houses that had supposedly given support to protestors. We heard that our house had been mentioned. That same day, an article in one of the national newspapers stated that the federal police were looking to deport a hundred foreigners. In light of the witch hunt that had begun, many of us left for Mexico City. Like so many of the testimonies in this book reveal, it is terrible to feel like a criminal on the run when you know you have done nothing wrong. Is it a crime to offer a safe place to a friend who fears he might be killed? Is it a crime to splash vinegar in the faces of people blinded and asphyxiated by teargas? Is it a crime to bear witness?
A few weeks later, things seemed to be calming down, and we were able to return to Oaxaca City, which had received a makeover for Christmas. The zócalo, which had been a military base for several months, showed hardly a sign of police presence and was instead filled with Christmas trees and poinsettias that bore cards written in crayons, as if from children, saying things like, “Thank you, federal police, for restoring peace in Oaxaca.”
People were quietly reorganizing, considering strategies for the months to come, weighing options. Many were afraid to speak out just yet. Those of us who had just returned were wondering how to process all that we had witnessed, how to understand the experiences of the people so shaken by this movement that had gripped their lives.
This book comes out of months of informal conversations with Oaxacans dedicated to making change in their state. The testimonies were collected, transcribed and translated over the course of a year, and the process usually began at sit-ins, barricades or marches where we started to form friendships and build relationships of trust. The idea for compiling a book of testimonies formalized during the visit of a human rights delegation in December, just after we returned, and less than one month after the worst repression that Oaxaca had experienced. We heard testimony after testimony of illegal arrests, torture, and pleas for support. Pedro Matías, journalist for Noticias, whose testimony appears in this book, described the events of November 25th. He recounted the fear and the utter impotence he felt at seeing the people’s demands for direct democracy met time and time again with violent repression. We watched as Pedro relived those moments as he spoke. He buried his face in his hands, sobbing, and paused again and again to compose himself.
Tears punctuated most of the stories we heard; the people who shared their testimonies were profoundly wounded. After Pedro spoke, we heard another account of that same day. Aurelia is a maid, who had not previously participated in the movement. Upon leaving the house where she worked, she found herself trapped in thick clouds of teargas, unable to walk or breathe. Disoriented and terrified, she was quickly surrounded by police, arrested, tortured and then flown to a high security prison in the north of the country.
There were also many people who managed to remain hopeful, vowing to continue organizing despite the hostile climate of repression. There were those who shared with us the triumphs of the movement. Leyla described how, in spite of the prevalent chauvinism and male-domination of political spaces, women carved out a place for themselves with the March of Pots and Pans and the subsequent takeover of the state-run television station. Not only were women the pillars of support on which the movement rested (it was women who, night after night, fed the people at the barricades, the plantón encampments, and other occupied public spaces), but now they were also protagonists in a way that no one could ignore.
From that human rights delegation, we started making contacts with other people we knew who had participated in the movement and in each interview a story unfolded—always accompanied by laughter and usually by tears, grounded in hope and courage and driven by anger at the continued injustice.
“Once you learn to speak, you don’t want to be quiet anymore,” Alfredo, an indigenous community radio activist, told us. When asked about the movement and the months of intense conflict, the people who bore witness to the events can hardly stop to catch their breath. In their stories, they capture the shifting atmosphere that could be felt on the streets—from fear to hope, weakness to strength. Talking to people about what they were experiencing was also a way for us to process the pain we felt. Our idea for compiling a book, though, came more from the desire to share the courage, aspirations, and sense of empowerment that we heard from people in the movement than it did to document state brutality.
This book is not a definitive assessment of the movement that took shape in Oaxaca in 2006, nor is it a comprehensive collection of the stories that people lived and carry with them. While we made an effort to represent a cross-section of Oaxacan society, to reflect both the diversity of actors and the diversity of their experiences, there are at least a million people who took to the streets and all of them lived things they had never imagined. Their buried fears, earned victories, suffered traumas, and sown dreams are the answers to why and how this movement organized as it did. These testimonies give voice to teachers and students, community radio activists and artists, religious leaders and union organizers, indigenous community members and people with no organizational affiliation. Each story highlights a distinct moment in the social movement and in the life of that individual; taken together they attempt to reconstruct the trajectory of events as they unfolded. From an 8-year old’s struggle to free his father and other political prisoners to a great-grandmother who participated in the takeover of the state television station, these testimonies offer glimpses into the spirit of the resistance.