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[Notice: All images in this section are (c) Copyright Saundra Sturdevant, 2006]


Oaxaca-La Cara de la Nacion (The Face of the Nation)

The Levantamiento in Oaxaca is a great welling up from below. Indigenous, middle class, small shop owners, environmentalists, field workers, campesinos, artists, intellectuals, lawyers, doctors, bank employees, worker-priests, students, elders, teens, middle age parents, bank employees but NOT bankers, are a part of this movement for systematic change that began with the Teacher's Local 22 strike in May 2006. In June this strike morphed into APPO (Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca), composed of 85 organizations. APPO is a broad based structure deeply embedded in the indigenous culture and society. Women's presence is quite strong in APPO, decisions are reached by consensus, and non-violent, direct action are two methods of confrontation.

The levantamiento has a long historical story, going back at least 400 years to the time of the Spanish conquest. The Spanish never did conquer the indigenous of Oaxaca, which today account for 60% of the population. They did succeed in pushing indigenous into the mountains and barren plains, areas where Spanish and their overlords seldom ventured. Indigenous continued to live a barely sustainable economic existence but maintained and deepened their rich cultural and social heritages.

I had been in Oaxaca once before, in December 1977. Government soldiers had been occupying the city of Oaxaca for some time. The university was closed, the president of the university, student leaders and a number of professors were in hiding. They feared for their lives. Ultimately, then governor of Oaxaca Manuel Zarate Alquino was ousted from office. It was one phase of the uprising, Levantamiento, and the issues not resolved then are at the base of the Levantamiento in process now, still not addressed by those with power and authority.

In Oaxaca the situation was remarkably similar to that of 1977. The Levantamiento of 2006 began as a teachers strike, a yearly dance between the Teachers Union Local 22 and the governor of the state. For the last six years it has been presentation of demands, governor says can't manage it, teachers sit in at the zocolo, the huge town plaza abutting the main cathedral of Oaxaca. This goes on for several weeks, then compromise, back to work and business as usual.

The year 2006 was different. The river of the Levantamiento had broadened and deepened. In a state with a population of 3,500,000, Oaxaca's 70,000 teachers belong to Local 22 of the powerful National Education Workers Union (SNTE). The vast majority of Oaxaca's teachers are women working at the primary and secondary level. Perhaps a majority of Oaxaca's 70,000 teachers work in the small towns and pueblos of the rural areas in places the statistics folk's term "extreme poverty." These are predominately indigenous areas. 60% of Oaxaca's population is indigenous, the highest rate of indigenous of any Mexican state. Economically, Oaxaca competes with Chiapas as the poorest state in Mexico. Illiteracy, the twin of poverty, is 25%, compared to 8% nationally.

Teachers of Local 22 are middle-aged, strong, and experienced. Many are activists who have been at the center of the progressive wing of the union and have provided constant leadership to movements in Oaxaca for social, economic and political justice during the last 26 years. They talk about conducting classes in laminated cardboard shacks, children who come to school hungry, a lack of books and supplies, absence of sanitary facilities and even a lack of furniture. The government provides about 20 percent of school uniforms while the remaining 80 percent of students have to purchase their own. As a result, many youths have to stay home. Teachers also talk about the poverty, health and lack of basic necessities in the indigenous areas. Diarrhea is a leading cause of children's deaths and childbirth takes many of the women. It's the norm for towns to have no electricity or running water, and absence of potable water. Oaxaca is south of south.

As a warm-up to the year's negotiations with Governor Ulizes Ruiz Ortiz (URO), 70,000 marched on May 15 and the teachers presented 17 demands, which addressed issues of education and poverty. URO said these were impossible demands. The teachers occupied the zocolo a week later on May 21. Everything was going according to script, except this year's encampment included the sizeable zocolo and a forty block adjoining area. Thousands of teachers took part, coming in from all over the state, bringing clothing, bedding and their children. And they began immediately engaging in direct non-violent actions blockading and occupying state buildings and offices, roads, and the legislature. They actively supported residents resisting the widening of a road through their neighborhood leading to a stadium. They held numerous demonstrations, such as the one on violence against women. They were busy.

URO refused to negotiate with the teachers. The PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) had ruled Oaxaca for the last 72 years and was not open to discussion. URO and the PRI had depended upon pay-offs, force, terror, repression, and intimidation to exert their will. It is likely that URO and the PRI were caught completely off guard by the strength and activism of the teachers and the large citizen support for positions and actions of the teachers. Finally, in the dark hours of June 14, URO sent in 3000 assault police to remove the teachers and their supporters from their encampment at the zocolo. Some 30,000 citizens came to the defense of the teachers and together they defeated the assault troops. Two days later a movement, APPO (Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca), was formed and came to dominate the landscape.

Peoples in this broad based coalition of APPO demonstrated time and time again during the following months that they were united and determined. Enough was enough. They faced a coalition of state and federal civil and military power, economic power of Mexico's elites and the neo-liberal NAFTA equipped multinationals that are now moving into Oaxaca and disposing its people. Francisco Toldeo, noted artist and indigenous leader living in southern Oaxaca, has said that all the elements exist for civil war. He couldn't be more correct.