Letters from Oaxaca, Mexico

Note from Upside Down World Editor: These letters are from Emilie Smith, an activist in Oaxaca. Though they are deviation from our normal style of reporting, they offer some insights into the reality on the ground in this region in conflict

Report from Oaxaca #2

Dear Friends,

Mission accomplished! My friend Maria fell asleep in the middle of a meeting my first night here, and we had to practically carry her to bed. That was her first good sleep in many, many, many weeks. Esperanza too says that she feels so relaxed that I’m here. Juan even came home from the barricades and had a shower! Doña Emilia’s daughter got married today, and she couldn’t change the date or anything, so I’ve just
come back from a very interesting wedding feast featuring some very good mole, and dances which involved smashing crockery, and two men leaping around with live
turkeys stabbing at people while candy and oranges and sugar cane were thrown into the air. Very fun and surreal in the middle of all this, so what is ‘this’, anyway . . .

Escaped Mexico City as soon as I could. There were two army roadblocks before our bus even got to Oaxaca city. Trained in Guatemala to eat my heart out at army road blocks, I was surprised when we sailed through. Three Zapotec boys from the Sierra Juarez picked me up at the bus station in the CIPO truck and we bumped through town, past army vehicles and police anti-riot squads, past enormous hulks of burned out buses and cars, and destroyed barricades. The CIPO house is only blocks away from where Brad
Will, the U.S. journalist was shot and killed by paramilitaries. Dario and Juan were with him when he died, and I spent about an hour on the phone my first night with a reporter from the Village Voice translating between her and Dario. It is truly horrible to hear first hand what happened, and to see how exhausted people are. I’m trying not to get too tired and worn out, so that I can help others out. So far that’s not working too well, as I’m still trying to get used to everything. Morning Prayer helps, in the sun, out behind the house in a little chair with chickens running around.

The next day was the first day of the Founding Congress of APPO, the Popular Assembly of the Oaxacan people. APPO formed after the first government repression against the teachers on June14th, but have had provisional leadership up until now. Nov. 10, 11, 12 are the days for this rather remarkable gathering. Imagine feeding 1,500 people, with not much fuss. (Í’m not going to say a word about the bathroom situation). There are huge lineups all morning to register. Day one a truck pulls up with bags full of boiled chayote (vegetable) and totopos (giant dried tortillas). Yum, yum (really!) But it was Friday, so I was fasting. The inner working of the APPO congress is not my job to describe. It is incredibly complex, and in many ways dominated by traditional leftist forces, leaving my friends who are struggling for indigenous autonomy, not political party power, somewhat on the margin. As usual they are like leaven in the loaf and serve to inspire and challenge other ways of thinking. I was asked to give a greeting from Canada, and to talk about the delegation that we are organizing under a new group organizing in Vancouver, GATO, Oaxaca Support Working Group. My message was well received, as the
Oaxacans are relieved to hear that others outside their state are listening.

Extremely long meetings are not my forte, so joy of joys, I joined a delegation of the outgoing provisional council to greet a caravan of indigenous leaders from Chiapas that was coming up for the weekend. I can’t begin to describe this experience, but I’ll try. For two days 250 Tzotzil women and men travel, standing up in the back of pickup trucks the whole way. They are fasting the whole while, and praying for peace in Oaxaca. We go to Mass at the Soledad church in Oaxaca, and the woman reading the message from the communities totally outdoes the Bishop in eloquence and power. I ask the Bishop for his blessing, and I think he was startled, but then okay with that. Outside the church the Tzotzil’s performed a Mayan ritual, and the Bishop swayed and danced (rather awkwardly). Back to the CIPO house for more meetings, emails, break my fast at around 1am with black beans and black sweet coffee and then crashing on my petate (straw mat) until the next day. that would be today, although that seems so very long ago that it’s hard to believe. Today more boring meetings, but I sat below Maria and she
braided my hair and I coloured a rainbow dragon in my notebook. We want to get a black dog for CIPOhouse and call it El Dragon. So again at midday the Chiapanecos, who live in indigenous autonomous communities, came to the APPO Congress, amazingly dropped off two pickup trucks of food to feed people with during the meeting, at the remaining barricades,etc. And then they, with me in tow again, headed off on a two hour procession through the streets of Oaxaca. They were still fasting, and it was hot and we walked, women on one side, men on the other, for blocks and blocks with Oaxacans clapping, and many crying to see such a sign of love. All of the city is occupied, but especially the central square, the Zocalo. There is no civilian movement allowed there, even the cathedral’s shut down. So we arrive at the permanent police line. The elders speak at length with the police and suddenly the lines are opening up, and we are squeezing through two nasty looking tanks and then along the deserted street, lined with very, very scary police in full riot gear, down to these wierd pads covering their
legs and feet, all with plexiglass sheilds and faces of stone. We go all the way to the steps of the cathedral where we engage in songs and prayers, much kneeling on stone (I’m glad I’m an Anglo-Catholic) . This goes on for at least an hour, and much to my deep honour, at the end the Mayan elder asked me if I would come and say a closing prayer. So on the steps of the cathedral steps this mild-mannered Anglican priest basically stole from her All Saints Day Sermon, and prayed to our God, the God of Life who created heaven and earth, prayed for those who build God’s Kingdom on earth, for the martyrs who have died for the love of God, and then reminded the grey police who ringed the ring of beautiful Mayans that they are sons of this same God, and owe Him primary allegience. We then processed out of this circle of death, back on to the streets. I decided I’d had enough, and slipped out, and home, to write and rest, sad that I didn’t know how to get to the aforementioned wedding. Then Tito’s son stopped by on his way to that wedding so I got to go after all. And that was just today.

Tomorrow is the final day for the APPO congress, and the chiapanecos are going home, so I won’t be able to escape with them. As nothing really doesn’t begin until around 12 anyway, I’ll try to find an early mass somewhere. Things have been rather quiet. (Only one shooting at a barricade, strange what goes for quiet.) But this week the Federal government has given the governor an ultimatum: govern or else. The teacher’s, exhausted, seem to be planning to return to school, but really it’s anyone’s guess. THere are still scattered barricades up, and the University is still in APPO hands, and the radio. We’ll see. In the meantime, I’m planning to meet with lots and lots of human rights and church and everything else groups. The Anglican priest in town seems to have returned to the states, but during the Congress, a really nice guy from a small town came up and told me he was an Anglican, and he gave me his priest’s name and said that they are doing lots of work. Oh goody, goody!

The CIPO pickup truck just beeped outside the compound, everyone’s home (or at the barricade) safe for the night. We’re off to the outside kitchen for a dinner (it’s around 11pm) of green beans and eggs and black beans and black sweet coffee, and then one last planning meeting for tomorrow, and then my lovely, lovely petate. Bye all, I’ll keep you all posted. Thanks again for your prayers and support. I don’t mind finding notes from my beloved in my in box, sometimes I’m sad and a little lonely, and I wish I could eat some Vancouver food.

love emilie

p.s. thought for the night: always leave your toothbrush in its little baggy. Two GIANT dragon-sized cockroaches are perched on the toothbrushes in the bathroom and sitting there pretending to be invisible — brown on pink. It’s not working, especially with those little feelers wiggling.

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Oaxaca Report #1

Dear Friends,

I sawed the tip of my right index finger off in my friend Tom’s kitchen last night, and thus turned the Pico de Gallo into a ceviche de dedo de Emilie, and now it’s hard to type. But that is as about as exciting as it gets so far. I arrived the night before last and yesterday was very, very busy. I met with people from Serapaz (Don Samuel’s working group), the Political Advisor from the Canadian Embassy, various human rights groups, with the teacher’s union here in the captal city, also I went to the APPO occupation in front of the Senate building where I met with lots of Oaxacan teachers and their supporters, and with a number of indigenous groups etc. The stickers are very popular, Jefe! Today I’m continuing to meet with human rights groups and with the guys at La Jornada,who’s been publishing so much of our stuff lately. Basically it seems to be another calm before the storm moment. Highways were blocked between Oaxaca and Mexico City. Today there is a massive visiting of embassies, tomorrow a big demonstration and Saturday a caravan of up to 80 buses and many more cars to Oaxaca, from all over the country. I’ll keep you all informed. Much love, and thanks for your love and prayers.