Taking Notes in Oaxaca, Mexico

What we manage to do each time we win a victory is not so much to secure chance once and for all, but rather to create new terrains for struggle.”

Angela Davis, from Abolition Democracy

Oaxaca is wide awake.  While many of us seem to be in a deeply unconscious state, oblivious to the world’s realities of violence, exploitation and oppression, the people of Oaxaca are rising up.  Tired of their historical suffering under policies of domination, the people have organized a liberation movement that is opening eyes around the world.  The movement in Oaxaca is a current, inspiring demonstration of popular power, and although every people’s struggle must create its own path, Oaxaqueños are offering us valuable lessons about organization, solidarity, and resistance.

While the people of Oaxaca have long been survivors of oppression, the current movement began on May 22nd with the peaceful occupation of the main plaza in the city of Oaxaca de Juárez by the state-wide teachers’ union, SNTE (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores Educativo).  SNTE boasts over 70,000 members, making it the biggest union in the nation and one of the biggest unions in Latin America.  The teachers initially refused to leave the plaza as a response to the state government’s refusal to consider negotiation with the teachers, whose demands from the government included free breakfast for students, school uniforms, shoes, books, writing utensils, minimally adequate school buildings, and a salary raise that would adjust to cost of living increases.  But what began as an annual strike against the government’s neglect of the public school system transformed itself radically and suddenly into a popular movement of the masses after the government responded with brutal repression in the early morning hours of June 14th.

As the protesting teachers slept, Oaxacan Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz ordered 3,000 armed state police to attack the occupied plaza.  The police attack left unarmed, fleeing teachers and their family members beaten, tortured, raped and some even dead.  The brutality of the June 14th attacks was felt throughout Oaxaca.  Hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals throughout the state immediately united in solidarity with the teachers to declare: “Enough is enough,” a familiar rallying cry to the oppressed people of Mexico.  One teacher commented: “We realized that even 70,000 teachers were not enough of a threat [to the powers that be], and that we had to unify forces…because we are not a few.”  The Popular Assembly of the Oaxacan People (APPO in its Spanish initials) was formed to unify the masses and to declare the people’s demand for the removal of the governor – a man who embodies the long history of domination suffered by the people.(1)

June 14th symbolized a breaking point for Oaxaqueños.  As one protestor explained, “There are only two ideologies: that which dominates the people and that which liberates them.”  In order to exhibit their complete rejection of the government’s chosen ideology of domination, the people have taken power – forcefully, yet peacefully.  What began as an occupation of the main plaza has now turned into an occupation of the entire city of Oaxaca de Juárez and local municipalities throughout the state. 

In their path to liberation, mobilizations have wreaked havoc on the economy.  The people have intentionally created what they call an atmosphere of “ungovernability” to clarify that their demand for the exit of the governor is nonnegotiable.  Citizens have successfully blockaded banks, car dealerships, and multinational fast-food chains; highways have been blockaded and shutdown at times.  The state government has visibly ceased to exist as the “whereabouts” of elected officials are “unknown,” and barricades and encampments blockade access to state buildings.  The teachers of the SNTE have refused to return to work until the governor has been removed from office. 

In an incredible front of solidarity that demonstrates the pervasiveness and strength of their movement, transportation workers, university employees, local businesses and markets have all gone on strike for various periods of time in support of the demands of the popular movement.  The public health workers have also declared an indefinite strike (only attending to emergencies) until the governor is removed from office. “Mega-marches” have put more people in the city streets than populate the city itself.  Furthermore, the citizens have taken over both government and corporate media outlets in an effort to disseminate information regarding the latest news, problems, mobilizations, and to issue warnings in what can be an unpredictable atmosphere.  Together, the people’s organization has paralyzed the government’s power hold on Oaxacan society.

However, it is not easy creating and/or sustaining a peaceful, unarmed movement.  As one teacher remarked, “We are here for convictions, not for convenience.”  Surely, there is nothing convenient about occupying a capital city.  Thousands of people and their families have migrated to the city, turning the streets into communal homes in which cardboard serves as mattresses and tarps act as roofs.  As a community, they are self-governing, providing necessary services to each other and themselves within the occupied city.  Women and children empty the city’s trashcans to maintain the cleanliness of their home.  All food is donated by locals (a.k.a. “the poor who are taking from their own mouths,” as anyone will explain) to sustain the now income-less city occupiers.  Women cook at all hours, providing meals that are offered at encampments throughout the city. 

“But the nights are the worst,” confides a teary-eyed woman organizer.  People barely sleep with the lingering threat of paramilitaries and government raids every night – the preferred time of the armed aggressors to carry out assasinations, disapperances and terror attacks on the people’s peaceful encampments.  So when night falls, after a warming cup of hot chocolate or arroz con leche (rice pudding), men depart to guard various points in the city.  Armed only with sticks, they weather the tense nights, burning small fires on streetcorners to deter armed intruders.  Women move their washing machines down steep hills and into the middle of normally busy intersections, filling the machines with rocks to serve as blockades to paramilitaries.  The people attribute their growing abilities to confront the repressive tactics by the state to their “loss of fear.”  “One thing you can learn from us,” explains one teacher, “is the bravery that the people have to confront their oppressors.”  The organized people believe they will not be defeated and they refuse to succumb to government intimidation.

For over three months, the people’s survival, their safety, and their stamina have been completely and literally dependent on their ability to function as a community.  Individuality has been put aside to provide the necessary space for plurality and diversity within the movement.  Each person, each organization, each encampment fulfills necessary roles in the collective struggle to “better the lives of all.”  In a situation where fragmentation within the popular movement itself could lead to the re-conquering of the people, Oaxaqueños continue to successfully hold the power they have reclaimed due to the development of clearly stated goals.  The removal of the governor is the primary prerequisite to realizing their vision of creating a more just society.

The Oaxaqueños have not only mobilized incredible numbers of people, but they have also done something significantly different and much more powerful: they have organized.  Here in Oaxaca, there is no “post-mobilization period;” the people do not return to their daily lives while waiting for “the next call to action.”  The Oaxaqueños’ “routine” is their struggle.  Through their remarkable sustained organization, the people of Oaxaca are creating spaces for constant resistance, acknowledging that “the war will not be won in a single battle.” 

Subsequently, Oaxaqueños are already preparing for future battles.  To the people, Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz represents one man in a world full of dominators, and his exit symbolizes a victory that will create new terrain from which to struggle.  Envisioning the necessary conditions for the construction of a more just society, the people have already held a “National Forum: Constructing Democracy and Governability in Oaxaca” to discuss the creation of a new state constitution based on politics of inclusion, and respect for diversity. (2)  Through vehicles like APPO (Popular Assembly of the Oaxacan People), the people are establishing spaces to participate in the creation of new democratic processes.  “We want a government that represents the interests of the people,” asserts one Oaxaqueño.  And as citizens of a federal state, the inhabitants of Oaxaca realize that their local victories are only the beginnings of challenging a much bigger system.

So the struggle continues.  Since the repressive attacks on June 14th, the Oaxacan people have been manifesting a movement which “began with an analysis of reality,” as one teacher shared.  Oaxaqueños have taken their realities of violence, exploitation, and oppression and transformed them into a catalyst for resistance to and the transformation of their reality.  It is now essential for us, as world citizens who are subject to similar realities, to take notes about the incredible lessons that these educators and citizens are offering to us.  Oaxaqueños understand community, plurality, organization, and solidarity as inextricably linked and necessary tools that will facilitate the creation of new battle grounds for resistance against repression.  The people of Oaxaca are not creating a popular uprising which will come and go with the ousting of one political leader; they have realized that the organization of their masses has the ability to sustain itself through an ongoing, difficult and tiring battle against systematic domination.  Through the selflessness that the Oaxaqueños exhibit in their struggle to achieve a common political goal, they are doing their part to create circumstances of liberation and offer us new models of resistance.  Just imagine the possibilities if the rest of us were wide awake.

kelly komenda & sara yassky are two activists from the united states who have been self-educating about organizing within people’s liberation movements in latin america.  they are currently in mexico contact info: kellyLkomenda@gmail.com , sarakamara@gmail.com


(1) Before Ulises Ruiz Ortiz had been effectively removed from his position as governor by the popular uprising of the people, he had only served 18 months in office.  Taking the governor’s seat after what the people claim was a fraudulent election, Ruiz Ortiz’s record during his short time in office boasts a reported 45 political prisoners, 9 politically related deaths/assassinations, and 30 disappeared people.  Ruiz Ortiz also chose to spend $80 million dollars to remodel the city’s main plaza, while at the sem time declaring that there were no funds available to negotiate with the teachers’ demands.  Needless to say, his excessive use of force, aggressive media control, and poor money management skills have not helped his popularity.  See Narco News

(2) Summary of National Forum in Spanish