Oaxaca’s Emergency, Oaxaca’s Example
“Oaxaca is not just an emergency, it is an example to be followed.”
— Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, October, 2006
While in the global North, markets and international alliances are being shaken by the aftermath of Brexit, and people and communities are being terrorized by the same kind of racist and xenophobic anti-immigrant movements that drove English and Welsh majorities to vote for the United (for the moment) Kingdom to leave the European Union, to our South, in Oaxaca, the resurgence of a liberation movement “from below and to the left,” on the tenth anniversary of the state’s last uprising, Oaxaca has a lot to teach those of us who are dedicated to the end of capitalism and the re-enchantment of the world.
Oaxaca has a long history of struggle. The Zapotec people fiercely defended their sovereignty from the Aztec empire for centuries before they faced Spain’s genocidal invasion – and they continue to resist attempts at eradication and assimilation today. Oaxaca was also the home to the Magón brothers, anarchists who organized a movement that helped spark the Mexican Revolution. For at least seven hundred years, Oaxacans have risen up repeatedly against outside forces trying to impose control.
A decade ago, Oaxaca’s revolution briefly held the attention of people around the world.
In 2006, Mexico had been living with a decade and a half of the devastation brought on by NAFTA . NAFTA dumped cheap genetically modified corn mass (produced in the U.S. midwest with massive government subsidies and tremendous infusions of petrochemicals) on rural markets in the mountains where the world’s first corn was grown. It also accelerated the privatization and breakup of the ejidos, the collective plots tended by communities for centuries. This latter part was a repetition of what wealthy Europeans did to their own countries’ rural poor centuries earlier during the enclosures: driven then by a demand for land ownership by people made rich when Spain repaid its debts with looted Mexican gold, and now by logging and mining operations and Americans’ desire for cheap retirement homes.
Almost an entire generation of young Oaxacans had been forced to migrate north to work in sweatshops along the U.S. border, or to cross the border to find work in the U.S. or Canada. Teachers were among the last young adults left in many Oaxacan communities. That spring, they went on strike, as much because the children they wanted to be in solidarity with their students who had little or nothing to eat and walked for miles to school with no shoes as because they needed to be paid a living wage — a focus consistent with the values and worldview of Indigenous culturse, where, in the words of Oaxacan social critic and philosopher, Gustavo Esteva “the we is the first layer of your being.”
On June 14, 2006, Oaxaca’s Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz ordered police to break-up the teacher’s encampment in the Zocalo, the central square of the capitol city, Oaxaca de Juarez. The raid came in the dead of night, and when the people heard the screams coming from the Zocalo, they grabbed rocks and boards and frying pans and rushed out into the streets, driving back the police and taking control of the city. Community by community followed suit across the state. And for five months — twice as long as the Paris Commune, the people of Oaxaca managed to create an independent, autonomous society with neighborhoods and villages organizing their own trash pick up, schools, health clinics, radio stations, and security in the face of raids by right wing paramilitary groups allied with the government.
That all ended on October 27, when the paramilitaries murdered American activist and journalist, Brad Will. The Mexican government used the death of an American to justify sending in the Federal Police, essentially a military force with domestic jurisdiction,- to crush the uprising — despite the fact that the video Will recorded of his own murder revealed that he was killed by forces loyal to Ruiz.. In the weeks that followed, many were killed or disappeared and thousands were imprisoned and tortured. During that time, human rights activist Miguel Angel Vasquez said:
“There are legends in Oaxaca of people hiding beneath the rocks, and then coming back as animals. So maybe that’s what’s happening right now, people are hiding during this incredible strife that is happening right now. But perhaps they will return.”
Now, ten years later, Oaxaca is the site of demonstrations and rolling road blockades by teachers who are once again on strike, not only for their right to fair wages, but for the survival of their culture. The federal government has imposed a harsh package of “education reforms”, at the urging of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a policy arm of the many-armed creature that is the network of global capitalist financial institutions. Education will no longer be funded by taxes, but rather by bonds sold on the global market, making the educational system accountable to investors rather than to the community. In order to prove that education bonds are a good investment, the federal government is also pushing changes that make it easier to dismiss teachers, subject teachers to a standardized evaluations, and homogenize the curriculum. Oaxaca has long been the site of innovative community-based education that incorporates Indigenous perspectives and knowledge, and the freedom to continue to teach in ways that promote cultural revitalization is greatly compromised by the new education policies. Many of Oaxaca’s teachers see their strike as a struggle for cultural survival.
On June 19, while he was enjoying a wedding reception, Oaxaca’s Governor Gabino Cue ordered police, armed with tear gas and guns, to take down the teachers’ blockade at Nochixtlan. The police killed nine people, injured 100, and arrested dozens. 23 people disappeared.
Oaxacans have responded with marches and more blockades. The blockades have spread to the neighboring state of Chiapas, where the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) has again declared its solidarity with the teachers’ struggle. This week brought the murder of 27 year old community journalist and Mixteca sovereignty activist, Salvador Olmos Garcia, by police. The people have come out from beneath the stones.
What does this mean for the rest of the world?
Now we come to the part of this essay that I don’t know how to write – the place where the story of the struggle in Oaxaca intersects with my own. I don’t want to make this a story about me. And in order to talk about the meaning of Oaxaca’s example for those of us situated above the Oaxacan people by systems of privilege enforced by military power but whose hearts are to the left. (Below and to the left is the place that the Zapatistas of Oaxaca’s neighboring state of Chiapas identify as the origin of their revolution, one which, like the popular movements of Oaxaca, doesn’t aspire to state power, but rather to carving out a “pluriverse,” a world in which other worlds are possible. Liberation movements in the two states share substantial elements of their worldviews, views rooted in Indigenous ways of seeing and being brought into conversation with Marxist and anarchist political, economic, and historical analyses.
In 2006, I was living in Bangor, Maine, organizing against trade agreements and the sweatshops they produced in a community that had lost its shoe and shirt factories. I hadn’t yet understood that political organizing was not ever going to be the strong suit of someone whose Autistic brain is really good at analyzing and breaking down and reconstituting systems but not so good at, say, scheduling events or creating budgets for grant proposals, and completely incapable of knowing what to say when making small talk with people. The work the organization I was working for was doing was important, but it no longer stoked my passion. It was hard to want to pay attention to the details of state purchasing contracts when I knew that, even if we could leverage the state’s purchasing power to improve working conditions in a handful of factories in Bangladesh and Nicaragua and Viet Nam, the fundamental structures creating misery in the lives of the people of those countries would remain in place.
News of the uprising excited and challenged – and embarrassed me. Watching from afar while people who had lost or were losing what little material wealth they had in the world took on a government armed and funded by my own and managed to carve out autonomous spaces where they could begin living their own reality inspired me, but also showed up the degree to which I was failing to use my own power and privilege in transformational ways. I had had the same feeling meeting with campesinos in organized communities in Colombia and Bolivia and El Salvador and Nicaragua, but somehow had never let it sink fully in. With Oaxaca, something was different.
Then, a few days before Samhain, Brad Will was murdered.
I never met Brad Will, but I was shaken by how easily his fate could have been mine. Documenting repression and resistance in Latin America as an activist journalist, I had prepared myself intellectually for the possibility that I could be killed. But some part of me still thought my white skin and my U.S. passport would always protect me. Will’s death cracked open that illusion. And part of me felt compelled to take up the work he had died doing.
I was newly Pagan, my understanding and practice hobbled together from reading Starhawk and walking in the forest talking with gods. I went to my altar that Samhain and prayed to be broken open in a way that would reveal who I really was.
Two days later, I saw an announcement that Witness for Peace was putting together an emergency delegation to Oaxaca. I signed up almost immediately.
Looking back on the decision, I can see how there was a way in which I was acting as what Avi Chomsky once described as a conquistador of hope – lacking meaning in my own life, I was trying to mine meaning from the lives of others whose struggles seemed more powerful, more relevant, more real than my own. The problem was not that I decided to go there – going into a city under occupation by militarized police who knew their guns came from my government, I was helping to carry the stories of people living under terror out into the world. The problem was my purpose – that I was seeking to take meaning from people’s lives rather than bringing myself in all my parts into a set of relationships where I could join the people I encountered in a collective process or making new meaning. I was coming, with the first layer of my being being I, into encounters with people whose first layer of meaning was we, and expecting to be able to find something that could transform my individual life. I found what I was looking for, and it came in a way that would never allow me to inhabit the world in the same way again.
We spent our first several days in the city of Oaxaca de Juarez. By day we met in church basements with survivors or torture and the families of people killed by the police. By night we stood on the roof of a hostel, drinking mescal and watching truckloads of heavily armed masked men in black uniforms patrolling the streets, with people running out between the patrols to repaint graffiti on the walls of the city. Then we went up into the mountains, into the community of Zaachilla, which was not yet under government control. The people had driven out not only the police, but also the construction crews that were trying to build a Wal-Mart and a housing development for American retirees on land that had been farmed collectively as long as people could remember.
The young people had painted a banner depicting a god with flowing white hair and wind blowing forth from his mouth, proclaiming Zaachilla a community in resistance. And whenever people spoke about what they were fighting for, they spoke about the Corn.
Their ancestors had planted the first Corn in the world. When NAFTA flooded the market with cheap corn, instead of eating it, the famers of Zaachilla planted it, not knowing that it was genetically modified. The varieties had begun to cross-pollenate. But the elders said that they could tell which Corn plants belonged in the ground and which didn’t, and were pulling up the GMO plants and rescuing the ancestral varieties.
My colonized and colonizing mind thought that was a beautiful story and wished it were true. Something deeper in me knew that it was true and felt tremendous pain at not being able to relate to the living world in that same way.
As luck or fate or prayer would have it, I was about to step into a door to a world more alive than I had imagined possible.
The night after I returned to the U.S., I found myself at a Christmas party at a friend’s apartment. I’ve never done well with crowds and small talk, and between the emotional intensity of everything I had heard and witnessed in Oaxaca, culture shock, and the shock to my body of flying across a continent, I was not particularly well suited for polite company. I felt like someone had been performing open heart surgery on me and had stopped midway through without closing up the hole in my chest. All I could talk about was Oaxaca, and my stories were met with blank stares, or, worse yet, people’s memories of their vacations on the Oaxacan coast. (One man expressed deep sadness at the colonial churches sullied with graffiti, clearly not grasping the implications of the word “colonial.”)
Then, toward the end of the night, I found myself talking with an herbalist.
When she told me about the way the plants dream underground in winter, I heard echoes of the Oaxacan women telling me about the corn. And when she told me about the work she was doing teaching women about the use of Wild Carrot seed as a contraceptive, giving them back control of their own bodies and reduce their dependence on the pharmaceutical industry, it struck me as the closest thing I had come across in the U.S. to the kind of creative resistance I had witnessed in Oaxaca. I was soon to see and experience a much deeper kind of change that herbalism could bring about.
My lungs have always been the most vulnerable part of my body, and the place where I hold onto grief and pain. A few weeks after coming back from Oaxaca, I found myself dealing with a nasty case of bronchitis and had resigned myself to my usual fate of going through a month of sickness and courses of several different antibiotics. Mischa introduced me to Elecampane, saying “I think I know the right herb for you. She’s a feminine plant with some masculine qualities. She has a resinous yellow flower and a deep tangy root.” I went to the health food store that afternoon and bought an ounce of Elecampane tincture. As soon as the first drops of the tincture hit my tongue, I felt my body responding. By the next day, I had the energy and the breath to be able to go out walking in the snowy woods with my dog.
Growing up asthmatic, I had been told over and over again – in a thousand different ways – that my body was broken, and needed to be poked and prodded and cajoled into breathing. The idea that I was stuck in a broken body had kept me from taking responsibility for my health. As that idea loosened its grip on me, I began relating to my body in a new way, not as a faulty machine but as a living being with an intelligence of its own that would respond better to communication and cooperation than attempts to thwart its will and needs. The way I ate and breathed and moved began to change. And with it my body’s shape, and the way it felt to be inside my body.
At the same time, my relationship to the forest where my dog and I went walking began to change as well. It started with the nuances of light and shadow becoming richer, then I began to notice a faint luminosity to the forest itself even in – especially in – its deepest parts. What had been a green blur of “understory plants” to me, began to become differentiated into hundreds of species. I felt something different in my heart when I stopped to spend time with each one. Each one changed the way I breathed in some subtly different way. And before long, they began to communicate to me, telling how they experienced soil and rain and fog and sunlight and wind and how that shaped the medicine they shared with me, and how if I ate of their bodies they would change mine.
Eventually they would speak so insistently of different ways of being, that I could no longer operate in a culture that denied the reality of the living world around me. I quit my job, moved into an old van on a friend’s land in Maine, and gave my life over to working with plants to transform lives and worlds.
The people of Oaxaca need our direct solidarity – they need us to leverage our power to influence their government to stop the killing and torture and imprisonment and to influence our government to stop arming and training the police and military that are killing them and to stop deporting displaced people who come north across the border seeking the means to help their families survive.
But they also need us to reimagine the world we live in and our relationship to it.
As long as we operate within a single (non)consensual reality that insists on the permanence and inevitability of capital and the state, we will continue giving our grudging obedience to systems that rob our lives of meaning and rob other people of life. If we treat Oaxaca only as an emergency, then we will work within the machinery of those systems to try to save lives – necessary but not sufficient. But if we treat Oaxaca as an example to be followed, we will instead begin reimagining what it is to be human in the world, what we will and will not sacrifice, and the possibility of living life in ways radically different from what we have considered possible. Many worlds wait to see what we will choose.
Sean Donahue is an herbalist, poet, witch, and feral creature living on unceded WSANEC territory on the southern tip of what colonial cartographers now call Vancouver Island. He worked as a political organizer for a decade or so before realizing an introvert with a decidedly non-linear approach to the world was better suited to talking with plants and gods than to managing organizations, and also had a brief career as a journalist reporting on repression and resistance in Latin America. He is Priest and a keeper of the Green Wand in the BlackHeart Line of the Anderson Feri Tradition of Witchcraft. He blogs at http://greenmanramblings.blogspot.com/
Sean Donahue is one of the many writers whose work appears in the second issue of the Gods&Radicals journal, A Beautiful Resistance.