I went out to the Hotel Victoria for piña coladas with a few friends beforehand. The hotel was empty and we had the terrace to ourselves. The city below us was an oceanic blue-green at twilight, studded with glinting orange lights and walled by the quiet, rived peaks of the Sierra Norte. We talked about teaching; about Jessica’s dwindling fling with the smoky-browed artist; about Jorge, the boy I had kissed on magic mushrooms in San José del Pacifico the week before; about whether or not the occupation in the streets would escalate.
I arrived at the opening slightly tipsy and chicly late, nodded nonchalantly at Jorge as I did a round of greetings, and noticed that something was off.
“What’s going on?” I asked my friend Carlos. At that time in Oaxaca people’s instincts were fine-tuned to slight changes in vibration. In May, thousands of teachers had gone on strike, as they had every spring for decades: perpetual negotiations, symptomatic of Oaxaca’s inept democracy, that did little more than marginally improve the lamentable status quo of Oaxacan education. They demanded materials and increases in pay, occupying the city’s Zócalo. Oaxacan governor Ulises Ruiz decided to play tough, and on June 14th sent in several thousand police to forcibly remove the teachers by tear-gassing, beating, and detaining hundreds of people. Outraged, teachers’ unions, NGOs, and a smattering of social and political organizations banded together to form the Asambléa Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO), which they then declared the governing body of Oaxaca. APPO members occupied the Zócalo, various radio stations and the Canal 9 TV station, and the Fortin Hill, and established dozens of barricades in the city proper and in surrounding neighborhoods. Ulises fled briefly to Mexico City. Plainclothes municipal policemen and, many argued, pro-PRI paramilitary groups, attacked barricades and protesters at night; several times, I heard gunfire from my apartment on the Fortin Hill. There were constant skirmishes with police.
The week before I’d run a 12k through lingering tear gas after a street battle. The battle had taken place during the pre-race meeting, and the runners had scattered out the side and back doors of the building. I’d called Carlos to come pick me up from the corner of a block that was being taken over by protesters on one side and an advancing wall of riot police on the other.
Carlos dropped me at Jorge’s apartment, where I’d spent the previous seven nights feigning interest in avant-garde Cuban movies, eating messy chorizo tlayudas grilled in his neighbor’s garage, and growing increasingly infatuated. The race was still on the next morning. People still gathered and laughed and warmed up in short shorts, and afterwards the runners ate tamales atop the Zapotec archeological site of Monte Albán, looking out on the crisp October morning and the pale, low-hanging cloud of gas under which, the night before, there’d been beatings and disappearances and charged discussions under unfurled banners.
I was accustomed to running past the barricades in the morning, giving subtle nods of thanks to the protesters who allowed me to slip by as they huddled around the smoldering remains of fires, eating tortas for breakfast. I covered my mouth as I walked around smoking buses on the way to work, a blizzard of ashes swirling above their charred chassis. I greeted the octogenarian señoras and the hard-faced men and the tired five-year-olds who slept under tarps, guarding the radio tower; I stepped over the protesters crashed out in sleeping bags in the Zócalo, which was scattered not with tourists but with bodies hunched like doubled-up inchworms. This was all part of a daily routine, one in which it seemed possible that the established order might be overturned at any moment.
“They killed an American in Santa Lucia,” said Carlos.
I was not prepared for that. As it sunk in I felt the queasiness of the American overseas who realizes she hasn’t really been paying attention, hasn’t quite worried or cared enough, until an American gets killed.
“They say the APPO killed him,” Carlos added. I scoffed. It was predictable spin from the state government.
“But it’s pretty obvious,” Carlos went on, “that it was the PRI.” The Institutional Revolutionary Party, infamous for its seventy years of dictatorial control over Mexico and its inveterate corruption, controlled Oaxaca with a mixture of extralegal violence, shabby clientelism (government hacks offering bricks and cement, or a couple hundred pesos a head, for votes), and nepotistic alliances with both the business community and the party heads in the capital.
Later, nothing about this shooting would be obvious: inquiries would open into the American’s death, first concluding that he’d been killed by plainclothes municipal policemen, then that he’d been shot by the APPO when he refused to stop filming.
But in the beginning, the sides were easier to parse out, the motives neater and clearly just or unjust. Carlos recounted what he’d heard: plainclothes officers with guns had jumped from a van near the barricades in Santa Lucia and come running at the protesters. American indymedia journalist Brad Will was filming the officers when he was shot in the stomach.
What was immediately obvious was that this was not another “clash”: the term my Mexican friends dropped wryly into their conversations after they’d heard it repeated so many times in the Reuters and AP reports: “los clashes este tarde en…había un clash entre manifestantes…” This was not a ripple, a source of anxious and excited speculation, another battle among battles. This was Fox on the phone with Bush: the state closing in.
People drank Coronitas and crunched on fried chapulines and tried to maintain some sort of banter but everyone dispersed early, before the dense Oaxacan night had fully settled over the city. The obligatory kisses on the cheek lasted a few seconds longer than usual; ten cuidado, people said, que te vaya bien. Jorge and I left together as if we were two fish in a stream who’d just happened into the same current: “Are you coming over?” he asked, looking off into the middle distance. “Sure,” I shrugged.
On the way to his place we stopped for tlayudas (the best, we’d still agree years later, in Oaxaca) and ate in silence, elbow to elbow, on a wooden bench in the garage, the tlayuda lady saying “está cabrón” and warning us to stay inside as she fanned the coals and sliced the onions.
The next morning we woke to the buzz of helicopters. I walked to my Saturday morning class through deserted streets and felt the city taut with the type of anticipation that precedes intense grief. The teachers had a meeting before classes with James, the school’s leftist director, whose face was saggy and blotchy from staying up all night at the barricades.
“Whatever you do,” he said, “avoid Santa Lucia.” I kept mum about my plans to head straight back to Jorge’s apartment in Santa Lucia after class.
“Do NOT let the kids leave unless they have a parent waiting, understood?”
“Do NOT walk the streets today. Go home. Stay inside. You’ll be fine.” We nodded. The kids arrived, class began; we watched Harry Potter since no one had the energy to concentrate on much else. I defined “falcon” and “wand” for my teenaged students as the whir of helicopters and low-flying planes rose from outside.
Jorge called and I answered, breaking the strict rule about not answering cell phones in class.
“Go straight home,” he ordered.
“Are they coming? Are they here?”
“They say the tanks are already here, in the Sierra,” he replied, “it’s going to happen soon.”
We hung up. James came in a few moments later and told me to end the class an hour early, at noon. When Harry Potter was over, the students and I attempted to have a pointless, grammatically doomed conversation as I waited for their parents to arrive. One student’s mother was late, so she and I sat together in the empty classroom, piecing together broken sentences about our favorite ice cream flavors until her mother finally picked her up and whisked her off to the city’s wealthy Colonia Reforma.
When I left work the sense of invasion was imminent. The looming helicopters seemed to rattle the streets. Back on Jorge’s concrete terrace, under swaying wet laundry, I tried to eat a sandwich and thought about this restoration of order, this stabilizing of unrest, feeling the chord of justified, authorized violence, the net of institutions and their power, being pulled tighter and tighter around the city.
In mid-afternoon I began to see columns of black smoke rising from the city center. The round front window of Jorge’s apartment felt like the porthole of a tiny ship, floating on a strange, uncertain sea. The streets were quiet. No ice cream man passing, no shouts of “Tamales tamales tamales!” from down the block, no kids laughing and playing soccer. I saw the same things I always saw from the windowsill: the haphazard roofs of Santa Lucia, made of scruffy concrete and aluminum, stuck here and there with rebar and plastic bottles to deter lightening; the crisscrossed laundry lines and pacing Rottweilers; the domes of churches; the jagged backs of the mountains framing the valley, but this time plumes of thick black smoke rose from the middle of the picture. The smell of burning rubber drifted across the city.
I called Jorge.
“The press is going to the Zócalo, está cabrón, está cabrón!” he shouted. There was a clamor of shouting and scuffling and metallic concussions in the background. He hung up.
At 5:00 the electricity went out. I had been listening to the radio when suddenly, nothing. I weighed the possibility of going out to look for batteries and flashlights, but most stores were closed and the streets were taking on too eerie a feel for me to comfortably wander around, particularly in Santa Lucia. I foraged through the apartment and came up with two little white candles that would illuminate all of about half an inch of the counter. Then I read the inscriptions in the back of Jorge’s books, searching out the traces of ex-girlfriends. I lamented his bachelor’s inability to stock a fridge with anything other than film and strawberry yoghurt. I paced. I waited for it to get dark.
When it did, it did so absolutely. The smoke went the faintest blue-black before it mingled with the night and then I saw nothing. Downtown, things were happening. Windows were being broken; protesters were being beaten and thrown into vans; soldiers were marching; groups of people high on adrenaline, unaware that they were bleeding, were hurling Molotov cocktails and running through the streets. I waited in the silence, pacing between the terrace and the one-room apartment, lighting and relighting the candles.
When Jorge finally walked through the door it smelled as if a car had caught fire. He reeked of smoke, oil, burnt rubber, tear gas, smoldering plastic, and sweat. We met in a messy embrace and talked in a flurry back and forth.
“The army cut the power because the APPO has a radio station near Santa Lucia,” he explained. “We should get flashlights or more candles.”
“Can we go out?” I asked.
“Yeah, I think so.”
I pulled on a hooded sweatshirt for a flimsy sense of protection and we shuffled downstairs and out of the house onto the street. There was a couple just outside, pressed together against a car. As we headed for Avenida Ferrocarril, a major thoroughfare that passed near the apartment, the man said loudly from behind us,
“I wouldn’t go that way.”
“Why not?” asked Jorge, turning around.
“They just raped a girl on Ferrocarril,” he said. The woman snuggled against him, resting her forehead on his chin.
“Thank you,” I said, and we turned the other direction. Jorge put his arms around me and squeezed, but I was too numb to respond. Up ahead the protesters at the barricades were starting fires, and in flickers of orange light we could see the ragged edges of stones, tires, and scrap metal, and a few dusky faces peering down into the flames.
A street dog came racing out of the night, barking and baring its teeth. I screamed and Jorge shouted in response,
“Shush, shush!” And then, “Shhh, está bien, quiet.”
We didn’t make it further than that. I insisted we turn back. We passed the couple again, still holding one another in the street, and climbed the stairs to the apartment. On the couch, in the dark, we shared a caguama of beer and a bag of croissants, the only edible things we could ransack from the kitchen. Neither of us talked.
We must’ve gone to bed around eight, still very early, but with the night dark as three a.m. between the smoke and the lack of power.
Our relationship deepened that night. We did not touch one another, did not talk. We simply laid in the heavy blackness with the reality of the moment hanging over us, each thinking his or her own thoughts, each feeling the other’s warmth.
The next morning the sun was bright, the sky brilliant blue. The city was electric with unleashed power. We tried the lights, the radio: nothing.
I decided to try and make it back to my apartment, a good forty-five minute walk across town, and Jorge and I set out together. Near the Merced market, someone in a car passing about fifty meters behind us started firing randomly into the street. The few pedestrians on the sidewalks halted, shocked. Señoras in long, colorful aprons came out of the market and stared.
“Porros,” said Jorge. Porros are unemployed teenaged or twenty-something boys from impoverished villages in the mountains and valleys around Oaxaca. Their lack of education and boredom are easily catalyzed into violence. The government gives them some small token from its coffers – 500, 1000 pesos – to infiltrate protests and turn them into bloody confrontations, or to shout APPO slogans while going on vandalistic sprees throughout the city, which government officials can later point to with a tsk-tsk to show the international media the sort of destructive threat to order and justice they are facing.
We ate our empanadas in the market in silence. Normally La Merced was bustling and the throng of pedestrians entering and exiting would push against our backs, but today it was just us and a few lone men.
As we entered the city center, we began to see debris everywhere: twisted metal parts strewn on sidewalks and thousands of glass shards like a sprinkling of light snow on the ground. Cars were overturned and scorched buses lay on their sides. Tanks and fences of tightly coiled concertina wire blocked off major streets and all entrances to the Zócalo. There were few people out and no cars; we walked down the center of ruined streets, between the shouts of graffiti covering the walls: “viva el pueblo de Oaxaca” “estamos en pie de lucha” “go home turista we are not capitalists” “the 21st century revolution will surge in Oaxaca.”
The air stung. We passed six-deep rows of troops, standing at attention behind opaque riot shields and concertina wire. They were not actually the army but rather the PFP (Policía Féderal Preventiva), an elite section of the federal police that fights insurgency via the (often violent) repression of protests. They had entered the city around midnight and taken the Zócalo around five a.m.
They had not managed to wipe out the movement in a single blow. The protesters fought back and fortified a position around Santo Domingo, the majestic 16th century church on the city’s main street. We passed those who had fought through the night, sitting on the steps before the soaring, stiffly wealthy church, bathed in the warm morning sun. Beaten, bloody, covered in soot and dirt, they talked animatedly among themselves.
I found my friends in a candy-and-pillow-strewn bunker.
“You made it!” they shouted, and we embraced.
“We’ve been using junk food as comfort!” offered my friend Jen, as an explanation for the litter of dientes and gomitas and sabritas wrappers that cluttered the kitchen table and fluttered around the pillows on the living room floor, where everyone had slept. She explained that they’d raided the Miscelánea before it closed and then sat on the apartment’s terrace, watching the invasion while passing around gummy frogs; gummy penguins; miniature, beaming gummy teeth.
The apartment stunk of sweat and stress. Jorge hurriedly bid his farewells, and my roommates and I sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee and catching up. After awhile, the fervent recounting of events churned our fear into adrenaline, and we decided to head downtown to wander around.
There were hundreds of people in the streets now: protesters with blackened faces and bandages, dazed and curious bystanders and citizens. As the day settled into itself the air grew strangely jovial. Bands of people were roaming the streets as if this were the morning after, and life as we knew it had been extinguished and left a surreal, wide gulf in its wake. People took pictures of the overturned cars, the fractured windows, the graffiti. I climbed up on a ledge and posed beside a broken, twisted stoplight.
Where the PFP blocked off streets, the protesters formed groups and antagonized them with songs, offers of food, and questions. Seventy-year-old women harangued them: “Why are you doing this to our pueblo? Don’t you have shame? Why are you hurting your own people?” Others were less serious: “Don’t you want a taco, policía? How about a kiss?” The policemen, many of whom looked hardly older than eighteen, stared straight ahead unfazed.
This lasted for several days, which stretched into weeks and slowly assumed the guise of normality. I grew accustomed to living and working in an occupied city in which revolutionaries gathered and plotted and federal troops guarded the sacred institutions. I stepped again around sleeping bags – now bundling the bodies of federal policemen – in the Zócalo; I shimmied around the sides of fences to cross barricaded streets; I nodded hellos to the protesters in their huddled discussions and rallies outside of Santo Domingo.
Maybe it was that moment in Oaxaca, how it opened everyone up in the way of traveling and tragedies and the collective experience of extraordinary circumstances, or maybe it was just that I knew, finally, what a relationship was supposed to be like, but on one of those nights when we took a taxi home to avoid violence at the barricades, edging past the shuttered businesses and the protesters’ fires, I whispered “I love you” into Jorge’s ear, in English. It took him all that night and into the early hours of the next morning to say “Te amo” back, and in that interval I wasn’t even scared.
I wondered later if I should have joined the battle. Grabbed a stone and thrown myself into breaking the spell of a corrupt, brutal government. At first I came up with analyses and rationalizations of why I didn’t. I would have been deported. Quite possibly raped. And wouldn’t I have been co-opting the movement for myself, trying to get in on a bit of the revolutionary drama in a battle that wasn’t mine, and possibly endangering other people’s lives in the process (as some protesters claimed Brad Will had done?)
None of those reasons stuck, and still, sometimes, they do not stick. But one day after class one of my students came up to talk to me. He was a big kid with long curly hair, dressed in heavy black boots and baggy clothes, obsessed with Pink Floyd and seriously into the revolution. His English was excellent and he used it to criticize the U.S. I liked him because he could hold his own in a good debate, and he liked me because I let him go off about NAFTA in class exercises that were supposed to be about everyone’s preferred pizza toppings.
“Why did you stay?” he asked.
He was the first person to ask me that, and I fumbled.
“Because I care about Oaxaca,” I said, unsure all of a sudden. Later I could have added, because I met someone; because this city struck a chord of belonging and connection I haven’t found anywhere else; because what happens here feels vital to me, lacking the sheen of distance and abstraction of so many travel experiences. But this only occurred to me years after the fact, after I’d moved away from Oaxaca and realized that I’d left part of myself there.
“Ok,” he nodded, and left.
In the weeks before the final repression began, before the walls were whitewashed, before hundreds of people were “disappeared” into vans and prisons, before the APPO’s leaders made strategic last-minute deals with the government and left their followers to be crushed, before Oaxaca was opened to the tourists again and the Zócalo was renovated and planted with poinsettias at the cost of several million pesos, I fell in love with the Oaxacan man who would become my husband, and met the group of Oaxacan friends who years later, when I left, would hold me in long embraces and tell me, “Te vamos a extrañar, Sarita.” Oaxaca became home in a way that no foreign place had ever been during six years of living and traveling abroad.
Now, Oaxaca is once again a city of sun-dappled plazas and pretty cobblestone streets and courtyards lush with bougainvillea, and it is easy for people to understand why I hold such fondness for it, why it is the touchstone I return to after all these years of traveling.
“It’s beautiful,” they say, “The cafés in the Zócolo, the juices, the hike along the Cerro Fortin,” and I agree. But my love for it stems not from these things but from a time when everything was uncertain and choked with smoke, when the revolution opened pathways of emotion and connection that might otherwise have taken years to establish. My love for it comes from that time when the city was raw, and burning, and hopeful, and I stayed.