OAXACA CITY – Every night streets here become battlefields in waiting. But behind the commandeered city buses, burned trucks, and coils of barbed wire, a group of atypical urban rebels stands guard.
Watching over a barricade where a small altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe rests between tangled wire and sand bags, six women ranging from their early 30s to their late 60s, none taller than 5 feet, huddle around a small fire in the street, wrapped in blankets and without so much as a club in sight.
For over a month these six women, teachers from the southern mountainous region of Oaxaca, have been poised on the front lines of a conflict that has seized this colonial city, paralyzed the state government, and come to dominate national headlines. And while they may not be threatening to a casual passerby, these women´s resolve to defend their barricade is implacable.
“If they kill us, then we were born to die,” says MarÃa, a Mixteca indigenous woman who teaches in Mixteco and Spanish in a rural elementary school, a five-hour walk from the nearest road.
“We are not afraid,” she adds, “because we are here defending a just cause.”
The conflict in Oaxaca began on May 22 as a teachers strike for better wages and a higher budget to provide impoverished school children with uniforms, breakfasts, and basic school supplies. After refusing to negotiate with the teachers union, Gov. Ulises Ruiz sent the state police into Oaxaca City´s central plaza on June 14 to remove the teachers´ protest camp with tear gas and police batons.
Hundreds were injured in the pitched battle that resulted, and after a few hours the teachers, supported by outraged local residents, forced the police out of town. They have not been back since.
The teachers and members of the Oaxaca People´s Assembly (APPO) that formed after the failed police raid decided to suspend the teachers´ original list of demands and focus all their efforts on forcing the removal of Gov. Ruiz.
Since June 14, they have subjected Oaxaca City to increasingly radical civil disobedience tactics, such as surrounding state government buildings with protest camps, covering the city´s walls with political graffiti, and taking over public and private radio stations.
Their struggle has led to a severe drop in tourism and the economic impact of the empty restaurants and sidewalk cafes has polarized the community, leading many who are sympathetic to the teachers´ cause to clamor for an end to the movement´s grip on the city.
“We do agree with some things the teachers demand, but this is affecting too many people, ” says Mercedes Velasco, a 30-year-old resident who sells banana leaves in the Mercado de Abastos in the southern reaches of the capital.
The tension shot up in late August when a convoy of armed gunmen opened fire on the protesters´ camp outside Radio Ley, killing 52-year-old Lorenzo Cervantes. From that night on, striking teachers and members of the APPO, have built massive barricades across all the streets surrounding the radio station and other strategic points near protest camps around the city.
Shortly thereafter, the U.S. State Department issued a warning to U.S. citizens considering Oaxaca as a potential vacation spot.
“U.S. citizens traveling to Oaxaca City should consider carefully the risk of travel at this time due to the recent increase in violence there,” states the announcement, which was extended to expire on Oct. 30.
Despite the announcement, there have been no reported incidents of violence against tourists during the conflict.
Since the shooting on Aug. 22, teachers and local citizens take to the streets every night between 10 and 11 p.m. to reinforce their barricades.
Walking the desolate streets at night, fires are visible at every intersection, as figures gather around holding vigil.
The visual impact is alarming: at many barricades men with clubs and Molotov cocktails stand in the shadows with their faces covered by bandanas or cheap surgical masks.
As rumors of a federal police or military intervention intensified this week, teachers and APPO protesters extended their barricades throughout the city, making it impossible to navigate the streets of Oaxaca by automobile at night.
But this is no ordinary battlefront. Rather than tanks making rounds, in this labyrinthine conflict zone one finds instead families winding through the predawn streets, carrying large stew pots filled with steaming coffee and hot chocolate for the night guards.
The barricade guards are at times skittish, but not hostile. They ask pedestrians where they are going, and then tell people walking alone to be careful and not to walk down dark streets.
A well-dressed couple returning home in the middle-class Colonia Reforma gave the barricade guards near their house directions to their back door saying: “if anything happens, our house will be open.”
At the barricade near NiÃ±os HÃ©roes Avenue, the six Mixteca and Zapotec women stay up all night discussing their favorite topic: education.
“I have to walk six hours to get to my school,” says Estela, a Mixteca woman who has been teaching in mountainside communities for 30 years, “And then when I get there, I find that half the kids have not had breakfast and the other half don´t have pencils or notebooks. I use my salary to buy these supplies, to prepare bread and tortillas. How do you expect children to learn if they have not had breakfast?”
OFFENDED BY REPRESSION
Estela and the other women expressed outrage and offense at Ruiz´s use of violence to answer their call for a greater education budget, and that outrage fuels their long nights at the barricades.
“Ulises made a mistake when he attacked us on June 14,” says MarÃa as she leans away from the smoke of the street fire where she warms her hands. “He thought that he was going to repress a small organization, but the teachers union is large, and resilient.”