The city was shut down and
even the biggest hotel the Camino Real in town was locked up tight. While walking around looking
for something to eat we saw first hand the vandalism suffered by
Oaxaca’s beautiful old colonial buildings. The air was filled with the
stench of burning tires. Plumes of smoke rose above buildings marking
intersections where cars and buses were smoldering. Every route was blocked with destroyed
vehicles, while military helicopters flew
There was no music,
dance or pageantry but only deserted streets. Spontaneous theatre is a big
part of the celebrations as Oaxaca's talented artists create and perform in fabulous
morality plays weaving narratives drawn on Roman Catholic rites and
indigenous myths. The
only building that was open was a church, so we sat through the
mass in Spanish simply for some entertainment. Churches that were normally
open all day only did so for the duration of a service and then were shut
Overnight the Federal police moved into the Zocalo with armoured cars
equipped with bulldozer blades, clearing an area of ten city blocks around
the square. They set up a blockade, denying access to everyone. The
protestors moved onto the University campus, and continued running street
battles on a regular basis.
We hired a driver, Omar, an unemployed young man who claimed to be a
tour guide but was really just a guy with a cell phone and a car. In any
event he was well connected via the phone to his friends who kept him
posted with up to the minute traffic reports on which routes were passable.
Two days after reclaiming the Zocalo, the Federales relaxed somewhat,
removed their blockades and allowed access the town centre again. They
continued to be on guard for continued trouble and on one occasion we
witnessed three young men being asked to empty their backpacks - which
unfortunately for them were full of rocks and various tools. They were
taken into custody and we were asked to leave the area.
The experiences of the
first day in Oaxaca were pretty much repeated the rest of the week. Mostly
during the daytime we drove out to surrounding market towns and to see
some of the more remote archaeological sites. At night Omar
took us out to the villages in the hills around Oaxaca where pageantry and
hilarious pantomimes celebrating the dead in outrageous rituals
performed by cross-dressing men and boys. Nightly sleep was interrupted
with the sounds of gunshots.
Dia de Los
Muertos event is on celebrated on November 2nd the day after All Souls Day.
It’s called Family Day and is a public holiday allowing everyone to spend the day decorating graves and sitting with the dead. This is
also the time when the glory and riot of colour fills the cemeteries that
positively glow in the bright Mexican sunshine.. The Panteon general cemetery is packed with people
too. That day the protestors moved to march along the street adjacent to
the cemetery perhaps believing that there would not be a response by the Federales.
This led to helicopters flying overhead dropping teargas onto the
protesters, which ultimately hit
families who were in and around the cemetery. Thankfully some people running to
escape the fumes warned us in time to remain inside and to stay low down. We were just inside the
walls and not directly hit although we could smell it. Andrew kept making jokes about loving the smell of napalm in the morning.
The trip to Oaxaca had
been planned a year earlier as I wanted to enjoy the cemeteries and rituals
that were so thrilling in 2005. I was able to make lots of new Dia de los Muertos
images however feel that the real story for 2006 revolves around the
scenes from downtown
Oaxaca. The few pictures in the montage from Dia de los Meurtos reflect
the loss of life from the strike and in a weird way inform Oaxacan death
rituals. My pictures do not describe violence in action and I never really
saw much or ever felt threatened by either the police or the protestors.
It seems mostly everyone was waiting for something to happen.