Oaxaca around the Zocalo ~ October 28 - November 4, 2006


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Notes page 2  

    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 overhead constantly. 

    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 tight. 

     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.

    The final 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.


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