29 April 2008

On Leaving Oaxaca

It's been beastly hot here, but Sunday night delivered a big bad thumping lightning and thunder storm, several hours long. Tree branches down, streets flooded with rain. Monday smelled like a whole new city, and then it rained again. Tuesday has been cool, and there are still puddles at intersections and storm drains, reminders of the changing season. Should be nice until the mosquitoes hatch. Which, it's ungenerous to say, is probably some kind of metaphor for Oaxaca.

There's noise this week about a federal bust-up of the Oaxaca State Police. I'll admit first to not having any idea what's going on beyond the little bit I've read, in English, from Nancy Davies. She writes that the army has arrested at least 7 state police officers, including the cousin of Governor Ulises Ruiz, in relation to investigations into events during the unrest in 2006. Nancy points out that local police seem to have scattered during the recent investigation. "14 didn't show up for roll call (on the 26th), 10 asked for their vacation time, [and] 16 are presumed Zetas, which is organized crime." It is unclear how much overlap may exist in these numbers but either way it's fairly interesting. Nancy's post further points out that at least one of the officers arrested was alleged to be involved in kidnappings and disappearances, and documents were seized relating to the severe, police beating of Emeterio Merino Cruz, who was left incapacitated after the attack.

All this is offered without any background information or fact checking, so take it as such. I don't know about the motivation behind this or the forces really at work. On the surface, it seems like a good thing for Oaxaca. Where politics play in Mexico, however, there is reason to be suspicious.

My focus has shifted of late, and my available time is now more likely spent at research for another writing project and not for the blog. It's become hard to dedicate as much time and energy to following up on the course of events in Oaxaca. It's difficult to encapsulate, but my interest in the perpetual turmoil, or perception of perpetual turmoil just beneath Oaxaca's surface, has dulled. Because it's not mine, because these aren't my people, my protests, or my city, the best I've been able to do is occasionally post updates on the nature of events as I see them here. (And who are my people? Which my protests? Where my city?)

My inability to capture, to really understand, or to fairly render the substance or the subjects of my writing about Oaxaca puts me in a mind to remember Graham Greene:

Perhaps no one can write in depth about a foreign country--he can only write about the effect of that country on his own fellow countrymen, living as exiles, or government servants, or visitors. He can only "touch in" the background of the foreign land.

The observation comes from Greene's introduction to Narayan's novel The Bachelor of Arts. It's not exactly what I feel, not personal enough, but it gets us close. The point is, the writer, the exile, the government servant, the visitor, all of us can only render these other lands as we filter them through our own distorted lenses. I think what Greene doesn't quite say is that no matter what we've put to paper, we don't get it. When writing about another country, none of us are ever either objective or truly empathetic.

As I prepare to leave Oaxaca, I distance myself from all this: the perennial difficulty in getting reliable information; the struggle to know which information to like or to trust (presumably I like Nancy's, but even that has given me pause recently); the posturing that goes on daily between the government and the people's organizations; the hearsay, the speculation, and the uncertainty; the speechifying and bickering that never ceases among a community of priggish expatriate residents (yeah, I'm talking about the Lending Library crowd) who would pretend to have all the answers; the noise, the noise, the endless, damnable noise.

I'm also worn down by, and looking forward to stepping away from, the oppressive police presence in the city: groups of cops standing about in threes and fours, or occasionally even by the dozen, looking for shade in the heat of the day; heavily armed truck convoys patrolling congested city streets; 200 plus state police in full riot gear surrounding the university--which happens to be at the heart of the historic city center and therefore at the heart of tourist flow through the city--on the eve of law school director elections; the helicopter with shooters tethered to the craft, leaning out over the skids with rifles at the ready, chopping overhead in great sweeping arcs to survey for narcotraffickers, we are led to believe, or perhaps merely to impose their presence.

All this while the commerce of a city that would be a tourist destination goes on below, within, and around. Families, parents, and children; backpackers, honeymooners, senior tours; hippies, youth groups, language students; Americans, Europeans, Canadians, Australians, wealthy Mexicans; artists, journalists, entrepreneurs, politicos. Everybody looking for something, nobody, I think, sure exactly what. So we all take some snapshots and a taste of mezcal, buy a bottle for the road and a piece or two of indigenous art, and head home wistfully, to remember Oaxaca as we want it to be, perhaps as it wants to be, and rarely, I suspect, as it ever truly is.

After six months and more here--a substantial visit, yet a mere passing glimpse of a city and a culture--it is my impression that nobody really knows Oaxaca or Oaxacans, especially me. It's a dynamic, ever-changing community where the same themes return again and again. Poverty, inequality, corruption, political unrest. While several vocal minorities make their presence felt across the city by demonstrating in the streets and plazas, the majority of Oaxacans, I believe, just want to work, care for their families, and feel hopeful for the future.

I don't know if the majority of Oaxacans actually do feel hopeful or not, or even if feeling hopeful for the future isn't a cultural notion, some righteous ideal I bring with me. For the middle class here, sure, I think they feel hopeful for their children. For the poor and the marginalized, it's hard to comprehend how exactly they might feel. I think of the things they attempt to sell that no one ever wants, the wooden bookmarks and hideous "indigenous" wall hangings, the baskets and bolsas and gum, the beaded necklaces, the thin shawls, and the native garb; I think of the children, little boys and girls, who weave between tables in the city's restaurants, bars and cafes to insert themselves, literally, into the bosom of conversation and warmth in order to earn a few pesos, a little affection, a jicama stick or a handful of peanuts or a lemon wedge off the side of a plate. I think of the aggressive grandmothers tacking between those same tables to sell gardenias, cheap candy, vitamin supplements or cigarettes to patrons eating expensive desserts; I think of these impoverished parents trying to fend for their children, or perhaps counting on the children, the power of whose cuteness is not overlooked in the running of the daily business, to fend for them. I think of the accordionists and guitar players on the Alcala, and their offspring with tin cans and plastic cups and little outstretched hands, some as young as three or four, who have already learned which face to look up with at passersby in order to earn a peso, or a five peso piece if lucky.

More than the political instability, more than the uncertainty for Oaxaca's present and future, I am left with the deep impression that the marginalized and impoverished will, for the foreseeable future, remain marginalized and impoverished, and that their problems will persist--regardless what happens in the halls of government and among community leaders; regardless what happens between Ulises Ruiz, the teachers, and the APPO--no matter how healthy the tourism trade or how optimistic the governor's annual address.


A postscript:

I'm losing my home Internet for about a week, so blogging will be . . . light. As if it hasn't been already. I'll be back online May 7, but then we're traveling from about May 10 - June 2, more or less. It's difficult to say for certain, because many things are in flux now, but the blog may go into hibernation for a little while.

Jenna and I will be in Denver, full time, starting early June. Consider this an open invitation to come see us, but please do call or write first.

As always, thanks for reading.