They can paint over the walls …


Protest Graffiti Mexico: Oaxaca is a striking visual testament to the 2006 rebellion in the southern Mexican state


Protest Graffiti Mexico: Oaxaca
Louis E.V. Nevaer, introduced by Lila Downs
2009, Mark Batty Publisher
160 pages, hardback, numerous plates

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

LOCAL REBELLIONs have been as much a feature of Mexico’s history as revolutions, and the Oaxacan protests of 2006 revealed the constant potential for uprisings in impoverished and ethnically divided parts of the country – but also how easily they can be eclipsed by national disputes.

The great misfortune of the Oaxacan activists – who took to the streets behind striking teachers against the rule of Governor Ulises Ruiz of the PRI – was that their demonstrations coincided with the country’s disputed federal elections.

The contribution of the local Ruiz regime to that election, for example, was to start public works in one of the state’s poorest municipalities at Guelatao just a day before a planned rally by presidential candidate Andres Manuel López Obrador, which was inevitably then obstructed.

Ruiz has been nothing if not controversial, and Protest Graffiti Mexico: Oaxaca is a testament both to his notoriety and unpopularity.

The book brings together commentary about the events in the state – which claimed at least 17 lives, including that which achieved most prominence, the death of the Indymedia cameraman Brad Will – and photographs by activist Elaine Sendyk of political art that reflected the efforts of popular groups in Oaxaca to get across their message.

Police heavy-handedness

The dispute itself originated in demands by local teachers – primarily women – for better pay and conditions, but snowballed rapidly when the police responded to the non-violent protests with crass heavy-handedness .

As a result, it evolved into a potent local campaign by a broad-based movement that coalesced around the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO, Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) to oust Ruiz, whom they accused of instigating the repression and of corruption. Ruiz has also been accused of rigging the 2004 election in the first place, a charge he vigorously denies but one that sits comfortably with all PRI candidates wherever they may be, given the party’s long history of electoral fraud.

The most violent phase of the protests lasted for seven months during 2006, and involved allegations by human rights monitors against the Mexican government of forming paramilitary death squads and of summary executions. At one stage, APPO occupied Oaxaca’s central square and seized radio and television stations, conjuring up images of the rebellion in Chiapas and sending a shiver down the spine of President Vicente Fox as his National Action party fought furiously across the country to ensure its succession in general elections.

Yet, as Louis E.V. Nevaer points out in his commentary about the events, “Thus June became July, and the nation’s focus shifted to the presidential elections that resulted in the closest race in Mexican history… Oaxaca’s troubled teachers and the troubling governor dimmed on the radar screen of the nation’s attention.” [p. 40]

This may help to explain an escalation of the violence thereafter, as frustration grew within APPO, and supporters of Ruiz took advantage of declining interest to harden their response. The shooting in late October of activists including Bradley Will – subsequently condemned by UNESCO director general Koïchiro Matsuura – prompted Fox to intervene by dispatching federal police to Oaxaca.

International attention

International attention to the dispute grew with the publication of an “Open Letter in Support of the People of Oaxaca” signed by academics and activists from around the world including Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore and John Pilger calling for Ruiz to go, and after guerrilla groups planted bombs in Mexico City a few days later demanding the governor’s resignation.

By default and through the violent response of the local PRI regime, the protests had escalated into a generalised uprising in a region that is overwhelmingly indigenous seeking a more representative form of local politics and promoting the right to a decent public education amid the broader campaign for social justice.

APPO’s demands include recognition of indigenous rights and autonomy, gender equality, political accountability and opposition to neoliberalism, and they seek alternative forms of education and collectively-run media. They have particular resonance given that Benito Juárez, Mexico’s greatest president and the first indigenous leader of a country in the western hemisphere, was born in Guelatao.

Although an uneasy calm has since descended, APPO remains in dispute with the local PRI regime and has vowed to continue protesting until Ruiz resigns or is defeated in the 2010 gubernatorial elections.

Protest Graffiti Mexico: Oaxaca is a striking testament to the protest art that spread throughout Oaxaca during and after the dispute. Much of the graffiti in the book was inspired or created by women members or supporters of APPO, making it gender distinctive. Pictures by the anonymous but prolific ArteJaguar graffiti collective in Oaxaca are much in evidence. In the Mexican tradition of anonymous struggle for social justice, ArteJaguar artists believe their work speaks for those whose voices are unheard – or silenced. The work of Ana Santos – one of the principal graffiti artists in Oaxaca who helped define the graphic imagery that evolved as the medium through which the striking teachers movement made itself heard – also features prominently in the book.

Striking images of police brutality, caricatures of Ruiz spattered with blood or dressed as a Nazi, the Virgin of Guadalupe wearing a gas mask, and even of indigenous women hailing a figure of Christ surrounded by Arabic script – an eye-catching reference to the martyrdom of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and thus a statement of international solidarity – capture the reader’s full attention.

The photographs of these images were mostly taken in 2007 by Sendyk – an American activist and APPO supporters who died tragically later that year. They serve as a vibrant legacy of her unorthodox life, and capture for ever images that may since have been painted over.

In her introduction, Lila Downs, the celebrated Oaxacan singer, points to the importance of this work, and how it provides a visual testimony to a confrontation that has been silenced by force, and force of circumstance. She writes:

“This book is a printed testimonial of our fears and our anger: they can paint over the stone and the walls, the buses and the sidewalks, but they cannot erase our memory, our pride or our bravery.” [p. 15]

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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