¡Viva la revolucion!

May 18, 2007

The city of Oaxaca (capital of the state of the same name) really is a place of contrasts. Its centro historico consists of several blocks of beautiful old ‘colonial’ villas and numerous churches, all focusing on the central zocalo and alameda adjoining plazas. It’s here the good burghers come to stroll and sit – entire families out together of an evening. It’s a wonderful sight, such apparently intimate families taking their leisure together – a world away from our own parks of ravaged playgrounds, dog poo, dossers and teens of varying degrees of deliquency.

Just up from our wonderful hotel (Las Mariposas – highly recommended, but get a room in the back courtyard, which is mas tranquillo) was another park with similarly mellow familiar leisure scenes (this season’s must for kids is, apparently, a long cylindrical balloon. The nippers seemed to be content bashing these up into the air right through the night; or at least they were at it at 10pm, and seemed to still be playing with them the following morning).

However, alongside all the history and family-oriented quality of life the city has a very different face – it’s covered with graffiti. This isn’t, for the most part, teenaged tagging, but instead endless political slogans, most of it in support of the APPO (the teachers’ group involved with last year’s six months of civil disorder). The annual teachers’ demo took place on Tuesday 15 May, much to Fran’s chagrin. However, it turned out to be a very relaxed affair, with neither a Molotov cocktail or a homemade bazooka in sight (these came out last November in the culmination of the protests and disorder – battles with federal forces). Presumably, the city was so wearied by last year’s events, which knocked the economy by closing businesses and scaring los touristos away, that no one wanted things to kick off. Certainly, alongside the APPO slogans, people were seen carrying signs pleading that protestors respect the city.

Certainly the city needs a bit more respect – whatever the grievances, it’s just sad to see the historical buildings grafittied and shameful to see the central cathedral besmirched (the grafitti is then painted over in a harlequinade of different paint colours, which probably just makes the mess even worse). This isn’t an insightful blog entry about the political struggles of Oaxca, it’s just an account of one tourist’s bemusement at the contrasts in the city, the blend of pride and charm with fervent and vandalism.

Regardless, it’s a wonderful place and we were very sad to leave. This backpacking lark involves a lot of regrets – usually when you fall for a place, make some new friends and start to feel very at home but have already booked your onward journey (which often involves inflexible arrangements. That means you cheaptickets.com – sure your prices might be good, but you bastards rake it in with that no refunds policy eh). The feeling very at home bit is particularly telling at this point – we’re six months into our trip and kinda just missing home comforts.

Still, last night off we went on a night bus. My sis had said her night buses generally involved horror movies being played, but instead we had a quaint British flick by the name of Dear Frankie. I’d not seen it so was keen to have a look at least, to ease the boredom and discomfort of 11 hours on the road when my body was asking for a bed. Our assumption that a bus full of gringo tourists would mean it wasn’t dubbed proved false – so we instead had the bizarre experience of watching Sharon Small (best known as Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers of The Inspector Lynley Mysteries) speaking Spanish. It was mildly disconcerting as she’s a friend of a friend and decidedly Scots.

Knackered we arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas, a town that comes highly recommended by my sis and by our Mexico advisor Dr J Russell. The blasting of Mexican TV that met us in the small, claustrophic and acoustically unfortunate hotel we’d booked wasn’t a great start, so despite being the walking dead we went off to find another place for tomorrow. Anyways, arriving in San Cristobal we were again struck by the graffiti. Another beautiful historic town centre, another set of political grievances. Instead of the APPO (though there was some Oaxaca-oriented grafitti here too – despite being in the next state of Chiapas), the relevant group is the EZLN, aka the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional. Yep, this is Zapatista ground zero.

Everything seems pretty calm now, 13 years after the battle between the revolutionary group and, yep, federal forces again. Named after the forces of Emilio Zapata, hero of the Mexican Revolution, the EZLN represent the rights of indigenous people, long oppressed by the powers that be. Though there is still some warning to tourists about the potential for violent outbreaks in this ongoing struggle, after the graffiti, the Zapatistas seem to be most overtly represented in the form of t-shirts and woollen dolls (replete with balaclavas). Yep, dolls. I’m quite tempted by a “Democracia Libertad Justicia REZOLUCION T-shirt, but it wouldn’t be sensible to wear it here, as the government already tars a lot of foreigners as sympathisers who support the Zapatista cause. I just thought the design was kinda cool…

Bizarre how extreme politics segues into low fashion (cf hippies in Mao jackets; Che as T-shirt icon; the ubiquity of paramilitary fatigues – heck I’ve been sporting pseudo-army shorts and a ‘Fidel’ cap much of this trip. Sadly my cap is on its last legs).

Anywaps, we’re toying with taking a horse ride out to the indigenous village where their own particular hybrid semi-Christian religion involves drinking a lot of Coca-Cola and burping a lot. The mind boggles.


Having wandered around San Cris a bit more today, I should revise what I wrote yesterday, but on these cranky old PCs I can’t face it. Suffice to say, not all the graffiti here is political, and much of the political stuff does actually seem to be in support of Oaxaca’s APPO (“OAXACA SOMOS TODOS” – we are all Oaxaca). There’s also masses and masses of plain old-fashioned tagging, messy yoof vandalism the like of which you find the world over. Yoofs and their spraypaint territorial peeing. It’s one thing in a rundown British estate, but in these lovely old Mexican town centres it’s ‘orrid. This place is full of yoofs though, seems an almost disproportionate amount of the population is teen. And an disproportionate number of the tourists seem to be scruffy ethnic-clad hippies too.


2 Responses to “¡Viva la revolucion!”

  1. Hannah Says:

    Hey Dan and Fran
    Finally managed to read about where you are and what you’re doing – very jealous!

    Am currently in Venice putting on the exhibition but it’s far from glamorous – dust, dust, dust, paint, sweep, etc.

    Have managed a sip or two of beer on the Fondamenta before being bitten to shit (rivalling yours Dan?)

    Where are you going next and does a detour to Venice (only marginal!) seem likely?

    Ciao for now, and happy travels!


  2. Dom Says:

    Between the 2 of you some lovely reading. Going to keep it short as last 2 times i tried posting my comment was deleted. Suffice to say we’re looking forward to seeing you for the first hand story!


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