We arrive at one of the bus stations in the megacity of Mexico City to purchase a ticket bound for Oaxaca. It is mid-day and we have chosen to travel during the afternoon on the 6-hour journey to Oaxaca to enable a good viewing of the changing landscape. The bus system in Mexico is impressive.
The bus stations are clean and it is enjoyable to sit in the waiting area until the bus leaves. We climb onto the bus at 1pm and find our seats which are comfortable and roomy. We sit back, waiting for the bus to leave, excited about the long journey and our impending arrival to Oaxaca city.
We’ve been in Mexico 5 days already. The first couple of days we explored different museums in Mexico City – the Frida Kahlo Museum, the Trotsky Museum, the Anthropological Museum (see Udi’s post on ‘Politics and Art’). We also spent time with Carlos Flores and Rachel Sieder, the lovely couple we stayed with in the city, in the fabulous Coyoacan region of the city. Udi has known Carlos for a decade, meeting him at Goldsmiths College where Udi was studying and Carlos was teaching. Carlos is a visual anthropologist and filmmaker from Guatemala who has focused on a broad range of issues pertaining to Guatemala and beyond. Rachel is a scholar in Latin American studies and has focused on issues pertaining to human rights and law. Currently, Carlos and Rachel, are working on indigenous justice systems in the highlands of Guatemala (the region that was most affected by the war in the 1980s). They have written books and have made films about how particular issues are engaged with and resolved within these Mayan regions – and how this relates to the Guatemalan state. Rachel also focuses on domestic violence, being a woman she has better access to the women in these communities. This coming January they will be spending time again in the Guatemalan highlands to show their film and receive feedback from the people within these communities. We both had a wonderful time with them, seeing some of Mexico City and learning quite a lot about indigenous histories in Mexico and Guatemala.
It takes nearly an hour to leave the boundaries of Mexico City. Although Mexico City is one of the biggest cities in the world, it feels smaller than it is. Similar to London, the layout of Mexico City is like a series of smaller towns. Mexico City currently boasts a population of over 8 million in the city, although the larger metropolitan area is believed to be at least 22 million with estimations closer to 30 million. This makes the city the biggest in the world, a title it has held since before the time of the Conquistadores.
The geography of Mexico City is a valley that was once the massive Lake Texcoco within which the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was constructed (founded in 1325), sustaining the life of anywhere between 200,000 – 350,000 people, the biggest city in the Americas at that time. The layout of Tenochtitlan and its beauty provided an initial sense of awe for the Spanish when they first arrived. However, after the city was conquered by 1521, the Spanish drained the water from Lake Texcoco and began to build what has become current day Mexico City. Udi and I decided to visit the ruins of the Templo Mayor (the Aztec ‘main temple’) in el Zocalo, the center square of the city. The Templo Mayor was the most important temple to the Aztecs. According to Aztec religiosity, the god Huitzilopochtli provided a sign of an eagle on a nopal cactus with a snake in its mouth, symbolizing the importance of this particular site as the place for the main temple. This symbol appears on the current Mexican flag.
Excavations on the area of Templo Mayor began in the late 1700s and continue today. A large portion of the Templo is still to be unearthed as it now lies under several blocks of city buildings. Excavations were quiet for at least a century before 1978 when electrical workers, digging for the Metro, accidentally discovered monolith of Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess. This prompted the Templo Mayor project and the area has been slowly excavated ever since. The entire area is a graveyard of people and objects of cultural and spiritual significance.
Templo Mayor, or what you can visit of Templo Mayor, is just next to the enormous Spanish church that quite aggressively declares its spiritual significance over that of the conquered Aztecs. The location of the visitor area of Templo Mayor is about 200 meters from the church.
Within this area were hundreds of tourists and locals witnessing and interacting with three different groups of Aztec dancers and healers. There were also heavily armed police as well as an abundance of food, clothing and souvenir vendors. A colourful mural with Aztec symbolism lined the long wall between the Templo Mayor and the Mexico City Cathedral.
The Aztec dancers were all wearing different headdresses adorned with colourful feathers and leg bands of shells that made soft, hypnotic sounds as they moved. There were queues of people waiting to be cleansed by healers using smoke and branches, murmuring songs and covering each body with smoke and a gentle touch of the branches.
I could not help but recall primary school memories of learning about the Aztecs. The practice of human sacrifice is unsurprisingly what I remember the most, horrifying and gruesome as it was, particularly through my eyes as a young child. There are continual debates of stories and narratives about the frequency and justification behind process of human sacrifice that occurred to please the Sun God that, according to the Aztec cosmovision (view of and way being in the Universe) allowed for the continuance of life on Earth. These murals below were painted by Diego Rivera (they can be seen in the Modern Art Museum in Mexico City), representing the oppression of each major religion historically in Mexico.
The site of Templo Mayor is a juxtaposition of periods of time, histories, narratives, religious and spiritual practices. Similar to the complex and violent history of Mexico, the history of the destruction of the Aztec empire is equally violent and complex, with a range of competing stories and accounts. The different accounts by the Spanish and the Aztecs of a massacre on this particular site of Templo Mayor in 1520 are a key example. Whilst not denying the slaying of many Aztecs, the Spanish account holds a rationale for the event whilst the Aztec account of the event is far more descriptive and graphic of the extreme violence their people experienced at the hands of the Spanish. The church being built directly on the ruins of the Templo Mayor is typical of Christian conquest. The same practice can be found across the UK – many churches were built on former pagan spiritual place.
The air quality of Mexico City is a soup of smog. With the multitude of people using some sort of auto transport and the factories that have sprung up on different sides of the city it is hardly surprising that smog is constantly trapped in the valley bowl. After being on the bus for an hour or so, we notice bluer sky, clear white clouds and a particular snow-capped mountain with puffs of gray smoke emerging from its peak. This is Popcatepetl mountain, affectionately called ‘Popo’. Popo is the second highest mountain in Mexico, nearly 18,000 feet (5,426 meters). Earthquakes occur continuously in Mexico, particularly within the regions of Mexico City, Cuernavaca and Oaxaca. We have already felt several, the biggest one being nearly 5.0 on the richter scale. People have told us that if they do not feel earthquakes once a week, once every other week, that a much bigger earthquake is coming. A film has started playing on the 6 different video screens that hang down on different parts of the bus. It is X-Men: First Class 2’ and dubbed in Spanish.
We notice field after field of hay that has been thrashed into cone-like shapes along the road. There are maize fields here and there, but far less than we had assumed. Udi dozes off while I do some reading.
After another 2.5 hours, the road becomes more tortuous and there are sharp and step hills and canyons as far as we can see covered with cactus forests. These cacti stand over two metres straight up. It is a completely different type of fxorest than I have ever seen. We try to capture it on film but it is difficult with the incredible bends in the road that seem to appear every 100 or so meters.
The video screens on the bus come to life again and I see Britney Spears entering onto a stage with thousands of screaming fans surrounding her. The video of Britney goes on for over an hour and as the sun is starting to set and the road becomes ever more tortuous within the hills of cacti forests, I find it more and more difficult to avoid watching her. That the scene is surreal is an understatement. Udi and I discuss the geographic, demographic and political distinctions that we know about Oaxaca which are in sharp contrast to the video of Britney grinding her way through song after song in shiny and increasingly small outfits.
Oaxaca is one of the most biologically diverse states (after Chiapas and Veracruz) with a diverse number of reptiles, amphibians, mammals and plants.
Oaxaca is also the most culturally diverse state in Mexico. There are 16 officially recognized indigenous communities, with at least 17 languages and 37 dialects. Many of these dialects are more like different languages, as different as Spanish and Italian. These different indigenous groups have survived and thrived to varying extents within an overall environment of waves of oppression and colonialism. Surviving (and thriving to any extent) has been through incredible struggle that has occurred in various ways (many of which we will be posting about). It is estimated that during the first 100 years of Spanish colonization, nearly 90% of indigenous people were killed or died due to disease across all of Mexico. It is said that at the time of independence, two-thirds of the Mexican population was of indigenous peoples. Now, they make up around 10% of the population (although this is contentious as many people identify themselves as non-indigenous to elude discrimination that often comes with indigenous identification) and are divided amongst more than 55 languages through out the country. That Oaxaca state holds such a large number of these different languages can be attributed to the rugged and isolating geographical terrain of Oaxaca state, making it impossible for the Spanish to fully conquer.
Oaxaca is currently the second poorest state in Mexico with more than half of its population living in extreme poverty, earning less than Mexico’s minimum wage of $4.50 (US dollars) per day. Indigenous peoples account for the majority of Oaxaca’s poor. In addition to the oppressive legacy of colonialism, the ramifications of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) have been particularly harsh with corporate-led development targeting lands rich with natural resources for their own profit-making benefit, rather than for that of the indigenous peoples on these lands. What I had not realized before coming to Mexico was that the majority of Mexican migrants into the US are indigenous peoples from Oaxaca who are seeking some stable source of income and freedom from oppression. An important reason for this flight from rural areas has revolved around the struggle for land access, the struggle to resist corporate takeover that is ever-present. What has resulted for many of these immigrants to the USA is the encounter of a new and different type of oppression once they reach the USA (as illegal alien status) which is continually and hotly debated within all civil and political arenas in the USA.
My first real engagement with Oaxacan history was after I encountered a wonderful book at a Solidarity Economic conference (2009 – Hampshire, Massachusetts) called Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca written in 2007 just after the uprising occurred. The book provides a tapestry of voices participating within the uprising – teachers, musicians, schoolchildren, elderly, religions leaders, indigenous community activists, radio journalists, union leaders, etc. Hearing such a diversity of voices provides an excellent introduction into the profoundly complex political history of Oaxaca state.
The uprising began in May 2006 when around 20,000 teachers decided to strike (for the 25th consecutive year), occupying the Zocalo (city center), calling for a living wage, resources for infrastructure repair, free schoolbooks and social services. By June 14th, three weeks later, 3,000 police were sent to break up the occupation with tear gas, clubs, guns and helicopters. This violence was typical governmental response, the purpose of which is to silence social movements. This time, however, the people fought back. The public outcry formed the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (the APPO) that called for the resignation of the Oaxacan governor, Ulises Ruiz, who was believed to gain political entitlement illegally. APPO organized marches of over 800,000 people in Oaxaca and over 50 city blocks were occupied. Waves of violence ensued and over 20 people were killed, hundreds were tortured, incarcerated and declared as disappeared. There was peaceful occupation by Oaxacans of city buildings, setting up barricades throughout the city, painting public art (see Udi’s post on Art and Politics for more information on this) and also hunger strikes by striking teachers. The uprising culminated with a particularly violent encounter between the APPO and Oaxacan occupiers and the police at the end of November, 2006, over 6 months after the original teachers’ strike.
As darkness ensued and the bus entered the city limits of Oaxaca city, Udi and I both felt a sense of anticipated excitement about what we were to learn and experience over the coming weeks.