By Sean Donahue, the Narcosphere — In southern Mexico they say “The Spanish were the invaders, but the Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, and Jesuits were the conquerors.”
Those words echo through my mind as I look at the police encampment beside the Santo Domingo cathedral in the Zocalo, the historic center of the city of Oaxaca City, capitol of the state of Oaxaca.
The guide books speak without irony of the beauty of the city’s colonial architecture. Colonial is the operative word. The architecture is a triumphant monument to violent attempts to subjugate the Zapotec and Mixotec people of the region.
The Spanish conquest of Mexico coincided with the height of the witch burnings in Europe — in both Europe and the Americas, the eradication of sacred traditions that saw the world as alive was necessary to transform the land and the minerals beneath it as commodities to be bought and sold. On three continents, intertwined powers of church and state jailed, tortured, and executed practitioners of nature-based religions, and divided up the land among the members of a rising white middle class. Starhawk describes some of the forces at work:
“In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, new economic stresses caused by the influx of gold from the Americas challenged the power of the old ruling classes, which was based on land. A new power began to arise, based on money, trade, and the beginnings of capitalism. With it came a new ideology, the mechanistic model of the universe, which saw the world as made up of separate objects that had no inherent life, could be viewed and examined in isolation from one another, and could be exploited without constraint.
“For this new economic order to be accepted, old ideas of the dynamic interrelatedness of the universe and the sacredness of nature needed to be broken down.”
(Starhawk, The Earth Path. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2004)
The same ideology that drove witch hunts in Europe led British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonizers to try to wipe out the traditional religions of the Americas.
There was strong resistance to the conquest among the Zapotec communities in the mountains north of Oaxaca City, and the language and traditions of the Zapotec remain strong today.
In many ways, that same clash of cultures and ideologies is playing out in Oaxaca again today, 500 years later.
From June through October of this year, Oaxaca was largely under the control of a provisional popular government guided by traditional indigenous means of decision making. Federal police retook the capitol city in a military-style invasion at the end of October. At night, police ride through the streets of the city in white pick-up trucks, kicking down the doors of suspected movement sympathizers, beating them, and sending them to prisons on the other side of the country where they are subjected to torture. But signs of resistance are everywhere — most visibly in the form of the graffiti that appears every night on walls that had been whitewashed just hours earlier.
On its surface, the uprising in Oaxaca was initially a response to a brutal pre-dawn police attack on striking teachers and their families camped out in the Zocalo on June 14. Enraged Oaxacans came to the teachers’ defense, literally beating back the police and retaking the square.
But anger had been simmering in Oaxaca for a long time. The state is desperately poor — in the countryside, many homes have dirt floors and lack electricity or running water.
Corruption plays a role in that poverty. The Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) has ruled Oaxaca for over seventy years, maintaining control through a system of cronyism that would make a Chicago politician blush. Jobs and land are awarded to party operatives. The current Governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, is believed to have looted the state treasury in order to help fund the campaign of his party’s presidential candidate, Roberto Madrazzo.
The state is rich in resources — timber, uranium, gold, silver, water. But most of those resources have been sold off to U.S. and Canadian companies, with the people of Oaxaca seeing very little benefit.
But the biggest force responsible for Oaxaca’s poverty is a global economic system bent on eradicating subsistence agriculture, replacing small farms with massive plantations, and turning farmers into low wage factory workers, all in the name of economic efficiency and maximizing profits. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) destroyed Oaxaca’s millennia-old corn growing culture in the 1990’s. Oaxaca is the place where the world’s first corn was grown. But when tarriffs and other protections were dropped, small farmers growing traditional varieties of corn to feed themselves and sell to their neighbors could no longer compete with massive government subsidized corporate corn farms in the Midwestern U.S. growing genetically modified corn using petroleum fertilizers and pesticides. To add insult to injury, when a few farmers planted the corn they bought from the U.S., the pollen from their fields contaminated neighboring corn fields, ruining Oaxaca’s genetic treasury by turning heirloom varieties of corn into strange hybrids.
A few years later, Oaxaca’s coffee farms took a hit when Vietnam began producing cheap, abundant coffee on the advice of international financial institutions, making the bottom fall out of the coffee market.
In recent years, most young Oaxacan men and many young Oaxacan women have been forced to leave their communities to search for work in the U.S. or in the maquilladora factories of northern Mexico. 150,000 people leave Oaxaca every year.
The handful of young Oaxacans who go to the university and become teachers are among the few members of their generation who remain in their hometowns.
Miguel Angel Vasquez of the human rights and popular education organization EDUCA says ““if migration is the individual response to this economic crisis, the conflict in Oaxaca is an example of a collective response.”
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