Oaxaca City’s spirit is written on its walls.

Its cultural reality is painted, sprayed, and plastered on almost every vertical surface the city has to offer. Written messages scream phrases like “Democracia para Oaxaca!” and “Presos politicos, no! Politicos presos, si! [Political prisoners, no! Imprisoned politicians, yes!]” And about 10 feet from a caricature of Oaxaca’s governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz being lynched is a looming government-painted warning — a message to anyone and everyone that those who paint and stick posters on this wall will be denounced.

During the span of the past few years, the state of Oaxaca has seen social movements and large-scale cultural resistance. Throughout the city and countryside, many people from different social sectors united, marched and protested in order to denounce policies reflecting governmental corruption and Mexico’s growing dependency on the United States.

“The dependency is so great on the U.S., you could say Mexico is living an economic, political and even military occupation from the U.S.,” said Miguel Angel Vasquez de la Rosa, co-founder of Services for an Alternative Education (EDUCA).

VISITORS CAN SEE this powerful message as they drive on a Oaxacan highway.  The message translates, “Political prisoners no! Imprison politicians yes!” Photo by Toan P. Do.
VISITORS CAN SEE this powerful message as they drive on a Oaxacan highway. The message translates, “Political prisoners no! Imprison politicians yes!” Photo by Toan P. Do.

Some History

Since World War II, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has loaned money to countries, including Mexico, for development projects. When debt spiraled out of control, the IMF became central in implementing Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) meant to cushion fiscal woes.

However, SAPs usually implement programs and policies that include privatization, deregulation and lifting trade barriers, all of which become problematic for countries involved.

The people of Oaxacan communities were hit hard on January 1, 1994 when the United States, Canada and Mexico entered into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a treaty that was designed to foster trade between the three countries.

In the decade following the implementation of NAFTA, America watched its corn industry soar while certain business juggernauts like Wal-Mart exploded to epic proportions. Conversely, citizens of Oaxaca, Mexico’s second-poorest state, suffered deepened poverty rates, cuts to social programs, and the destruction of one of its main sources of income: corn.

Corn flooding into Mexico from the United States was aggravated by the Mexican government’s withdrawal of subsidies and monetary assistance to small corn farmers, catalytically producing a spike in the rate of migration from the area.

Those most affected by these policies were and still are the indigenous communities. Of the 3.4 million population of Oaxaca, about one-third to one-half are members of 16 indigenous groups, according to Witness For Peace (WFP), a political organization that advocates nonviolence in Latin America.

“For the last 25 years, we can see that the politics and policies of the IMF have been adapted here in Mexico,” Vasquez de la Rosa of EDUCA said. “There has been kind of a double effect here. One is the decrease of public spending on food, health, education — and then the increase in the matter of economic sense. You can see that not only has poverty increased, but inequality has increased by a tremendous amount.”

Photo by Toan P. Do.
Photo by Toan P. Do.

Artistic Revolution

All over the city political messages are scrawled with black, red, and white spray paint, silently yelling and challenging the higher authorities.

Randomly dispersed throughout, blocks of white, grey, and other neutral-toned paint solemnly cover up these challenges, suppressing the voice of resistance.

Privatization policies hit the education sector hard, leaving those in rural areas — who are mostly indigenous — especially underfunded.

The Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO) movement was born when a teacher’s union protested in the zocalo, or town square, of Oaxaca City on the morning of June 14, 2006.

While the teachers peacefully demanded funds for school supplies, infrastructural repairs, and higher wages, government forces quickly moved in and attacked the unarmed protesters — igniting a movement of social resistance.

Millions of southern Mexico’s most marginalized people marched the streets, led by APPO, in protest of the far-reaching effects of policies like NAFTA that were taking over every aspect of daily life. During this time, APPO sought to unite people from various social sectors, and called upon artists to form a collective expression of the voice of the people. This came in the form of the Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca (ASARO).

“In 2006, during the movement, during the confrontation, there was this discontent in the population that was not being expressed in the media or the mainstream news,” said Julio*, co-founder of ASARO. “We chose to have our art fill that void. The media wasn’t expressing the cultural reality of Oaxaca.”

In its early days, ASARO often created artistic works that represented direct responses to government suppression witnessed during the APPO movement in 2006.

Today, the uprising is but a mere whisper in the wind, yet remnants of its effects are still scarred on the walls of the country like shrapnel left on a battlefield.

“We really came out of that moment to organize artists in that movement,” said Mario*, another co-founder of ASARO. “During the beginning our work was really around what was happening with the movement in Oaxaca. So during the first few months, we were creating work to respond to the repression, or to respond to the people that had been killed or disappeared.”

JESús is among a small population of children who remain in San Juan Sosola, Oaxaca. Photo by Toan P. Do.
Jesús is among a small population of children who remain in San Juan Sosola, Oaxaca. Photo by Toan P. Do.

Forced Migration or Natural Phenomenon?

Although it is only two hours from the politically aggravated streets of Oaxaca City, the community of San Juan Sosola could not feel farther away.

One of many agricultural communities scattered throughout the Oaxacan countryside, the land of San Juan Sosola is dry and unforgiving, the sun relentless during the day. It’s quiet in this small town, despite the hustle and bustle of packed streets and smog-filled air. Hills roll as far as the eye can see with scattered towns visible in the distance, golden in the sun.

San Juan Sosola is eerily empty; the presence of adults between the ages of 25 and 40 has become scarce. In the time span of the past few generations, these agricultural laborers, mainly of indigenous descent, have seen many traditions lost as their children migrate from the unfertile land.

This little countryside community is a perfect example of the wide disparity between urban and country life.

“We see, especially in the indigenous communities of Oaxaca, an important aspect of community and how community is built,” said Father Fernando Cruz Montes of the Center for the Orientation of Migrants (COMI).

COMI is a small migrant sanctuary in Oaxaca City that provides a safe space and much-needed shelter during the trek to the United States that often finds migrants exploited and abused.

“Migration patterns have begun to break these social structures,” Montes said. “And so what happens now? We see these communities are just left with elderly people. There are barely any children or young people and there are houses that are abandoned. There are ghost towns in these areas. I am personally from a town in the Mixteca region, where when I was growing up there were a lot of children, but now there are only five left.”

The roots of migration in Oaxaca — and Mexico — date back to the early 1900s. However, since the passage of NAFTA in 1994, Oaxaca has seen approximately 400,000 migrants choose “a journey of death,” as Montes calls the path of migration to the United States.

Most farmers in Oaxaca are small subsistence farmers. Once NAFTA opened the floodgates for American corn to saturate the Mexican market, these farmers went out of business. Their small-scale production could not compete with U.S. agribusiness.

“In terms of corn, one of the reasons why Mexican farmers can’t compete is the subsidy disparity,” said Randy Hinthorn, co-founder of COMI. “In 1994 Mexican farmers received 30 percent of their yearly income from the Mexican government in various forms of subsidies and credits.”

However, Hinthorn said that from 1995 to 2001 it decreased to 13 percent as a result of NAFTA wiping out programs like National Company of Popular Subsistence (CONASUPO). Prior to NAFTA, CONASUPO bought corn, stored it, subsidized the price and distributed the corn to 2 million poor families each year.

Faced with no options except to leave their homes and their lands, young adults from all over the countryside migrate to different cities in Mexico or to the United States. In the process of this forced migration, families are left behind.

Dona Garcia-Velasco lives in San Juan Sosola. Like many other mothers and grandmothers in the community, she has children who have migrated to the United States.

“I want to give a greeting to my children that are out there in Los Angeles. Remember us, because it’s been years since I’ve seen you,” she pleaded as she began to cry. “Please take care of yourselves.”

The Revolutionary artists call themselves ASARO for short, and create art that represents the cultural reality of Oaxaca. Photo by Toan P. Do.
The Revolutionary artists call themselves ASARO for short, and create art that represents the cultural reality of Oaxaca. Photo by Toan P. Do.

Don’t Forget About Us

Back in the city of Oaxaca, the APPO movement has faded, leaving the graffiti tags behind as a reminder of the government suppression that took place. However, the spirit of Oaxacan resistance remains among many teachers and organizations alike.

The Coalition of Teachers and Indigenous Promoters of Oaxaca (CMPIO) is an organization made up of 1,070 indigenous teachers, who provide indigenous youth with an alternative education that puts value on maintaining the various aspects of indigenous culture.

“The irony in such a huge country that is very diverse, both linguistically and culturally, is that the same programs are given to all children without really recognizing these differences,” said Fernando Soberanes, teacher and co-founder of CMPIO. “So facing this problem, we’ve tried to respond by bringing programs and activities that more accurately address the needs of these communities.”

On the other side of town is EDUCA.

“It was in the midst of everything happening in 1994 that a group of us, a group of activists with connections with the progressive aspects of the church, decided to set up this organization,” co-founder Vasquez de la Rosa said.

EDUCA was founded on the principle idea that in order to push forward social and political transformation in Mexico, the marginalized communities would need to be educated and organized.

Vasquez de la Rosa said that one of EDUCA’s main purposes is to inform indigenous adults about their rights, making sure they are equipped and know how to demand them effectively.

Father Montes of COMI echoed the same sentiment.

“Our governments have a lot of work to do,” Montes said. “They need to pay attention to the situation and create laws that will support migrants and recognize that these migrants have rights as well.”

Photo by Toan P. Do.
Photo by Toan P. Do.