State of emergency

Oaxacans living in California worry over unrest back home

Human-rights activist Al Rojas joins protesters in front of the Mexican Consulate downtown.

Human-rights activist Al Rojas joins protesters in front of the Mexican Consulate downtown.

Photo By Larry Dalton

A chill was in the air on Friday, the first of December, and the demonstrators in front of the Mexican Consulate on J and 8th streets in downtown Sacramento wore jackets and scarves. They held posters and placards in Spanish and English; some called for an end to the repression in Oaxaca and others said “no to the fraud of Calderón.”

“I’m here because I’m a student and I see this affecting teachers, and also students, in Mexico,” said Melina Franco, a UC Davis undergraduate who had come to demonstrate with fellow students. Gretel Quintero, a UC Davis political-science major from Stockton whose family originally comes from the coastal state of Sinaloa, said, “I’m here to support and try and help stop the killing in Mexico. The only solution people have is to immigrate and suffer more. We need educated people in Mexico.”

A few hours earlier, Felipe Calderón had been pronounced the new president of Mexico. It was a quick ceremony marred by fistfights in the Mexican Congress of the Union as members of the left-wing PRD party attempted to block the inauguration. South of Mexico’s capital in Oaxaca, federal troops continued to occupy the city after a citizen uprising that began with a teachers’ union strike in May calling for better wages, conditions and teaching materials in Oaxacan schools. After a heavy-handed response from state officials in June, the strike escalated.

The Oaxacan People’s Assembly formed a coalition in solidarity with the teachers. They have challenged the legitimacy of the current Mexican government and are demanding the removal of Ulises Ruiz, governor of Oaxaca, whom they claim was elected through fraud. Since then, the city has become a war zone where leftist rebels, students and teachers have clashed repeatedly with state and federal authorities. Streets have been blocked by commandeered buses, a local radio station was taken over and a dozen people have been shot dead, including a New York Indymedia journalist. And a growing list of “disappeared” activists—about 30 according to the international press—remind some of the paramilitary death squads that once haunted Latin America. Ricardo Macias, who was born in Sacramento and now lives in Isleton, gave his reason why he was at the consulate.

“To voice my disgust and anger at what is going on in Oaxaca—the same thing that’s been going on for decades,” Macias said. He said trade policy between the United States and Mexico is one of the reasons for the current crisis. NAFTA removed tariffs on corn imports to Mexico, and the rural poor in areas such as Oaxaca long have depended on cultivating corn. “They wiped them out,” Macias said. “It’s not even worth them planting the corn.”

Indeed, Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s states hit hardest by immigration to the United States. And though thousands of Oaxacans live in the Central Valley, most Californians know very little about the unrest there.

Sergio Martinez is one of those who left for California. Martinez lives in Sacramento with his wife, but he was born and raised in rural Oaxaca in the town of Teotitlán del Valle, famous for its tapestries. Martinez is a Zapotec weaver, and his work and connections to his family constantly take him back home to Mexico. English is his third language, Zapotec his first and Spanish his second. Frequently crossing linguistic and national borders has given Martinez unique insight into Oaxaca’s plight.

“I adamantly condemn the repression in Oaxaca. Unfortunately it exists,” Martinez wrote in an e-mail exchange with SN&R. “Our towns and villages have always been victims of its government, ignored and forgotten. Yet when the people rise up to denounce the injustices and lack of democracy, our response from the government is repression and threats rather than dialogue.”

The international press has been cautious in its reportage of the crisis in Oaxaca, noting the poor conditions, but also reporting that the APPO is not representative of all Oaxacans. The Associated Press reported that protesters targeted federal police and government buildings with rocks and “gasoline bombs,” and police used tear gas and water jets to subdue them. But Martinez said the only violence he saw in Oaxaca, when he last visited in early November, was by the federal police.

“I saw innocent bystanders who were not even participating beaten and kidnapped,” Martinez later said in a phone interview.

Some Oaxacans in Northern California are organizing to raise awareness. Antonio Ramirez lives in Sonoma County but was born and raised in Agricola Oriental, a village in Oaxaca. He studied veterinary science at UNAM, Mexico City’s famed university, but couldn’t find work and immigrated to California, where he now works as a veterinary assistant. These days, he is busy with CAMPPO, the “support committee for the popular movement of the people of Oaxaca,” the organization he runs. The majority of its members are Oaxacans who live and work in the Napa wine country, laboring in the vineyards.

“Poor people depend on immigration because there are no social advances,” Ramirez said of Oaxaca. “There is no dialogue with government.”

With his organization CAMPPO, Ramirez hopes to “keep pressure on the Mexican Consulate and let the media know that we should press the Mexican government to establish a better democracy.”

In Sacramento, veteran organizer Al Rojas has been active in drawing attention to the events in Oaxaca and in other parts of Mexico. On December 1, Rojas rallied the demonstrators with a megaphone in hand, denouncing the brutality of the Mexican government and speaking in defense of APPO, the striking teachers union, and protesting the lack of education that creates only “throwaway workers to make Levi pants in maquilas.” Rojas, born in the San Joaquin Valley and the child of immigrants from Mexico, was a farm worker himself before becoming an organizer with the United Farm Workers and, later, the SEIU. He already had been aware of the unrest brewing in the south of Mexico, having long been immersed in the world of immigrants who have fled to California by necessity. In 1991, he founded North Americans for Democracy in Mexico and worked with labor unions, students and activists to organize delegations to Mexico and play an advocacy role. He estimates there are over 150,000 immigrants from Oaxaca living in the Central Valley, many of them in the Sacramento area.

Rojas connects the situation in Oaxaca with the widespread perception of electoral corruption in Mexico. The leftist presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, narrowly was defeated in July but claims he was cheated out of a victory. Such corruption also is claimed by APPO as reason to strip Oaxaca Governor Ruiz of his office.

“The real issue,” Rojas said, “is of institutions that have not been accountable. Oaxaca is an eye-opener for many Mexicans.”

For Rojas, Ramirez and Martinez, going on with their daily business and ignoring international headlines is not an option.