Film Review: A Little Bit of So Much Truth

Teo Ballvé

In recent years, grassroots media have been critical to social uprisings throughout Latin America. The short-lived coup against Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez would have turned out quite differently if not for community outlets breaking the information blockade imposed by anti-government corporate media. Grassroots radio has served as the central nervous system of Bolivia’s massive rural-urban uprisings, and Ecuador’s call-in radio station Radio Luna was instrumental in the overthrow of former president Lucio Gutiérrez. Even in the United States, Latino media have been key to filling the streets. But the use of media in the 2006 uprising in Oaxaca, Mexico, stands apart. There, activists didn’t just use the media; they expropriated them.

A Little Bit of So Much Truth, a new documentary produced by Corrugated Films and Mal de Ojo TV, reveals the symbiosis between grassroots media and the popular movement. Indeed, it would be impossible to tell the story of one without the other. Jill Friedberg, the director behind Corrugated Films, also produced This Is What Democracy­ Looks Like (2000) about the 1999 protests in Seattle and Granito de arena (2005) on the 25-year history of the teachers’ movement in Mexico.

A Little Bit of So Much Truth begins with shots from the May 2006 teachers’ strike, which had become an annual ritual. The 60,000-strong Section 22 of the National Teachers’ Union would take over Oaxaca’s central plaza, or zócalo; then, after a few days, the Oaxaca State governor (the state and its capital city share the name) would agree to some demands, and the teachers would pack up the protest camp known as the plantón and leave. But this time the demonstration quickly snowballed into a full-blown popular revolt.

This unrest stemmed from a long list of grievances against Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, known by his initials as URO. A longtime member of Mexico’s traditional ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), URO took power in 2004 after an election widely considered fraudulent. Once in office, URO, among other things, orchestrated the closure of a newspaper, siphoned $8 million from public coffers to an ally’s presidential campaign, and spent $175 million remodeling tourist zones, damaging historic areas on the UN’s list of World Heritage sites in the process. Meanwhile, Section 22 demands for scholarships, school improvements, student breakfasts, books, and shoes, as well as a modest salary raise, were simply ignored.

As the government began amassing a huge contingent of police to dislodge the encampment from the zócalo, the news shows on Mexico’s TV duopoly (Televisa and TV Azteca) immediately began demanding a “restoration of public order,” calling the teachers “vandals.” The media counterinsurgency had begun.

With the attack looming, Radio Plantón, a station established by the protest camp, began receiving calls from listeners pledging their solidarity with the teachers. “The phone rang off the hook,” radio host Fernando Lobo remembers.

Teachers give a biology lesson on the Radio Plantón airwaves.

The police stormed the plantón at about 4 a.m. on June 14, firing tear gas from helicopters into the slumbering tent city. More than 90 people were injured. Radio Plantón alerted its listeners to the attack, and by daybreak, despite the corporate propaganda against the teachers, practically all of Oaxaca flooded into the streets. “It wasn’t just the teachers who took back the zócalo,” recalls schoolteacher Eduardo Castellanos Morales. “It was the population in general.”

Radio Plantón was destroyed in the attack—a main police objective, according to Lobo—so college students took over the local college station, Radio Universidad, and seamlessly filled the void in the airwaves. “Once we took Radio Universidad, it’s like we finally had the media in our own hands, which is how it should be,” says schoolteacher Beatriz Gutiérrez Luis.

The film uses several recordings of the grassroots radio broadcasts, which demonstrate an impressive breadth of participation from all sectors of the population in the programming through call-ins. The broadcasts were multidirectional exchanges, a kind of public forum, united in one resolution: URO must go.

Three days after the attack, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) was created as the movement’s main organization, adapting consensus-style decision making from the state’s indigenous groups. Shortly thereafter came the fraudulent July 2 general elections, which in Oaxaca became a plebiscite on the PRI. The APPO organized a protest vote, and for the first time in the state’s history, the PRI lost in all but two of the state’s 11 electoral districts.

Both Radio Plantón, which came back on the air with the elections, and Radio Universidad, still under the movement’s control, were instrumental in this. The APPO, with the help of the radios, called for mass civil disobedience, seeking to demonstrate that the state was not being governed, which was the only way for the Mexican congress to legally intervene and depose URO. Linking the city with outlying rural communities, radio made possible the coordinated occupation of all of the city’s main government buildings and about 25 municipal palaces throughout the state. Despite this, the federal government refused to step in.

As Oaxaca activist David Venegas Reyes notes, “It’s impossible for an assembly [the APPO] to function efficiently, so radio played that role. Through the radio, people who were on the front lines of the movement could hear exactly what the people really wanted.”

A teachers' blockade from June 2006.(Photo: Luis Perez Guarneros/Corrugated Films)

In August, when a group of women marchers were denied airtime on Canal 9, the state TV channel, they peacefully occupied it and began broadcasting for the popular movement. But amid the crackle of gunfire three weeks later, security forces destroyed the station’s transmitter. Undaunted, oaxaqueños went beyond standing their ground and took the offensive, occupying some 12 commercial radio stations.

By then, the uprising had reached its cusp. It not only controlled the virtual space of the airwaves, but it also had the city under its territorial control through its occupations and road blockades organized by neighborhood. Oaxaca belonged to the people.

The state responded ferociously. The film shows masked gunmen, including on- and off-duty police, hired guns, and PRI henchmen riding in pickup trucks, indiscriminately shooting into the darkness of night.

A poignant moment in the film comes in a series of brief statements by participants about how the radios fell short. They all agree that media failed to go beyond their most immediate role of alerts and calls to action. The radios, they argue, served a pivotal role but did not provide the movement with longer, more in-depth analysis of the crisis, which in their view was a symptom of a much larger, deep-seated decay in the political and economic system.

Although the film’s purpose is to explore the role of the media in the movement, viewers might also wonder about the internal dynamics of the APPO. Also, some of the leading radio activists are noticeably absent, like Bertha Muñoz, known as La Doctora Escopeta, who makes brief audio cameos from the broadcasts but we never hear from her directly. Such omissions are, however, understandable in light of security concerns.

In September 2006, around the same time Radio Universidad came back on the air, the government launched an anti-movement pirate station called Radio Ciudadana, marking the definitive inversion of the established order in Oaxaca. The people alone governed the city, while the local government was reduced to starting an illegal radio station. (One of its propaganda broadcasts warned the public that the APPO was using AIDS-infected men to rape young girls.) Still, the federal government refused to intervene and remove URO. President Felipe Calderón won an election widely considered fraudulent, so his party, the PAN, needed the PRI’s support in Congress, which it offered in exchange for the PAN’s help in blocking efforts to unseat URO.

After the movement failed to pressure the police to leave the city the following November, many leaders and media activists were either detained or went into hiding amid mass arrests. The government later succeeded in blocking Radio Universidad’s signal, and the movement turned over its last radio station to the authorities.

But Radio Plantón returned to the airwaves three months later. “Radio is helping people shed the fear once again,” says activist Aline Castellanos Jurado.

She’s right. Social unrest in Oaxaca is once again bubbling to the surface—proof that, as many speakers in the film predict, “things in Oaxaca will never again be the same.” This is an enormous leap in the right direction, and it was brought to you by the brave people of Oaxaca’s popular media.

Teo Ballvé is NACLA’s Web editor. A journalist based in Colombia, he edited, with Vijay Prashad, Dispatches From Latin America: On the Frontlines Against Neoliberalism (South End Press, 2006).

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