Women Play Key Role in Oaxaca Struggle

On August 5th, 2006, a large group of men and women from the town of Telixlahuaca assembled in front of the state-owned radio and television station Corporación Oaxaqueña de Radio y Television (CORTV) on the western edge of Oaxaca City, to read a petition and declare themselves to be in solidarity with the Asamblea Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca (APPO).

August 24, 2007

On August 5th, 2006, a large group of men and women from the town of Telixlahuaca assembled in front of the state-owned radio and television station Corporación Oaxaqueña de Radio y Television (CORTV) on the western edge of Oaxaca City, to read a petition and declare themselves to be in solidarity with the Asamblea Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca (APPO).

The APPO formed here in Oaxaca on June 17, 2006, after a violent attempt by the Governor, Ulíses Ruiz Ortíz, to evict a sit-in of thousands of teachers from the zocalo in the city’s historic center. While the teachers have staged sit-ins for the past 26 years as part of their annual negotiating strategy, this year their demands for school lunches, books, improvements to buildings, better science curricula, and higher salaries merged with what has become a much larger popular movement. The Oaxaca crises may be a dry run for national instability in the wake of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s (known as TRIFE) declaration of Felipe Calderón as the winner of Mexico’s presidential elections. Had the TRIFE questioned the outcome of the 2004 election of Ruiz, the PRI candidate, on the basis of the then-widespread allegations of fraud, a good deal of the current political and social crises might have been avoided. Instead, a political miscalculation by Governor Ruiz to evict teachers from the zocalo and restore his control of the city has fomented a movement to oust him—and women have played a significant role in those efforts.

The violent eviction attempt in the summer of 2006, during which more than 3000 riot police used tear gas bombs and burned belongings, injuring hundreds of teachers, converted to active sympathizers many in Oaxaca who had been indifferent to the annual protest of the teachers. Those sympathizers were joined by thousands of others and have consolidated into a widespread urban social movement growing by the day. At the center of this largely urban movement are women who have gained respect over the course of the summer due to their key role in opening up state media to those usually silenced, and their insistence on using pacific means to get across their message. While much has been made of the role of the Internet in organizing anti-globalization protests, it is a radio station, Radio Cacerola (“Saucepan Radio,” named for the pots and pans with which the women marched when they took over the station) that has been at the heart of the ongoing mobilizations, actions, deliberations, and debates that are permanently changing the nature of public culture and politics in this southern Mexican state.

As we stand outside the station after 12 noon on August 5th, there are shouts of “Se cayo, se cayo, Ulíses ya cayo” (He has fallen, he has fallen, Ulíses has already fallen). In an impromptu rally and welcome, several women from inside the station come out to speak to the delegation before admitting them. Marina, a young 25 year old who has dedicated herself to the radio station, declares, “We are all together in this fight. We have taken these spaces here to be the voice of all the people. That is why it is of great importance that all of you come here to help us to protect this space that gives us a voice and is providing us with ideas for how to continue our struggle. We recognize the importance of our struggle at the level of the county and throughout the state. Long live the Asamblea Popular de Oaxaca. Long Live the Oaxacan People. Long Live the Women Against the Bad Government! Long Live our Unity! The People United Will Never Be Defeated. Viva!”
Five days earlier, on first day of August, 2006, hundreds of women from the APPO took over the Oaxaca state-owned TV station and radio frequencies belonging to CORTV. Following their take-over the women opened up the airwaves to the usually voiceless people in the poor colonias and nearby indigenous towns that make up most of semi-urban Oaxaca City. Outside of the TV and radio station there is a well-coordinated six- point security plan posted on the wall, and several women screen visitors before letting them in to make their declarations on TV and radio. The delegation from Telixlahuaca is just one of 19 groups and individuals who have signed up to be on the air so far on this sunny Saturday. Women in charge of the station inform others that they will have to come back in two days because the spaces for radio and TV are all booked up for several days due to overwhelming demand.

From early in the morning until late at night, Radio Cacerola had become the chief means for people to voice their opinions and have debates. Everyone from the motor-taxi association, with representatives of six neighborhoods denouncing a corrupt licensing official, to Zapotec vegetable farmers, fed up with a corrupt local mayor, used the station to air their opinions. Regular topics have included the femicides in Ciudad Juarez and Oaxaca, celebrations of local musical groups and discussions of indigenous rights conducted in more than half a dozen of Oaxaca’s sixteen indigenous languages. When local municipal police refused to leave their barracks and the Oaxacan head of Security and Transportation, Aristeo López Martínez, put together an improvised police force of under-cover “municipal” police (rumored to include paramilitaries from outside the state), Radio Cacerola announced where they had been seen and encouraged people to not lose faith. When leaders of the APPO were detained without a warrant, Radio Cacerola relayed a description of the vehicle used by the police and encouraged people in the neighborhood where the leaders were last seen to search for the car. For several weeks, Radio Cacerola was the lifeline of the social movement of APPO.

In the weeks that followed the TV and radio station take-over, control of the media became successively more important for organizing and coordinating the ever-growing social movement of the APPO and dissident Sección 22 of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación (National Union of Education Workers, SNTE). Throughout some of the most tense days and nights in August, the voice of a young woman told listeners, “Don’t be afraid. We are not afraid. Do not abandon your posts. Do not be afraid to come down to help us to fight this intimidation. We are a pacific movement; we have so many people they cannot force us out.” This woman, and those who worked tirelessly with her, hit upon a key ingredient for supporting the movement—as seen by both their success in mobilizing people quickly and by the level of repression aimed at their occupation of the media as confrontations escalated in the last weeks of August.

The women behind the radio station do not appear to be militant fighters, but have most often been long-time residents who have finally become fed-up with their invisibility and maltreatment by successive state governments that have been promising to improve their lives for decades. Fidelia Vásquez is a sixty-year-old teacher who lives just a few blocks from Radio Cacerola. She has become a full-time worker at the station, participating in twenty-four hour security shifts that require participants to alternate keeping watch and sleeping. Her post on the Saturday afternoon when I interviewed her involved screening visitors to determine whether or not they had come to legitimately go on the air, or are there to gather information for the opposition. She was one of hundreds of women who began the takeover after a group of women representing an APPO and teacher’s march of almost ten thousand were denied space on the air. “When we were denied just one hour of air time, we decided to take over the whole station,” explained another participant before I spoke with Fidelia. “After all, it is a public television station. Shouldn’t the people be able to use it?” Fidelia sat us down in the shade on a few chairs and began to explain how and why she got involved in Radio Cacerola.

“I am a woman born in Oaxaca of Zapotec and Mixtec blood. Our mission as women is to create, educate, communicate and participate. That is why we are here occupying the state radio and T.V. station. We are like a lot of the humble, sincere, working people of my state. From the countryside to the city, we Oaxacan women are tired of bearing this burden alone of the repression we are experiencing from a long line of people who have governed us and from our current governor, Ulíses Ruiz. Although the people who may read this are far away, we are living this crude reality of repressions and an impossible situation. We went out into the streets on the first of August to tell Ulíses Ruiz that he had to leave Oaxaca. We are women who don’t usually have a voice because we are brown, we are short, we are fat, and they think that we don’t represent the people, but we do. WE are the face of Oaxaca. It is a shame that the government doesn’t recognize the greatness, the heart, and the valor of the women who are here. We are here because we want a free Mexico, a democratic Mexico and we have had enough. They will have to take us out of here dead, but we are going to defend the TV station and radio.”

Nine days later, I returned to the radio station to film a daily radio show hosted by Concepción “Conchita” Nuñez, a sociologist, a teacher, women’s organizer and core member of the group of women working in the radio station. She was hosting Pilar Monterrubias, who was discussing the violent murders of women in Oaxaca. Conchita and Pilar discussed the women’s march in great detail, and then analyzed the presence of women in the movement and at the station. Pilar commented, “This is a very female space here at the radio station. Women are running everything.” The conversation then turned to the experience of June 14th when the state police attempted to forcibly evict the teachers:

Pilar: “I live near the center of the city and the city of Oaxaca was like a woman who had been raped. It you went out on the street you saw the blankets, the shoes, all the things that had belonged to people. I remember when I saw one of these baby blankets with little flowers on it and I was thinking, wow, I wonder what happened to that baby in the riot…it was just terrible. The city was like a woman who had been horribly beaten.”

Concepción: “it was really incredible to see all of the ashes from everything that was burned. It made a huge impression on everyone. We couldn’t believe it when it was happening. No one will forget that day.”

While the radio show was going on, a large march was making its way towards its point of conclusion, the radio and TV station. At one point during the show, organizers at the front of the march called in on a cell phone to report the progress of the march and to give estimates of the number of people. The march had begun an hour earlier at the site of the State Department of Education and had passed the first class bus station, and was making it was way through the center of town and up towards the radio station. The young women running the control booth were reporting on the air about the progress of the march, clearly excited by its success. They made additional announcements asking listeners to help to locate three teachers who had been disappeared earlier that day.

The radio show ended and Conchita and Pilar left the station to talk and have coffee. Twenty minutes later the march approached the station, winding its way around the block before arriving. About mid-way through the march, shots were fired into the crowd from a house adjoining a medical clinic. The women from the radio station, who had watched smiling and cheering as the march wound into the grounds of the station, suddenly turned ashen as everyone realized that something grave had happened. But the organizers of the march and the women on the radio continued to urge people to come forward and to continue onto the grounds of the radio and TV station.

José Jíménez Colmenares was a victim of the shooting, and died almost instantly. His widow, teacher Florina Jimenez Lucas, relayed to me what happened after the march. “We joined the march at about five o’clock in the afternoon. It was peaceful; we walked past the ADO bus station, the Llano Park, the center. We were going along shouting our slogans against the governor like, Fuera Ulises, (Get out Ulises). We went along in the middle of the march. There were a lot of people in the march, about fifteen thousand people. In Division Oriente Street, we heard shots coming towards the people in the march. Then someone said, ‘men move forward,’ to protect the women. My husband moved up some steps and I heard a burst of very rapid shots. There were bullets fired very quickly, and I heard them and turned around. I saw my husband, he fell down. Well, I didn’t see him fall, but I heard someone call, ‘Help me, help me,’ and I saw my husband on the ground. Then some other people approached to help him, to carry him. We walked a few steps. I pleaded with him to resist dying, to hold on. Then someone said, ‘Here is a hospital. Bring him in.’ We brought him into the clinic. They wouldn’t let me into the operating room. After a few minutes passed, they let me in. When I went in they said, ‘He is already dead.’ They didn’t even try to help him. I also heard people saying, ‘Here are weapons and drugs.’”

According to Florina and to accounts broadcast on Radio Cacerola and some press reports, the medical report said that nine bullets were fired from above into Jose’s body with 22 and 38 caliber weapons. Two other people who were marching were wounded as well. Mourning her husband with thousands in a public homage on the zocalo and later a public funeral, Florina stated, “This was done to demobilize people. This attack wasn’t directed at my husband, but at the march with the purpose of demobilizing us, of creating terror. But it hasn’t had that result. We are more united than ever.” Demonstrating the fiery spirit of the women of Radio Cacerola, Florina has jumped back into the struggle to remove the governor and improve conditions for all in the state of Oaxaca. Her husband’s death leaves her alone to raise her three children ages 3, 10, and 13.

Following the death of José Colmenares, a large silent march was called to commemorate his sacrifice and call for the freeing of additional political prisoners. Three days later the National Forum on Building Democracy and Governability in Oaxaca drew almost 1800 participants from Oaxaca and across Mexico. Two days of debate and discussion focused on writing a new state constitution; constructing a transitional government and political program; and wide range of accords and strategies that prominently included indigenous rights, women’s rights, gay, lesbian, and transsexual rights; as well as plans for building local and regional assemblies to discuss and disseminate the results of the forum. At the closing ceremony of the forum on August 18th, August 1st was declared “Day of the Oaxacan Woman” in honor of the courageous take-over of Channel 9 by APPO women and in recognition of the success of the women in mobilizing support for the APPO and in encouraging individuals, organizations, and neighborhood and municipal governments to declare themselves against Ruiz. Throughout the forum, women from Radio Cacerola, the TV station, and other organizations and communities were amply represented and did not hesitate to speak out.

Then, on Monday, August 21st, a group of civilian-clothed “police” drove up the mountain to the Cerro Fortin and open fire on the transmission towers for Channel 9 and Radio Cacerola. Wounding an architect who was helping keep watch, this offensive against APPO and their control of the media opened a further round of confrontations. APPO used Radio Cacerola to call people out of their homes and into the streets. On August 21st, APPO members took over twelve commercial radio stations and began broadcasting across the state. They retained five of them. In the first hours of Tuesday, August 22nd, a “clean-up operation” began, and 400 Ministerial State Police and Municipal Police of Oaxaca City open fire on APPO members who were guarding one of the newly-taken radio stations. Lorenzo San Pablo Cervantes, chief of the Department of Educational Spaces of the Ministry of Public Works of the State of Oaxaca, was shot to death in the attack. He was a supporter of APPO and of the teacher’s movement, as were many state employees. His death was accompanied by the wounding of others, attacks on reporters, and attacks on other installations controlled by APPO members. In early September the women who took over the radio station along with other APPO members continued to call for the ouster of governor Ruiz Ortiz and were putting together a parallel government with regional popular assemblies throughout the state.

Oaxacan women’s take-over of the state TV and Radio station on August 1st provided a lifeline to the APPO in its daily organizing activities as well as literally giving a voice to thousands of Oaxacans. The women of Radio Cacerola as well as many of the other Oaxacans who joined in supporting APPO and the teachers have been forever changed by their experiences during August of 2006. The opening up of spaces like Radio Cacerola and the inclusions of thousands in a new public discourse of democracy and inclusion has left many with a new-found sense of respect, of having rights and of being “someone” who has the right to speak and be listened to.

Lynn Stephen is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oregon. Her latest book, Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico and the U.S. will be published by Duke University Press in January of 2007. Other recent books include Dissident Women: Gender and Cultural Politics in Chiapas, co-edited with Shannon Speed and Aida Hernandez-Castillo (fall 2006) and Zapotec Women: Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in Globalized Oaxaca (2005).


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