In Oaxaca, Women Rise
by John Gibler
May 05, 2007, Yes Magazine
Putting their personal lives on hold, women in the Mexican state of Oaxaca helped shut down the government, took over a TV station, and stood up to police violence.
“Everything is the movement,” says Patricia Jimenez Alvarado, looking at me across her kitchen table. “You don’t have a personal life anymore.” She leans her face into her open palms, and weeps.
Jimenez, in her mid-forties, is a thesis advisor at Oaxaca State University by profession. But the government of Oaxaca accuses her of being an “urban guerrilla.” Her house and car have just been broken into and searched. She regularly receives text-message death threats on her cellular phone. A warrant has been issued for her arrest. And for the first time in her children’s lives, she has missed their birthdays—several months ago she sent her children to live with her sister-in-law to keep them safe.
Sitting down with me for this interview is the first moment of calm she’s had since mid-June, Jimenez says. That’s when she and thousands of other women—many of whom had never participated in a march or rally before—orchestrated the takeover of the state television and radio stations and broadcast live their opposition to state violence. Their actions earned these women a place among Oaxaca’s most wanted activists, sought by the para-police gangs that serve the state government.
Roots of the protests
In the beginning, the civil disobedience in Oaxaca was not organized primarily by women. It began on May 22 as a teachers’ strike to demand higher federal and state education budgets. The striking teachers set up a protest camp in Oaxaca City, a tent city that filled the touristy town square and stretched out for blocks, housing tens of thousands of teachers from across the state.
In 2004, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, had been sworn in as governor under serious allegations of electoral fraud. But instead of mending bridges, he announced a policy of no tolerance for protests, even moving the state government offices into guarded compounds miles outside the city center.
Ruiz refused to meet with the teachers union or answer their demands. Then, at dawn on June 14, 2006, he sent state riot police using tear gas and helicopters to violently dismantle the striking teachers’ camp, leaving scores of men, women, and children injured.
The city exploded. Thousands, including Jimenez, took to the streets to help the teachers, tend the injured, and offer food and water. But to everyone’s surprise, these citizens went one step further—they counterattacked, retook the town square, and drove the police out of town.
This spontaneous rejection of police violence, along with the outpouring of support for the teachers, ignited a five-month civil disobedience uprising. It would put a half million people on the streets in marches and tens of thousands in protest camps across Oaxaca City, paralyze the state government, and send the governor into hiding.
To encourage people’s participation in developing strategies for long-term organizing, the teachers’ union called indigenous organizations, human rights groups, and local unions into an assembly. Together these groups formed the Oaxaca People’s Popular Assembly (APPO), which they opened to all who signed on to demand the ouster or resignation of Ruiz for ordering the police raid. The provisional leadership of the APPO was almost entirely male, with women relegated to lesser roles.
Meanwhile, back at the treasury
Undaunted, women formed neighborhood groups in order to join the APPO and participated in the marathon discussions that guided the protesters’ actions. When the APPO decided to launch a civil disobedience offensive on July 26—setting up camps around the state legislature, courts, and the governor’s offices to shut down all three branches of government—many women volunteered to set up camp outside the state treasury, a building low on the APPO’s priority list. There, during the first nights at their protest camp, they cooked up the idea of a women-only march on August 1.
The march drew some 5,000 women, all banging on pots and pans with meat tenderizers, ladles, and soup spoons. The raucous cacophony had the women so jazzed that when they reached their destination (the protester-occupied town square), they decided to keep going, to the state-owned television station, Channel 9. The only statewide local station, Channel 9 failed to report on the June 14 police violence and later presented the protesters as vandals and hooligans. At first the women demanded only an hour on television to tell their version of the events of June 14 and why they wanted Ruiz out of office. But Mercedes Rojas Saldaña, the station director, refused. The women asked for less time, then even less, but were repeatedly rebuffed. Finally, they walked past the director, with pots and pans in hand, and took over the station.
As Jimenez and the other women rounded up the station’s employees, several of her former students recognized her. One asked, “Teacher, what are you doing here?
“Well, taking over the station,” she said. “No choice.”
Another asked: “Teacher, why are you dragging us into this mess? Aren’t you an academic?
“And so?” Jimenez replied. “I’m also one of the people.”
Employees had taken the station off the air as the women stormed the office. Now the women scrambled to get the station back on the air before the police came to retake the station. Jimenez herself tried to figure out how to work the cameras.
But the police did not come. Instead, thousands of residents from the surrounding neighborhood flooded the streets to guard the station, taking over city buses and parking them across the street to block all approaching traffic.
One technician who knew Jimenez agreed to tell her where the antennas were and how to get the transmission going again if Jimenez would let her go. Jimenez told her, “Here there are no friendships and no privileges. Here we make the decisions in collective.” Then she led the employee off to meet with the other women and negotiated the release of all the employees—none of whom had been harmed in the takeover—in return for their help in getting the station back on the air.
Within three hours, for the first time in Mexican history, a protest movement occupied a state television station and broadcast live. Viewers saw a tight group of women without makeup or designer dresses, pots and pans still in hand, all facing the camera. Their message: if the media insist on airbrushing state violence from the news and distorting social protest into an “urban guerrilla” movement, then the people will take the media in order to tell their own story of suffering, police repression, and organizing social protests.
Meanwhile, from late August through November, the conflict escalated. The government attacked Channel 9, destroying the station’s antennas and knocking the women’s revolutionary media off the air. Plainclothes police officers and PRI party militants regularly opened fire on protestors and, over the course of 3 months, killed at least 16 people, including New York-based journalist Brad Will.
Protesters organized thousands of nighttime barricades across the city to prevent armed attacks. They also took over private radio stations to continue broadcasting their denunciations of state violence and to call for further protests to oust the governor.
On November 25, federal police cracked down on protesters after a small group began to throw rocks and fire bottle rockets at the police. The police rounded up and beat more than 140 protesters, then carted them off to federal prison in Nayarit, four states away. State and federal police patrolled the streets to grab organizers, and hundreds of people went underground. Jimenez cut her brown hair short, dyed it jet black, and sneaked out of town.
But two weeks later she was back to join a delegation of APPO protesters set to hold talks with the federal government and then to stage marches demanding the release of those taken prisoner on November 25. In December she helped organize another high-energy march and a free outdoor concert where the Oaxaca-born musician Lila Downs joined in singing Christmas carols retooled to denounce state violence.
“We have shown that women’s participation in these movements is fundamental,” Jimenez said.
On January 8, I saw Jimenez again. She was on the way to an APPO assembly meeting. “We have to endure! We can’t give up!” she said, her voice hoarse with a bad cold. “We can only go forward. There is no other way.”
John Gibler is a Global Exchange Human Rights Fellow and writer based in Mexico.