Words by Itzel León | Photo by Adrian Leuthauser
Merchants weave in and out of groups trying to sell umbrellas to protesting teachers as they march down one of the busiest streets in Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico. Exchanges are made between money and umbrellas as the hot, stinging sun gets replaced by a small circle of shade.
I was only in Mexico two days before joining the thousands of teachers occupying the city of Oaxaca since mid-May along with my tía (aunt) Olga, tío (uncle) Berna and my two cousins, Juanito and Brandon. We spent hours in the hot sun with thousands of teachers, students and supporters chanting “El pueblo, unido, jamas sera vencido.”
The people united will never be defeated.
I walked behind the same man throughout the whole march with a shirt that read “Si no hay justicia para el pueblo, que no haya paz para el gobierno.”
If there is no justice for the people, then there should be no peace for the government.
Oaxaca has always been considered home to me. Although the giant mountains gave me carsickness, I have always felt at ease there. When I was younger, my parents took my sister and I to their hometown, Tepejillo. It’s a small town whose first language, Mixteco, is my parent’s native language. The population is fewer than 2,000 and more than half of the residents come from the indigenous tribe of Mixtecs, my family included.
My first time in the capital of Oaxaca was when I was 9 years old. We visited the more tourist-driven areas for a day or two and then left the city. We never spent more than a week there, and I never experienced how different the city of Oaxaca was to Tepejillo.
Over the summer I spent two months with my family while completing my internship at NOTICIAS Voz e Imagen de Oaxaca, a newspaper in Oaxaca. While I was there, teachers occupied downtown Oaxaca and set up barricades in protest of the Mexican government and its new education reform.
Growing up in a small town and moving to Kent, Ohio wasn’t a big difference. The population increased by 10,000, but I never noticed it. But going to a city with more than a quarter million people was overwhelming. Everyone always rushed, pushing and shoving their way through just to get groceries or hop on the bus. My stress level rose, and I became irritated the longer I was there.
My love for Oaxaca slowly decreased.
Walking downtown was the closest feeling to being in Kent; it was Americanized for the tourists and the “safest” place in the city. But when I would forget I was surrounded by poverty, a familiar face would look me straight in the eyes and ask for food or money. It wasn’t just one face, or two or three—it was multiple people, the same people every day in the same location. It was as if they all respected each other’s space enough to make sure no one was asking for money at the same spot.
It was the same mother playing the accordion while her two kids played around in the dirt next to a church covered in gold. It was the same lady wearing the Institutional Revolutionary Party shirt. It was the same guy going into Domino’s singing a song for as little as two pesos—about 10 U.S. cents, and it was the same woman with a daughter’s head on her lap, tired and begging for my pizza.
Living in such a privileged society in the U.S. made me angry and depressed. My anger built up and my hatred for the city of Oaxaca grew. Everything frustrated me. The heavy traffic was unbearable and the honking was incessant. The second the light turned green, all one could hear was loud beeping noises and the zooming of motorcycles weaving in and out of traffic as the people riding them risked their lives to get to a job that paid them $4 per day.
It was miserable seeing how defeated many of the people were.
Children as young as 6 years old come up to the table where my family and I eat and hold out wooden combs or clothing made by their mothers, selling them for as little as 10 pesos, which is equivalent to 54 U.S. cents.
Walking on the main tourist street, I see adults, but mostly children, with boxes hanging from their shoulders, selling candy and cigarettes for a living while a white family with their own 6 year old enters tourist shops.
I thought back to the kids in my hometown, including myself, and how most of them grow up with a nice family in a nice neighborhood playing games and having a childhood while the children of Mexico beg for money on the side of the streets. Seeing tourists try not to look at them made my stomach churn because it was like developed countries trying not to see what’s actually going on in the rest of the world.
An ice cream place stands in the middle of Santo Domingo, a huge church with an interior covered in gold that attracts many tourists. Two flavors are my favorite, pitaya (a cactus fruit) and lime. The pitaya is a bright red with black speckles. It looks delicious next to the bright lime green. I already took two bites when a little boy standing next to his older brother, playing the accordion for money, runs up to me and points to my cup.
“Me das?”–Will you give me some?
Confusion came over me as I say, “Pero ya le mordi”—I already took a bite.
He shrugs his shoulders and says “no importa”—it doesn’t matter.
Every day was the same thing. I woke up, ate breakfast with my family, took a shower, got ready and left for a taxi to take me to El Parque del Amor where I took a bus to a street called La Constitución and walked to my internship.
My showers weren’t regular showers. I heated water in a bucket and mixed it with cold water. Then I used a bowl to pour water over myself. My family didn’t have running water at their home. I got used to it after about a week. I even got used to showering with spiders next to me.
Looking back and remembering all the animosity I had for the city wasn’t because of the city. It wasn’t the people I was mad at. It wasn’t their fault. I knew I always hated the government in Mexico.
On Father’s Day I call my dad around 9 a.m. and speak to him for about 15 minutes before I eat breakfast with my family. The typical Father’s Day that I was used to was as far away as I was physically to my dad. My aunt’s ex-husband took his children out while she went downtown to protest the Mexican government. Berna didn’t want to celebrate while his staff was protesting, so he also left for downtown as soon as he was done eating. I wish I knew when they left was when the state of Oaxaca was going to mourn.
Eight protesters were killed and 108 people were injured in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca that day. More were injured downtown as riots erupted and tear gas dropped from helicopters. Federal police targeted anyone who was running, but if someone being tear-gassed was a non-protester, they would still run.
Berna was the first to arrive home. He was tired and covered in sweat and Coca-Cola. Soda helps with the tear gas in the eyes. My aunt came back about an hour later. She expresses sadness about the teachers who were killed but also anger at the president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto.
The city of Oaxaca went black that night. The government shut off the electricity downtown to keep people out of the streets, but many will say it’s to keep people off social media from spreading the truth.
I see clips of protesters attacking police, but how was I supposed to believe that when my aunt and uncle were right in front of me telling me what happened? Telling me they ran down streets trying to escape the helicopters continuously dropping tear gas on them just because they were teachers. Telling me a child and his mother were tear gassed because they were near the teachers but had nothing to do with the protests. Telling me a lady let them into their home before Olga passed out. And all my aunt had to say to me was, “no vayas a tu servicio social mañana, va estar peligroso”—don’t go to your internship tomorrow, it’s going to be dangerous.
The following day the teachers hold another march. I arrive early in the morning before my internship and experience unity. I experience the love everyone had for those teachers and the support.
Going downtown piles of burnt materials reside on every street. Graffiti done by anarchists hindering the teacher movement covers the walls with the infamous “A.” But others read “43” in reference to the missing 43 students Nieto has unwillingly tried to find after federal police fired at the students going to protest the National System for Integral Family Development conference.
All of my hatred stems from the Mexican government who took my family’s indigenous culture and turned it into a tourist attraction, La Guelaguetza. All that money made from native cultures goes straight into the government’s pocket while the indigenous people of today beg for money on the streets, and their children leave school to sell candy bars.
I will always love Oaxaca and its people, even when its own government doesn’t.