Thursday, July 17, 2008
How people imagine themselves as citizens has increasingly been influenced by global rights discourses. This chapter explores acts of testimony and their links to global discourses of human, women's, and indigenous rights in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Testimonials here are urgent oral accounts of bearing witness to wrongs committed against the speakers. Broadcast on the radio, television, at public demonstrations, and in the street, testimonial rights claiming repositions previously excluded speakers as active citizens instead of as folkloric parts of the landscape. This chapter centers on a recent and ongoing social movement in Oaxaca, Mexico and the emergence in June, 2006 of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), a coalition of over 200 organizations that effectively ran the city for six months until the Mexican federal police force intervened.
The APPO continues to be active. Testimony and rights claiming occupy central roles in this complex context, permitting silenced groups to speak, be heard, and to enact alternative visions for political and cultural participation. Because Oaxaca is a state with 16 different indigenous languages and a population that largely receives news and culture through non-print media, the orality of testimonials is a particularly important and compelling aspect of the shaping of new models of citizenship.
During the summer and fall of 2006, what began as a large group of teachers exercising their right to bargain for higher salaries through the occupation of Oaxaca City's historical colonial square erupted into a widespread social movement after state police violently attempted to evict the teachers. Mega-marches of thousands, the creation of a popular assembly known as the APPO composed of more than 200 groups, occupation of state and federal buildings and offices, the take-over of the state's television and radio stations, the construction of barricades in many neighborhoods, and regional movements throughout the state questioned the legitimacy of the state government and resulted in a massive assertion of rights by many.
Here I use two examples to illustrate the importance of speaking and hearing through the use of testimony as a way of claiming rights in the Oaxaca Rebellion. The first is the story of the urban women who took over and re-programmed the state television and radio stations broadcasting what became known as Radio Cacerola, or Casserole Radio. The second details the illegal detention, torture, and imprisonment of a biologist and two teachers and their appeals for justice and defense of their human rights. My own involvement comes from long-standing friendships, family relationships, and links to the city of Oaxaca since the 1980s which propelled me into a position of interpreter, documenter, and reporter about the social movement and the rights claims it generated.
Emerging Rights Discourses in Mexico: 1990 to the Present
The Oaxaca social movement of 2006 can be understood as part of prior historical processes of violence and reconciliation in Latin America as well as intimately linked to the globalization of human rights discourses during the past 20 years. This globalization has been accompanied by the institutionalization of human rights and other rights discourse in many of the different countries discussed in this book: Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Peru, and Uruguay. In Mexico and elsewhere, many indigenous, urban, women's, and other types of social movements, social movement organizations, and NGOs began to institute their own human rights committees to defend their organizers and participants in the 1980s before the widespread growth of organizations dedicated purely to human rights in Latin America.
In Mexico, three waves of rights (cultural, agrarian, and human) have come to be recognized in different areas of government legislation. In addition, a wide range of non-governmental and civil society organizations and spaces have emerged since the 1990s in relation to these rights discourses. First, Cultural rights are recognized to some degree in the Mexican Constitution through the rewriting of Article IV in 1990 which states:
The Mexican nation has a multicultural composition originally found in its indigenous peoples. The law protects and promotes the development of their languages, uses, customs, resources, and specific forms of social organization, and guarantees their members effective access to the full range of the state's legal authority (jurisdiction). In the agrarian judgments and legal proceedings they are part of, their own legal practices and customs shall be taken into account in establishing the law.
The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) signed the San Andrés Accords with Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo in 1996. If they had been legislated, these accords would have recognized traditional indigenous systems of governance and justice, provided indigenous peoples with the opportunity to design their own economic development plans, as well as providing opportunities for indigenous organizations and communities to federate in order to build larger political blocks. Instead of implementing these accords, the successor government of Vincente Fox facilitated much weaker legislation passed in April of 2001 that grants individual states the right to limit indigenous rights proposals, limits "the degree of indigenous autonomy to communities within single municipalities, denied constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples as subjects with the right to decide upon their own forms of governance and development, and maintained a paternalistic relation in which the federal government would provide social services to indigenous communities" (Harvey 2001:1048).
Secondly, much more limited agrarian rights were articulated under the rewritten Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution which facilitated, but did not require, the privatization of land held communally in social tenancy. Evoking the discourse of Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution of "the land belongs to those who work it," the neoliberal governments of Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo harnessed "land and liberty" to a modernist discourse of individual rights. Slogans such as "defend your rights to your individual parcel," and "guarantee your individual freedom" were associated with the government's mapping and measuring program which accompanied the counter-agrarian reform found in the rewritten Article 27 (Stephen 2002: 62-62). While the rights granted were centered on the individual, reactions to the government effort to encourage privatization of communally held land re-centered discourses of collective and indigenous rights in Oaxaca and elsewhere, as hundreds of thousands of indigenous peasants debated the land question along with other forms of indigenous rights.
A third significant arena where rights discourses were institutionalized at the national level in Mexico was through the establishment in 1990 of the National Commission for Human Rights (CNDH). The CNDH functions as an alternative legal system in Mexico with about 200 lawyers working full time taking on cases (Dezlaya and Garth 2002:231). In addition to handling thousands of complaints every year, the CNDH also has a core of individuals who take care of contact with other human rights entities abroad as well as the ever-growing number of human rights organizations established within Mexico. A few years after the National Commission for Human Rights was established, state-level counterparts were set up as well. In the state of Oaxaca, this emerged in tandem with the establishment of grassroots human rights organizations.
As elsewhere in Mexico, the 1990s saw a major growth in the number of organizations in Oaxaca carrying out work they called human rights monitoring and defense. The defense of the human rights of indigenous peoples in Oaxaca is rooted in the experience of organizations such as the COCEI (Isthmus Coalition of Workers, Peasants, and Students), UCIZONI (Union of Indigenous Communities of the Northern Zone of the Isthmus), and SER (Services of the Mixe People) formed in the 1980s and dedicated to gaining power at the municipal level, defending indigenous land rights, promoting community-based grassroots development, and later linking to national networks and movements for indigenous rights and self-determination (see Stephen 2002: 235-237, Rubin 1997).
Initially, organizing focused on human rights at the grassroots level did not emerge out of organizations with the label of human rights, but out of organizations defending indigenous and peasant rights. Because members of these organizations suffered from harassment, death threats, illegal detention, and imprisonment, their work increasingly came to focus on defense and protection of their members. In the 1990s, with the militarization of several regions of Oaxaca including the Loxicha region, specific human rights organizations were founded, as was a Regional Center for Human Rights. Many of the organizations that now participate in the Regional Center for Human Rights Bartolomé Carraso (BARCO) are supported by the Catholic Church. Other state groups include the Center for Human Rights Flor y Canto, the Center for Human Rights Siete Principes, and The Oaxaca Network for Human Rights. These groups have undertaken campaigns to defend the rights of communities and individuals in the face of military and paramilitary occupation and harassment as well as individual cases of detention, torture, and illegal incarceration (see Stephen 2000).
The State Commission of Human Rights in Oaxaca was formed in 1993 in response to a new state law calling for the formation of the commission and outlining how it should work. The website for the commission, which is now called the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights of Oaxaca (CDDRO), states: "With the creation of this commission the necessity of the people of Oaxaca to have their rights and liberties guaranteed, as well as the prompt and impartial procurement of justice, is satisfied." The specific human rights that the CDHRO states that it protects include: "the right to life, to physical integrity, equality, liberty, dignity, and judicial security of all persons, property, as well as the best possible efficiency in the provision of public services" (CDDRO 2008).
In addition to the areas of indigenous rights and human rights, women's rights have also received much institutionalization both in communities, NGOS, and instances of the government. All of this history is an important backdrop to the current movements in Oaxaca and the kinds of rights claims they are making. The historic feminist organization, Grupo de Estudios Sobre la Mujer, Rosario Castellanos A.C., began in 1977. In the 1980s, they sponsored weekly radio shows, workshops on health, and worked to bring women's rights to state and city political arenas. In 1991 they opened up La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos and in 1995 began a scholarship program for young indigenous women that provides them with mentoring and support to continue in high school and university.
In the 1980s and 90s, a wide range of indigenous, peasant, urban, student, and other organizations had "women's" committees within them, functioning as internal human rights committees had in the 1980s. In 2003, women's groups from around the state of Oaxaca including both independent groups such as the Grupo de Estudios Sobre la Mujer, Rosario Castallanos, A.C. as well as women's committees and caucuses within other groups formed the Huaxyacac Collective. The purpose of the alliance-building network was to pressure candidates in the 2004 elections (in which Ulises Ruiz was "elected" as governor of Oaxaca) to sign the Agenda Oaxaca for Gender Equity, which would have obligated Oaxaca to adhere to the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women ratified by the Mexican Senate in 2001 (Dalton forthcoming, Magana 2008).
The Colectivo Huaxyacac also pressured the administration of Ulises Ruiz shortly after his election to take action on the alarming number of femicides in the state. According to the collective, crimes against girls and women between 1999 and 2003 include 351 homicides of girls and women which occurred in the state of Oaxaca, according to data from INEGI. The local press reported 267 homicides between 1999-2005 and the Procurator-General of Justices Office reported 52 assassinations between January 2004 and June 2005. This information was repeated in a formal denunciation of governor Ruiz sent to the Mexican Congress in July of 2006 (Davies 2006). In 2006 and beyond, the Huaxyacac Collective was an active member of the APPO.
While the Mexican Constitution provides for freedom of speech, rights for women, and racial equality with specific mention of indigenous peoples, these ideological rights expressed in Mexican law are juxtaposed with a contradictory reality in Oaxaca, Mexico (see Martínez Vásquez 2007, Hernández 2007, Stephen 2007). There, a long-standing political elite has maintained control of politics and economics through a regional political culture that is built on a contradiction between claims to equal citizenship rights for women, indigenous people, and the poor, and the lived reality of people who lack the resources, public spaces, and legitimacy to exercise such rights. Awareness of rights for these silenced sectors is at an all-time high due to ongoing contact with discourses of rights coming from both the Mexican National Human Rights Commission, the Oaxacan Human Rights Commission, social movements, and a wide range of NGOs as discussed above.
As suggested by Mark Goodale for Bolivia, in Oaxaca human rights consciousness came to "serve as a kind of normative standard against which social and economic relations can be measured (and resisted if needed)" (2007:157). In Oaxaca, human rights and even more specifically indigenous rights, women's rights, and the rights of the poor are expressed as an idea, "as a kind of floating signifier that represents a new form of human dignity and moral worth." Thus human rights "can reinforce—and embolden—existing normatives, even if their provisions or rules or 'laws' do not, strictly speaking, conform to specific human rights instruments" (2007:160).
Rights discourses have become an important strategic resource for social movements in Oaxaca since the late 1980s and came to the fore in 2006 and 2007. A repressive state political system made expression of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Mexican Constitution and international accords Mexico has signed protecting the right to life, due process and freedom of thought, assembly, and expression increasingly dangerous to act on (see Organization of American States 1969, Office of the High Commission for Human Rights 1966, Constitución Política de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos 1967, chapter 1, LASA 2007: 4-5).
Elected amid widespread charges of electoral fraud in 2004, Governor Ruiz Ortíz (also known as URO) took office with a pledge that there would be no more social protests in the streets and public spaces of Oaxaca. He moved the seats of the state senate and the governor's palace to the sleepy, pottery-producing town of San Bartolo Coyotepec in an attempt to dissuade the continual occupations of these public governance spaces by relocating them outside of the capital city of Oaxaca. His removal and re-inscribing of state governance spaces as well as his brutal treatment of social protesters and anyone who criticized his government set the stage for a prolonged period of conflict, polarization, and violence that intensified during the summer and fall of 2007 (see LASA 2007, Martínez Vásquez 2007).
After state and local police attempted unsuccessfully to violently evict thousands of teachers from the Oaxaca Zocalo on June 14, 2006, efforts by the teachers in Sección 22 of the CNTE, members of the APPO, and others to force the resignation of the state governor intensified, as did protests of official state cultural events and the occupation of state and federal buildings.
By the time I arrived in Oaxaca in July, 20061 the teachers and those affiliated with APPO controlled the center of the city. Soon after arriving, I went out to observe and film a protest. The protest was a gathering of APPO members in a local park who were trying to prevent a Oaxaca-state sponsored official Guelaguetza celebration from being performed, albeit on a small scale. Guelaguetza refers to the institution of reciprocal exchange in Zapotec, but in the hands of the state came to refer to a commercialized festival of folkloric dances and gift-showering with a high admission price. Many locals never attended the event because of its prohibitive price tag. A description of the of the 2007 official Guelaguetza states:
Since 1932 (Oaxaca's 400th anniversary) groups from the seven regions of the valley of Oaxaca have presented carefully chosen dances with local characteristics and regional dress at this annual festival. During the dances, to symbolize the commitment to sharing, local gifts are tossed to the crowd. Ticket prices to this spectacular event are US$50.00 per person (plus tax) for each Monday's performance (Oaxacainfo 2007).
Protesters had taken control of the official Guelaguetza stadium in 2006 and the governor had cancelled the event. The teachers of Sección 22, however, had self-financed and organized a counter "popular Guelaguetza" at one of the local universities that had no entry free and was attended by up to 30,000 people (see Poole 2007).
Unable to launch the official Guelaguetza in the stadium, the governor's cultural staff tried repeatedly to mount a small-scale version in the Llano Park. While watching and filming one such attempt with a local friend, I documented an amazing shift in the control of public space in the park which mirrored the displacement of the official Guelaguetza with the popular Guelaguetza. What began as about 10 contingents of official state dance troops and bands in the center of the park ended with their withdrawal and a complete occupation by hundreds of APPO supporters carrying wooden sticks and metal rods shouting "Ya cayó, ya cayó, Ulises ya cayó" ("He has fallen, he has fallen, Ulises has already fallen").
An APPO supporter climbed to the top of a statue of Oaxacan native son Benito Juárez, a Zapotec lawyer from Guelatao, Oaxaca who became president of Mexico. Once there he waved and shouted, "Ya cayó, ya cayó," as well. He was almost ripped from the statue by the official Guelaguetza defenders, but escaped surrounded by a circle of APPO supporters. The park divided into two contingencies shouting slogans at each other. Eventually the official dancers withdrew and the APPO supporters spread out over the entire park, controlling the space.
Through my friend I came to know several women there who were committed APPO activists and who encouraged me to keep filming and to meet them the next day. They were most interested not only in the presence of someone with a camera filming but also in anyone who would write about their activities and disseminate information outside of Oaxaca. They felt, they said, "invisible, unheard, and unseen." With this event, my role as one of many people who were asked to accompany the movement and to document its events began. The same women would sight me, call me, and direct me to film and photograph.
A few days later in the same park, I was filming another APPO rally when shots were fired in the air at the edge of the park. APPO supporters chased down the shooters, detained them, and then took them to the UABJO Law School two blocks from the Zocalo where they were tried in a people's court. After many hours they were finally turned over to federal police with signs around their necks labeling them "traitors."
The conflict deepened. Not only were APPO members and the teachers controlling large sections of the city and public buildings, they had also formed their own police force called the Honorable Cuerpo de Topiles de la Asamblea Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca (The Honorable Police Force of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) and la Policía Magisterial de Oaxaca (The Teachers' Police of Oaxaca, POMO). These police forces had begun to detain people who acted against the APPO and the teachers and to try them in people's courts. The Oaxaca Municipal police refused to leave their barracks and attack their fellow citizens. Most spent July and August of 2006 playing basketball and hanging out in their barracks.
On Speaking and Being Heard: Women Take Over the State Media
How does the active claiming of rights affect who is deemed as having the right to speak—both literally and figuratively—and whether or not speakers can be heard (see Poole 2007)? Being heard involves having access to public space and channels of communication that cut across different social sectors, cultural worlds, and venues. Oaxacan women's takeover of state television and radio stations provides a good example of this.
The women changed the traditional programming of these media spaces to project a new vision of who the legitimate citizens of Oaxaca are. Their programming included testimonials from a wide range of social groups—from indigenous women, to working class motorcycle taxi drivers, to urban indigenous venders, to middle school students. These broadcasts, often done in the form of oral testimonials, allowed new voices to be heard, new faces to be seen, and permitted silenced models of governance and democratic participation to move into the cultural and political mainstream.3
While most work on Latin American testimonials has focused on them as a literary genre that reflects political and linguistic complexity (Anzaldua 1999, Arias 2001, Beverly 2004, Maier and Dulfano 2004, Sommer 1996), the Oaxacan movement presented testimonials in action, focusing on how testimonials are operationalized. Because these testimonials are oral and visual acts rather than solely texts, we can see how they are heard and interpreted by social movement participants and sympathizers, and how once codified they become integrated into local political cultures in social movement sites such as the city of Oaxaca. For 21 days, a group of women remade what had been state-controlled and narrowly programmed "public media" into "citizen's media."
While media analysts might be tempted to call what happened with Radio Cacerola and the subsequent take-over of other stations "alternative media," what happens when the "alternatives" become the main mode of communication for major parts of a city's population and produce a new kind of listener in the process? Clemencia Rodriguez suggests that we substitute the term "citizen's media" for alternative media:
"... referring to 'citizens' media' implies first that a collectivity is enacting its citizenship by actively intervening and transforming the established mediascape; second, that these media are contesting social codes, legitimized identities, and institutionalized social relations; and third, that these communication practices are empowering the community involved, to the point where these transformations and changes are possible" (2001: 20).
On Aug. 1, 2006, I was driving on the Pan-American Highway from Teotitlán del Valle to Oaxaca and turned on the radio to FM 96.9, one of the radio stations that belonged to the Oaxacan Corporation of Radio and Television (Corporación Oaxaqueña de Radio y Televisión or COR-TV). The TV and radio stations were known locally as Canal 9/Channel 9. Usually during that time of day the station had a program of mixed music including jazz and reggae. But that day, a young woman was announcing that she and a larger group of women had just taken over the TV and radio stations. "We have taken over Channel 9. Right now we are seeing if the technicians are going to stay and if they can make an agreement to help us with our television transmissions ... we are waiting to see if they will answer the call of the people to stay and help us with our transmissions. If not, we will be calling for other technicians to come and help us with our TV transmissions ... All of the workers who are here have been treated well."
Like many in Oaxaca I was surprised to hear the kinds of voices and programming that began to flow out of the state radio station and, a day or two later, on the television station as well. Within a few days I went to the occupied Channel 9 and spoke with a number of women there. I returned several times during August before the transmission towers were shot out by paramilitaries on Aug. 21, 2006.
These hundreds of women took over the radio and TV stations on Aug. 1 after a group of women representing an APPO and teachers' march of almost 10,000 were denied a space on the air. "When we were denied just one hour of air time, we decided to take over the whole station," explained one woman who participated in the occupation. "After all, it is a public television station. Shouldn't the people be able to use it?" From early in the morning until late at night, Radio Cacerola, as it became called (Casserole Radio for the pots and pans women carried with them on the march when they took over the station) became the chief means for people to voice their opinions, receive news, and have debates for most of the month of August 2006.
Everyone from the motor-taxi association 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 radio shows cropped up on topics including the murder of women in Ciudad Juarez and Oaxaca, celebrating local musical groups, and hosting discussions of indigenous rights in more than half a dozen of Oaxaca's 16 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 undercover "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 revealed the kind of vehicle the police used and encouraged people in the neighborhood where the leaders were last seen to search for the car. When APPO needed to gather supporters to reinforce groups of people holding more than 20 state government buildings, the call went out over Radio Caserola. When 50-year old Jose Jíménez Colmenares was shot dead in the middle of a peaceful protest march on the way to the TV station, Radio Cacerola broadcast the news and urged people not to be afraid and to continue to protect the station and other buildings that had been taken over by APPO.
Throughout some of the tensest 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." The women behind the radio station did not appear to be militant fighters, but rather long-time Oaxaca residents who had finally gotten fed up with their invisibility and bad treatment by successive state governments which had been promising to improve their lives for decades.
Radio Cacerola and COR TV became a testimonial forum in which all of the disaffected of Oaxaca could share their stories. Day and night people flooded the station with calls and shared their past grievances as well as calling in warnings about ongoing repression, conflict, and suspicious activities. In many ways the radio and TV stations served as an x-ray of the range of perspectives and rights claims associated with the Oaxaca rebellion. The kinds of rights claims expressed through the testimonials transmitted reflected both a connotative sense of human rights in which a reference is made to a moral universe in which the fact of human rights grants dignity and respect to each person, as well as to a denotative sense of rights in which gestures are made toward specific perceived human rights provisions (Goodale 2007: 149-150). As Goodale and others have noted, when specific individuals narrate their rights claims as part of a larger testimonial, they do not distinguish between connotative and denotative senses of "human rights."
Nor do they necessarily distinguish between specifically legal or extra-legal ways of claiming rights. As discussed by Speed, (2007), in relation to the Zapatistas exercise of their right to self-determination, conceptualizations of rights can emerge "in their exercise, not as designations from God/nature of the state/law" (2007: 184). The takeover of the radio and television stations was not planned by women on the march, but was seen as justified, as a right, due to the fact that the television and radio stations are public media spaces that are paid for with tax money. The case reveals both connotative and denotative senses of "rights," and the legitimating of rights through their exercise, particularly through their interpretation in the context of the social conflict in Oaxaca. Catalina Ruiz4 shared her experience on the women's march and take-over of the state TV and radio stations on Aug. 1, 2006:
There was a call that went out over Radio Universidad that said, "All of the women, let's go and march with our frying pans, our pots, our casserole dishes." The big surprise was when we arrived to where the march started and there were hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of women. From women with long braids and aprons on with a pot in their hands and a daughter at their side, to old women, to women from the middle class, the poor, and intellectuals. We all marched together ... So when the march was ending we started saying, "Before we go to eat why don't we go up to Channel 9? Come on. Let's go." Everyone started to say that this TV station and radio needed to tell the truth about what was happening. So we got on some buses and went up to the station.
Everyone was saying that we had to get on the TV and radio to communicate our demands that the governor leave his office. Well, unfortunately they didn't give us permission to do this. They didn't even give us permission to talk for even an hour. So the companeras decided that we were going to stay. We said, "This media is ours. It is paid for by money from our taxes. We pay for it every time we buy something. It is supposed to be public, to be ours. So now since it is ours, we are going to keep it and run it."
The men, the male teachers and others, they were shocked when we took over the station because it wasn't something they had thought up. A lot of times in our meetings they were always saying, "How do we get the official state station to carry our information? They never could figure out how to do this ... After we did it they supported us. We got a ton of calls on the radio from men who stated, "Bravo. These valiant women, these combative women, did what we couldn't do. We hope that this is a lesson for the larger movement, for women, and for the media. We also hope that it is a lesson for the next governor so that it is clear the governor has to obey the citizens and this includes women. Article 39 of our constitution says—and when you hear this being read in the voice of a working class housewife it is clear—the article says we have the right to decide who will govern us. And if the person who is governing us doesn't work out, then we have the right to change that person."
In her narrative, Catalina justifies the takeover of the state media based on the fact that the radio and TV stations are public property, paid for by Oaxacan citizens every time they pay taxes when they buy something. Because the station is public, it should include all perspectives, including that of the teachers' movement and the APPO. In addition to claiming the right to freedom of expression through the takeover of state media, Catalina also invokes Article 39 of the Mexican Constitution as a reference to giving the citizens the right to change those who govern them if they abuse power. Here she makes a specific legal claim to the right of Oaxaca's people to remove the governor from power. The taking of the radio and TV stations became an extension of that right through providing the means of communicating this demand to the people of the city.
The primary way in which rights were claimed on the radio, the TV, and in public rallies was through the use of personal testimonials. As a speech form, testimonials are hybrid, interstitial, and flexible discursive spaces that reflect political and linguistic complexity (Anzaldua 1999, Arias 2001, Beverly 2004, Maier and Dulfano 2004, Sommer 1996). Of particular interest here are the ways that testimonials often subvert official histories and call into question power relations and authority stemming from official state sources and media. When testimonials are deployed to claim rights in a specific political and cultural context they are a part of real political practices which can literally let "the subaltern speak" (see Spivak 1994, Schaffer and Smith 2004). For the 21 days that women controlled the state TV and radio stations and subsequently other radio stations, the subaltern was literally speaking in ways that had never been heard or seen before.
The ability of testimonials to synthesize personal lived histories within the structural frames of economic, racial, and gendered hierarchies has made them a particularly valuable tool for theorizing through lived experiences and processes (Latina Feminist Group 2001). In addition, they have a strong convocation force in terms of the credibility they have with a listening audience.
The following testimonial is from Fidelia Vasqúez, who was a constant presence in the radio station and went on to also be a participant in the women's organization known as the COMO (Coordinadora de Mujeres de Oaxaca, Primero de Agosto). COMO was formed after the radio station takeover when a group of women who occupied the station went to Mexico City to press for their cause. When paramilitaries shot out the transmission tower of Radio Cacerola on Aug. 21, 2006, COMO women participated in the takeover of other radio stations that broadcast in September and October of 2006.
Fidelia is also a teacher, a member of Sección 22 of the SNTE, and a self-declared supporter of the APPO. The portion of her testimonial which follows is typical of a pattern that emerged whereby people first situated themselves personally as a part of the city, put forward a set of rights claims, and then stated their determination to see justice realized. What is most striking about this testimonial is Fidelia's claim that women who are "brown, short, and fat" are the face of Oaxaca, represent the people, and have a right to a voice through their occupation of the TV and radio stations. This was recorded on Aug. 5, 2006.
I am a woman born in Oaxaca of Zapotec and Mixtec blood. We Oaxacan women ask that a woman be treated with the same rights as a man. Our mission as women is to create, educate, communicate, and participate. That is why we are here occupying the state radio and TV stations ... 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 the 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 Ulises 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 too bad 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.
The women's take-over of the state TV and Radio stations provided an invaluable forum for testimony after testimony of people who were tired of being ignored, tired of being poor, tired of being asked to vote only to be discounted by those in power, tired of being silenced, and tired of being told they had rights and then watching those rights get trampled. The radio and TV stations became platforms for many to speak who had never been heard from before as well as for a broad-spectrum audience where many different kinds of people were "heard." The words of men, women, children, indigenous, mestizo, working class, middle class, and the most impoverished were strikingly similar and had a common target: the governor of Oaxaca. In his persona and through the larger metaphorical and physical space he and his government came to represent as the government of corruption, ignorance, greed, repression, and anti-democratic practices, URO became the unifying container for decades of legitimate discontents.
The redefinition of the state radio and TV stations and then subsequent other stations as media spaces of the social movement had a profound impact on those who were not a part of the APPO, Sección 22, or any of the marches. Radio Cacerola, Radio la Ley taken on Aug. 21, and later Radio Universidad which began transmitting again in September, became the primary conduits of information about the movement. Leaders used the media they controlled to plan actions, move people around the city, and to protect neighborhoods.
The movement-controlled media also produced new kinds of messages and created an entirely different audience than that which had tuned in to the state's prior programming. While previous programming had been profoundly apolitical, focusing primarily on cultural and scientific topics, the material broadcast over the radio and TV by women who occupied the state media stations was profoundly political. For three weeks, Channel 9 regularly broadcast films on revolutionary figures such as Che Guevarra, Subcomandante Marcos, Lucio Cabañas Barrientos (founder of the Partido de Los Pobres in Atoyac de Álvarez, Guerrero in 1967), and Emiliano Zapata. The new Channel 9 also beamed out a wide range of popular media including DVDs of the popular Guelaguetza which had supplanted the official one in July of 2006, and films documenting the violence used to attempt to dislodge the teachers' sit-in on June 14, 2006 that included detailed interviews with severely beaten teachers who were hospitalized. Other broadcasts featured documentaries on the violence in Atenco, Mexico and in Chiapas. Talk shows featured women who were occupying the station interviewing indigenous women who insisted on speaking in their own languages, marking spontaneous broadcasts in Zapotec, Mixtec, Trique, Mixe, and the other languages of Oaxaca.
The radio stations played popular ballads such as the "Corrida del 14 de Junio" which told of the repression suffered on June 14, 2006, "What a Bad Governor," "APPO Reguetón," and "the Son of the Barricade." Radio stations sponsored speakers who spoke about the problems with the neoliberal model of development, and criticized NAFTA and the Plan Puebla Panama, a regional development plan linking Mexico and Central America. Popular media productions which previously had been distributed only in person through DVDs and CDs sold by movement sympathizers were broadcast to thousands through the radio stations and television station.
The tens of thousands who listened to these radio broadcasts and watched the alternative TV broadcasts for three weeks were affected by this new media. Josefina Reyes, a 40-year-old working mother whose husband has been in the United States for more than five years lives in one of the many neighborhoods ringing the city that began with poor people squatting on land. From her one-room, tin-roofed home, she listened to the radio and watched as thousands responded to a call to come and protect the TV station once the transmission towers were shot out on Aug, 21, 2006. She describes this, as well as the importance of receiving new kinds of information from the radio. For her, the movement came alive through the radio. On Aug. 7, 2007, Josefina stated:
The movement really came together when they took over the radio station and Channel 9, the state TV station. We would have the radio on all night long to learn about what was going on. You would hear, for example, that they were calling people to come down from the mountains to help. When they called for people to come down and help when they shot at the TV station a lot of people came down, not just a few. We all had the radio turned up all day and all night to find out what was happening. The radio had a lot of information. They would talk about where the shooting was going on. Sometimes we could even hear shots from where they were transmitting ...
... The other thing that happened with the women taking over the state radio station and TV and then on the other radio stations is that lots of people began to arrive and to go on the air. They would talk about what was going on in Oaxaca. And it wasn't just people from the city. People started to arrive from the towns and the ranchos from all over the state to say that they too were unhappy with things. They would go to the station or call in to say that they were in agreement with the movement, that they supported it ...
... There would be young people who talked about neoliberalism and the people started to know more things. Before we never heard about these things and we were not interested. But people started to know more and more, like about the Plan Puebla Panama and other things that our government was involved in with other nations. People started to hear more and more from lots of people and to know more. They got more and more fed up with our government. After this we started to realize more and more things ...
The radio was so important. It was the key way that we were informed about the movement. We would hear about it and know what was going on. Commissions from the APPO and the teachers would go on the air to talk about decisions they had made, to announce another march, to announce a new barricade that was being put up to keep the convoys of death (reference to paramilitaries) out of the neighborhoods. These convoys would arrive and start shooting at people. They were police dressed as civilians who would go around looking for people who were opposed to them or who were manning the barricades. They would shoot at the people supporting the barricades. People would put buses across the road at night, light fires, and burn tires to keep these people out of the neighborhoods."
The stakes for those who were occupying the state TV and radio stations were very high and they took security very seriously. There were more than 12 different security points which had groups of people posted at them for 24-hour shifts. The groups often incorporated teachers and their supporters and were organized by regions of the state of Oaxaca. For example, teachers and other women from the coastal region were in charge of the street in front of the station, while women from the Mixtec region had to maintain watch over the transmission towers that were located on a hillside more a mile away from the TV and radio station installations.
Ruth Guzmán (not a pseudonym), a biologist and community development organizer, spent quite a bit of time working at Radio Carcerola, including on the security detail. She described the excitement, tension, and fear that permeated the night as women kept watch. Later, after her husband was disappeared, tortured, and imprisoned on false charges, she became a regular speaker on the radio stations controlled by the social movement.
The times I went to Channel 9 at night, I didn't sleep ... I was awake the whole time. We all had our sticks. What ideas we had, no? We thought we could defend ourselves with sticks. The men had metal rods, but most people had sticks and even umbrellas. We were always worried that people were going to come and threaten us from those delinquent groups ...
We had a lot of contacts and people would call us up. They would say, for example, that some blue trucks were nearby coming toward the station. We always had these kinds of alerts. Even the people who lived around the station didn't sleep. They were always keeping watch. When we would get these calls we would never know for sure if the threat was for real, but mostly it was people who were sympathetic who called. We had lots of information and people would call in from all over the city ... You know, we were really happy to be participating in this movement because we knew we were making history. I never, ever thought that there would be people killed and disappeared. Then things changed.
Human Rights Violations in Conditions of Open Repression
On Aug. 10, 2006 after filming the radio show of a friend, Conchita Nuñez (not a pseudonym), on Radio Cacerola, I started to walk toward a large march that was approaching the state TV and Radio stations. Conchita had just announced the disappearance of Ramiro Aragón (not a pseudonym), a biologist, and two teachers, Eleonai Santiago and Juan Gabriel Ríos (not pseudonyms) who had disappeared with him. Their families had been looking for them all night and through the day. Their names as well as the names of others who had disappeared and/or were imprisoned were featured prominently in the march.
I walked with Domingo, a teacher, and had just finished a 24-hour security shift at Channel 9. The march filed by for about eight minutes. Then, as I watched through the camera lens, about two or three blocks away people turned around, started running backward, and confusion reigned. It was clear that something terrible had happened.
Domingo commented, "Some kind of provocation." For about 10-15 minutes, the march stalled. A large space opened in the middle. Some people didn't move. Then part of the march began to come forward. Domingo and I walked around the edge and began to double back to the middle where we had seen people running. As we were walking, I smelled smoke and suddenly we saw a huge crowd and an ambulance with a bloodied person inside. Everyone was clearly upset and in shock. We asked a woman, "What happened?" With tears in her eyes she responded, "There has been a death. Someone has already died. The bullet went into his heart. They didn't want to take him in an ambulance. They took him to a clinic nearby where he died. There were various shots and there are others wounded."
Later we found that the person we had seen die from a distance was José Jímenez Colmenares, a mechanic who had been marching with his wife, a teacher, and his children. Four suspected shooters were surrounded and detained by the APPO and Sección 22 police. One remained in a building attached to a medical clinic. When he did not emerge, other enraged people from the march set fire to the building. The four who were detained were put in a local bus that had been commandeered by APPO and driven to the state television and radio stations where I had just come from. Domingo and I had watched the bus go by as we walked toward the site of the shooting.
Aug. 10, 2006 became a turning point for me and many others in Oaxaca. At that time, there was very little press attention outside of Oaxaca concerning what was going on. A situation that came to resemble what many saw beamed around the world as the monks in Myanmar protested in the streets and were detained and shot at was not visible, even in the Mexican press.5 The Oaxaca conflict was not broadly written about in the press until Bradley Will, a U.S. journalist who worked for Indymedia, was shot and killed on Oct. 27, 2006 in Santa Lucía del Camino, just outside of Oaxaca City. That same day, four other Oaxacans were killed as well: Emilio Alonso Fabián, Esteba Ruiz, Esteban López Zurita, and Eudacia Olivera Díaz.
After Aug. 10, 2006 the conflict became further polarized, everyone became much more fearful, and the stakes for participating in any kind of public political action rose precipitously. If you could be shot at while walking in a peaceful protest march, then anything was possible.
While the state governor appeared on TV in Mexico City assuring the nation that everything was under control in Oaxaca, he and his staff could not set foot in the city of Oaxaca and increasingly in other parts of the state as well.
APPO supporters who were holding the state senate, the offices of the governor, the state TV station, and other installations redoubled their security measures and prepared for further repression. The Oaxaca city police refused to leave their barracks and attack their fellow citizens. Increasingly unofficial "police" without uniforms who traveled in convoys of pick-up trucks began to patrol neighborhoods and intimidate anyone who appeared to be associated with anti-governor activities, or simply anyone who "looked" suspicious. Not only were people shot at during protest activities, but they were also detained unofficially at night, tortured, and then later they might appear in jail. Such was the fate of Ramiro Aragón, his brother-in-law, and a friend. My personal and professional links to the Oaxaca rebellion became further intensified with the detention of Ramiro Aragón.
Ramiro Aragón Pérez is a biologist with a specialization in ornithology. He has worked in Mexico and in the United States with a range of NGOs, birdwatching, and conservation organizations. In Oaxaca, Mexico he worked for Grupo Mesófilo, an NGO dedicated to the sustainable management of natural resources and improvement of the quality of life in the villages, communities, and indigenous ejidos (communally owned and managed lands) of the State of Oaxaca, Mexico. Ramiro Aragón Pérez was not a political activist, nor a member of the APPO or Sección 22 of the SNTE.
At approximately 1 a.m. in the morning on Aug. 1, 2006, Ramiro was forcibly detained with his brother-in-law Elionai Santiago Sánchez, and Juan Gabriel Ríos, both of whom are school teachers and members of Sección 22 of the SNTE. They were detained in San Felipe del Agua while searching for two childhood friends of Ramiro's who had disappeared the day before with Germán Mendoza Nube, a teacher and long-time activist in Oaxaca. After a car followed them, they turned around to go home, but were blocked by another vehicle, a truck. Five men got out of both vehicles and proceeded to ask them for their identification and quiz them about what they were doing. After finding an identification card on Elionai Sánchez that identified him as a teacher and a flyer from a leftist organization in Oaxaca, they bound their hands and began to beat them up. They were transferred to another vehicle and continually beaten for more than 30 minutes. Ramiro was burned with a cigarette on his face, was continuously beaten and kicked, had his hair pulled out, and was threatened with death and rape. Threats were also made against his wife Ruth Guzmán and his two small children. Ramiro stated in an interview in July of 2007:
They threw us in the truck and we started to drive and they started beating us again. They threatened to kill us, told us that they were going to rape us, and that after they raped us that they were going to go to my house and do the same thing to my family. They took all of my documents and had my address ... Then they began to pull me by the hair. One of them asked one of the others for a knife to cut my hair. But they didn't give it to him because he would have done something crazy.
In that moment they were really enjoying themselves in their fiesta of violence. It was a party for them. They were beating us and kicking us. Wham. They would hit us and then say, "Hey, look. This fucking guy is squirting blood all over me. He got my new shirt all bloody." They were really enjoying it and we were bleeding all over the place. Then one of them took a cigarette and burned me with it on my face ... They cut my neck and pulled out a lot of my hair. They were playing with us, and having an orgy of violence and laughing. They were putting into practice what they had learned in their courses ... Then they asked for the glass that they cut Elionai with and the other guy wanted to cut my throat but he didn't have time.
They stopped then and we got down. Then they pushed us into the back of a police truck. There we saw a policeman. They kept on driving. We were really beat up and wounded. My face was really swollen and they were braking suddenly, and jumping over these speed bumps while we were still tied up ... We had no idea where we were. Finally, they stopped and they put is in a jail. We asked the jailer, "Where are we?" He said, "You are in Ejutla." They threw us into that jail at about 3:30 in the morning."
All three were taken first to a jail in Ejutla de Crespo, then transferred to a jail in Zimatlán de Alvarez, south of Oaxaca City. When Ramiro was processed through the Federal Attorney General's office (La Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) on Aug. 12, 2006 in San Bartolo Coyotopec, he was told he was charged with possession of a mosqueton, a musket from 1924, which was for exclusive use of the Mexican Armed Forces. He was also charged with possession of bullets which were not compatible with the gun. The two teachers who were detained with Ramiro were charged with illegal possession of firearms as well. All three men vehemently deny these charges.
On July 2, 2006 Mexico held national presidential elections that were highly contested. For more than a month afterward, the results were not known. During this time a part of the vote was recounted. The national focus was on the contested elections, not on the severe conflict, polarization, and violence in Oaxaca. PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who was ultimately declared the loser to Felipe Calderón by less than 1% of the vote, organized a massive campaign of resistance, taking over much of the center of Mexico City. In Oaxaca the state government had begun to escalate its repression efforts through the use of paramilitaries.
During the three months that Ramiro Aragón was in jail, he listened daily to the radio. He and others kept up with the movement by listening to Radio Cacerola and later to the other radio stations. After he was beaten and in his jail cell, Ramiro heard the PRD candidate, López Obrador talking on the radio. He noted, "He (López Obrador) was talking on the radio and he was saying, 'Vote by vote, ballot box by ballot box we will go' ... It sounded absurd to me knowing that we were part of a terrible violation of human rights going on, really revolting, and in the meantime here they are worried about voting saying ballot box by ballot box. This was what the political parties were saying and I was asking, 'Why did I go to vote? What did it matter?'"
For Ramiro, this moment captured the contradiction of legal rights versus actual rights that he and many others were living. While one had the "right" to vote and supposedly participate in a democracy, freedom of assembly was disregarded as marchers were shot, and civilians looking for friends in the night could be arbitrarily detained, beaten, and tortured, and then imprisoned on false charges. For him, Juan Gabriel Rios, Eleonai Santiago, and others, the legal rights guaranteed under Mexican law and the legal processes they were supposed to have guaranteed became meaningless.
Legal protections had no meaning in Oaxaca during 2006 and 2007. Many claims of human rights violations have been filed by organizations including the Mexican National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), which in its preliminary report concluded that 20 people had been killed, 370 inured, and 349 imprisoned between June 2, 2006 and December of 2006 (CNDH 2006:5). While the Supreme Court agreed to name a special commission to investigate the violation of human rights in Oaxaca in April of 2007, so far no action has been forthcoming. In the meantime, those who have been falsely imprisoned have witnessed a justice system in crisis.
The policeman who accused Ramiro Aragón of illegal weapons possession stated in a preliminary hearing that Ramiro had been found running through the street with a gun and had been in a street fight. The swelling and contusions left from the severe beating Ramiro received were reported as the result of a street fight. When the firearm Ramiro was charged with possessing was tested for fingerprints in an independent analysis, Ramiro's prints were not found. Later a judge ruled that the test was inconclusive and Ramiro was returned to prison on the basis of the testimony of one policeman and no physical evidence. During his three months in custody, Ramiro Aragón was never able to see or speak to the judge.
After spending three months in jail, Ramiro Aragón was freed at the end of October of 2006 as part of a political negotiation worked out between Carlos Abascal, secretary of the interior under the Vincente Fox administration, and Enrique Rueda Pacheco, who was the secretary general of Sección 22 of the SNTE. Early in the morning of Oct. 30, 2006, Ramiro was flown by small plane close to Mexico City and released, in a press conference that took place at the negotiating table between the Federal Ministry of the Interior and the APPO and Sección 22. He received no documentation and all of the false charges were left on his record. He has not been exonerated of the invented charges and has fled Mexico for his safety and for fear of being returned to prison. No action has been taken to investigate the illegal detention, torture, and imprisonment of Ramiro and the two teachers he was detained with. He fears that he may be attacked or arrested at any time if he returns to Oaxaca.
A federal injunction (amparo) against the committal for trial (auto de formal prisión) required a review of Aragón's case, but there is no evidence of any action to comply with this ruling. Aragón reported his case to the Oaxaca State Human Rights Commission (Comisión Estatal de Derechos Humanos de Oaxaca, CEDHO) and the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH). However, neither the CNDH nor the CEDHO have yet carried out a full enquiry, and the torture he and his friends suffered has not been investigated by state or federal authorities.
Juan Gabriel Ríos, who was detained, tortured, and arrested with Aragón, has been an active member in Sección 22 of the SNTE. He finished studying to be a teacher three years ago and has been teaching in a small town in the district of Sola de Vega. It takes him about 11 hours to arrive there from his home near Oaxaca City. Juan Gabriel was tear-gassed in the attempt to dislodge the teachers on June 14, 2006, and had been actively participating in the sit-in and occupation of the Zocalo that followed. In his testimonial, he emphasizes that when his tormentors found flyers advertising an APPO march and a small biography of Joseph Stalin on his fellow teacher and friend Elionai, that is when they decided to savagely beat them. The right to free speech was clearly violated in his description of their detention.
I have been an active sympathizer and participant in our (teachers') struggle. But I have never been a leader or part of another organization. I am part of Sección 22, this is clear, but I don't belong to any other organization. Something important that happened is that when they found a socialist piece of literature on my friend Elionai (also a teacher), that was the requirement for them to really beat us up. Why were they so violent toward us? The torture lasted a long time.
Then one of them said, "Who wants to put out my cigarette? Stick your tongues out. I want to put out my cigarette." I stuck out my tongue and so did Ramiro but they decided not to burn my tongue. Instead they began to burn Ramiro in the chest with the cigarette. They grabbed him by the hair and began to pull his hair and beat him up around the face. They beat him really, really badly around the face, his face was terribly hurt.
They began to beat me too from behind, beating me on the ears with their hands open. This resulted in the rupture of my eardrum. It made a terrible sound and then I had a terrible pain. It was really, really ugly. Then they grabbed me by the neck and also began to beat me on the face. I don't know what they were hitting me with, something really hard like a bottle. I still have a scar where they broke open my eyebrow and a lot of blood poured out.
At that point the pain was so terrible that I just became resigned to it and gave up ... I was tied up and they continued to beat me. I couldn't do anything being tied and they were verbally assaulting us too ... I have never felt so much fear in my entire life."
While Juan Gabriel was being severely beaten, his friend and co-teacher Elionai Santiago was being strangled and cut with a glass bottle. Eleonai is a 25-year-old teacher who is a member of Sección 22. He teaches elementary school in the southern part of the state. Like Juan Gabriel, he was an active participant in the teachers' union and had supported the teachers' occupation of the Zocalo. He also got caught in the state police attempts to evict the teachers from the center of the city and went on to support other actions the teachers and APPO undertook. Eleonai helped to guard the transmission towers of Channel 9 after it was taken over by the women who became COMO, attended conferences, marches, and other activities. While not a leader in the teachers' movement and the APPO, he felt confident of his ability to participate freely. He said of the months of June and July of 2006:
After the attempt to remove the teachers from the Zocalo a lot of activities started. But our spirits were very, very high because we (the teachers) had tremendous support from the people. People would arrive in the Zocalo with blankets, with food, with money to support us. This kind of experience really made a difference and motivated us. We realized that our struggle was supported by the people of Oaxaca. There were marches that came down from the different colonias in the city and people came to tell us that we were not alone. Little by little there were more and more activities like conferences, talks, other things. I was really into it because my family was participating too. My mother, my sister. We had grown up in this atmosphere because my mother is a teacher too and she had suffered a lot in the past as well. We were also really angry about what had happened with the desalojo and how people were treated."
Confident that he could freely exercise his rights to free speech, free assembly, and interact with all of the people who were participating in a flood of activities organized by the teachers and the APPO, Elionai spoke with the many different people who had congregated daily in the Zocalo. Many groups from a wide range of leftist and progressive perspectives had set up booths in the Zocalo. Thousands of teachers were sleeping and living in and around the Zocalo which became a tent city. Hundreds of meetings, exchanges, cultural events, and activities were going on. Many of the groups who established a presence there also set out books, brochures, DVDs, CDs, and other materials for sale or for small donations. Eleonai bought a book and was distributing flyers for an APPO march. When the men who detained Eleonai, Juan Gabriel, and Ramiro found a biography of Stalin and an APPO flyer on Eleonai, the three of them were immediately tagged as "suspicious," and treated as if they had no civil or human rights. Eleonai stated in his testimonial in July of 2007:
They had Ramiro on one side and Juan Gabriel on the other and they pushed me up against the side of a truck with hands up in the air. They patted me down, like a routine check, and then they stop and say, "What's this?" They found my teacher's I.D. and a book, a biography of Joseph Stalin that I had bought from a stall in the Zocalo. I saw a red book that said Life and Works of Joseph Stalin and I bought it. I had this with me and I was also passing out the last accords of the APPO which said that they were going to have a march for children.
... So I had these documents and when they found them, their attitude changed. One of them said to me, "What are you doing with Stalin? Now you are going to really get fucked up, teacher. What are you doing here? What are you looking for?" I told them, "I am just moving about here freely. We were looking for a place to eat."
"Looking for a place to eat at this hour?" They kept asking us what we were really doing. After that they stopped asking me anything. They took my cellphone, all of my documents, my credit card, only leaving me my teacher's I.D. Then they tied us up with really heavy rope ...
... They were beating me really hard in the front of my body and another person was beating me on the neck. The blows were really hard and I asked for help, but who was going to help me? ... Then they started to pull on a rope. The one who was behind me began to strangle me. I tried to grab it with my hands ... for a while I was able to use my hands on the rope to keep them from strangling me ... "Talk, talk, talk," they kept saying. They were telling me that I was guilty of something. I don't know what their intentions were. ... Then they grabbed me by the hands and then I heard them break a bottle. They said, "Now we are really going to fuck over the three of you ... Then I heard Ramiro and Juan Gabriel screaming and I felt really bad. I started to get really very, very nervous, hysterical, and I started to scream. Their screams were really terrible ... After they broke the bottle that is when I thought, now they are going to kill me. And they said to us, "Now you are going to die ..."
... I thought they were going to cut my throat or something. But, no. I started to feel an intense pain in my ear and I felt lots of blood flowing. I said, oh, no, they are going to cut my ear. I started to scream because the pain was unbearable. That's all I remember because after that I received a blow that rendered me unconscious. Then I only remember vaguely that they loaded me into a new truck, a Nissan that the State Preventative Police (Policia Preventitativa del Estado) used. Then I remember that Ramiro was beside me. I touched his hand and he moved. The three of us were there. I remember thinking, "Well, at least all three of us are alive."
Elionai Santiago and Juan Gabriel Ríos were captured with Ramiro Aragón. They were jailed with him and served with false charges of possession of weapons that are for exclusive use by the army. These are federal charges which put them in the custody of the Federal Attorney General's office. Finally Elionai and Juan Gabriel were released on 12,000 pesos bail each (about $1,200 U.S. dollars). Once they were out of jail, they had to report to a federal courthouse in the center of Oaxaca and sign in every two weeks.
The two of them are still waiting for any significant movement on their case in the courts after many postponements. Eleonai is doubtful that they will dismiss the false weapons charges. The most difficult effect of this terrible experience has been the psychological damage it has caused him and the fear it has instilled in his daily life activities. He continues to be afraid to go out alone and has been left with a significant health problem. He reported:
Sometimes in the mornings I don't want to wake up because I still know what happened to me ... I stopped doing a lot of things that I used to do before: visit places, go to the movies, read books. I stopped doing these things because it seemed like they didn't have any meaning. Sometimes I even have a moment when I feel peaceful and then I feel guilty because I am having a peaceful moment because so many people are suffering.
For him, Juan Gabriel, and Ramiro, the rights they are guaranteed in the Mexican Constitution and through international rights agreements Mexico has signed ring hollow. Their feelings might be summarized by Speed's quote about how the Zapatista movement came to distrust the state and its role as the custodian of rights: "Rights-based claims can be seduced into a system where legal process is an empty signifier for the resolution of immediate conflict, while the heavier architecture of power that created those conflicts remains unquestioned" (Speed 2007:180).
For Eleonai, Juan Gabriel, and Ramiro, the power of the human rights discourses they interacted with is double-edged. A sincere belief in the connotative, moral authority of human rights gave them and many others the confidence to support a powerful social movement which swept through the city of Oaxaca like a wildfire in the summer and fall of 2006. Their disbelief at what had happened to them, of the false charges, of their torture and the apparent impunity for those who acted against them, and of the total stagnation of the Mexican justice system has left them in a state of suspension. While Juan Gabriel and Eleonai are out on bail and Ramiro has fled the country, they are still imprisoned by fear, doubt, and anger. Juan Gabriel relates:
In spite of the fact that we have demonstrated that our fingerprints were not on those arms, that we demonstrated that we were tortured—because we have submitted torture charges—that I was beaten so badly my ear drum broke, that one of us had cigarette burns on his chest, that we were terribly beaten, that we were treated so horribly in order to make us completely afraid—in spite of all of this, nothing has happened with our cases. We continue to be accused.
... This has also affected our families, like the wife of Ramiro, Ruth, and our families. We had to come forward and make public denouncements about what happened, to do interviews with the press, to go to the official human rights offices of the government, to go to the League of Human Rights, with Amnesty International, with international human rights organizations. We had to do this because we had to declare what had happened. We had to declare again and again what happened. We have pictures, an infinity of photos showing what they did to us and know in spite of all this, the government says, you are accused of a crime and that's the end of it.
The experiences of Juan Gabriel, Eleonai, and Ramiro can be multiplied by hundreds to include all of those who were treated similarly by state police and security forces in 2006 and 2007. The families of all of those imprisoned as well as of the 23 or more people assassinated will never forget their treatment by the state government. The discourses of human rights which helped them to take to the streets and to take over large parts of the city are also connected to a very present moral outrage which is going to fuel future actions in the city of Oaxaca.
When the disconnect between consciousness of rights and the inability to act on them becomes very large and continues for long periods of time, deep-seated movements for social justice are likely to emerge and to continue burning long into the future. These words of Eleonai in July of 2007 signal the fertile ground for an ongoing rebellion and social movement.
All of this that happened to us and many others has resulted in a lot of disillusionment and sadness for everything that happened ... After the death of José Jiménez Colmenares we understood what was going on. There were more than 20 other deaths after that.
This has put us in a situation of despair with the Mexican system of justice, the federal as well as the state one. Our justice system is controlled by a government that is super corrupt. We are profoundly disillusioned with the system we live under. We have seen so many injustices committed in the light of day and now this situation has become normalized. It is still happening. Just yesterday there were more detentions, more tortures. We have seen how this works right here in Santa Lucia. We saw the same police running with arms (a reference to the death of Bradley Will and others on Oct. 28 in Santa Lucia where Eleonai lives).
We want to get rid of this whole system, this system of assassins. The only way we can really relax and calm down is if this government leaves. Until there is justice for all of us, the tortured, the unjustly imprisoned, for the families of those who were assassinated, until all are punished, all of these who carried out these acts against the people, until that happens, we cannot rest.
Conclusion: Possibilities and Ironies of Rights Discourses
In May and June of 2007, Ramiro Aragón and his family came directly into the orbit of my daily life. Through prior family connections Ramiro and a member of my family knew one another. Through this tie, I began to talk with Ramiro, his wife Ruth, and with their extended families in Oaxaca. They are all engaged in an ongoing process of trying to draw continued attention to the cases of Ramiro, Elionai, Juan Gabriel, and others and to receive recognition, restitution, and justice from within the Mexican legal system. So far, these efforts have not born fruit. In the meantime, Ramiro and his family have filed a petition for political asylum in the United States. Their hopes are that if they receive political asylum, that this will give them a broader platform for working to secure justice from the Mexican legal system for the torture, illegal detention, and imprisonment of Ramiro on false charges—a tactic that was used on hundreds of people who participated in the Oaxaca social movement of 2006.
While the political situation in Oaxaca has not changed as of this writing—Governor Ruiz remains in power due to a political deal struck between the PAN (National Action Party) presidential administration of Felipe Calderón and the PRI (Institutional Revolution Party)—the Oaxaca social movement of 2006 lives on. In June, July, and August of 2007 and again in 2008, the APPO, the COMO, Sección 22, and others remobilized to sit-in the Zocalo, held the Guelaguetza popular and tried to stop the official Guelaguetza, took to the streets in marches, and organized forums to discuss the wide range of rights people in Oaxaca are struggling for.
The tenacity of the movement and its dogged determination to continue despite ongoing militarization in Oaxaca (see LASA 2007) suggests the staying power of the rights discourses people took over the city to defend and the historical depth and complexity of the movement organizing that came before the emergence of the APPO in 2006 (see Magaña 2008). An additional factor that can be pointed to in the persistence of the movement is the effectiveness of the form in which rights were defended—through oral testimonials on the radio, on television, and on the streets of Oaxaca. What this suggests is the importance of mobilizing rights discourses through the specific means of oral testimonies.
While transformation of the Oaxacan state political system does not seem possible at the moment, the political and cultural space that opened for six months in Oaxaca in 2006 created a deep synergy between rights discourses that had been circulating for almost two decades among a limited public and a long-held culture of testimonial orality held by the majority. The Oaxaca social movement is a case study in how a variety of lived experiences (urban, immigrant, indigenous, women's, youth, teachers, union members) and of varied cultural, social, and geo-political positions achieved dialogue across these significant differences.
The verdict is still out on the long-term outcome of the Oaxaca social movement of 2006, but what we can already clearly see is the resonant power of rights discourses when harnessed with a cultural form that actively empowers those to speak who have been silenced, and makes what they have to say understandable to others who are hearing their voices for the first time.
- During the summer of 2006, I was in Oaxaca in July and August with the intention of filming a wide range of activities from weddings, mayordomías, and local dances to processes of communal labor known as tequio, and medical plant use for a course I was to co-teach with four Mixtec community outreach workers on "Indigenous Immigrants in Oregon." We had mapped out the curriculum and planned to show short video clips in relation to particular units. I was also visiting with a group of colleagues from the University of Oregon who were seeking to forge stronger links between the Center for the Study of Women in Society and several institutions in Oaxaca.
- The state-sponsored Guelaguetza which has its origins in the "Homenaje Racial," was described as "a great festival of the races to the Sultaness of the South." It was to "consist of 'Racial Ambassadoresses' and their indigenous entourages, supposedly representing a discrete cultural territory within the state." One of the main features was that entourages were to be made up of "men and women who still conserved the autochthonous garments of their race" (Poole 2004:-76-77). This event, as noted by Deborah Poole, was a way for the post-revolutionary state to consolidate a state "culture," but also to define Oaxaca as consisting of "different regional races" (2004:78). See Poole 2007 for a description of the contemporary Guelaguetza and the alternative Guelaguetza popular.
- Numerous scholars have analyzed how the historical and cultural contexts within which rights discourses operate can deeply influence their reception, outcome, and role in the creation of local political cultures (Postero 2007, Rappaport 2005, Speed 2007, Warren and Jackson 2002, Yudice 2003).
- This and all other names are pseudonyms unless specifically noted in order to protect the identity of the speakers.
- The repression in Oaxaca was not broadly covered in the press until Bradley Will, an independent American journalist who worked for Indymedia was shot and killed on October 27, 2006 in Santa Lucía del Camino, just outside of Oaxaca City. That same day, four other Oaxacans were killed as well, Emilio Alonso Fabián, Esteba Ruiz, Esteban López Zurita, and Eudacia Olivera Díaz.
Lynn Stephen is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oregon. She is the author of four books including Zapotec Women.
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