Writings on the Wall in the Streets of Oaxaca

Reportage made possible by financing from the Pulitzer Center in Washington, D.C.

You can view my author page with the Pulitzer Center here

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Pasted onto the walls of the quiet streets of Oaxaca lie eerie reflections of a country descending into chaos.

That chaos often remains unseen within the relative safety of tourist cities like Ciudad de Oaxaca, where I’ve come to interview a writer who’s worked with the Zapatistas, and where rivers of foreigners throng the streets in cool summertime dusks, free from the omnipresent violence which stalks Mexico and the majority of its population like a specter. But even when you don’t see it, even in the tourist zones of carefully cleaned cobblestoned streets, that reality is there.

The political street art in Oaxaca- ripped posters pasted on cracked walls of cement, intricate murals of slowly chipping black paint, graffiti messages scrawled on the broad flanks of vacant buildings by unseen interlopers in the night- offers a portal into this dark reality. They are mirrors of Mexico not as glossy tourist brochures might have it, but as it is. The stories they tell do not paint a pretty picture.

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In one life-sized painting pasted onto an already graffitied street corner, a little girl looking up with school books in her hands sheds a single blue tear. “Mommy,” the picture is captioned in Spanish, “I don’t want to go to school anymore because they’ll make us disappear”- a direct reference to the 2014 “disappearance” of 43 high schoolers in Guerrero by a faction of the Mexican army and police, accused by many of collusion with drug lords.

On another backstreet, black bombs painted on the wall shower down menacingly over both sides of a doorframe.

On another lonely canvas of cement, the emboldened block letters “F*** Imperialismo”and “Monopolio”appear printed in blood red alongside several paintings of evil-looking rats. Superimposed in the middle of the display is the logo globalization’s mascot: Coca-Cola.

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And on another, the words “Ya Basta!”- Enough already! – (a phrase coined by the Zapatistas to express discontent with Mexican and world politics) appears above a fierce looking mouth holding a red grenade in its teeth.

It makes sense that writings on the wall would appear in such a place as Oaxaca. Oaxaca is well-known for having a rich political culture of resistance: teacher’s unions regularly erect roadblocks around the city protesting for their rights. And over a million of the state’s 3.5 million residents are indigenous, Mexico’s most oppressed minority (in the neighboring state of Chiapas, the indigenous campesinos of the EZLN, or the Zapatistas, rose in armed rebellion to defend their rights- among other things- in 1994).

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It is logical, then, that the murals, the posters, and the graffiti silently lording over the streets of Oaxaca reflect not only a chaotic reality, but a fierce sense of pride, rage and indignation over the sordid level of chaos and violence to which Mexican society has descended.

Walking listlessly towards the town center one morning, I happen upon a mural of Marichuy- the Zapatista fringe candidate running in the 2018 Presidential elections. With no intention of winning the Presidency, the Zapatistas used Marichuy as a megaphone to amplify the concerns of Mexico’s indigenous people from the high platform of the Presidential campaign.

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Marichuy appears in the middle of a mural alongside the faces of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin. She is flanked by two soldaderas, the female warriors of the Mexican Revolution. Beneath them all lies the piercing gaze of Emiliano Zapata, the veritable Che Guevara of Mexico’s campesinos, who fought against all enemies to protect their rights to land.

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As I walk back through a poor barrio of Oaxaca after finishing with the interview on my final day, I pass a disturbing message in graffiti. The words speak for themselves. “100 thousand dead,” it reads, the barely legible letters drawn in black spray-paint. “36 thousand disappeared.”- the total casualty number of Mexico’s Drug War, which many say is now spiraling out of control after twelve years of unremitted violence. I stop alongside the building to take a few pictures, a riot of grass overflowing against the cracked sidewalk, the traffic roaring past just a few feet away.

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Do the Mexicans pay attention to graffiti and signs like this? After all, this chaos is their reality. Either way, the signs are still there, their messages standing out like unheard screams in the night.

I stow my camera in my backpack and continue walking through the poor barrio, my thoughts drowned out by by the overwhelming roar of the traffic.

 

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