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OAXACA: Culture as Resistance, Resistance as Culture

Photographs by Carel Moiseiwitsch

These photos, taken in 2007 and 2008, document the ongoing resistance, grassroots organising, and cultural rebellion in Oaxaca city, Mexico. In addition to their overt political content, the scale and sophistication of the street imagery is a testament to the vitality and solidarity of the contemporary Oaxacan culture, one of the poorest regions of Mexico. The images are powerful but fleeting as the government continues a concerted campaign to cover over any political graffiti as soon as it appears.

This cultural resistance is rooted in the non-violent Oaxaca uprising of 2006 that led to an unprecedented peoples' government known as APPO, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca. In May 2006, striking teachers' set up a camp in the zocalo (main square) of Oaxaca city to protest low funding for rural indigenous language schools in the state. Oaxaca state governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (aka URO) responded by sending 3000 state police to break up the camp on June 14. The teachers' union radio station called for support against the police attack and thousands of local people responded -- resulting in a street battle with more than one hundred protesters injured.

Following the police assault, representatives of Oaxaca State's towns, unions, NGOs, cooperatives, students, women and indigenous groups convened to form APPO with a central demand of the resignation of the governor. Governor URO declared that he would not resign and on June 17 APPO reestablished encampments in the zocalo and declared itself the peoples' government of Oaxaca, taking the city and state into civil rebellion. Street barricades were constructed in an effort to prevent further police raids. APPO began to organize popular assemblies at every level of social organization: neighborhoods, street blocks, unions, and towns.

A group of local artists utilized their skills to spread the messages of APPO. The collective, known as the Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca (ASAR-O), created stencils, woodblock prints, graffiti murals and posters that appeared on walls all over Oaxaca. Following the traditions of Mexican popular art and printmaking, ASAR-O created vibrant images that communicated the values and demands of the people's movement in Oaxaca.

Popular culture, including radio, posters, festivals and stencils, was a crucial aspect of the uprising -- disseminating information, building resistance, warning of threats from armed gangs, demanding the removal of URO and the release of political prisoners. After the destruction of the teachers' radio station by police, the university radio station became the main voice of APPO.

In July, APPO called for a boycott of the annual state-run Guelaguetza (folk dance) festival. Protesters barricaded access to the auditorium and spray painted graffiti such as: "Tourists, go home! In Oaxaca we are not capitalists". When the government cancelled the tourist-oriented "official" festival, APPO held a "for the people, by the people" version, known as the Popular Guelaguetza. Reclaiming local culture became a key part of the people's resistance.

After sabotage of the university radio station, APPO occupied government radio and then television stations. For the next three months, pro-URO paramilitary gangs and police frequently attacked APPO-controlled radio stations and barricades during the night. At least ten APPO supporters were killed in these attacks.

Mexican President Vicente Fox sent federal police into Oaxaca on October 30, 2006. At least two protesters were killed when 6,500 federal and military police removed the encampment from downtown Oaxaca's zocalo using armoured vehicles and helicopters. After taking control of most of the city, one of the first acts of the police was to paint over all pro-APPO graffiti.

But the resistance carried on -- students and displaced protesters occupied Benito Juarez University. On November 25, 2006, Federal Police stormed the final APPO encampment and barricades, arresting more than 160 people. Many APPO supporters were hospitalized, three protesters were killed and most APPO leaders were "disappeared" or went underground.

APPO, the people's autonomous government of Oaxaca, had flourished for five months - three times as long as the Paris Commune of 1871. And the popular resistance and cultural rebellion is still vibrant today, as evidenced by these photos.

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