#18: The Zocalo Liberated

7 October 2015

            Our good friends Steve and Sally Olsen, from Rhode Island, Tuscany, and many parts in between, have come and gone. For nine days we had the pleasure of sharing with them many of the highlights that draw so many short and long-term visitors to Oaxaca. The tule tree (normal tree is to tule tree as bungalow is to Empire State Building). The ruins at Monte Albán (think Rome of the forum and coliseum, of which it is a contemporary). The Zapotec Sunday market at Tlacolula (if it can be grown or handmade hereabouts, you name it and they sell it). CASA, until recently a textile factory on a mountainside above San Agustín Etla and now the most sophisticated exhibition space in southern Mexico. The Dominican monastery church of Santo Domingo (if you scoff at the Baroque’s defining principle of “Too much is not enough,” wait until you see this church; and its decoration in divine detail and exquisite taste!).  

            Of course we also shared lots of lesser known but just as wonderful local pleasures with the Olsens: breakfast at our mercadito; traipsing through the tree covered mounds of La Virgen de la Peña, an unexcavated village the size of Kingston, RI; sorting through colorful piles of napkins and placemats at the tiny Yukuda’a textile factory high on the hill in Pueblo Nuevo; dining well at some of Oaxaca’s finest restaurants and just as well at some of its roadside eateries. And of course, the Zócalo.


            I always thought zócalo was a Nahuátl word for a plaza, and that it referred to any such; but its pedigree is Latin, socculus, an architectural term that designates a raised base for supporting a statue. In 1882 Mexico’s president Santa Ana wanted to put up a giant statue in the plaza in front of Mexico City’s cathedral, but he ran out of money after completing the base. People in the city began to say – “Hey, let’s go down to the statue base,” or “I’ll meet you at the statue base,” until the term zócalo came to mean Mexico City’s plaza itself, and, by eventual extension, the main plazas in the capitals a few of Mexico’s states.


            Oaxaca’s Zócalo is the navel of the city, its omphalos, the mero mero. The plaza between the Cathedral (N) and the Town Hall Municipio (S) with ranks of cafes and restaurants on the other two sides (E & W) has for centuries been the place to spend a few moments under the giant laurel trees, to sit by the fountains, to listen to the marimbas or Andean pan pipes, to sip coffee or chocolate at one of the many cafés, to have your shoes shined, to buy chachquis or exquisite handicrafts from the Indian women; to satisfy the munchies with  a mayonnaise and chili slathered cob of corn on a stick, a tropical fruit popsicle, a sack of jalapeño-flavored potato chips, or a little plastic bag of chapulines, the ubiquitous and very tasty fried grasshoppers that are a Oaxaca specialty. In the Zócalo you can buy your sweetheart a dozen roses, or your toddler a balloon or a plastic pull toy.  You can read the newspaper headlines at the kiosks on the plaza’s corners. You can ogle the tourists who are taking pictures of the young men who are ogling the young women. The Zócalo is a place to relax for an hour or two, to see and be seen.


            The Zócalo is also, quite naturally, a good place to give vent to your frustration with politics and politicians, and to lodge your requests—always presented as demands—to the many powers that be.  Protestors hang political slogans between the trees or drape them from the central bandstand. Remote Indiana villages protest treatment by regional governments. Unions protest management. Splinter parties demand the release of their imprisoned leaders. On my first trip to Mexico in 1960 I recall that protestors from the teachers’ union had set up a few small tents in front of the Municipio, threatening to camp there until the government met their demands for more pay and less beaurocratic control. I know that in my every subsequent visit to Oaxaca—perhaps five or six over the next 50 years—I always saw some sleeping-bag-equipped dissident faction camped in front of the Municipio. Major disturbances erupted during the teachers’ protests of 1980 and again in 2006. The contested issues never seem to be resolved to the satisfaction of either the teachers union or the state and federal governments. Everyone remembers the efforts, but no one seems to be able to recall any goals met or results achieved. The grandchildren, or perhaps great-grandchildren, of the 1960’s protestors, have seemed to be carrying on their forefathers’ tradition.


            Most Oaxacan teachers have belonged to Sección 22, a radical faction of the national teachers’ union. A year ago Sección 22 invaded the Zócalo, setting up a plantón (an occupation) that threatened to be permanent. The union was utterly and unshakably opposed to implementation of the new national education reform laws, and its leaders made it clear their members camped in the plaza would hold their noses until they turned blue, if need be, to see those laws abolished [c.f. Republican opposition to “Obama care”??]. Among their more outrageous-seeming demands:

            that there be no evaluation, by anyone under any circumstances, of teachers’ credentials or performance;

            that graduates of teachers’ colleges be guaranteed a job;

            that Sección 22 be given jurisdiction over schools that have other unions;

            and that teachers retain the right to name their own successors.

Latent in these demands, of course, are questions of whether evaluations will be used politically to purge leftists; whether teachers colleges are overproducing graduates; whether graduates of teachers colleges are adequately trained; and who should have the power to hire new teachers. The federal government is widely mistrusted, in part in response to its inept and inconsistent handling of the apparent murder of 43 teachers college students in Ayotzinapa (Guerrero) last year, and its bungling of the imprisonment of some key cartel leaders like “el Chapo.” The state government is widely believed to be in cahoots with big money and vested interests. In the Oaxaca standoff with the teachers, intransigence, on all sides, seems to have been the operative mode.


            [This is not the place, nor am I the person, to write a history or comprehensive evaluation of these conflicts. For brief, readable, if contrary views of these matters in English, see the websites cited at the end of this blog.]


            Sección 22’s repertoire of protest tactics has been large. In addition to occupying the Zócalo, filling it with so many tents (up to 1,000!) that it became impossible to even enter the large plaza, let alone enjoy the civic life of which the Zócalo was the principle theater, they systematically blocked streets. Oaxaca’s location, at the narrowest part of the sole north-south route through south-central Mexico, has meant that by blocking a limited number of points all traffic – and most of the commerce – in this part of the world must necessarily come to a halt. The bloqueos have sometimes been announced in advance, but others seem to have appeared spontaneously. Two websites have monitored them in real time, and a couple of cellphone apps have kept drivers apprised of impassible choke points. Accepted wisdom has been to take food, water, and reading material went venturing into the city. Rather like venturing out in Nebraska in blizzard season.


            In addition to blocking roads, Sección 22 and its allies have intermittently occupied the airport (resulting in canceled flights and ricocheting chaos), the big intercity bus terminal, and gas stations. Accepted wisdom: don’t let your tank dip below half full. Often protests have broadened: once foreign-owned banks were blocked; international big box stores like Walmart have been surrounded. Surprisingly, the level of violence in Oaxaca has been very low. A couple of trucks that attempted to run the blockades were vandalized, and a couple of ATMs were hit. But –the American State Department and the Wall Street Journal aside—no one seems to have been concerned about visitors’ safety, and Linda and I and our immediate community have never felt threatened. Frustration at the inconvenience, yes; but not fear of mistreatment.


            Families with school-aged children have not known what to do. Teachers have been out more than a quarter of the time, and working moms never knew when they would have to deal with kids sent home. Small, unregulated private schools have spring up to fill the void, but many believe they are inadequate and expensive, often prohibitively so. Some kids have stayed out of school. The sense is that Oaxaca has been sacrificing a whole generation of young people.


            For the tourist industry, too, for the cafes and restaurants and hotels surrounding the Zócalo, and for the handcraft shops in the tourist district, it has been a very tough year.  For us personally, in some ways the biggest annoyance has been the loss of the Zócalo, the magnet that used to draw people to the center of town. Over the past year Linda and I have gone into the city little, mainly when we have needed to do something or buy something specific. We have not gone in to hang out, and Linda and I and our friends have missed it. Every time the photo of Deborah and Abby and the balloons has come up on my rotating screensaver, something has tugged at my heart.



            As the rainy season ebbed the new school year was approaching. Mexican Independence Day, September 16, was drawing near. Evidently at both the state and national government level plans were being laid behind the scenes. In order to protect the beginning of the school year, several thousand federal police from the gendarmería division were dispatched to Oaxaca. They filled the empty hotels, five or six policemen to a room. On the day before Independence Day, at 1 in the morning, police re-took the Zócalo, removing tents, sleeping bags, banners, tables, chairs, and all of the effluvia of the permanent-temporary encampment. Only 2 occupiers were present, and no one was hurt. Simultaneously the police took the nearby headquarters of Seccion 22. And the federal government announced a sweeping reorganization of primary and secondary education governance and finance, a restructuring that completely marginalized the leadership of the radical union. Four helicopters patrolled the skies over the city. A check point screened cars that wanted to enter the airport.


            The union swore to resume the fight. But after Independence Day.


            Linda and I returned from Abby’s Indiana wedding on Independence eve. The next day we spent in Santa Cruz Etla, settling in. Then we went downtown. We could hardly believe it.



            The Zócalo was filled with people, not tents. Moms and dads and kids. Tourists with cameras. Shoeshine men. Balloon sellers. The cafes tables were filled with gossiping women, young lovers, men reading newspapers or cutting deals. A marimba was plunking out “Bésame mucho,” and an Andean pan-piper was tooting through a medley of John Lennon songs.  Triqui Indiana women in their long red huipiles were offering textiles to tourists. The balloon men were back. Toddlers were shouting and laughing as they careened through the flocks of pigeons.


            And the following week we took Steve and Sally to the Zócalo.


David & Linda




For a variety of English language reports about the Oaxacan teachers’ protests, see:






Pro government?:



Pro teachers union?:





Some historical background: