Blog 20: Bloqueo

7 March 2014

 Driving Matt and Abby into Oaxaca Monday morning, we took the usual route down through Viguera to the intersection with the Carretera Nacional at the mammoth statue of favorite son Benito Juárez. The Carretera Nacional, the central artery of the Etla Valley, is also the Pan American Highway. It is also the only route from Oaxaca City out to the cuota, which is the toll super-ish highway that runs north to Mexico City. The Carretera Nacional is six-ish lanes, three on either side of a median divider. It is decidedly not of limited access, for side roads—paved and unpaved—, alleys, paths, and steps on both sides connect with the warren of residences and businesses that cling to the Fortín mountain and sprawl out across the flats toward the Atoyac River in the center of the Etla Valley. Even though the Carretera Nacional is the biggest arterial road in these parts, there are frequent stoplights, speed bumps, and intruding construction projects. Traffic is always heavy. Busses and taxis stop anywhere to load or disgorge. Motorcycles, each carrying from one to four people, weave in and out amid the trucks and passenger vehicles. A few moto riders wear helmets. A few carry live chickens. Sometimes it is the same few.

All this information is relevant-ish. 

About a kilometer along the road toward Oaxaca, on the inbound side of the median strip we notice cars emerging from side streets and coming toward us along the shoulder. Hmm. Must be some construction up ahead we say to ourselves. A little farther along there are cars coming toward us in our lane and sometimes the passing lane, while at the same time the inbound traffic dodges slowly = toward the city. Maybe a bloqueo we think: a blockade.

Sometimes one of the local trade unions, protesting a specific grievance against a specific government agency, will block a street for a while to inconvenience everyone in hopes that the offending bureaucrats will pay attention and change policy. They never do, so it this a political tactic that over the eons has been proven over and over not to work. I saw some bloqueos here in the 1960s by the teachers union, and the grandchildren of those sitters-in are still camped on the Zócalo in front of the Palacio Municipal, even though the bureaucrats that deal with education are way at the other end of town, and the decision makers are in Mexico City. Still, bloqueos are a tradition, and traditions in this culture, like so many others, are often held to be sacred, long after their initial purpose has faded from memory and relevance. [Note: I am not talking here about any of our own cherished 2nd Amendment folderols.] 

Now Linda and Abby and Matt and I are watching cars weaving in both directions on the outbound side of the median like a basketball warm-up drill. And several cars/busses/taxis are trying to cross the 8-inch high median curbs and thread their way between the bougainvillea bushes to switch from one side of the highway to the other. Oh dear, a serious bloqueo, we say to ourselves. If we had started an hour earlier, we’d have made it, though then we might not have got home. Once a couple of years ago, Mary Stitcher had to take a hotel room in the city when she couldn’t get out to return to San Pablo. On the other hand, if we had waited another hour to start, word of the bloqueo would have spread, and we’d be home and the highway would be empty.

We have a 10:00 appointment in the city and it doesn’t look like we are going to make it. Now traffic is inching along at old-lady-with-walker pace in all six lanes, with cars, busses, and the occasional double-semi facing off in each direction in each lane, Other vehicles are stuck on the median curb, their butts sticking out perpendicular to the highway. Linda, who is driving, suggests turning back, that is if we can find an open couple of inches in which to turn the car around. I suggest we creep forward another hundred meters to where a side road cuts over to the River Highway. Maybe, I dream, it has not been blocked.

Fifteen minutes later we have traveled, if not the whole hundred meters, about as far as a middle-school goalie can kick a soccer ball. We can see now to the River Road cutoff. It is blocked by a couple of parked busses covered with political posters. A line of bored policemen carrying light weapons and drinking coffee or atole from Styrofoam cups stands to one side, paying no attention to the protestors or the Gordian knot of traffic.

Plan B. An embankment, not quite too steep for a car to traverse, falls to a dirt road leading back toward Viguera parallel to the Carretera Nacional. Linda jounces the CRV down the bank, and we follow the dirt road for nearly a kilometer until it dead ends. We are about where we’d like to be, but ten cliff-like meters below the Carretera Internacional. We do an about face. Three quarters of an hour have passed and now we are back at the first place we got stuck. I telephone and postpone our appointment to –with luck-- tomorrow.

Linda suggests Plan C: the taxi option. Plan C is not that we take a taxi and abandon our car at the side of the road, which—if we ever want to see it again--is unthinkable. It is that we find a really aggressive taxi and glue ourselves to its back bumper. Inch by inch Linda seesaws the car around until we are again facing outbound. Then we wait, our four pairs of eyes peeled, like cheetahs perched in a tree waiting for a springbok to graze by.

Then, there it is! A red taxi whose painted logo says it is from Sitio Santiago Suchiquiltongo, 25 kilometers up the road. A long-distance taxi, eager to get home. Taxis in Oaxaca can only pick up passengers in their home area, though they can take them anywhere. This one rides empty, which means it won’t make another peso until it fights its way back to Suchiquiltongo. It squeezes between us and a truck carrying propane gas cylinders, with maybe 2 centimeters to spare on each side, and then swerves subtly to the right to cut off a white Ford pickup with six passengers baking in back. As the taxi maneuvers, Linda follows, leaving not quite enough space between the two cars for a opportunistic motor-scooter to slip in. Then on we go, we and the taxi, kindred spirits. Our CRV is like a running back glued to a tight end blocker, dodging and sprinting, braking, turning, and starting again, at a breathtaking average 2 kilometers per hour.

Eventually the traffic thins, and becomes entirely one-way: outbound. Enough people have heard about the bloqueo that no more people are venturing inward toward Oaxaca City.


Coda: next morning’s La Jornada newspaper, in a four paragraph story below the fold on page six, says that the perpetrators were students and staff of the Union of Normal School Students: the Teachers College. Their pie in the sky of the week: automatic job guarantees when they receive their Licenciatura degrees.


If I make it to the year 2060, which would be the 100th anniversary of my first trip to Mexico, I am one hundred percent confident that one of the teachers or student unions, or the truckers, or the guild of public market vendors (if there are still public markets), will be blocking the roads into the city in hope that the Powers-That-Be will be more responsive to Quixotic pressure than their Powers-That-Were grandparents.

Note from Linda:  You will have noticed the lack of pictures. I guess we were all so involved in the process that we didn't think to document it.