Carrying On the Fight in Oaxaca

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On the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, everything is in limbo. Mexican tradition has the souls of the dead returning to visit on el Dia de los Muertos, but Oaxaca itself is very much a ghost town on this holiday. The beautiful colonial city has been wracked by months of labor protests and, then, beginning last weekend, violent government reprisals. It is now a jigsaw puzzle of barricades and graffiti: "Murderers," "Power to the People." The streets are mostly empty except for the occasional pedestrian carrying the "Pan de Muerto"—the sweet bread of the dead decorated with skull and bones.

In Santo Domingo, a plaza that has been taken over by protesters, three haunting "ofrendas" were lit the previous evening. Made of flowers and seeds, food and drink, these offerings are set out for the visiting, hungry dead. These three particular ofrendas have been erected to the memory of an American, Bradley Will, the freelance documentary filmmaker shot dead on Friday as he recorded a clash between protesters and pro-government vigilantes. Further away, on the street called Cal y Canto, by a barricade, there is a more shocking ofrenda to Will's memory: one adorned with a photograph of his naked body in the morgue, framed by handwritten messages and cempazuchil, the yellow flower of the dead, as well as an image of the Virgin of Juquila. The altar is lit by copal, the resin that is supposed to guide lost souls after dark. One message reads, "Bradley Will, you are not dead, you are in our minds and hearts."

The protests began more than five months ago as a local teachers' strike, but, as Mexico itself tries to recover from a divisive national election, other elements joined in to expand the protest in Oaxaca to include other leftist causes, including the rights of indigenous peoples, anti-globalism and anti-Americanism. The burgeoning ranks of the protesters occupied Oaxaca's Zocalo, the city's main square, and the Governor's palace until President Vicente Fox sent in the Federal Police to clear the area. Currently, talks in both Mexico City and Oaxaca are at an impasse. But the protesters have not given up the fight — and indeed they have won more allies beyond Oaxaca.

On Tuesday Andrčs Manuel Lňpez Obrador, who lost the Presidential election by the narrowest of margins, headed a march in solidarity with the Oaxaca protesters in the capital, Mexico City. He joined the protesters in demanding the resignation of the governor of Oaxaca, Ulises Ruiz, who has taken a hard line against the protesters. Meanwhile, teachers' unions in other states in Mexico have thrown their support to the Oaxaca teachers. Mexico's President-elect Felipe Calderón, who belongs to Fox's PAN party and takes office in December, has not openly embraced the embattled governor (whose party is allied with PAN), but simply asked for a restoration of order and an investigation into the death of the American journalist. Indeed, Calderón asked that the government of Oaxaca take into consideration the welfare of Mexico as it made its decisions.

The Mexican national congress has passed several motions condemning Ruiz and asking him to step down. But Ruiz, now re-established in his official residence, has refused to budge, asserting that each state in the Mexican federation is sovereign and not answerable the national assembly.

The anti-Ruiz forces are now spearheaded by the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), a leftist coalition that may include a small-scale guerrilla force. They have taken possession of the Benito Juárez University, where they continue to send messages through its radio station, Radio Universitaria, giving orders and calling for a "red alert" against the federal forces. The university is barricaded against the police, and according to witness and intelligence sources in Mexico City, the occupiers are accumulating Molotov cocktails and hand-made PVC rockets.

The dead preoccupy Mexico. The media have been rife with editorials complaining that the Fox government did not respond to the protests in Oaxaca until an American was killed. More than a dozen Mexicans had died in earlier incidents amid the protests; a 15-year-old boy was killed in another clash with the federal police on Monday. But on the streets of Oaxaca, all the dead share the same nationality, even the dead American. A 76-year-old Indian woman approaches one of Will's altars and says, "This is not about politics. Today we honor death. This poor young boy boy now is part of Oaxaca. He died here. We have to help him enjoy his new life."

She brought an offering to help sustain him on his way: chocolate.