Almost Fearless

Speaking of Oaxaca – the Clash, the Protests, the Aftermath…

I’ve been meaning to write about Oaxaca for over a week now. It’s our home, although we’re away for the summer. I have a photography workshop scheduled for the Day of the Dead (end of October) and I was about to hit publish on a post announcing it… but then I paused.

The view from my old house in Colonia Estrella, in Oaxaca de Juarez.
The view from my old house in Colonia Estrella, in Oaxaca de Juarez.

Why? Because 8 people were killed after the Mexican government clashed with the protesting teacher’s union. It’s not a small thing. In 2006, they had a similar conflict and the city fell into the hands of the teacher unions for a bit, even establishing their own rules and a fly-by-night bureaucracy. This time around the roads to Mexico City were blocked, which essentially seals off Oaxaca from getting deliveries of food, and petro. The bus company ADO shut down. The local grocery stores closed temporarily… not all of them, but enough. There is still plenty of food, and Oaxaca’s huge agriculture community means that’s not likely to change, at least for the basics. But the city’s reputation has been harmed once again.


It’s complicated but essentially you have a teacher’s union that was granted godlike powers over its own destiny in the 1980s, as in: they control hiring and firing, so no teacher could ever be fired. So teachers don’t show up. They protest for 50 out of 200 school days so the year, plus whatever days they miss just because. They could sell their job or pass it down to their kids. They didn’t get tested or have any requirements to teach. So, in short, it was school reform hell for the Mexican government. How do you improve a school system where you basically have zero control and a huge number of teachers not doing their job?

Well, here’s where the bone-headedness of the Mexican government comes in… last summer they passed a number of reforms that would change things. Teachers would have to pass a test. No more union controlled hiring/firing. You have to show up and do your job. Sounds good, right? But here’s the catch: teachers on average don’t get paid that much. About $500-$750 a month. Mexico is not a mono-language culture, there are tons of indigenous languages, like Zapoteca in rural Oaxaca. People from those communities grow up speaking that language, not Spanish. The government’s test and curriculum is in Spanish. So you’re testing the village teachers and failing them because they can’t pass in Spanish and haven’t been trained. Or you’re asking Spanish-speaking teachers – who are not from the village – to train to become a teacher, pass a test, and move to a village to make $500 a month. Who will do that? In effect, since the government’s rules are without funding, without training and without a plan to replace, retrain or recruit additional teachers means that poor, rural communities, like the ones that populate most of Oaxaca outside of Oaxaca City would go without any teacher at all.

Clearly, that’s also unacceptable. So the union won’t back down, the government won’t back down and even though in 2006 exactly 10 years ago, the Mexican government lost control of the city over the same issue, they apparently don’t learn from their mistakes. It’s heavy-handed policy change backed with heavy-handed police interference up against a union that has nothing to lose, since many of their teachers will lose their jobs if these policies are enacted, leading to the death of 8 people including a journalist.


Oaxaca will bounce back, eventually, but they are getting absolutely killed this summer financially. The region is supported almost entirely by tourism (I’ve heard 70% as a percentage of total income). So I want to do my part for my city and encourage people to come back! But not yet. I think there has to be a little space, a little time and we just have to wait and see. July is the month of Guelaguetza and I have lots of friends in the city who are keeping me updated on the situation. It’s a huge month-long festival with lots of gorgeous costumes, dancing, parades, drinking of mezcal and just general merriment. If you can get there, please do go. You can definitely fly into Oaxaca and bus service will likely be resumed shortly. But that’s a good litmus test for how things are going… if they get through July without incident, we’re in good shape.

I’m not sure how I’ll coordinate this but after Guelaguetza I want to invite everyone I can down to Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead. I just ran into an article (it’s in Spanish) and they quote all the local restauranteurs… including Alejandro Ruiz from Casa Oaxaca and Rodolfo Castellanos from Origen Oaxaca (who just won Mexico’s first ever Top Chef) – these are places that are doing modern interpretations of Mexican cuisine along the lines of what you’d see at Biko or Pujol in Mexico City (both Top 50 Restaurants in the World), right here in Oaxaca and they’re trying to figure out how to stay open and pay 30-40 staff when there’s no tourists left. Some of Oaxaca’s amazing restaurants might not make it. It’s a tragedy that after so many years of rebuilding from 2006, all their work has been wiped out just as they started to become profitable again.

alex_ruiz_cortesiaRuiz from the famed Casa Oaxaca says, “Estoy frente al restaurante que a esta hora normalmente está lleno y la terraza está a la mitad. Por supuesto afecta, pero si me meto a ver números y contar centavos me deprimo. Mejor, hoy me fui a comer con mis hijos y mi familia.”

I’m in front of the restaurant, usually at this hour it’s full, and [instead] the terrace is half full. Of course it affects us, but if I look at the numbers and count pennies I’ll be depressed. Instead, I had lunch today with my children and my family.

And later, “Lo que buscan este tipo de conflictos es dividir y desmoraliza. La vida sigue. No podemos vivir con miedo.”

What they are looking for in these tips of conflicts is to divide and demoralize. Life goes on. We can not live in fear. 


Top Chef winner Castellano says, “Es algo muy difícil… […] Todos nuestros servicios están muy limitados. Ya hemos sacado nuestros ahorritos para sobrevivir este mes.”

It’s very difficult. […] All our services are very limited. We have already used our nest egg to survive this month.


I can’t properly explain how much I love Oaxaca. It’s so full of rebellious self-pride, art-driven activism, and a deep devotion to its food, culture and traditions. There is a holiday every week (it feels like that anyway). Your local village has a dance, a song, a costume all its own. It’s earnest and lovely. I hear the word “culture” tossed around so much but they really live and breathe it. They don’t recreate traditional dishes for tourists, they are out eating mole tamales for breakfast. They’re absolutely in love with tlayudas and mezcal. They dream about Guelaguetza for months before it comes and treat Dia de Los Muertos more reverently than Christmas.

This is Oaxaca:


So is this:

No one can predict what the future holds for Oaxaca but we can’t let it take another decade for them to rebuild.

“Oaxaca sigue de pie y quiere paz.”

Oaxaca is still standing and wants peace.


Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”