I have to admit, I’m worried.
I was in Oaxaca in the summer of 2006 when the teachers strike erupted in violence and paralyzed the city. It was a blow from which the city is just now starting to recover.
As I work and travel in the area, I am constantly asking people their opinion. From everyday folks to taxi drivers, from hotel and restaurant owners, from rug weavers and small store owners, there is angst. For many, 2014 was the first year since 2006 that they had seen increases in the businesses. They are worried that 2015 will bring more protests, problems and unrest to their once beautiful city.
I’ve been visiting Oaxaca since 1999. Recently I had a group of travelers with me for a stroll through the zocalo. Check that. Recently I had a group of travelers with me to struggle through the zocalo.
I say struggle, because that is what it was.
When I first started visiting Oaxaca, one of the most enjoyable things to do was spend time in the zocalo, or city square in the middle of town. Depending on the time of year, you could see poinsettias lining all the flower beds or be serenaded by a group of guys jamming all night on a marimba.
You would marvel at the colors of all the inflatable toys for kids and, if you were lucky, get a chance to listen to TUNA URSE, a fabulous award winning mens choir from one of the local private universities.It was without a doubt, one of the great people watching places in Mexico.
Sadly, that zocalo experience is quickly disappearing and I fear, with it, years of good will and mountains of tourist dollars and Euros as people say “Basta!, Enough.”Today you can hardly walk around the famed city center without be assaulted by the smells of rotting food and human waste. The state government, apparently powerless to make a difference, has allowed hundreds of people to turn this United Nations World Heritage Site into an urban campground, or as it is called here, a plantón. Gone are the flowers, planted every year to spruce up the area. Gone is the ability to sit on the benches of the area and gone is the feeling of charm, safety and beauty that was once a major reason people came to Oaxaca.
In it’s place are tents, protesters, vendors of both handmade crafts and cheap Chinese alebrije like knock-offs. The area is so congested that the very people upon whom the economy depends, international tourists, are starting to simply avoid the area. Literally almost every square inch of territory has a tent, a vendor, a protestor or someone selling some local Oaxacan delicacy.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love street food and shopping for a great bargain. But in the case of Oaxaca, there has got to be a way to bring order to what truly is chaos, in a way that can benefit all sides. The status quo is not acceptable. Especially as centuries old buildings are defaced, property is destroyed and lives are left in shambles as economic activity grinds to a halt.
In the Middle East, as ISIS dismantles and destroys world heritage sites, it is condemned, armies are amassed to respond to the tragedy and the world is aghast. In Oaxaca, as the city center is covered in graffiti, trash and makeshift outhouses, government looks the other way giving tacit permission to the destruction of a once magical space.
But that is not the only issue confronting Oaxaca today.
As surely as the sun rises, you can bet that a few times each week traffic will be snarled and tempers will flare. Not because of an over abundance of cars and traffic, rather because some group, in a bid to get some recognition for their cause, will simply block the streets. No corner of the city is safe, nor are the federal highways surrounding the capital.
I have literally watched as these “impromptu” blockades or bloqueos, as they are called here, form. More times than not I’ve seen local police helping the protestors route traffic to other streets rather than have to confront them or try to restore order. Short trips that should take no more than a few minutes in a taxi or bus, can now take hours as streets are closed and traffic is snarled.
If you are not on twitter and other social media sites that keep tabs on events like this, your chances of encountering one of these road blocks goes up exponentially. If you are someone needing to get to the airport and do not allow enough time to get there through the back way around Parque Tequio, you run the risk of missing your flight.
Many in Oaxaca are fed up, angry and wondering if the government has the ability to solve the problems plaguing their city today.
But it is not just locals. Talk to tourists, and they are asking why they should return. There are plenty of other places in Mexico where they can spend their hard earned money. Places where an attempt to takeover public places like the zocalo or a main thoroughfare would be met in about 30 minutes by a strong response from both state and local police.
Think about that.
Why would a person choose to spend their money in an area that is overrun by protestors, reeks of urine, is overcrowded and where it is impossible to get around without encountering one of the many bloqueos that happen at a moments notice?
Years ago, famed Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo led the charge to prevent McDonald’s from opening a restaurant in the zocalo. To many, it was an affront to the local culture and charm of the area to even consider a few golden arches alongside the centuries old porticos of the zocalo in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca needs another Francisco Toledo today.
Someone needs to step up and say enough is enough, that our city is being destroyed and is in danger of losing its soul.
I know those occupying the zocalo have valid concerns about the government. I know the teachers and the normalistas [student teachers] are worried about their futures. And I know that politicians are not known for their bravery in standing up to protest movements, especially in Oaxaca. But something needs to be done.
The economy of Oaxaca rises and falls on tourism. If the city and the government continue to ignore what is happening, the tourism money that is the lifeblood of this city will disappear. And that will affect not just the regular business owners, but the under the table businesses as well. Weavers, carvers, sculptors and artisans across the state will suffer unless something is done, and is done quick.
Oaxaca is at a crossroads. There are plenty of other cities someone can choose to visit in Mexico that have their own magic. You want colonial charm? Try San Miguel Allende or Guanajuato. If gastronomy is the draw, head to the Yucatan and experience not only the great foods of that area, but the archeological areas Chichen Itza and Uxmal as well.
Before 2006, no one would have imagined that the Guelaguetza, the major cultural festival of the state could ever be canceled. If the government of Oaxaca does not do something quickly to change the current situation, I believe the Guelaguetza and tourism, the lifeblood of the area, will suffer immensely.
That group of travelers I had with me recently had all visited Oaxaca before. Each of them said they had no need to return because of their experience in the zocalo and with the bloqueos. They love the area, but were completely turned off by what has become a regular experience in what once was one of the most beautiful places in Mexico.
Is this the new normal? Many in Oaxaca, when pressed, have admitted to me privately they think so. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say they do not want their kids to grow up in there if things do not change.
Will I stop coming here? No, of course not. Even with the problems in the city, the beauty, culture and yes, the mezcal make a compelling case for continuing my love affair with this great city.
However, unless and until the government finds a way to a new reality, I fear the future of Oaxaca, the cultural and gastronomic heart of Southern Mexico, will never shine as bright as it once did again.