I arrived in Oaxaca in the middle of a protest.
I had heard Oaxaca was a bustling city – but I was expecting parties and parades, not sit-ins and political rallies. In fact, I had planned my arrival to land on Candlemas, an end of Christmas celebration that I had seen devout Catholics preparing for all week in other Mexican cities. I was hoping for a candlelit vigil, lots of airy singing, and less-than-legal fireworks.
But as I lugged my suitcase through the zócalo I could tell something different was going on. I weaved my way around hundreds of Oaxaca women in traditional Triqui dress – bright red, boxy tunics adorned with a rainbow of ribbons. Men were clustered around the gazebo, signs were strung up around the square, trash overflowed in the garbage cans and littered the ground. Maybe it wasn’t a peaceful Candlemas, but I’ll take what I’m given. I dumped my bags at my hostel and headed back out.
As I walked through the packed zócalo more slowly, it was hard to tell who was there as part of the protest and who was enjoying the warm winter evening. Town squares in Mexico are vibrant places, full of couples canoodling on the park benches, vendors hawking bright helium balloons and light-up toys, and people enjoying the wifi.
But there was a distinctly different crowd in the zócalo in Oaxaca. The women in their traditional garb easily stood out. They also wore an air of exhaustion, some chatting quietly in small groups, some slumped over on the curb. The men were a little bit harder to pick out of the crowd, though the cowboy hats and sun-wrinkled faces gave them away.
I had missed their march it seemed, but I paused at the homemade banners hanging behind a few street vendors. With my poor Spanish skills I thought I recognized the words “displaced” and “military,” and I made a note to do some research later.
The sounds of a brass band floated down from one of the side streets, so I made a left turn. I had seen a cluster of people in front of a building on my way to the hostel, but the crowd had swelled significantly in the last half hour. A police car blocked the street to traffic and women chatted in small knots, cooling themselves with identical green, white, and red fans.
I slowed as I passed the building. I couldn’t get a glimpse of the main activity, but I could hear one band inside and see two others on the streets, waiting. A sign on the building said CNOP: Unidad Ciudadana Oaxaca. An election march? I wondered.
Politics in Mexico had intrigued me ever since I was sitting in a Starbucks in Mexico City and a passing protest set off a smoke bomb in front of the door. Granted, that was only five days before (my attention span for politics anywhere is quite short), but my questions about their government could be answered here, by people who actually cared and were involved. But people were starting to give me side-eye. I clearly was not a voting member of the community and I started to feel like an intruder, so I kept going.
I was still hoping for more from Candlemas. I love Christmas, and having spent it abroad away from my family, I was hoping for a second chance here in February in Mexico. I spotted a tiny parade of singers following white-robed boys and girls down the street into a church, probably the start of the Candlemas service. I tried to peek over their heads to the inside but couldn’t see much of anything. Later, I stumbled upon the last song in an outdoor children’s orchestra concert. I had missed most of the music, but they were still giving out free tamales.
However the Candlemas celebrations were the smallest of the gatherings I had seen that night, and I wanted more. I headed back to the zócalo. I wanted to check on the status of the sit-in and see if the political march had made it there. Would there be a clash? Would passions ignite?
But when I got back to the main square, it was relatively quiet. Not only were the protestors gone, but the zócalo had been swept. The trash from a full day of protesting had been swept away. And though I heard the occasional firecracker punctuate the night and set off car alarms, I couldn’t find any sign of the political march. The cathedral was closed and shuttered. The zócalo looked like any other main square in Mexico. Couples involved only in each other, a street vendor wandering around with lace tablecloths on his arm, musicians trying to serenade the café customers into appreciative tips. It was still lively but free of celebration or dissent.
I was disappointed in myself. I had come to Oaxaca for the parties and the parades, and even though I had found them, I had just skirted along their edges. I took an extra lap around the zócalo, looking for any protest stranglers and wondering how I had managed to miss out on three completely authentic experiences.
I thought back to when I first arrived in the zócalo, at the end of the protest, when the activists still lingered, though exhausted, and the air was still tense with passion. I was thrilled to be there and brimming with questions – but I had felt out of place. In Mexico I am at least a head and a half taller than the average woman. I stick out in my blue jeans and hiking sandals, and people aren’t always shy about staring at me. With every curb and bench taken up by the Triqui demonstrators, I had stayed to the outside, despite my curiosity about the protest.
What a counter productive thing, I realized in the now-subdued zócalo. People had been there, wanting to publicize their cause, but instead of asking questions and learning more from those living in and struggling through the situation, I had just made a mental note to turn to my computer for its limited and detached information. A poor alternative to the boundless passion and experience of the people I had traveled to see.
So I headed back to my hostel for a quiet evening of chatting with other travelers, not locals. No one really knew what had happened earlier in the day, though they had seen the protest as well. We were all just tourists again, sequestered in our courtyard.
But we’ll see what happens tomorrow.