We Are the Face of Oaxaca: Testimony and Social Movements

We Are the Face of Oaxaca: Testimony and Social Movements

by Lynn Stephen


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A massive uprising against the Mexican state of Oaxaca began with the emergence of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) in June 2006. A coalition of more than 300 organizations, APPO disrupted the functions of Oaxaca's government for six months. It began to develop an inclusive and participatory political vision for the state. Testimonials were broadcast on radio and television stations appropriated by APPO, shared at public demonstrations, debated in homes and in the streets, and disseminated around the world via the Internet.

The movement was met with violent repression. Participants were imprisoned, tortured, and even killed. Lynn Stephen emphasizes the crucial role of testimony in human rights work, indigenous cultural history, community and indigenous radio, and women's articulation of their rights to speak and be heard. She also explores transborder support for APPO, particularly among Oaxacan immigrants in Los Angeles. The book is supplemented by a website featuring video testimonials, pictures, documents, and a timeline of key events.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822355199
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 10/16/2013
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Lynn Stephen is Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences, Professor of Anthropology, and Director of the Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies at the University of Oregon. She is the author of Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon and Zapotec Women: Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in Globalized Oaxaca, both also published by Duke University Press.

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Testimony and Social Movements

By Lynn Stephen

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5534-2



Human Rights and Social Movements

I am a woman born in Oaxaca of Zapotec and Mixtec blood. We Oaxacan women ask that a woman be treated with the same rights as a man. Our mission as women is to create, educate, communicate, and participate. That is why we are here occupying the state radio and TV station.... From the countryside to the city, we Oaxacan women are tired of bearing alone this burden of the repression we are experiencing from the long line of people who have governed us and from our current governor, Ulises Ruiz....

We went out into the streets on the first of August to tell Ulises Ruiz that he had to leave Oaxaca. We are women who don't usually have a voice because we are brown, we are short, we are fat, and they think that we don't represent the people, but we do. WE are the face of Oaxaca.... It is too bad that the government doesn't recognize the greatness, the heart, and the valor of the women who are here. We are here because we want a free Mexico, a democratic Mexico, and we have had enough.... They will have to take us out of here dead, but we are going to defend the TV station and radio.

—Fidelia Vásquez, testifying inside the Corporacíon Oa xaqueña de Radio y Televisíon after women took it over, August 5, 2006, Oaxaca, Oaxaca

A majority of the indigenous, rural, and urban inhabitants in Latin American countries receive news and culture through oral and visual media: radio, television, videos (commercial and self-produced), and sites like YouTube. Oral testimony is a long-standing form of political participation in indigenous and rural communities. Most basically, testimony refers to a person's account of an event or experience as delivered from the lips of a person through a speech act. It is an oral telling of a person's perception of an event. It signifies witnessing, from the Latin root testis, or witness. As indicated by Fidelia's testimony, there are also important performative and public aspects of oral testimony.

This book seeks to illuminate the relationships among oral testimony, rights claiming, and identity formation in contemporary social movements. Examining these relationships can provide a crucial window on the continuing importance of culture in politics and on the ways social movements organize and engage with states. Testimony and rights claiming permit silenced groups to speak and to be heard, to enact alternative visions for political and cultural participation, and to formulate new, hybrid forms of identity. Oral narrative can play an important role in creating an individual's political identity, as well as in contributing to other kinds of identities. These identities become shared in specific times and places by a group of individuals and can sometimes help to create new cultures that influence how to do politics, defend rights, and engage with the state.

This book centers on a social movement in Oaxaca, Mexico, and the emergence in June 2006 of the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, APPO). A coalition of over three hundred organizations, APPO disrupted the usual functions of the Oaxaca state government for six months. It took over state radio and TV stations and began to construct a more inclusive and participatory political vision for the state, until the Mexican federal police force intervened. A complex mixture of movements—including those of teachers, indigenous peoples, women, students, peasants, and urban neighborhoods—had coexisted in Oaxaca for several decades and was the political soup out of which the Oaxacan social movement of 2006 emerged. The state of Oaxaca is also characterized by the strong presence of sixteen different indigenous languages and long traditions of community assemblies that use personal testimonials as an integral form of political participation. This social movement relied heavily on oral testimony, which was heard in marches and rallies, in grassroots video productions, on the state and commercial radio and TV stations that were taken over by the movement, and in nightly conversations at the hundreds of neighborhood barricades constructed throughout the city.

The movement was met with strong repression. In the course of just six months (June–November 2006), at least twenty-three people were killed, hundreds were arrested and imprisoned, and over twelve hundred complaints were filed with human rights commissions. Since then the violence has decreased and human rights violations have continued. The state government repression of the Oaxacan social movement in 2006 involved explicit strategies of targeted assassinations, torture, fear and intimidation through unjustified detentions, and the leveling of false charges against those detained. It also included militarization of Oaxaca City and other regions by unmarked paramilitary convoys and marked police and military vehicles, the targeting of movement leaders and others on a website identifying them as "already eliminated" or needing to be eliminated, and the photographing and videotaping by security forces of movement participants in public marches and occupations. The electoral victory of an opposition alliance in July 2010 and the governorship of Gabino Cué Monteagudo (whose term ends in 2016) in Oaxaca may provide a path for reconciliation for some, but they also create an expectation for significant change in the way Oaxaca is governed and a new notion of who "counts" politically, economically, and socially.

The "official" story of what happened in Oaxaca between June and November 2006 looks quite different from what was experienced by the participants. It goes something like this: In May 2006 a large group of teachers who belonged to Sección 22 (Local 22) of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación (National Union of Educational Workers, SNTE) and were part of an independent movement within the larger national union engaged in their annual sit-in, where they tried to negotiate higher salaries for themselves and better conditions for schoolchildren. Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, who had been generous in bargaining with them the previous year, decided that enough was enough. He gave the teachers a reasonable offer and ordered them to go back to their classrooms. Instead of accepting the offer, the teachers dug in. In order to keep peace and to guarantee that the state's children received an education, the governor sent in state police to remove the teachers from their occupation in the historic center of the city. The teachers got angry over this response and fought back. The police were not successful in removing them from the center. In the process, the police inadvertently tear-gassed and wounded some innocent bystanders. This angered other people in the city. There were many police hurt as well.

While the teachers remained in the center of the city, they exploited the anger of the innocent bystanders who were wounded and tear-gassed. This generated sympathy for the teachers' cause, and they were able to take advantage of the discontent to build alliances with other organizations whose leaders were also waiting for an opportunity to gain a broader audience. The teachers and the new alliance of radical organizations known as APPO called for the governor to resign, but there was no reason for him to do so; he was established and worked to negotiate with APPO and the teachers. Instead of negotiating, APPO illegally took over public buildings and TV and radio stations, vandalized the city, and caused a great deal of insecurity. Radical elements began to take over APPO, and it was necessary to increase security around the city in the fall of 2006. Throughout this period appeals were made to the federal government to intervene and help calm down the escalating conflict. After an American journalist was killed in October 2006, it became necessary for the federal government to solve the problem. They sent in the Policía Federal Preventitativa Federal or the Preventative Police (PFP), who restored order and security in the city.

While this "official" story was widely disseminated in Mexico and elsewhere, it is not the story I am going to tell. Rather, my purpose is to share the untold story of the 2006 social movement as experienced by those who participated in it and were strongly affected by it, whether or not they were directly involved. While the significant scale of the violence and the high number of human rights abuses, cases of torture, and assassinations would suggest the necessity for a national truth commission to investigate what happened, such a national commission has not been created. There were national and international delegations that wrote reports about what happened, and the human rights cases were reviewed by Mexico's Supreme Court. While the court did find that there were human rights violations committed in Oaxaca during 2006, it has no power to sanction and punish those who committed the abuses. There is currently an investigative Oaxaca state commission, La Fiscalía de Investigaciones en Delitos de Trascendencia Social (Office to Investigate Crimes of Social Significance) which is examining the assassinations, arrests, and human rights violations committed in 2006. However, it must follow all legal processes and function on the basis of evidence. Because much of the evidence linking people from the administration of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz to crimes committed has been destroyed, and at least two people who headed up security and policing operations in 2006 have been murdered, the work of the Fiscalia is slow and will take a long time to develop. In August 2012, Governor Gabino Cué Monteagudo presented the Oaxaca state congress with an initiative to create a truth commission which would investigate human rights violations committed against APPO during 2006 and 2007. As of this writing the commission had yet to be named and to begin to work. The work of truth commissions can be important in ultimately changing the "truth" of what happened in conflicts such as this one. In addition, however, unlocking the voices of the unofficial story is crucial to changing the established "truth" of what happened and also in the production of the history and social memory associated with the events of 2006.

It is my contention that much of the knowledge, experience, and insight about the social movement of 2006 and its consequences now and in the future can be found in what we might call the testimonial archive and in testimonial performance. Oral testimony allows people to bear witness, archive their memories of wrongs committed, and represent personal histories within complex identity categories of race, ethnicity, gender, and class. My examination here of the role of oral testimony in human rights work, Latin American truth commissions, and social movements relates to important larger questions about memory and the ways that history and truth are understood and interpreted. These larger questions include the following: Who defines legitimate speakers? Who defines history? Who controls and legitimates social memory, and how? How do we understand and interpret "truth," whether in a legal context, in the construction of local, regional, or national histories, or in the formation of identity and social movements?

Testimonials in Human Rights Work and Latin American Truth Commissions

The practice of oral testimony has been broadly defined by Shoshona Felman and Dori Laub as a form of retrospective public witnessing of the shattering events of a history that is "essentially not over and is in some sense brought into being by the (itself interminable) process of testimonial witnessing" (1992: xvii, xv; see Sarkar and Walker 2010: 7). Since the 1980s Latin American truth commissions have placed individual oral testimonies that are focused on specific cases, individual victims, and individual perpetrators in opposition to the collective experiences of victims that are related to structural and systemic violence (Taylor 1994: 197; Grandin and Klubock 2007: 4–6). The contemporary truth commission form, as documented by Grandin and Klubock (2007: 1), begins in 1982 in Latin America with the establishment of Bolivia's Comisión Nacional de Desaparecidos (National Commission of the Disappeared), followed by the Argentine Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas (National Commission on Disappeared People) in 1983. Some later commissions added the terms reconciliation and historical clarification to their titles, suggesting not only the documentation of human rights abuses but also a process of healing, forgiveness, and national unity—ideas that are included under the concept of transitional justice. This justice, of course, usually came with impunity for the perpetrators of violence. Eight different truth commissions have functioned in Latin America: Argentina's Commission on the Disappeared (1983), Bolivia's President's National Commission on Inquiry into Disappearances (1982), Chile's National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation (1990), Ecuador's Truth and Justice Commission (1996), El Salvador's Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (1992), Guatemala's Historical Clarification Commission (1994), Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2000), and Uruguay's Commission for the Investigation of the Situation of the Disappeared and Related Events (2000); (Arias and del Campo: 2009: 9).

The impact of these commissions in eight different countries over almost two decades cannot be underestimated in terms of their role in rewriting national histories. As such, truth commissions are important archives of historical materials that are and will be continually drawn upon to interpret periods of brutal violence and dictatorships as well as the "democratic transitions" that followed, usually accompanied by neoliberal economic development policy as part of the healing process. As characterized by Grandin and Klubock, "truth commissions work, at least in theory, similar to other myths and rituals of nationalism, to sacramentalize violence into a useful creation myth" (2007: 3). Thus truth commissions can work to paper over past atrocities in the name of "getting over it" and "moving on" to "prioritize catharsis and forgiveness over punishment" (5). In sum, they may or may not function to punish the perpetrators of human rights violations.

While I do not disagree with this analysis, in this book I am concerned with a different dimension of truth commissions, one that centers on the testifier as an active social agent engaged in a personal and collective performative act that can potentially broaden the meaning of truth to advance alternative and contested understandings of history. While Grandin and Klubock point out that "in the case of commissions whose charge is both truth and reconciliation (Chile and Peru, for example) and forgiveness in the case of South Africa, it might be argued that the goal of reconciliation imposes profound obstacles to the production of historical truth" (2007: 6), we might also question whether any process can produce a homogeneous historical truth equally believed and understood by all. Part of what happens in the process of truth commissions, with their inclusion of people who have been literally silent and invisible in officially sanctioned spaces of legality, is that these people and others close to them have the experience of speaking and being heard, of asserting their dignity through the process, and also of becoming cognizant of their rights to speak and be heard—processes that are at the heart of how testimony counts in social movements.

As suggested by Kimberly Theidon (2007: 456), one of the important purposes of truth commissions is the rewriting of national narratives so that they are more inclusive of groups that have been historically marginalized. Theidon points out rightly that such forums usually have a focus on victims, are victim-friendly and victim-centered—producing a narrative standard that many may feel compelled to follow. Fiona Ross (2003: 178–79) has made similar observations in her analysis of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as has Julie Taylor in her discussion of Argentina's truth commission. Taylor argues that truth commissions tend to transform individuals, political activists, and others into either "innocent or transgressing individuals with individual rights and obligations" or "victims" (1994: 197–98). But victim narratives in court may be recast elsewhere with very different meanings.

In her analysis of the focus groups and public assemblies conducted by the Peruvian Truth Commission in Ayacucho in 2002, Theidon found a preponderance of witness testimony in public arenas about rape and sexual violence that primarily followed a victim narrative. But when the same women entered into conversations with Theidon and her research team outside of official venues, they always located sexual violence within its broader social contexts: "They detailed the preconditions that structured vulnerability and emphasized their efforts to minimize harm to themselves and to the people they cared for. With their insistence on context, women situated their experience of sexual violence—those episodes of brutal victimization—within womanly narratives of heroism" (2007: 265). In other words, we cannot read the larger social impact of people's statements in truth commissions simply in terms of what is said within the courtroom or the official forum. The same people are circulating their testimonials in forums outside of the courtroom, where they may be expressed and interpreted quite differently. For this reason, it is important to consider the testimonials that are given during truth commissions or in other public forums in a broader context.

Excerpted from WE ARE THE FACE OF OAXACA by Lynn Stephen. Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Maps, Illustrations, and Videoclips vii

Acronyms and Abbreviations xi

About the Website xv

Acknowledgments xvii

1. Testimony: Human Rights, and Social Movements 1

2. Histories and Movements: Antecedents to the Social Movement of 2006 36

3. The Emergence of the APPO and the 2006 Oaxaca Social Movement 66

4. Testimony and Human Rights Violations in Oaxaca 95

5. Community and Indigenous Radio in Oaxaca: Testimony and Participatory Democracy 121

6. The Women's Takeover of Media in Oaxaca: Gendered Rights "to Speak" and "to Be Heard" 145

7. The Economics and Politics of Conflict: Perspectives from Oaxacan Artisans, Merchants, and Business Owners 178

8. In Indigenous Activism: The Triqui Autonomous Municipality, APPO Juxtlahuaca, and Transborder Organizing in AAPO-L.A. 209

9. From Barricades to Autonomy and Art: Youth Organizing in Oaxaca 245

Conclusions 276

Notes 289

Bibliography 303

Index 323

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