Political Struggle Comes Naturally to Oaxaca

Political art in Oaxaca

Oaxaca     If the only book you had ever read about Oaxaca was Oliver Sacks,’ Oaxaca Journal from 2002, as I had, you would have a sense of the environment, particularly ferns along the mountain sides at the edge of the desert, and perhaps the world-renowned culinary scene, but you would miss the fact that this city is so much more than a tourist mecca.  Oaxaca came to my attention more prominently, and much of the world’s, for the prolonged teachers’ strike that began in 2006 and continued red hot for years.  There was an encampment of the teachers on Avenida Reforma in Mexico City that I visited several times on visits there.  For progressives and organizers, Oaxaca has been a destination city, so it was exciting to drive there from Mexico City.

It’s not a short pull.  It took seven hours driving once the delays for toll booths and traffic accidents are taken into account, but the drive from Puebla to Oaxaca is amazing through the southern edges and foothills of the Sierra Madres.  Tall cactus and yucca to pine trees, including one pine variety with downward drooping clusters of needles that was so unique it was startling.

Political struggle seems to come naturally to Oaxaca.  As you enter, there is a statute of Benito Juarez, the revolutionary leader and still only indigenous president of the country, who was born in this state, but the history of struggle goes back to the beginning.  The city symbol includes a representation of Donaji, a Zapotec princess, who was decapitated as a prisoner of the Mixtec, which is a pretty dramatic way to highlight your town, but that’s not the whole story.  During the conquest, the city had to struggle constantly with the conquistador Hernan Cortez for independence from his authority as the Viceroy of Spain until in the mid-16thcentury they were able to obtain some rights though constantly contested.

 

When you walk through various city streets the graffiti is almost invariably political.  ASARO, the Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca, is well-known for its dramatic and pointed posters and presentations in the zocalo and in support of peoples’ movements in the area and more widely.  The fight when they began was against a now deposed state governor who had reduced wages for the teachers and rolled back social assistance.  Reading Getting Up for the People:  The Visual Revolution of ASAR-Oaxaca, is a great look at their background.

The way art and culture support and intertwine with political work is important to understand.  We’re looking forward to learning more while we’re here.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Mural Mile on New Orleans’ St. Claude Avenue

graffiti on former hospital on St. Claude

New Orleans   For decades the ACORN headquarters has been somewhere around the intersection of St. Claude Avenue and Elysian Fields Avenue.  We were ten blocks from the Mississippi River for many years, and we are again.  The old riddle used to be, “What street has its head in the river and its feet in the lake?”  The answer would be Elysian Fields.

Decades ago, there was no riddle that clung to St. Claude Avenue.  It was a no-man’s stretch of old furniture stores, fast food outlets, repair shops, garages, and whatever that stretched from Fauberg Marigny at the base of the historic French Quarter to the St. Bernard Parish line.  The avenue has a neutral ground, as it’s called in New Orleans, meaning a green space between the lanes of traffic on either side, and happens to be a state highway, which means that there is always an argument over whether the broke-ass city repairs it or the broke-ass state.  Need I say more?

Part of the legacy of St. Claude’s hardcore, working class history is being challenged by increasing gentrification in both Marigny and Bywater.  House prices have soared.  Hipsters are ubiquitous.  A new restaurant or bar seems to open – or close – every week.  Magazines and newspapers regularly list Bywater as one of the best or most livable or whatever the flavor of the month might be, neighborhoods in the country.  This is a city, so one of the responses somewhere between anarchistic vandalism and guerilla resistance has been a proliferation of graffiti.  Increasingly, what had been random splotches praising Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails or wall defacings by someone calling himself, “Achoo” has been replaced by what I am going to start calling the “Mural Mile,” a colorful and sometimes deeply historic, cultural, and beautiful confluence of advertising, homage, and street art.

Fair Grinds Coffeehouse and office mural

 

First, murals were a last-ditch effort at property defense.  Our building on St. Claude had two long fences, one a wooden fence between Beauty Plus on the corner of St. Claude and our property and the other a plain cinder block wall behind our gate leading to Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in the back of our building.  Four years ago, we recruited a young muralist named Danae, someone knew from Montreal, who painted an allegorical mural from street to building about ACORN, Fair Grinds, and the recovery of New Orleans from Katrina.  Graffiti was a constant problem at Beauty Plus.  Every few months the owner grey-washed the building, but nothing seemed to stop the vandalism.  The same problem was constant on our wooden fence.  Finally, in desperation I told the Beauty Plus owner I was going to have a mural painted on the fence.  He scoffed at my waste of time, but said “good luck” to my foolishness.  A former barista and artist, Maddie Stratton took the job on, and got it done, and damned if it didn’t work.  Graffiti continued to be a problem at Beauty Plus, but not at our building.  Problem solved!

Beauty Plus murals

Fast forward until now, and we have Mural Mile.  Beauty Plus learned the lesson and is now covered with murals.  Tourists and passersby regularly stop traffic to take pictures.  Part of our old building has a mural.  Harriet Tubman is across the street on a fence.  Down the block a Big Freedia does her thing.  Fats Domino and Aretha Franklin have their places in the mile along with second line and neighborhood bands.  Businesses from nurseries to the local food coop are part of the trend now.  Even in the midst of the neighborhood changing since Katrina from 70% nonwhite in the Bywater to 70% white under gentrification assault, the roots and reality of the city continue to be everywhere, larger than life in the Mural Mile along with catfish and pelicans.

next door to our building
Harriet Tubman
Big Freedia
Fats Domino

This is street art and still part of the resistance, since the Historic District Commission which includes these neighborhoods still wants to insist that they should be allowed to permit and license muralists and murals between $50 and $500.  Rumor has it that some group is paying muralists to spite the regulations believing free speech should be allowed on private properties.

Food Co-op

area St. Claude & Franklin

The movement creating the Mural Mile is art and civic beautification.  Even past the Mural Mile on St. Claude there are still signs that the people are everywhere in one sign past the railroad tracks that warns the police that people – and their cameras – are watching.

warning to police that cameras are watching

 

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail