Day of the Dead, Ghosts of the Conquered

By David Schmidt

Mexico City

On Lake Xochimilco, amidst the manmade islands and canals created by the Aztec civilization centuries ago in what is now Mexico City, the seminal Mexican ghost story of La Llorona is manifested each November. On a floating stage, actors reenact this legend of "the Crying Woman," a terrifying specter that wanders the earth weeping for her dead children. Intellectuals have described her as a personification of the Motherland, mourning the conquest that befell her native sons and daughters. While watching the theatrics from a candlelit gondola, I pondered the fact that, a short distance away in the state of Oaxaca, the Federal Police were playing out one more chapter of this tragedy.

The conglomeration of social organizations and labor unions known by the Spanish acronym APPO (Popular Association of the Peoples of Oaxaca) had gained active support from vast sectors of the impoverished state's largely Indian population in previous months. President Vicente Fox finally responded to the group's demands of a new, more representative state government by sending helicopters, tear gas, firearms and armored vehicles against the unarmed protesters. Although momentarily driving them out of the historic center of the state capitol, the police came to a standstill with protesters on Nov. 2 &emdash; the Day of the Dead. The equipment used against them had been purchased, in ominous anticipation of such revolts, during the NAFTA presidency of Carlos Salinas.

While APPO may be seen as the natural result of years of free-trade devastation unleashed on Mexico's countryside, the first group to actively oppose neo-liberalism in 1994 &emdash; the Zapatista rebels &emdash; have now pledged their support for the Oaxacan movement. Having abandoned armed struggle for social activism, the former guerrillas have recently mobilized supporters in nationwide civil disobedience until the repression of APPO ceases. After driving away many sympathizers during this summer's presidential elections by bashing populist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Zapatistas may be trying to reunite with their broad base of disenfranchised native peoples.

Meanwhile, López Obrador himself declared his support for APPO on Nov. 8. Some view this move as illustrative of his new position as "civil resistance leader," a role he adopted with the support of a public assembly of more than one million citizens on Sept. 16 of this year. After a federal electoral court refused to recount the votes in an election widely viewed as fraudulent, the former candidate vowed to establish a parallel government deriving its legitimacy directly from the people. Finding himself distanced from the official institutions of power, of course, he has been forced into more direct contact with his support base. "I like him more as a civic leader, anyway," stated one attendee of September's assembly. "He's more accountable to the common people than he would be sitting in the official presidential seat."

After naming the members of his presidential cabinet on Nov. 4, López Obrador was sworn in as "legitimate, popular president" on Nov. 20, to the cheers of hundreds of thousands of supporters packed into Mexico City's central square. He declared the 20 goals of his presidency in a public speech, and has embarked on a nationwide tour to establish support bases and alternative media in 2,500 municipalities. Public opinions of López Obrador's parallel government include idealization, hopefulness, suspicion and accusations of opportunism. Sympathizers across the nation are quietly watching and waiting to see what the next few weeks will bring.

Many of the APPO members who are currently camped out on key streets in Mexico City, meanwhile, expressed deep skepticism of the politician's motives. "We don't appreciate politicians trying to latch on to us," said Lucia, a teacher from a Cuatlan indigenous community. "They didn't create this movement, we did."

Indeed, much of APPO's appeal draws from the grassroots nature of the Assembly. As the mayor of a Zapotec Indian town in the Juarez Mountains explained, "Many communities like our own haven't even been penetrated by the traditional political parties. Our local government follows structures that have existed for centuries, and our Zapotec authorities finally have a voice with APPO." For those disillusioned with parties like López Obrador's, this movement offers a clean slate.

Rather than myopically focusing on specific parties or politicians as the source of the problem, many members of APPO painted the situation in more broad strokes. The movement has evolved from an effort to depose Oaxaca's neo-liberal governor into a struggle against the colonial conditions existing for centuries: corrupt government, exploitation, marginalization and unequal distribution of resources. These woes are not limited to their state; already, rumblings of discontent and cries of support have been heard from the nearby states of Puebla, Tabasco, Guerrero and Morelos.

One Zapotec teacher I met in a Mexico City encampment drew a contrast between APPO and more established political activist groups. "I couldn't sit down and talk with you about political theory or anything. I'm here because of what I've seen and experienced." I watched Mixtec Indian women washing their clothes over the grate above the subway tunnel as she continued. "Years ago, I saw a 5-year-old student painfully expel a tapeworm while using the outhouse. That is what we're fighting against."

While a traditional Mexican ballad named after La Llorona blared from a nearby loudspeaker, an artisan of the Triqui ethnicity chimed in: "All we want is a government that represents people like us." I thought of a different indigenous ghost story; one from my own hometown of San Diego, Calif. In 1852, Chief Antonio Garra led the Cupeno tribe in an uprising against the local government, carrying the banner of "no taxation without representation." This APPO precursor was rewarded for his patriotism with execution by a firing squad; legend has it that his spirit still roams the town restlessly.

The indigenous peoples of Mexico, the children of La Llorona, still have a fighting chance at reversing history and putting Garra's spirit to rest.

David Schmidt is a member of the Sí Se Puede Coalition in San Diego, Calif., which is affiliated with the International Coalition for Liberty and Justice. Email

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