“We are Brown, We are Short, We are Fat… We are the Face of Oaxaca”: Women Leaders in the Oaxaca Rebellion

I am a woman born in Oaxaca of Zapotec and Mixtec blood. Our mission as women is to create, educate, communicate and participate. That is why we are here occupying the state radio and TV station… We are like a lot of the humble, sincere, working people of my state. From the countryside to the city, we Oaxacan women are tired of bearing this burden alone of the repression we are experiencing from the a long line of people who have governed us and from our current governor, Ulíses Ruiz… Although the people who may read this are far away, we are living this crude reality of repressions and an impossible situation… 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.

These words come from 55-year-old Fidelia Vásquez in Oaxaca City on August 5, 2006. Fidelia is part of a group of dozens of women who five days earlier occupied the official Oaxaca state television station “Canal 9” and state FM and AM radio stations. She is also a teacher, a member of Local 22 of the CNTE (large dissident confederation within the National Educational Workers Union) and a self-declared supporter of the APPO or Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca. Her testimony brings together an analysis of gender, race, and class that suggests the roots of the ongoing social movement in Oaxaca and why women have had such a strong presence in it.

Demanding the resignation of Oaxaca governor Ulises Ruiz, APPO grew rapidly during the summer and fall of 2006 and came to control much of the city of Oaxaca, organized popular cultural events, controlled radio and television stations, and organized local and regional assemblies throughout the state with the goal of developing a new state constitution and system of governance that would take into account the majority of Oaxaca’s citizens. Here I focus on the role of women in the APPO and teacher’s movement and pay particular attention to why women have focused on claiming, using, and defending radio as a movement organizing tool. The testimonials and analysis which follow suggest that women in the Oaxaca social rebellion are blending feminist concerns with claiming public space and having the media reflect the voices, physical appearances, and concerns of “real” women (here indigenous, working class, and middle class women) and the more traditional roles women have held in social movements as wives, mothers, and defenders of the family. Their style of activism is consistent with patterns exhibited by many women in Latin America as they integrate a commitment to basic survival for women and children with a challenge to the subordination of women to men, mixed with a fervent commitment to participatory democracy in their families, cities, states, and nations (see Stephen 1997:1-22).

Some of the ongoing questions I am seeking to answer in this article (which reflects only pilot research) are: Why have women been so central to the growing APPO and teachers’ movement? Is this a new historical role for women in Oaxacan social movements or are there historical antecedents? Does the fact that many of the demands of APPO and the teachers are linked to education, children, and social welfare provide a traditional gendered core to the movement that builds on issues that have long been seen as “feminine” and practical? Or is something different occurring in this movement where women have moved beyond these issues to assume a key role in demanding political and cultural space for an identity that some characterize as fat, short, brown, and the “real face of Oaxaca”?

The ways in which women participate and experience their role in the social rebellion in Oaxaca allow us to reexamine the utility of the dichotomy posed by feminist theorist Temma Kaplan as “female consciousness” (1982) or “traditional feminine conscience” (1989: 77-78) and by Maxine Molyneux (1986) as “practical gender interests” versus feminist or strategic interests (Molyneux 1986). More recent analysis of contemporary women’s organizing (Montoya, Frazier & Hurtig 2002) as well as current feminist historiography of women’s organizing in the past (Dore & Molyneux 2000) tends to focus more on the role of women’s agency from a wide variety of spaces and perspectives, its cultural and material underpinnings, and its relationship to state formation and how projects of social reform and modernization have sought both to include and to exclude women. In such analyses, as in the case discussed here, the specific historical, political, and regional context within which women organize, differences among women by ethnicity, class, and age, and their personal experiences, skills, and trajectories often militate against the utility of dichotomous models of analysis. Nevertheless, cultural divisions of public and private space and the battles for who should occupy them and in what form, continue to be an important part of gendered discussions -– particularly in the case of the gendered dimensions of the Oaxaca rebellion documented here.

Education in Oaxaca and the History of Teachers’ Organizing

Public education was consolidated in Mexico in 1921 under President Alvaro Obregón who created the Ministry of Public Education (SEP). As part of a nationalist strategy to consolidate the Mexican Revolution and build a nation of mestizos (people who were a mixture of Spanish, Indian, and African heritage), education became one of the primary routes for “civilizing” and assimilating Mexico’s primarily indigenous peasants. The focus of SEP educational programs in the 1920s was to integrate individuals into the market economy and communities into the nation. In Oaxaca, there was a 27 percent increase in state primary school enrollment from 1920 to 1928 (Vaughn 1982: 156). During the 1930s, under President Lázaro Cárdenas, the promotion of socialist schools as well as accelerated agrarian reform and the organization of the National Peasants Confederation (CNC) were key pieces in a government-run campaign to create a national popular culture around the Mexican Revolution with the Mexican government as its main inheritor (see Vaughn 1997). I have documented elsewhere the ways in which the figure of Emiliano Zapata and other aspects of the Mexican Revolution became part of a nationalist campaign to build the political party of Cárdenas in the 1930s and ensure values that inspired loyalty to the government (Stephen 2002). Rural school teachers were primary actors in promoting a popularized Mexican Revolution that emphasized phrases such as “the proletarian cause,” “the land belongs to everyone, like the air the water the light, and the heat of the sun” (Stephen 2002: 44-45). In Oaxaca as well as elsewhere, the ideas of socialist education were disseminated wherever there were schools. The First Congress for Socialist Education was held in the city of Oaxaca on February 25-28, 1935. Publications such as “El Socialista” were produced to help spread socialist ideals. Teachers in Oaxaca were organized primarily by the Sindicato Único de Trabajadores de la Enseñanza. After a strike in 1937, officials from the Oaxaca state government and the federal government signed an agreement that brought all Oaxaca teachers under the federal Ministry of Education. Oaxacan teachers not only continued to promote socialist education in the late 1930s, but also worked as agrarian activists (Stephen 2002: 54-55). Thus teachers in Oaxaca and in other states have a long history of working simultaneously as educators and activists.

In 1943, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación (SNTE) was founded and came to represent all educational workers in Mexico’s primary and secondary schools. With closed-shop representation of all education workers, the SNTE quickly followed in the pattern of other government unions and organization and came to be very closely tied to government policy priorities and as part of a well-oiled vote delivery machine which was formally affiliated with the PRI (see Cook 1994). While there were several attempts at reform movements within the SNTE in order to democratize it, all failed until 1979, when dissidents formed the first reform caucus in SNTE history. In 1979, two locals affiliated with the SNTE – Local 7 from Chiapas and Local 22 from Oaxaca – formed their own dissident Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación (CNTE) in the city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas. According to CNTE spokesperson Alfredo Chiu Velásquez in August of 2006, the CNTE was formed with three objectives, “to democratize the SNTE, to democratize education and to democratize the country.”

During the past 27 years, the CNTE has gained control of key locals in Mexico City, and in the states of Michoacán, Chiapas, Guerrero, Tlaxcala, Zacatecas, Morelos, Baja California Sur, Sinaloa, Durango and Oaxaca, with representation growing in other states. According to Chiu Velásquez, “In 2006 there are 1,400,000 workers in the SNTE and about 45 percent of these are with us in the CNTE.” That is about 630,000. An earlier estimate from 1997 puts the numbers of CNTE workers at 250,000 (Monroy 1997: 2).

Since the formation of the CNTE, indigenous teachers have been a large part of Local 22’s membership. In states like Oaxaca, indigenous teachers are a majority of those involved in the dissident movement. Previously bilingual indigenous teachers were paid less than non-indigenous teachers and were employed by the National Indigenist Institute (INI). In the 1980s and 1990s, Local 22 in Oaxaca was key in forcing the Ministry of Education to expand bilingual education. Since 1994, the Oaxaca state Indigenous Education Department has been developing and putting into use textbooks in Oaxaca’s 16 indigenous languages, under Local 22 control and guidance (Monroy 1997: 11-12). Bilingual indigenous teachers are in every community and hamlet throughout the state.

Another group with significant representation in the CNTE is women. Women account for at least 60 percent of all teachers nationwide and thus a majority of members of the CNTE (Monroy 1997: 6). While no precise figures are available, it appears that the percentage of women teachers in Oaxaca’s Local 22 is similar to that nationwide. In Oaxaca this translates into very significant representation in the dissident movement by indigenous women who have been vocal in protesting discrimination, sexual harassment, and racism both in the union and elsewhere.

Drawing on their significant experience as public figures who participate in a range of community and political activities, the more than 40,000 female teachers that are members of Local 22 played a central role in the strike started in May 2006, and the mobilizations led by APPO that paralyzed the state government until October. At the center of this largely urban movement are many women whose key role in opening up state media to those usually silenced and whose insistence on using peaceful means to get across their message have gained them new respect. Women’s role in taking over the media and using the airwaves both to organize APPO actions and to reconfigure public cultural space began in early August.

APPO and Radio Cacerola

While much has been made of the role of the internet in organizing anti-globalization protests, Radio Cacerola (Saucepan Radio, named for the pots and pans the women marched with when they took over the station) at 96.9 FM in Oaxaca was at the heart of ongoing mobilizations, actions, deliberations, and debates in Oaxaca City that have permanently changed the nature of public culture and politics in this southern Mexican state. The importance of control of the media for organizing and coordinating the ever-growing social movement of the APPO and dissident Local 22 of the SNTE became more and more apparent in the weeks that followed the public TV and radio station takeover. The women hit upon a key ingredient for supporting the movement, as shown by both their success in mobilizing people quickly and by the level of repression aimed at their occupation of the media as confrontations heated up during the last weeks of August. For several weeks, Radio Cacerola was the lifeline of the social movement of APPO. What follows are detailed descriptions of the women’s activities which show the intensity of the organizing that took place during the summer and fall of 2006.

A large group of men and women from the town of Telixtlahuaca is assembled in front of the Corporación Oaxaqueña de Radio y Televisión (COR TV – Oaxacan Radio and Television Corporation) on the western edge of Oaxaca City, reading a petition with many signatures. They have a list of grievances against the state governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. In addition, they declare themselves to be in solidarity with the APPO. It is August 5, 2006. As I stand outside the station after 12 noon, there are shouts of “Ya cayó, ya cayó, Ulises ya cayó” (“He has fallen, he has fallen, Ulises has already fallen”). In an impromptu rally and welcome, several women from inside the station come out to speak to the delegation before admitting them. Marina, a 25-year-old who has dedicated herself to the radio station, declares, “We are all together in this fight. We have taken these spaces here to be the voice of all the people. That is why it is of great importance that all of you come here to help us protect this space that gives us a voice and is providing us with ideas for how to continue our struggle. We recognize the importance of our struggle at the level of the county and throughout the state. Long live the Asamblea Popular de Oaxaca. Long Live the Oaxacan People. Long Live the Women Against the Bad Government! Long Live our Unity! The People United Will Never Be Defeated. Viva!”

Outside of the TV and radio station there is a well coordinated six-point security plan posted on the wall, and several women screen visitors before letting them in to make their declarations on TV and radio. Following their takeover the women opened up the airwaves to the usually voiceless people in the poor colonias and nearby indigenous towns that make up most of semi-urban Oaxaca City. The delegation from Telixtlahuaca is just one of 19 groups and individuals who have signed up to be on the air so far on this sunny Saturday. Women in charge of the station inform others that they will have to come back in two days because the spaces for radio and TV are all booked up for several days due to overwhelming demand.

From early in the morning until late at night, Radio Cacerola has become the chief means for people to voice their opinions and have debates. Everyone, from the motor-taxi association of six neighborhoods denouncing a corrupt licensing official to Zapotec vegetable farmers fed up with a corrupt local mayor, uses the station to air their opinions. Regular radio shows crop up on topics including the murder of women in Ciudad Juárez and Oaxaca, celebrating local musical groups, and discussing indigenous rights in more than half a dozen of Oaxaca’s sixteen indigenous languages. When local municipal police refuse to leave their barracks and the Oaxacan head of Security and Transportation Aristeo López Martínez put together an improvised police force of under-cover “municipal” police rumored to include paramilitaries from outside the state, Radio Cacerola announces where they are seen and encourages people to not lose faith. When leaders of the APPO are detained without a warrant, Radio Cacerola relays the kind of vehicle the police used and encourages people in the neighborhood where the leaders were last seen to search out the car. When APPO needs to gather supporters to reinforce groups of people holding more than twenty state government buildings, the call goes out over Radio Cacerola. When 50-year-old José Jiménez Colmenares is shot dead in the middle of a peaceful protest march on the way to the TV station, Radio Cacerola broadcasts the news and urges people not to be afraid and to continue to protect the station and other buildings that have been taken over by APPO. Throughout some of the most tense days and nights in August, the voice of a young woman tells listeners, “Don’t be afraid. We are not afraid. Do not abandon your posts. Do not be afraid to come down to help us to fight this intimidation. We are a peaceful movement; we have so many people they cannot force us out.” The women behind the radio station do not appear to be militant fighters, but are often long-time residents who have finally become fed up with their invisibility and bad treatment by successive state governments which have been promising to improve their lives for decades.

Fidelia Vásquez, quoted at the beginning of this article, lives just a few blocks from the Radio Cacerola. She has become a full-time worker at the station, participating in 24-hour security shifts that require participants to alternate keeping watch and sleeping every two hours. Her post on the Saturday afternoon when I interview her has her screening visitors to determine whether they have come to legitimately go on the air or are there to gather information for the opposition. She was one of hundreds of women who took over the radio and TV station on August 1 after a group of women representing an APPO and teachers’ march of almost ten thousand were denied a space on the air. “When we were denied just one hour of air time, we decided to take over the whole station,” explained another participant before I spoke with Fidelia. “After all, it is a public television station. Shouldn’t the people be able to use it?” Fidelia sat us down in the shade on a few chairs and began to explain how and why she got involved in Radio Cacerola.

As you know we have a wonderful patrimony here …and that is why we women went out into the street on August first. We went out to demand that Ulises Ruiz Ortiz leave Oaxaca. We don’t want governors like him. People have to see that the governor cannot run the state of Oaxaca. There is ungovernability in Oaxaca . The women are demanding that he leave. And you who come here to talk with us, we want you to be our messengers and let people know that we are peaceful women, that we are Oaxacan women who the rich have not recognized. Look at these hands [She holds her hands out in front of her lap face up.], these are hands that have sweated, they have never robbed or killed. They want love, tranquility, and peace for the entire world, no more teargas bombs, no more shooting. We just want our voices to be heard. And we women also want justice for the teachers. We want their demands to be listened to. But there is not equality here in Oaxaca. We women say that this is not just.

Here Fidelia stresses the peaceful position that women have by presenting her hands as evidence of her hard work and honesty. The hands speak for her and the movement as a symbol of who the movement is and what they want. Many women like her speak of the need for respect for the teachers from the state government. Respected by children and their parents in the communities they work in, teachers like Fidelia are now demanding the same kind of respect and recognition from the state.

Nine days later, I returned to the radio station to film a daily radio show hosted by Concepción “Conchita” Núñez, a sociologist, a teacher, women’s organizer and core member of the group of women working in the radio station. She was hosting Pilar Monterrubias who was discussing the violent murders of women in Oaxaca as well as the experience of women in the June 14 attempt to forcibly evict the teachers. There was a high level of security at the station that day. We were ushered into the reception area and told we had to leave everything behind us including cell phones, cameras, and tape recorders. After a complex set of interactions where our host indicated she had given us permission to film, we were allowed into the control booth of the radio station to film the show. Conchita and Pilar discussed the women’s march in great detail. They then analyzed the presence of women in the movement and at the station. Pilar commented, “This is a very female space here at the radio station. Women are running everything.” The conversation then turned to the experience of June 14 when the state police attempted to forcibly evict the teachers.

Pilar: I live near the center of the city, and the city of Oaxaca was like a woman who had been raped. It you went out on the street you saw the blankets, the shoes, all the things that had belonged to people. I remember when I saw one of these baby blankets with little flowers on it and I was thinking, wow, I wonder what happened to that baby during the attack… it was just terrible. The city was like a woman who had been horribly beaten.

Concepción: It was really incredible to see all the ashes from everything that was burned. It made a huge impression on everyone. We couldn’t believe it when it was happening. No one will forget that day.

While the radio show was going on, a large march was making its way toward the radio and TV station where it was going to conclude. At one point during the show, organizers at the front of the march called in on a cell phone to report the progress of the march and to give estimates of the number of people. The march had begun an hour earlier at the site of the State Department of Education, had passed the first-class bus station, and was making its way through the center of town and up toward the radio station. The young women running the control booth were reporting on the air about the progress of the march, clearly excited by its success. They reported that it would be approaching the radio station in twenty minutes. Another announcement was made in connection to the march, asking listeners to help to locate three teachers who had been disappeared earlier that day.

The radio show ended and Conchita and Pilar left the station to talk and have coffee. Twenty minutes later the march approached the station, winding its way around the block before arriving. About mid-way through the march, shots were fired, mass confusion ruled, and people began to run wildly in all directions, forwards, sideways, and back towards where the shots came from. The women from the radio station who had watched smiling and cheering as the march wound into the grounds of the station suddenly turned ashen as everyone realized that something grave had happened. Not losing face, the organizers of the march and the women on the radio continue to urge people to come forward and enter the grounds of the radio and TV station.

About mid-way through the march, shots were fired into the crowd from a house adjoining a medical clinic, killing José Jíménez Colmenares almost instantly. His widow, teacher Florina Jiménez Lucas, relayed to me what happened after the march:

We joined the march at about five o’clock in the afternoon. It was peaceful; we walked past the bus station, the Llano Park, the center. We were going along shouting our slogans against the governor like, “Fuera Ulises” [“Get out Ulises”]. We went along in the middle of the march. There were a lot of people in the march, about fifteen thousand people. In Division Oriente Street, we heard shots coming towards the people in the march. I was walking with my husband. Then someone said, ‘men move forward,’ to protect the women. My husband moved up some steps and I heard a burst of very rapid shots. There were bullets fired very quickly. I heard them and I turned around. I saw my husband, he fell down. Well, I didn’t see him fall, but I heard someone call, ‘Help me, help me.’ I saw my husband on the ground. Then some other people approached to help him, to carry him. We walked a few steps. I pleaded with him to resist dying, to hold on. Then someone said, ‘Here is a hospital. Bring him in.’ We brought him into the clinic. They wouldn’t let me into the operating room. After a few minutes passed, they let me in. When I went in they said, “He is already dead.’ They didn’t even try to help him.

According to Florina and to accounts broadcast on radio Cacerola and in some press reports, the medical report said that nine bullets were fired into José’s body from an automatic pistol fired from above by 22- and 38-caliber weapons. Two other people who were marching were wounded as well. Mourning her husband with thousands in a public homage on the Zócalo and later at a public funeral, Florina stated, “This was done to demobilize people. This attack wasn’t directed at my husband, but at the march with the purpose of demobilizing us, of creating terror. But it hasn’t had that result. We are more united than ever.” Demonstrating the fiery spirit of the women of Radio Cacerola, Florina has jumped back into the struggle to remove the governor and improve conditions for all in the state of Oaxaca. Her husband’s death leaves her alone to raise her three children ages 3, 10, and 13.

Following the death of José Colmenares, a large silent march was called to commemorate his sacrifice and call for the freeing of additional political prisoners. Three days later a “National Forum on Building Democracy and Governability in Oaxaca” drew almost 1800 participants from across Mexico as well as from Oaxaca. Two days of debate and discussion focused on writing a new state constitution, constructing a transitional government and political program, and on gender, ethnic, sexual orientation and other forms of diversity. Participants voted on a wide range of accords and strategies that prominently included indigenous rights, women’s rights, gay, lesbian, and transsexual rights, and plans for building local and regional assemblies to discuss and disseminate the results of the forum. At the closing ceremony of the forum on August 18, August 1 was declared “Day of the Oaxacan Woman” in honor of the courageous takeover of Channel 9 by APPO women. Throughout the forum, women from Radio Cacerola, the TV station, and other organizations and communities were amply represented and did not hesitate to speak out.

Throughout August, 2006 the women of Radio Cacerola and Channel 9 were highly successful in mobilizing support for the APPO and in encouraging more and more individuals, organizations, and neighborhood and municipal governments to declare themselves against Oaxaca’s governor Ulíses Ruiz Ortiz. On Monday, August 21, a group of civilian-clothed “police” drove up the mountain to the Cerro Fortin and open fired on the transmission towers for Channel 9 and Radio Cacerola 96.9 F.M. Wounding a teacher who was helping keep watch, this offensive against APPO and their control of the state media opened a further round of confrontations. APPO used Radio Cacerola to call people out of their homes and into the streets. On the same day, APPO members took over twelve commercial radio stations and began broadcasting across the state. They retained five of them. In the first hours of Tuesday, August 22, a “clean-up operation” of 400 Ministerial State Police and Municipal Police of Oaxaca City open fired on APPO members who were guarding one of the newly taken radio stations. Architect Lorenzo San Pablo Cervantes, chief of the Department of Educational Spaces of the Ministry of Public Works of the State of Oaxaca, was shot to death in the attack. Like many state employees, he was a supporter of APPO and of the teachers’ movement. His death was accompanied by the wounding of others, and by attacks on reporters and on other installations controlled by APPO members.

In the fall of 2006, women who took over the radio station continued to call, along with other APPO members, for the destitution of Governor Ruiz Ortiz and were putting together a parallel government with regional popular assemblies throughout the state. In October and November urban APPO women were on the front lines defending barricades, buildings, and media stations when the Federal Preventive Police (PFP) entered Oaxaca. They were often the first to greet the PFP, and put flowers in their shields and offered coffee and tamales. In defense of Radio Universidad which like Radio Cacerola had a female presence through the voice of La Doctora, women were again the first to confront the PFP as they tried unsuccessfully to take over the Autonomous Benito Juárez University of Oaxaca (UABJO) on November 2. Days after, as repression escalated, broadcasters vacated Radio Universidad to avoid a violent confrontation. La Doctora is Berta Elena Muñoz, a medical doctor who not only was a radio announcer for the APPO, but also worked in support of the grassroots medical clinics set up by teachers and APPO in Oaxaca. She went into hiding on November 28, 2006 when the PFP rounded up and imprisoned large numbers of APPO and Local 22 activists. In an interview with the International Civil Commission of Human Rights Observation (CCIODH) in January of 2007, she demanded that the government guarantee her safety and that of her family, “because I haven’t committed any crime; I haven’t killed anyone, I haven’t stolen or kidnapped. How is it possible that, for simply having expressed my ideas, I have a death threat over my head and those of my children? Are they really that afraid of words?” (referring to her role as a radio announcer) (Olivares Alonso 2007).

Women also organized branches of the APPO in other parts of the state. For example, in October of 2006, Mixtec and Triqui women active in the Women’s Regional Council of the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations (FIOB) helped to found a regional branch of the APPO in Juxtlahuaca. There women from the Women’s Regional Council built and defended barricades, occupied the city hall, and marched around the city defiantly demanding the end of local and state governments controlled by the PRI. According to FIOB organizer Centolia Maldonado, “the women from the indigenous communities were the bravest. They were not afraid of people shouting at them or of confrontation like some of the women from the town of Juxtlahuaca. They held their ground and were very brave.”

After their occupation of the state television and radio stations on August 1, women affiliated with Local 22 and the APPO formed the Coordinadora de Mujeres de Oaxaca, Primero de Agosto (COMO). They left Oaxaca to march in Mexico City, returned to the streets of Oaxaca, and when paramilitaries shot out the transmission tower of Radio Cacerola, they participated in the takeover of another radio station known as La Ley or “The Law” which they transformed into La Ley del Pueblo, The Law of the People. Throughout September, October, and November, women from COMO and in the APPO were active participants in occupying state government buildings and radio stations, and in staffing hundreds of home-made barricades throughout the city constructed to prevent paramilitary forces and undercover state police in convoys of pick-up trucks from entering neighborhoods and terrorizing people.

From June 14 through December 10, 2006, the social conflict in Oaxaca resulted in 17 deaths, 450 prisoners, almost thirty people who are disappeared, and many who have been wounded (Consorcio para el Dialogo Parlamentario y la Equidad Oaxaca A.C. et al 2006: 7). From November 25 through December 4, at least 192 people were taken prisoner in roundups by the PFP, primarily in Oaxaca City. There were 46 women prisoners among those detained. Prior to these dates other women had been detained as well. Many of the women who were detained and sent to a men’s medium security prison hundreds of miles away in the state of Nayarit were threatened with rape and in some cases have testified that they were sexually assaulted. The threat of rape has been a consistent part of the message women receive to discourage them from their activism. There are also accusations from young male prisoners that they were sexually assaulted by the PFP as they were transferred from the Tepic airport to a prison in the state of Nayarit. Patricia Jiménez Aragón, one of the founders of COMO and a delegate of the founding Congress of the APPO, relates the kinds of threats she has received for her activism. Her words also capture the determination of the thousands of Oaxacan women involved in the APPO movement who continue to be the leading edge of change in southern Mexico.

They tell us they are going to rape us, that they are going to kill our children, that they are going to rob our houses. We have been living with this fear for five months, that they are going to kill us, thinking about the worst that can happen. We are living a life that is totally different from the life we had before the 14th of June and for many women, before the first of August. We don’t live in our houses any more, we don’t go out to have fun, and we don’t see our children. This social movement has changed our lives.

Women’s participation in the social rebellion in Oaxaca is still unfolding with much more to come as the APPO continues in its struggle to change political and economic relations of power and as state elections are set for August of 2007.


Oaxacan women’s takeover of the state TV and Radio station on August 1 provided a lifeline to the APPO in its daily organizing activities as well as literally giving a voice to thousands of Oaxacans. The women of Radio Cacerola as well as many of the other Oaxacans who joined in supporting APPO and the teachers have been forever changed by their experiences during 2006. The opening up of spaces like Radio Cacerola and Radio Universidad and the entry of thousands in a new public discourse of democracy and inclusion has left many with a new-found sense of respect, of “having rights” and of being “someone” who has the right to speak and be listened to. For women like Fidelia, giving those who are brown, fat, short, poor, and female (her words) a public voice, a place in state politics, and a legitimate presence in terms of who the city and the state belong to, has been a transforming experience. It has not, however, come out of nowhere.

The strong presence of women in the APPO movement can be linked directly to the majority of women within the CNTE and their individual and collective experience in working as activists in the communities they have lived and taught in as well as within the democratic teachers’ confederation they belong to. Many have complained of sexism and exclusion from leadership positions within the union, but have still continued to work within the CNTE for achieving wider democracy in their union, within the schools and communities they work in, and within the country. Some leaders also have experience in feminist movements that have sprung up in Oaxaca within the past two decades. Certainly the strong endorsement not only of women’s rights but even of gay rights within the documents produced by the National Forum on “Constructing Democracy and Governability in Oaxaca” that took place in August, 2006 indicate the strong presence of women within the APPO and the CNTE who are committed to gender equity as well as other kinds of human and social rights.

Education has always been a female arena, and the strong presence of women in the teachers’ union and in the APPO could be seen to follow traditional lines of political participation for women. What makes women’s participation in the APPO different, however, is that they have stepped straight into public arenas that are not identified with women. Working to remove a governor from power, running barricades and neighborhood committees, taking over radio and TV stations and then defending them on security duty –- these are not traditional “female” tasks. What was striking –- both to participants and to observers –- was the number of women who were involved and who acted in coordination creating a very strong female, public political presence that severely challenged the Oaxacan political elite. This presence of “the short, the fat, and the brown” was evident not only in the public spaces in the center of the city but also on television and on the radio. The brief yet intense period of cultural production in the media that women from Local 22 and the APPO participated in has no doubt changed popular and elite ideas about who the citizens of Oaxaca are, what they look like, and what they have to say. The story of women in the Oaxaca social rebellion is an ongoing one that will surely have many more chapters unfolding.

At a larger level, the ways in which women activists in the APPO and in Local 22 presented themselves and their demands suggests that their organizing is consistent with other hybrid contemporary social movements that combine the strategic demands of achieving women’s equality with the practical demands of access to food, healthcare, housing, democratic representation, respect and simply the right to speak in public. There is a wide range of women with varying experiences within the APPO, from teachers who are long-standing activists to working- and middle-class housewives who stepped into the streets for the first time. While their reasons for and experiences in participation are no doubt far from uniform, the strong presence of women and their ongoing commitment to the movement suggests that it has struck a major chord with the kinds of rights and struggles many women identify with in contemporary Oaxaca.


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