There is a picture of me that was taken almost a decade ago in Oaxaca, Mexico, where I am smiling in a splash of sunlight, in a moment that felt like the beginning of something. I am twenty-one years old when my sister invites me to leave New York and vacation with her for a month in the summer. Of course I want to, I tell her. But I am a student whose walls are made of books about cultural and political matters and soon after I say yes to my sister, I thumb Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place and find, “A tourist is an ugly human being,” and feel the stump of guilt.
Oaxaca is a city with buildings painted cobalt blue and coral orange, where children throw long balloons at the sky, mangy dogs roam the streets without acknowledging stop signs, and mangos and avocados are sold in crowded markets by the bucket. A city meant for the magic hour: that time of day when the sun drips toward the horizon and even the dust starts to gleam, people stroll along the cobblestoned streets and laugh when the bus is late, shawls are swept over shoulders while dresses are pulled up to show the gold tint of knees, couples now ready to touch each other’s hands. The whole city seems to exhale all at once, or maybe that was just what I did when I arrived.
A couple of weeks before visiting Oaxaca, I heard news. Every year, since 1981, teachers throughout Oaxaca strike for increased budgets by camping in the city’s center square as a form of peaceful protest, but this year, the governor sent in police and helicopters to evict the teachers. Rumors about protesters being killed or injured by police circulate, and a New York demonstration is organized in solidarity with the teachers.
Although I wasn’t able to properly pronounce the state a few months ago, now I am attending a protest in support of its teachers. I whoop along to the chants and bounce a hand-written sign in the air as I trudge in slow circles with the protesters. My friend Brad shows up, late as usual, with one eye already looking through a camera. He is older than me, in his mid-30s, an anarchist with enthusiastic gesticulations, eyebrows that are often raised with a question or a flirtation, and an anger at authority that is ancient in a way I don’t yet understand. Months before, Brad and I sat in a hot warehouse full of dusty bicycles on West 36th street in New York, picking at soggy fruit-salad, making plans for a protest at Victoria’s Secret, which was chopping down the Boreal Forest in Canada for its catalogs. A week later, Brad and I held a banner at the protest together and soon after that, the campaign won: Victoria’s Secret agreed to use recycled paper. I am learning that winning is possible.
As we march in the small circle, I watch Brad with his camera. It appears so much more useful than the flimsy sign in my hand. Perhaps my vacation offers an opportunity: I can do more than just be an ugly tourist. I’ll document the movement, I decide.
On our first day in Oaxaca, my sister and I walk to the center square, the zocalo, which is being called a plantón, an encampment, as people have come from throughout the state to inhabit the already-bustling public area. The teachers’ strike has grown to a social movement to oust the governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. Banks and hotels in the plantón are closed, covered in graffiti, with recent cracks in their windows. Tents and tarps hang by a spiderweb of strings and people sleep on cardboard. Business as usual has stopped, and in its place is a new kind of busyness. Vendors who once sold bootlegged videos of Mexican movies are now selling videos of the June 14th attack, playing it over and over on tiny televisions. I watch blurry footage of a helicopter spinning its propeller in the clouds, smoke erupting in the streets, people scattering, a woman’s face opening in a scream. I don’t buy the video but I pick up a sign that says in English, “Sorry tourist, we are busy making history. When Ulises is gone, we will welcome you back with open arms,” and I bring it back to the apartment my sister has rented and tape it defiantly to the wall.
I have a friend whose high school history teacher was also a dancer and so he explained revolution by breaking the word down to revolve, as in orbit or turn, and demonstrated this by spinning slowly in front of the class, saying, “See? you end up where you began.” I had been told this story about the dancing history teacher so many times that as I walked around the plantón, watching the teachers shake each other’s hands, the Indigenous women slicing the air with runaway laughs, the students opening their notebooks for one another, the idea of democracy swirling, surging like wind, I thought yes, of course this is a kind of dance. No wonder it is a called a movement.
The protesters have a radio station, Radio Plantón, which broadcasts day and night with updates, interviews, and analysis about the movement. We play it in the kitchen as we slice jicama and get mango-slop on our hands, and through my sister’s translations I learn that an organization has been formed: APPO, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca. During APPO meetings, representatives listen to each other, despite conflicting political perspectives, in an attempt at true democracy. In the afternoons when my sister isn’t there, I still gorge on fruit and nod my head to the fervor of the voices on the radio, even when I don’t fully understand the words.
Barricades surround the plantón, made of piles of bricks, rocks, sheets of metal. One day, I walk past a desk that has been hauled into the middle of the street to block an intersection and think, what a symbol: a desk being used for revolution. I do not think about what the barricades are trying to keep out.
The summer before I visited Oaxaca, I drove across the country and stopped at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial is close to the church where Dr. King was pastor during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and to the capitol steps where, in 1965, the voting rights march ended. For the exhausted marchers from Selma whose flags never ceased to wave, Montgomery was a destination. For me, it offered a place to pee, a respite from the road. Designed by Maya Lin to honor 41 people who died–who were killed– in the civil rights movement, the memorial is a fountain where water trickles over Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s engraved words: “[we will not be satisfied] until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” My hands lingered on the cold granite of the fountain and traced the hollow of the names. Water flowed into the crevices, over my fingers, then gushed away. I closed my eyes to imagine that mighty stream.
Because the language barrier and my self-awareness as an outsider makes me uncomfortable photographing people, I begin to photograph the infrastructure of the movement: the makeshift barricades, the tarps that match the sky, the tables of free literature, the runny stencils, the graffiti that says rise up campesino, the banner that says, occupy and liberate spaces. One day, men are painting over Viva La Lucha Popular with long strokes of white, hired by some landlord who is not in the business of revolution. The next morning, as if in response, there is fresh graffiti. When I photograph it, I flash my I’m-just-a-tourist smile. But soon after that, I pass some graffiti that says, “tourista, go home.” I pause to take a picture and then stand there instead, reading it over and over. I snap a photo and walk away.
As I meander the streets one evening, I stumble upon a documentary being projected onto a dirty sheet, while people sit on the ground, dappled in its light. This is what can happen when you take over your city, I think, you can watch movies in the streets. A man hiding under his hoodie approaches me shyly, cómo estás? and listens to me blunder in Spanish for a few minutes before he admits that he speaks English, is American, white like me. I search his face, where he has a tattoo of a kind of spiral, and then below the shadow of his hoodie, I search his eyes. He tells me that he has been working with one of the local organizations for the past few months, tells me he uses the dirty sheet to sleep with at night if it gets cold. His voice is soft, maybe his lips are, too. This must be what revolution feels like, I think, as I sense what is possible.
I sign up for Spanish classes, and in class, I learn that the word esperar means both to wait for and to hope. Espero, I practice outloud, espero. I realize that this is what people in the social movement are doing: they are waiting, they are hoping.
One day, I come across a black-and-white copy of a photograph wheat-pasted on a wall. I squint at it and then realize that it’s the protest in New York at the Mexican Consulate, the one that Brad and I attended, stuck to this public wall as a kind of proof of solidarity. It’s grey and splotchy and I can’t find our faces in the crowd; perhaps it was shot before we had even arrived, but somehow I feel that we are in it. This is what photographs do: they hold memories that are much larger than what is contained within their frames. They communicate despite borders, language, time; and then they stay the same even when everything changes.
Five years later, the Occupy Wall Street movement will start in New York and I will hear about it from the farm where I’m living in upstate New York, the farm I moved to because on a later trip I took to Oaxaca, a farmer, crouched in a bed of squash and corn, looked up at me, saying, “Why are you here, why not return to the land you’re from and plant seeds?” I was harvesting my carrots from under the snow when I heard about Occupy, and I wondered: are they learning from Oaxaca, do they understand that what happened there was not an occupation, but a reclamation? Do they know what is possible?
I invite the man with the tattoo on his face to the little apartment where my sister and I are staying. We walk the cobblestoned streets, past men in shadows making bottle rockets, to the warm roof under the smear of stars, our bodies close and curious. On his shoulder is a tattoo of Ferdinand the bull from the children’s book about the bull who wants to smell flowers instead of battle in bullfights. The book, banned during the Spanish Civil war, later became Gandhi’s favorite book. Do revolutionaries make better lovers? I wonder as I follow the tattoo with my fingers. I kiss him to find out.
The day before I leave Oaxaca, the women march. Old and young, Indigenous or Mexican or some combination; women who have maybe never protested before; teachers, grandmothers, housewives, students; middle-class in business-casual or in straw hats and from the country; hundreds crowd the square, some wearing traditional aprons except written on them is fuera Ulises, meaning, kick out the governor. The women raise pots and pans in the air, clang and bang on them with metal spoons, stomping their feet, accessing a passion that seems five hundred years old. I take photos that are incomplete because they are silent. When it starts to rain, the banging just gets stronger, the stomping louder, the air thicker with love.
I later learn the women went to the radio and television stations that day; they said we are taking over this station, we are going to tell our real stories. The security guards frowned. We are the women, they said, let us through. The security guards dropped their eyes and their guns and moved aside. The women collected the microphones and went in front of the cameras. We are the women, they began, we are here to tell our stories. They are winning, I felt then. It is happening.
I return to my room of books in New York with photographs, footage, a nostalgia for a place that is not my home. I tell everyone about the revolution that is going on in southern Mexico. Nobody seems to care.
Weeks go by and then I receive a mass e-mail from Brad, my anarchist friend whose camera had inspired me to bring out my own. When I hear he’s in Oaxaca, something inside of me leaps. Maybe he too will understand. I e-mail the man with the tattoo on his face. When he writes me back from Oaxaca with the subject “heartland”, I’m not sure if he is referring to his heart or to the Oaxacan land. The concepts feel inseparable to me now.
My sister, the tourist, leaves a couple of weeks after I do, but before she departs, she brings the protesters her bags of uneaten food: cans of beans, oil, a bag of masa. In that simple act, she offered more support than anything I had thought to give.
One night in late October, I receive a phone call. Did you hear what happened to Brad? a friend asks. No, I say, but the mention of his name allows me to conjure him in the streets of Oaxaca and I wonder what time it is there, if the blur of stars is out or if the sun is still crossing the clear sky. There is a pause on the phone. He was shot, my friend says. The night shakes; it becomes jolted, jarring, as if I’m holding a camera. I walk to the bookstore where Brad’s friends are gathered for an emergency meeting. Brad had been filming near a barricade in Oaxaca when he was shot by government paramilitaries. He died? someone asks. He was killed, someone clarifies. My hand moves to cover my mouth. It stays there all night. The territory of what is possible expands. I’m swallowed up by it.
News spreads and I return to the Mexican consulate for another protest. We do not march in a circle or whoop; there isn’t time to make signs. Someone locks herself to the door of the consulate, someone lies down in the street, someone ties a banner to a lamp-post. A fast choreography of anger. My hand is not covering my mouth anymore because I have started to scream. Everyone is screaming by now.
Photographs of Brad are suddenly everywhere: there he is, dancing at a party without his shirt on, his fingers and toes pointed in opposite directions, as if he wants to occupy all the space of the frame; there he is, in Oaxaca, transfixed with a scowl of thought, gesticulating in front of the corner where I first met the man with the tattoo; there he is, again in Oaxaca, but lying on the ground this time, a red bullet-hole beating at the center of his chest. This is revolution, I learn, it is a thing that can destroy me. To the world, his death becomes a brief international headline; to his friends, his death is the world. The Mexican government blames his death on the protesters and uses it as an excuse to send in the army to descend on the plantón and force out the protesters. It is the opposite of what Brad would have wanted.
I e-mail the man with the tattoo on his face and ask if he met Brad. He writes back, saying he needs help. He has received death threats and believes that Brad had footage of the undercover police who threatened him. I offer him the contacts I have, close the laptop, slump at my desk. I think of that other desk, the one at that futile barricade that I walked by, and wish I could return there to sit and draft letters: to the man with the tattoo on his face, to Brad, to Oaxaca. I could write about that stream that Dr. King believed in, how it can spread into a river, flow down those Mexican streets, or I could write about the cascading sound of pots and pans being hit by women’s hands, or I could dream of sitting at that desk with my sharpened pencil, floating into the clouds, leaving all the bloodshed behind me, on the ground.
I did not end up where I began. All loss is political in a way because it moves you, rattles you up, leave you disoriented; but the process of mourning a political death forces an inconclusive question: how is one supposed to respond?
What is it that makes us political? Not political in a voting, political-party way, but the kind of political that we become out of the rage of haunting need, the thing that beats farther down in us than any theory, as committed as the ink on the face of the man I briefly loved, when revolution is not a vacation, but the place we reside.
To the people of Oaxaca, the movement wasn’t just the slather of stencils and graffiti on walls, movie screenings on dirty sheets, kisses on warm rooftops, the banging of pots and pans through falling rain. It wasn’t just revolution in its romanticized form. It was what comes before revolution: it was injustice, impunity, oppression, death. It was what the video of the June 14th attack was about, it was what the street art was about, it was what the barricades were meant to protect against but what they failed to protect against because rocks and sheets of metal and desks will always fail to protect against death. I was surrounded by it the whole time but never did I realize that it could actually become real. By which I mean, real for me.
These days, I’m thinking of Black Lives Matter, this new movement that exists in response to death. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, and Sandra Bland are only names to me, they are not friends or the people I bump into sometimes on the streets; their deaths remain abstractions.
Each day in Oaxaca, while my sister went to restaurants and museums, I went to the plantón, but in many ways, our motives were not that different. We were voyeurs. Oaxaca was not just a place I traveled to, but an idea. I was a tourist of revolution. I think again of Jamaica Kincaid but imagine replacing the word native with revolutionary:
Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives—most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere.
It was a privilege to be able to visit, then leave Oaxaca; it is a privilege to be able to visit the idea of Black Lives Matter and then leave. What would it mean to stay?
At this year’s May Day march, people chant about workers, immigrants, police brutality, the complicated intersections between them. Some carry signs that simply say 43, referring to the missing Mexican students from Ayotzinapa. They’re called missing instead of killed. I’m taking pictures when I see him. He’s back, raising his eyebrows behind his camera, moving fast, alive, he’s been alive this whole time. Brad, I want to shout, but he disappears into the crowd. Then I remember he’s gone.
At least 17 people, including Brad, were killed by the time the last tarp was ripped down in the 2006 movement. Oaxaca continues to face human rights violations, repression, and impunity. The man with the tattoo on his face and I haven’t spoken in years; I hope he’s okay, by which I mean, alive.
What I have are my photographs. There are many images of the barricades, a few of the tents standing bright against the grey clouds, one of the tourista, go home graffiti. There are some of the streets lit up at the magic hour. There is one of a woman with grey hair lifting a pot in the air, close to her wrinkled face, with a look that says she knows everything about the world, just go ahead and ask. I look back at the picture of myself, where it seems I was not quite sure if I was waiting for something or hoping for something, but I am smiling. I knew nothing about the world. What a beautiful, fleeting, moment in time.
Harmony Hazard is an MFA candidate in Stony Brook Southampton’s Creative Writing and Literature program. She hails from Tucson and New York, edits the “Participate” column in Make/shift magazine, and has been published in CALYX.