A Rainbow in the Midst of a Hurricane: Alternative Media and the Popular Struggle in Oaxaca, Mexico

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"Alternative Media" has meant A different things to me since I was first introduced to it in the New York Newsreel Film Collective of the 1970s. Back in the day it was a way to scream, to vent in opposition to the political policies of my government (the United States) in Guatemala, Vietnam, and Puerto Rico. Then came the birth of public access television where the means of production were turned over to everyday people concerned with community issues. As a result of this development a new generation of media makers, learning how to produce talk shows and activate needed debate, was born. With the evolution of small format video (hi 8, mini DV), alternative media found its mission within grassroots movements, sometimes incorporating a personal voice. Today it has new potential powers with broad visibility through theatrical distribution, web streaming, and You Tube.

Throughout all these stages alternative media has had a dramatic impact on teaching in the classroom. At the same time people were able to see video work with radical content in church basements, living rooms, temples, community centers, town squares, and home computers, expanding the notion of education and taking it beyond the classroom.

During the summer of 2006 in Oaxaca, Mexico, I witnessed alternative media become an integral part of a social justice movement even to the point of taking over the dominant media structures.

"When the social movement in Oaxaca became more intense I felt compelled to go there. I had been following the news daily. I borrowed money, a video camera and a cell phone, and took my tape recorder to document the actions and give voice to the movement."

Benjamin Alonso, Media Activist, Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico

The Democratic Uprising of Oaxaca

What began as a teachers' strike in Oaxaca, Mexico, in May 2006, erupted into a massive movement for profound social change on June 14, when police made a surprise attack, using bullets and tear gas to evict the strikers and their families from the city's historic center. The police attack backfired as public anger and outrage over the repression transformed the teachers' strike into an unprecedented democratic insurgency demanding the resignation of the governor and the creation of a new state constitution.

With sixteen indigenous languages, Oaxaca has the largest Indian population of any Mexican state. Over the past two decades the Zapotecos, Mixtecos, Mixes, Triquis, Huaves, and others have created hundreds of human rights, cultural advocacy, ecological, women's, and political organizations. The capital city, Oaxaca, is a longtime tourist destination known for its food, art, music, and warmth. At the same time, Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the privatization of public services like health care have made Oaxaca's poverty worse. The sale of communal lands and lands permanently deeded for farming (Ejidos), water rights, forests, beaches, and other resources to multinational corporations is now common. NAFTA also required the elimination of programs that small farmers had relied on for low-interest loans and subsidies for seeds, fuel, and fertilizer. Today, after thirteen years of NAFTA, the number of farmers in Oaxaca has decreased by as much as one-third.

Thus, the teachers' strike--which raised issues of resources for students, teachers' wages and the threat of privatized education--resonated for most of the people of Oaxaca. Immediately following the attack on the strikers, hundreds of labor unions, community-based associations, women's groups, indigenous federations, left-wing political formations, student groups, peasant and professional organizations, human rights groups, media and artist collectives came together and created APPO--The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO). APPO coordinated a massive campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience that soon brought the state government to a standstill. …