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Oaxaca calls upon its artists

Racked by unrest, the Mexican city turns to its heart and soul to regain equilibrium -- and tourists.

December 29, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Oaxaca, Mexico — ROWS of poinsettias are rising along the zocalo, where police and protesters recently brawled. Fresh coats of paint are being slapped on buildings to cover up angry graffiti.

Even though the barricades have been removed and the blood has been mopped from the streets, this colonial-era city is struggling to recover from a violent spasm that scarred its buildings, traumatized its citizens and left as many as a dozen people dead over a seven-month span.

"It's a tense calm," said Francisco Toledo, the Zapotec Indian considered by many to be Mexico's greatest living graphic artist.

Oaxaca is now counting on perhaps its most precious resource to help lead the city's comeback: its world-renowned artists and artisans, with Toledo at the forefront, and its global reputation for exuberant creativity.

Just a few weeks ago, central Oaxaca was a combat zone. Thousands of public school teachers who'd been on strike since May, and their allies, were battling federal police and supporters of Oaxaca's autocratic state Gov. Ulises Ruiz. Concrete chunks and sheet metal blocked the streets. Spray-painted slogans covered large swaths of the city's baroque churches and government offices.

Though federal police finally retook control of the city of 260,000, the political dispute is far from settled. Possibly as many as 100 demonstrators remain under custody. Human rights groups charge that some detainees have been tortured and "disappeared." Demonstrators around the world have called for Ruiz to resign.

Toledo, a Oaxaca state native, characteristically has been near the center of efforts to resolve the crisis. Though the artist always has insisted that his mystical, folkloric-modernist images of rabbits, lizards and other creatures don't contain political subtexts, he is continually lending himself to social causes.

Born in southern Oaxaca state in 1940, Toledo has profoundly influenced local culture and politics both through his art and as one of the leaders of the non-governmental agency PROOAX (Council for the Defense and Conservation of the Cultural and Natural Patrimony of the State of Oaxaca). Four years ago, Toledo and PROOAX blocked McDonald's from plunking down a set of its golden arches in Oaxaca's venerable zocalo, or central public square.

During the height of the recent protests, the Institute of Graphic Arts of Oaxaca, which Toledo founded and leads, served as a temporary aid center for the injured. Doctors were on call to provide treatment to the wounded. "Never have we had so many visits," said Toledo, with a touch of irony.

A longtime advocate of indigenous people's rights, Toledo is now involved with a group that's raising money to provide legal counsel to incarcerated protesters. He also hopes to gain attention for "citizen proposals" to combat the poverty and other social problems that have bedeviled Oaxaca for centuries.

"If this government doesn't hear them, what happened is going to recur again and again," he said in an interview in the institute's stately, tree-lined courtyard. "It's very important ... to create a consciousness among the citizens, the business managers, the church and the politicians that it's time to change."

As the political process stumbles forward, many Oaxacans have been busily restoring their battered city. In the zocalo, the profusion of poinsettias, many donated by ordinary Oaxacans, temporarily fills the gaps left by plants uprooted from public flowerbeds during the demonstrations and police crackdown.

Carlos E. Melgoza Castillo, director general of the Institute of Cultural Patrimony for Oaxaca state, said that building repairs have been complicated by the varied types of materials that were damaged. But he said none of the damages would be "permanent."

Funds for the city's recovery are flowing in from the foundation of wealthy Oaxaca businessman-philanthropist Alfredo Harp Helu, who helped PROOAX revitalize historic Santo Domingo church as a cultural center and keep it from being converted into a hotel in the mid-1990s. The federal National Institute of Anthropology and History has been overseeing much of the reconstruction.

"The greatest damage isn't in the monuments," Melgoza Castillo said. "It's the very bad example that children and young people received over six months, that the way to show your disagreement with someone is to paint on the walls. This is much harder than to restore monuments or walls, to restore the conscience of the new generation."

Though state police in full body armor remain posted near the center, many parts of the city have reverted to their usual rhythms, and a major charm offensive is underway to convince outsiders that things are back to normal, more or less.

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