In July 2007, I was in the politically radical and majority-indigenous town of Oaxaca as it celebrated the annual Guelaguetza Festival, with a twist. People of all ages thronged the central square, or Zócalo, wearing brightly colored costumes, dancing and processing through the streets. This, however, was the Guelaguetza Popular, an unofficial version of the festival organized by the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, the organizational heart of the popular movement that had run the governor and police out of town for four months the prior year. Preteens in shiny fabric and golden plastic tiaras sat next to brightly illuminated saints on streets decked with oversized graffiti murals. Unionized teachers continued their year-long vigil on the square as a multilevel pyrotechnic display in the form of a tower spewed sparks in a whirling spiral of light that alternated with the initials of their union.
Early the next morning, thousands of traditionally dressed dancers, some wearing devilish masks, others carrying baskets of flowers on their heads, ascended the town’s streets towards the municipal stadium custom-built for this occasion. Where the city thins out and the road uphill begins in earnest, the state government drew a line with hundreds of police in riot gear. An animated elder woman came to the front of the crowd yelling for the cops to let the march advance. And they were chanting, “Avanzar [advance], avanzar, Guelaguetza Popular.” Then, as I watched from a few feet away, the state police opened fire with rubber bullets, tear gas, and other projectiles on the crowd.
As the protesters fell back, they re-formed, reordered themselves, and repurposed themselves for open confrontation. I saw elder men breaking up the pavement and the sidewalks into fragments, I saw women and children ferrying those stones to the front, and the youngest and angriest adults lobbing them at the police. In just five minutes, a crowd of celebrants had become a regiment of unarmed combatants. Most of the dancers must have gradually descended the hill, where hours later they performed in the jam-packed Plaza de la Danza, their audience overflowing the venue, even as the street battle raged for hours and rumors of arbitrary arrests circulated in the town. Perhaps festivals have always been charged with the energy of everyday people living cheek-by-jowl with elites, and the tensions between them. More than a few have exploded into moments of rebellion, but few so colorfully or concertedly as those grounded in Oaxaca’s traditions of indigenous survival and rebellion.
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Carwil Bjork-James is the author of “The Sovereign Street: Making Revolution in Urban Bolivia.” Based at Vanderbilt University, he is an ethnographer of indigenous movements, environmental struggles, and disruptive protest.
Hisham Akira Bharoocha Illustrator
Hisham Akira Bharoocha is a multimedia artist based in Brooklyn, New York, working across various mediums including large-scale murals, paintings, drawings, collages, audio/visual installations, and performances.