In May of 2007, I interviewed the presidente municipal of Los Arboles, Oaxaca.1 We were sitting in the municipal palace at the center of the community. The town’s plaza was immediately in front of us as was the village church, other community buildings, a small gazebo where the town’s band plays, and a few businesses. The plaza in Los Arboles shows the signs of success that the community has seen over the last few years. It is green and cool, full of flowers and plantings, and even has a working fountain.

These are not improvements funded solely through the success of migrants living in the United States (a story typical in rural communities throughout Mexico); rather, these improvements come from money invested in the town by successful artisans as well as those migrants who feel an obligation to their town.

Los Arboles artisans have made fortunes supplying goods to exporters and gallery owners throughout Oaxaca City, other cities in Mexico, and the United States. In fact, the success of craftsmen and women in Los Arboles limited the migrations of those very same artisans through the 1990s and into the first years of this century.

Spreading around the plaza and in all directions is the town of Los Arboles proper and the town’s farmlands. It is a community of about 3,000 people located about 40 minutes from Oaxaca City. Los Arboles is just off the main highway to Oaxaca City and on most days, particularly weekends, there is a lot of traffic moving between the town and city. Tourist buses filled with North Americans and Europeans usually line the central square and the townsfolk make their living selling crafts directly to visitors, buyers, and exporters. But on this afternoon in May, 2007, things were quite different. There were no tourists; I quickly learned that the town had not seen tourists for several weeks and business had been bad for months.

The presidente and his advisers sat with me, my assistants, and the village’s secretary, taking time out of their busy schedules to talk about current events in Oaxaca and the state of their village. The municipal palace, a place that sounds fancier than it really is, is a small office, painted in drab institutional colors and dominated by the fake wood of an institutional desk behind which the presidente sat. The room was a little stuffy as it soaked up the heat and humidity of the start of the rainy season, but it was the center of community politics and it was filled with the paraphernalia of state power. Over the presidente’s desk hung a large portrait of Mexico’s newly elected president, Felipe Calderon. To the side there was a case with a beautifully draped Mexican flag and the presidente’s staff of office. Piles of paperwork filled the room and as we talked the town secretary typed form after form that requested resources for the community and dealt with petty squabbles amongst villagers.

Like any good anthropologist, I had a series of questions planned to probe the presidente and encourage the presidente to talk about events in Oaxaca City. Surprisingly, I didn’t have to ask much to get the presidente to talk about civil unrest. I quickly did away with my questions, and let the presidente speak, probing from time to time and asking directly for his opinions on the strikes. It didn’t take long for the presidente to complain about the state of affairs in the central valleys.

"The teachers have ruined everything," he said, and everyone sitting around the room (perhaps 10 men in all) nodded their head in agreement. He went on, "The teachers really started something, something we cannot stop, but something that has really hurt us. Our kids cannot go to school, but worse, there is no work! Look around, in a regular week, everyone is working, and we are selling thousands of pesos worth of goods. Thousands! Now, we’re not selling anything. There are no tourists and no one to sell to. We can’t even export! Everyone is afraid. Tourists are afraid to come to our town, producers are afraid to leave town to meet their exporters in the city, and the exporters are afraid that the strike will block any chance to fill an order! There isn’t much we can do. We just want everything to go back the way it was."

Intrigued by this response, I asked the presidente, "Who was causing the greatest problems for the villagers? Was it the strikers and teachers, APPO (Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca—or Popular Assembly of Peoples of Oaxaca), or the governor?" He did not hesitate in his response, and quickly mentioned that the teachers and APPO were really making things difficult.

In fact, he and his advisers recounted a stand-off that took place between teachers and villagers in response to the use of locally trained villagers to teach in place of strikers. The teachers organized a demonstration and according to villagers, threatened to violently disrupt the community. A stand-off ensued between teachers and villagers that ended when the villagers declared they would not pay local citizens to teach their children. "But we were together, we are a strong pueblo, and the teachers really learned not to mess with us!"

Nevertheless, the damage was done and several villagers said that they did not understand the goals of the teachers. Furthermore, from several local leaders we heard, "The teachers are the best paid people around! We work all day with our hands and backs, do we get paid? NO, so why do they complain." Obviously there was a disconnect between the goals of the teachers and APPO and the people of Los Arboles.

"What about the governor?" I continued. The presidente’s response was extremely critical of the governor. He declared the governor "an ineffectual leader and perhaps a thief." The critical quality of his responses, whether in regards to the teacher’s union officials, APPO, or the governor was something I heard wherever I went, not just in Los Arboles, but in Vista del Rio and La Milpa, the two other communities I visited for this project. "The governor is dangerous," people said. "He is a crooked politician who cannot be trusted and will not defend the rights of local people," they would say as they described the governor as unable to control the situation. He has lost credibility in the estimations of rural folk because he cannot in any way respond to what is happening in Oaxaca.

The events following the strikes had a profound effect on the local economy: tourism was down, exports were disappearing, and even local wage workers were getting laid off (and much of the criticism I heard focused on these negative outcomes). Perhaps most distressing, the declines in the local economy were forcing people to leave for the United States, adding to the growing debate on the meaning and role of U.S.-bound migration (Martiñez González and Valle Baeza 2007).

Nevertheless, I thought that local leaders would support the teachers, APPO, and the struggle to bring greater political freedoms to Oaxacans (see Arenal 2007; Stephen 2007; Yakira 2007). The grassroots support I thought I would find was not overwhelming. In fact, it became clear that there was a real and palpable disconnect between events in the city and life in rural Oaxaca.

Through the remainder of this paper, I will explore what these impacts meant and mean for rural folk and for our study of migration.

Context of the Teacher Strike

Civil unrest in Oaxaca was rooted in the annual teachers’ strike that began on May 1, 2006. The striking teachers were making their regular demands for higher wages and better benefits. The teachers on strike came from section 22 of the SNTE (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores Educativos—or the local teacher’s union). It is critical to understand that these teachers were among the lowest paid educators in the nation.

They demanded several things from the governor and his administration including improvements to state infrastructure, more teaching positions and materials to support teachers, and the creation of scholarship and breakfast programs to support primary education throughout the state. Economically, the teachers asked, as they always did, for a raise and the institution of a salary scale that would allow them to recover some of the economic losses that had followed Mexico’s financial crises of the 1980s and 90s.

The governor refused to meet any of the strikers’ demands. There is an assumption that this was a unique event. In reality, such crises have come to Oaxaca over and over again (Waterbury 2007). However, the big difference in 2006 was the intransigence of the governor in his dealing with the strikers and the ways in which the confrontation escalated and quickly became violent.

Typically in the past, the governor and state government have responded to the teachers by meeting a small part of their demands. In years of real crises, when the governor and teachers came to an impasse that could not be resolved, the federal government stepped in and removed the governor to a new position. Once a new governor is in place the federal government works with both teachers and the state to settle the affair, giving teachers some of what they want in the process to facilitate a return to the status quo.

This confrontation between the governor and the teachers was different. National level politics were clearly a part of what was going on—but a national politics that was not interested in defusing the conflict as might have happened in the past. A friend, who I cannot identify, but who is connected to both PRIistas (Institutional Revolutionary Party) and PANistas (National Action Party) tried his best to explain a bit of what he understood to be going on.

He argued that Oaxaca, and the governor in particular, had become pawns in a struggle between the new and old arms of the PRI. The old arm of the PRI (the arm that controls much of Oaxaca) is the paternalistic PRI of the past that subverts local leaders by buying them off. Corruption and caciquismo (or strong man leadership) run high in the party.

On the other hand, a "new" PRI has emerged that is a more dynamic force promoting neoliberal reforms as a coalition partner with the PAN, the party of President Calderon. Party leaders of both the PAN and PRI saw in the missteps made by the governor a chance to further humiliate him and more importantly, humiliate the "old" PRI. Thus, first President Vicente Fox and later President Calderon simply left Oaxaca alone. In fact, national intervention remained very limited until federal police were dispatched to Oaxaca in December.

With few controls on the governor and no end in site to the strikes the situation quickly morphed and by June had grown to become a large civil rights movement that was centered in the state’s capital. Several demonstrations, the continued occupation of the Zocalo (main square), and three "mega marches" heightened the sense that events might spin out of control. In June, APPO formally organized and began to campaign for the governor’s formal ouster. APPO had strong support within the city and from many human rights groups.

The governor did not respond to APPO or the demands of community leaders. Rather he reacted to the strikers with strong-armed tactics and used the state’s municipal police to forcefully remove demonstrators who were camped in protest in the city’s main square in an effort to secure order. In response, strikers did not leave, and instead, succeeded in moving the police out of the central parts of the city and organizing an even stronger call for the governor’s ouster. Strikers and demonstrators organized new protests, while the governor used plainclothes vigilantes to disrupt protesters and imprison as well as "disappear" movement leaders.

As events continued to spin out of control, the economy of the city ground to a halt. In July, the governor unilaterally cancelled one of the city’s most important cultural events, the Guelaguetza, a cultural pageant of music, dancing, and song that brings performing groups from throughout the state to the city for two Mondays in July to perform on the mountain overlooking the city (thus it is called the Lunes del Cerro—Mondays of the mountain). The event is critical to the city’s economy. Hotels fill, and money flows into the area. There are no other events like the Guelaguetza (a Zapotec term that describes a reciprocal gifting relationship—but now is a large tourist draw) although Christmas and Semana Santa are close seconds. In any case, for the first time in many years (not the first time ever) the Guelaguetza and all of the events that went with it were cancelled.

By the end of the summer of 2006, the city had lost millions of dollars and business was off by 80%. Road blockades, demonstrations, and civil unrest only added to the difficulties. The U.S. State Department had placed a warning on Oaxaca and there were few tourists to be found. Hotels and restaurants closed and thousands of Oaxacans lost their jobs including many rural Oaxacans who came to the city for work from surrounding villages. Through October the situation festered with little real movement. Tense lulls were punctuated by marches, renewed demonstrations, and civil disobedience; and in response acts of violence by governor Ulises Ruiz and his supporters.

Toward the end of October, events grew extremely violent, and several demonstrators were murdered (including Brad Will, a U.S.-based independent journalist). In response to the continued unrest and lack of civil order, President Fox sent federal police to Oaxaca. Nov. 2 these same forces took the city’s University (something that did not work) and in response, APPO redoubled its efforts but also re-emphasized its non-violent roots. A peaceful march on Nov. 25 ended with many people arrested. Tensions continued through December and the arrest of Flavio Sosa, the symbolic leader of APPO, was also a factor.

Through most of 2007, tensions remained high in Oaxaca. Marches were held and protests mounted over the imprisonment of Sosa and others. APPO continued to hold meetings and press for changes, expand its links, and engage with other groups. However, clashes declined, blockades were removed, teachers were in schools, and tourists slowly began to return to the city. May 2007 began with a mega march and renewed protests, but the teachers did not occupy the Zocalo.

Events in the city drove tourists away and put a great burden on the local economy. Unrest led to economic collapse within the city and surrounding valley communities dependent on tourism. Several articles appearing in Noticias and El Imparcial document that the city lost millions of dollars, businesses closed, and workers were laid off. Economic hardship in the city translated to extreme hardship for rural communities—particularly for those communities linked to tourism.

Rural Oaxacans sensed that they existed outside the interests of those leading the strikes. Their criticisms did not condemn APPO. APPO did try to reach rural communities, but they would say that the problems they faced were fundamentally different from those that challenged Oaxacans living in the city. In a sense, the issue was one where rural Oaxacans were concerned with food and jobs. Democracy, civil rights, and a humane pluralistic society were far down on the list of their concerns.

Perhaps the biggest issues facing rural Oaxacans were work and salaries. Communities in the central valleys struggle, as do most rural Oaxacans. Wages have not budged for more than a decade and continue to hover around $10 a day for unskilled labor, and 80% of the rural households in Oaxaca do not earn the minimum wage in the central valleys.2 Along with low wages and a lack of opportunity, rural communities in the central valleys are plagued by a lack of health care, clean water, education, and facilities to support leisure activities.

Rural Oaxacans respond to economic hardship creatively; they don’t simply turn to migration (Cohen 2004). Many remain at home and depend on agriculture and some limited wage work, informal petty commodity production, and informal labor (Cohen 2002). Through the early 1990s, a majority of rural Oaxacans combined local labor, agriculture, and the like to earn a living. Others migrated internally to work opportunities within Mexico. As the nation’s economy cooled and tourism took off, rural Oaxacans went to Cancun to join the service industry there or to farm fields in Baja California, or to service jobs in and around Mexico City or on the border of Mexico and the United States.

The crises of the 1980s and 90s changed the economic landscape. Poverty increased, jobs became harder to find, and the value of the peso dropped dramatically. By the end of the 1990s, what had begun as economic crises became social crises. Throughout rural Oaxaca, families struggled to meet basic needs, to find the money to cover expenses and to survive, and in response, migration increased. An average of 46% of a central valley community’s households included at least one migrant by the year 2000. Nevertheless, Oaxacans are a small (approximately 4% of the total) percentage of the Mexican population living in the United States. (INEGI 2001).

The strikes appear to have added to migration pressures. Opportunities that were marginal at best were further reduced, and of the three communities visited and surveyed in this project, migration appears to have increased in at least two in direct relation to events in the city. In El Arbol and to a lesser degree, Vista del Rio, citizens responded to the economic stagnation created by unrest in the area by leaving for the United States. We found that 50% of the interviewees in El Arbol were convinced that the strikes led directly to increased out-migration and 85% of those interviewed said the strikes were the key reason to migrate. In Vista del Rio only 33% of those people interviewed said the strikes impacted decision making.

The situation was quite different in La Milpa where 16% of individuals we talked to felt the strikes had a direct impact on migration decisions and 14% said it was the most important motivating factor in migration outcomes. La Milpa is a rural, agrarian town and is a little more than one-half hour from Oaxaca. While some locals travel to the city for work and education, the majority is involved in agricultural work within the confines of the village itself or work in a nearby market town. I was surprised to meet several people (of all ages) who had almost no idea of what had transpired in Oaxaca City. One young woman shrugged her shoulders when I asked her about events in the city and said, "Well, you know, I’ve got kids and a lot of pigs! The pigs really keep me busy."

El Arbol was a very different place. In El Arbol, migration spiked following events in the city. Villagers had no doubt who was to blame for the rise in migration. Several said that the events in the city were key elements in the decisions of family members to migrate. They also blamed the economic collapse in the city for the collapse in the craft market. This is probably not quite correct as the market had begun to slow several years earlier. Nevertheless, migration had increased in the community and the question was whether or not the citizens who had left would return.

The strikes and civil unrest do not appear to have changed the pattern of movement although, as I noted above, there is a fear in El Arbol for example that young people are exiting the community. Nevertheless, in La Milpa as well as Vista del Rio, I encountered no change in the migration pattern. Remittances remain critical to the town’s overall survival. The strikes bring up the question: why remain rooted in a town that has little to offer and where opportunities are on a rapid decline? Of course, the answer is that people are leaving, but not "exiting;" rather, they remained embedded in their households, families, and communities.

I believe there are several reasons for this continued connection. First, to leave would consign the migrant’s family to suffering and perhaps even expulsion (a threat in nearly every town, but one that doesn’t seem to be carried out). Second, if a migrant fails to remit, his or her family may find new social and physical challenges to their survival. Finally, migrants are anchored by their attachments. Ties to home, whether real or invented, kin-based, or simply a result of geography, remain critical as migrants negotiate their receiving communities.


Given the outcomes for rural Oaxaca, we must ask, why do these events matter? Of course the events, whether they are large or small, and regardless of the outcome—matter and they are meaningful. The strikes and protests clearly reveal a great deal of unrest and discontent in Oaxaca—and in particular within the city.

The governor was clearly wrong to ignore the calls for justice by his critics. He was also wrong to frame the strikes as a crass grab for money by the teachers. The strikes may have begun over pay (and even then, the issue was more than one of pay), but the movement certainly morphed quickly to become a referendum over the governor, human rights, democracy, living wages, and gender equality. Furthermore, the strikes initiated a dialogue in the city that continues, even if it has grown muted over the last year.

The movement also grew to include more than Oaxaca City, even if it did not effectively engage the countryside. Demonstrators linked with supporters in Mexico City and Los Angeles, California and engaged with the larger criticism of the Calderon administration and debates on human rights in the nation. While the link to larger issues probably helped to elevate the cause of strikers in Oaxaca, the goals of APPO and the teachers were not those of the critics protesting President Calderon’s rule, and national/international calls for reform in Oaxaca had little if any impact on local affairs.

The critics of the government including the teachers and APPO did not reach out to rural Oaxacans who suffered the brunt of the city’s economic collapse, losing jobs and opportunities. Rural Oaxacans never understood the goals of the strikes, and strikers never invested time in telling rural Oaxacans why they had left their jobs. Because of this disconnect, rural Oaxacans never saw events in the city and the moves by SNTE 22 as focused on improving education. Instead they saw teachers and strikers leave their posts, abandon rural communities, and call for higher wages. Most rural Oaxacans felt teachers were growing rich at their expense—and this assumption was only complicated by the fact that teachers were and are among the richest (relatively) people most rural Oaxacans meet.

The lack of involvement by rural communities was not simply an oversight. Rather, there was an expectation among SNTE and APPO leaders that they knew what was best for rural Oaxacans and in return, rural Oaxacans should follow. This was an extremely paternalistic position—but one that is largely common when urban Mexicans deal with their rural counterparts. There is an assumption that the rustic trappings of rural Mexican life—built around milpa, adobe, and traditional social relationships—is largely uniformed in the larger world. Perhaps more to the point, there is an assumption that rural Mexicans and Indians in particular do not have the capacity to truly comprehend "modern" life. Such a position is quite problematic for rural Oaxacans. Two of the presidentes municipales that we interviewed had advanced degrees from ITO, one was a member of SNTE 22 (although he was not able to move his community to support the goals of the strikers), and all had clear ideas concerning the strikes, strikers, governor, and goals.

Speaking with rural Oaxacans it was clear that the majority knew that a crisis had gripped the city; they knew it involved the teachers and they were aware that local human rights advocates were challenging the governor. Nevertheless, most also saw the strikes in terms of the wealthy gaining even more treasure and accomplishing very little for rural communities. A common comment was "why should they [the teachers] get a raise? I don’t earn anything." Thus, even as the strikes mattered, they also emphasized the gulf that existed between urban and rural Mexicans in terms not just geographic, but also in terms of assumption of intelligence, culture, and tradition.

The strikes and unrest were not really about Oaxaca; rather they were about the teachers, and about leaders in the city who expanded the strikes into a larger debate on the governor, democracy, and civil rights. But for rural Oaxacans, often some of the poorest, most marginal people (not naïve or dumb people, but marginal) the strikes really meant very little—except continued hardship.

It is from an appreciation of the hardship that framed these events for rural Oaxacans that we can draw our final conclusions. First, a simple truism, but one that seems lost in debates. Rural Oaxacans are not to blame for their situation. When people in Los Arboles complain about the strikes, criticize the governor, and talk about migrating, it is not an uninformed decision made lightly, nor quickly; rather, they are responding to what for them is an economically painful situation. The local economy has collapsed, and workers are being laid off. This isn’t just about rural folks struggling on their milpas; it is a large crisis that has impacted markets, employment, and in the process, placed local entrepreneurs in a difficult position. Adding to the economic crisis are the school closures that leave children with few if any opportunities to learn, and whatever your opinion of the Mexican educational system, rural Oaxacans in communities like Los Arboles believe that one important route to a better life is through educational success.

In response to this Oaxaca’s ongoing crisis grew. It did not happen overnight; rather, it grew as individual’s struggled to cope with the exigencies and demands of everyday life. The strikes in 2006 and the violence that ensued forced rural Oaxacans to make choices; to leave jobs, move out of homes, and often to migrate. Thus, one critical outcome of localized events is to perhaps push migration rates and in the process extend our discussion to a second debate—the ongoing debate concerning undocumented migration in the United States.

In the United States much of the blame for the spike in migration is framed by arguments that define Mexican migrants as greedy people out to make a dollar. In reality, what the example of rural Oaxaca reveals is that many rural Mexicans are happy to remain in their hometowns, but when opportunities evaporate there are few options other than leaving.

And this is perhaps the final lesson. We cannot sit back and expect these events to run their course with little to no impact for us as outsiders. We are linked and we need to care and pay attention. What we also need to do better is understand the qualities that set rural Oaxacans apart from their urban counterparts and how events play out in the city.

End Notes

  1. This is a pseudonym for a community in Oaxaca. All place and personal names are pseudonyms to protect communities and informants.
  2. The minimum wage of $5 a day is not a living wage. A living wage as defined by the state is two times the minimum wage, or about $10 a day.