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A Little Bit Of So Much Repression

Jennifer Whitney
Date Published: 




In 2006, México was rated the second most dangerous place in the world for journalists, after Iraq, by Reporters Without Borders. While much of the rest of Latin America is being touted as finally shedding some of the most overt remnants of the dictatorships that strangled the region for nearly half of the twentieth century and moving en masse to the left, México, along with Colombia and several other smaller nations, remains the exception to this trend.

It is within this context that we must consider the brilliant film, Un Poquito de Tanta Verdad (A Little Bit of so much Truth), which courageously lives up to its title, capturing how the people of the majority indigenous state of Oaxaca, throughout 2006, told their truths.

From June through November 2006, Oaxaca was largely under control of its people. What began in earnest in late May as an annual strike of the Oaxacan branch of the teachers’ union, quickly drew support from a broad sector of society. Just as quickly, their demands spread beyond increased wages and student stipends, to including the resignation of the governor. Many outsiders and journalists began referring to it as “the Oaxaca Commune.” The response from Oaxaca was, “Yes, but theirs only lasted two months in Paris!”

Strikers, and locals in solidarity with them, formed a coalition called the APPO (the Oaxacan Peoples’ Popular Assembly, in English), which organized through traditional indigenous principles and decision-making processes, and occupied sites of “public works” projects (unnecessary and unwanted renovations used to siphon public funds into the presidential campaign and to diminish public gathering sites), toll plazas, PEMEX facilities [Petroleos Mexicanos, México’s state run oil company], and offices of state and municipal government, including the state legislature and attorney general’s offices and the education ministry. They built and maintained over 1,000 barricades. Several “mega-marches” took place—one of which counted with about one-third of the state’s population. And all this was coordinated by the APPO’s audacious use of the radio.

Un Poquito tells the tale of the uprising and courageous resistance through the lens of the media — not just the takeover by the APPO of 14 radio stations and one television station — but also what journalist Carlos Fazio calls “The television duopoly, TV Azteca and Televisa, [which] are the ones who truly hold the power in México today.”

Because directors/producers Jill Friedberg and Mal de Oio TV have a deep familiarity and long commitment to Oaxacan social movements, the film covers essential historical background and national political context, such as the presidential election that July. Without some of this context, a foreign audience couldn’t hope to ever understand what the APPO are fighting for, and what they’re fighting against. It’s crucial that we do.

Throughout the film, teachers, parents, students, independent media-makers, and defenders of the barricades tell their stories. In the beginning, we hear a teacher, telling her class that school will be closed Friday. The kids cheer, then ask, “Why?” The teacher recites a litany of reasons for their strike: that the schoolhouses are falling down, the kids are hungry and without shoes, and there aren’t enough books. The kids respond again with cheers.

Better information

The intimacy shown in this student-teacher dialogue permeates the struggle in Oaxaca as it permeates this film. So many documentaries of resistance movements focus on the fighting (so much so that “riot porn” is an oft-spoken genre of activist film). Un Poquito doesn’t shy away from the violence, but knows the real story is elsewhere.

However, the weakest point in the film comes towards the end, during the defense of Radio Universidad, after all other radios had been shut down. In a nod to many other activist documentary films, the police attack and a seven-hour (successful) defense is set to a terrific, raging song by Aztlán Underground, with slick rapid-fire edits and a rock video, “riot porn” aesthetic. This form, so common in coverage of protests in Seattle, Prague, Genoa, and other hot spots in the global north, ends up, in my mind, reinforcing the notion that street fighting is the most cool and effective form of resistance, and minimizes the uniqueness of the Oaxaca resistance, its use of the media, its cultural forms of expression, and the enormous amount of organizing required to achieve such broad participation in those defensive street battles.

2008 is looking rough for democracy and press freedom in México. On April 7 two female Oaxacan journalists were murdered. Felicitas Martínez Sánchez and Teresa Bautista Merino worked for the Triqui community radio station, The Voice That Breaks the Silence, in the autonomous community of San Juan Copala. Journalists are being threatened, detained, and searched in Chiapas, México City, and elsewhere. So when Un Poquito shows Mexican television reporting that “These acts of vandalism [of the APPO] are more irrational than terrorist acts,” it must be seen in the context of President Calderón furthering criminalization of dissent; negotiating toward the integration of intelligence and military operations with the US and Canada; dispatching 24,000 troops to patrol urban and rural streets across the country; and creating an elite policing force under his direct supervision.

For these reasons, we must support liberation movements in Mexico; we must support journalists such as Friedberg and Mal de Ojo TV in getting the word out; and we must pay attention to the words of Aldo González Rojas, member of the Union of Organizations from the Sierra Juárez of Oaxaca, who tells us towards the end of Un Poquito: “The radio has played a crucial role in the movement, and now we’ve got the task to continue building it, in order to be able to conquer fear.”

The film closes not long after the APPO is brutally repressed at the end of that year, and yet we are left with a sense of hope. Beatriz Gutiérrez Luis, a schoolteacher, gives us an idea of the impact the Oaxaca Commune had on the general population when she tells us, “I believe that the people of Oaxaca are not ever going to be the same. We have experimented with what we can do with the media, and the people are going to continue wanting better information.”