Oaxaca calls upon its artists

Times Staff Writer

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.

Marimba bands are again performing around the zocalo. Last week, a trickle of foreigners and locals stopped by the Museum of Contemporary Art, located in an elegant colonial palace thought to have belonged to the conqueror Hernan Cortes, to examine Javier Martin's exhibition of colossal human-head sculptures.

Esperanza Arizmendi Bazan, one of 500 women who belong to the arts cooperative Women Artisans of the Regions of Oaxaca, said that the cooperative currently is doing only about 1% of its regular business. But she said the people would not allow "magic Oaxaca to die."

"The affection and the love of the Oaxacans that we always have had toward international tourism, I hope to God, that this will come back," said Arizmendi, who makes pre-Hispanic-style ceramics, some of which are used in the popular Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and Guelaguetza festivities.

Isolated for centuries by the surrounding Sierra Madre mountain range, Oaxaca has grown into one of Mexico's most popular tourist centers. Many are drawn to the arts scene, which received a major boost from the late modernist master painter Rufino Tamayo, whose intermittent presence in his native state drew numerous other artists, as later did that of Toledo and another painter, Rodolfo Morales, sometimes called the Mexican Marc Chagall.

Alicia Pesqueira de Esesarte, director of the Museum of Prehispanic Art of Mexico in Oaxaca, which houses Tamayo's personal collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, credits Toledo with attracting to Oaxaca a new generation of artists who share some of his beliefs in the importance of social justice and equality. "There are people [artists] that have a very important sense of society," she said. "I feel that their energy, their interest and their prestige are going to definitively make the restoration."

Yet Toledo and others hope that, in regaining its cultural equilibrium, Oaxaca won't simply regress to the political status quo. Oaxaca consistently ranks near the bottom of Mexican states in wealth, education and health care. Thousands have fled to the U.S. in search of work.

Toledo speculates that the recent problems here may help draw attention to these chronic deficiencies. But he also fears that the central city is fast becoming a boutique town like Venice or San Miguel de Allende, where rich foreign visitors are displacing poor locals. "The life of the city already is lost," he said.

Selma Holo, director of USC's Fisher Gallery and author of "Oaxaca at the Crossroads: Managing Memory, Negotiating Change," said in an e-mail that she believed the city would recover from what she called "a nasty, brutish interruption."

"Life is never easy in Oaxaca, but that does not seem to stop the Oaxacan artists and galleristas and restaurateurs, in the long run, from fighting the good fight," she said. Besides Toledo, she pointed to artists such as Demian Flores, Laurie Litowitz and Jose Luis Garcia as "people with vision" who could be living and working in any of the world's major art centers, but have kept their roots here.

"There is something, as they used to say about Florence in the 15th century, that is 'in the water' in Oaxaca," Holo wrote, "and that something which is generative and healthy will not be permanently poisoned by this awful political mess that it has suffered."

Though Toledo earlier this year announced he was withdrawing from social activities to concentrate more on his art, those plans have been put on hold for now. "It's a necessary evil," he said, laughing, of his political activities.


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