Democracy and the Zócalo

Travel Stories: As labor protests raged in Wisconsin, Maya Kroth found herself in Oaxaca, Mexico, getting in touch with American ideals

03.16.11 | 10:14 AM ET

Oaxaca zocaloOaxaca’s zócalo. Photo: stevecadman via Flickr (Creative Commons)

When the union demonstrations erupted in Madison, I was 2,461 miles away, sitting on a park bench in Oaxaca, Mexico, with my mom. We were on our annual mother-daughter trip, and the bench in question was one of about 20 ringing an elevated gazebo in the center of Oaxaca’s famed zócalo, or public square, where it seemed half the city was taking refuge from the midday heat in the shade of the flowering jacarandas and Indian laurels.

Bordered on the north by an 18th-century cathedral, Oaxaca’s zócalo is surrounded on three sides by colonnaded colonial buildings that house restaurants, hotels and cafes. In the plaza, the air vibrates with the energy of city life. We sat, listening to strains of a live marimba band emanating from a restaurant nearby, and surveyed the scene: Kids gathered around a clown in one corner of the square; in another, shoeshine boys polished the loafers of businessmen, and vendors circulated throughout, hawking everything from hand-carved crafts to chicharrones to mylar balloons, which they bunched together by the hundreds, forming giant Technicolor blooms just like the one in the movie “Up.”

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Oaxaca’s zócalo is the undisputed center of the city, and the place where my mom and I always seemed to find ourselves hanging out when we didn’t have anywhere else to be. There’s a certain breed of traveler that tends to shun places that are specifically designed with her in mind—hotel restaurants, guided bus tours—and for that kind of traveler, the zócalo is perfect: It’s not just for tourists or for locals, for the rich or the poor, for teenagers or abuelas. It’s just there, for everybody.

Two days before, the zócalo been the site of a protest not unlike the one going on in Wisconsin. Perhaps not coincidentally, the political zeal of the people of Oaxaca is almost as famous as its central square. In 2002, demonstrators staged a tamale-eating sit-in to protest (successfully) the opening of a McDonald’s on the plaza; four years later, a teachers’ demonstration escalated into a deadly showdown between anti-government protesters and federal police. When we arrived in February, the townspeople were still abuzz over the events of the 15th, when President Calderon’s arrival in the city was greeted by a huge gathering of public schoolteachers demonstrating against a new tax break for parents who send their kids to private school. At some point, someone fired a shot—“troublemakers,” according to the women I chatted up at a nail salon—and pandemonium ensued; when the tear gas settled, some 20 protesters and five police officers had been injured.

Today, little evidence of the unrest remained in the tranquil zócalo. My mom and I compared notes on current events—Did you see the footage from Egypt? Did you read Paul Krugman’s take on Wisconsin?—and remarked how powerful it was to see those images of tens or hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens filling Madison’s capitol building and Tahrir Square.

It occurred to me then that if a similar movement were to gain momentum in most places I’ve been in the U.S., I wouldn’t have a clue where to go to join a protest. While the zócalo was the obvious place for such a thing here in Oaxaca, in many American cities and towns there is no equivalent, no evident central meeting place. As has been observed by numerous scholars (notably the sociologist Ray Oldenburg), some newer American communities were constructed without adequate public spaces—neutral territory away from home and work where citizens can freely gather. Even in older cities or neighborhoods that once had a historic town square, those areas today have often been turned into carnivals of capitalism, dominated by retail stores and advertising that encourage consumption above community. Today’s American public space is not Main Street; more often than not, it’s a shopping mall.

Here in the zócalo, however, there were plenty of free public places to sit, rest, chat, people-watch, or, like the teenagers on the next bench over, practice the finer points of tonsil hockey, all without spending a dime. (Although we were extorted by a saucer-eyed 6-year-old girl who roamed from bench to bench, selling stickers for a peso each.)

On our last day in Oaxaca, my mom and I ambled to the zócalo one last time. It was a Sunday, and the women were dolled up in dresses and heels, the men showing off big, shiny belt buckles and cowboy hats. A group of maybe 200 people clustered together at the northwest corner of the plaza, all wearing white, some in T-shirts reading, “Oaxaca merece paz (Oaxaca deserves peace),” one man holding a megaphone. I asked a bystander what it was all about, and he explained that it was a demonstration condemning the behavior of the troublemakers who had wreaked havoc during the earlier rally. In Oaxaca, it seems, even the protests inspire protests.

The assembly was orderly and dispersed without incident about 10 minutes later; the white-clad participants dissolved into the larger zócalo crowd, and life went on as usual. I got the feeling that this simple act—taking to the streets, gathering together with one’s neighbors—was part and parcel of daily life in this place. This is ordinary, everyday democracy in action, all thanks to one fantastic, free and accessible public space.

Maya Kroth's writing has appeared in Budget Travel, NYLON, Frommer's, the San Diego Union-Tribune, San Francisco Weekly and more.

11 Comments for Democracy and the Zócalo

Geri Anderson 03.17.11 | 11:52 AM ET

Great article.  I live in Oaxaca City and you really caught the spirit of the zocalo. It’s surprising how many travelers think the zocalo is for tourists only, where in actuality it is the outdoor living space for Mexicans, a protest park, a meeting and eating place, as you point out. It is reputed to be the best zocalo in Mexico.  I have no argument with that.

Anya 03.17.11 | 1:21 PM ET

A great article. It gives you a sense of what we are lacking here in the U.S.—a natural heart to our cities. A shopping mall instead of an organic center of the city where people could come together in time when putting our heads together is important. I think this time is upon us.

Erin Van Rheenen 03.28.11 | 7:14 PM ET

Thank you, Maya. Your article brought back memories of my eight months in Oaxaca, much of it spent in the zócalo, where if there wasn’t a protest going on you’d wonder what was wrong. I also like your point that in many U.S. towns and cities you’d be hard-pressed to know where to go to join in a protest (or sometimes just to join in any form of collective life). College campuses have similar problems, often by design. I went to UC Santa Cruz, a campus with no central gathering area (the colleges are spread out over many a wooded hillside). Word was that the campus design was an “antidote” to UC Berkeley, whose central gathering areas seem to cry out for collective action.

Mary D'Ambrosio 03.29.11 | 8:46 PM ET

What a lovely, thoughtful piece. Latin America and Mediterranean Europe may have never learned to run economies, but in creating great public spaces, they’re ahead of us all.

Lauren Quinn 04.06.11 | 11:56 PM ET

Lovely post. Spot-on.

Dave Sem 04.25.11 | 8:58 AM ET

I have to ask an unrelated question here.  How come there is hardly ever any new content on this site? This story has been featured for several weeks now. I’m ready for something new!

joshywashington 05.03.11 | 10:52 PM ET

I mourn the lack of public space in America. In Seattle we are lucky; plenty of cafes and parks, plenty of places to gather. During my time in Italy the very first thing that hit me was the amount of time people spent outdoors together, then i saw it in Central America, Asia and it just hit home that my society suffers for our lack of community space and the inclination to simply sit and pass the time of day outside.

Sarah 05.05.11 | 1:27 PM ET

One of the things I love most about Europe are the town squares, where everyone goes out after dinner and walks.  Here in America we have backyards and have lost the front porch mentality.  Here is to hoping we can get it back.

Mary D'Ambrosio 05.05.11 | 1:33 PM ET

I taught in Italy last year, and like Josh was reminded of how outdoor time together can be a salve for many other things going wrong. The economy may be in tatters, and the government as corrupt as ever, but with espresso, prosecco and the pausa, life can be rich.

Ulf Carlson 05.05.11 | 5:07 PM ET

Oaxaca is a nice place, the only thing I don’t like about Mexico is the police, it is so corrupt.

RM 05.12.11 | 1:11 AM ET

Great article! Brought back memories of hanging out in the Zocalo in Oaxaca, watching what seemed like half the city come to see and be seen. I especially loved seeing whole families out for an evening stroll together. The zocalo is definitely the living heart of the city!

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