After I graduated from college in 2004, I spent three years working as an English teacher in Oaxaca, Mexico. At the time, Oaxaca seemed like the ideal escape from the fear and uncertainty of the post-9-11 US. Three hundred miles southeast of Mexico City, Oaxaca has been cultural hub since around 1200 BC. Its people, the majority of whom identify with one or more indigenous group, have survived conquest, dictatorship, and natural disaster.
I never imagined that Oaxaca would turn out to be a training ground for life under Donald Trump.
For women in many parts of Mexico, walking down the street is a little like walking into a men’s locker room. They are followed by incessant whistles and catcalls, ranging from compliments – linda, chula – to explicit sexual propositions. As a norteamericana, my first instinct was to whip around, flip the bird, and try out my new Spanish curse words, but my Mexican girlfriends held me back.
“Just ignore them,” they said. “Or you’re going to get hurt.” They weren’t kidding. According to a 2010 United Nations report, Mexico ranks first globally in sexual violence against women. I feel fortunate that I was never grabbed by anything more than the ass.
“Don’t worry, teacher,” my students told me the morning after George W. Bush’s reelection. “Not all the gringos are that dumb. The election was definitely rigged.”
Somehow, I found this less than reassuring. But my students weren’t just saying that to comfort me (and it didn’t). Stories of Mexican electoral fraud are so incredible that, at first, I dismissed them as folklore: ballots burned, ballots fished out of the river, and thrown away with the garbage.
Then I witnessed the Mexican presidential election of 2006. Leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador refused to concede defeat to Felipe Calderon. Instead, he held a press conference during which he revealed nine boxes, filled with 900 pages of evidence of alleged voting irregularities. His supporters converged upon Mexico City, where he was sworn in as the “legitimate” president. I could hardly imagine Al Gore mounting a similar spectacle after his controversial defeat in 2000.
I was beginning to wonder if my Mexican friends were over-imaginative, or just realistic. Maybe us Americans, clinging to our quaint faith in our democratic institutions, were naively optimistic?
Since day one, when he falsely claimed that 1.5 million people crowded the national mall to witness his inauguration, Donald Trump has shown that he’s not going to let facts get in the way of his agenda.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who is sticking by the “historical truth,” uncovered by his government’s own investigation, regarding the fate of 43 students who disappeared from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, in 2014. This version of events – that the students were murdered by drug-traffickers and their remains incinerated in a nearby garbage dump – has been widely discredited by experts, and called “fiction” by Human Right’s Watch.
I wish I could say I was surprised.
In 2006, I watched from my rooftop in Oaxaca as police helicopters dropped tear gas grenades on striking school teachers. The ensuing conflict between the teachers, their allies, and state and federal police lasted for six months. The official death toll, according to the government and Televisa, which owns approximately 70 percent of Mexican media outlets was exactly three.
A year later, a report by the International Commission for Human Rights Observation (CCIODH) concluded that at least 17 people died during the Oaxaca conflict, and dozens more were injured, imprisoned or disappeared.
The Surreal Life
During the 2006 conflict in Oaxaca, I quickly got used to stepping around barricades of sheet metal and sandbags on my way to work. Between violent clashes, which mostly took place at night, stretched long days of tedium. Near my house, an old couch occupied the center of what had been a busy intersection. Protestors slept there or lounged about listening to the radio. Others passed the time playing cards or chess. Down the street, a young soldier read One Hundred Years of Solitude, propping the cover on his plastic riot shield.
Life after the election of Donald Trump is no less surreal, but in an all-American way: an action-packed, overproduced blockbuster that plays better with audiences in the far east than at home.
One day I’m comparing the President’s hairdo to a new kind of snack food or fungus, the next day I’m trying, and failing, to find words to comfort a child in terror of being separated from her family.
In this heightened atmosphere, anything feels possible. A man might descend an escalator into the pits of hell. An angel could catch their wings on the barbed wire of the border wall. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador could be the official president of Mexico. The “magical realism” we Americans once attributed to far off, less developed places, has become our own reality, as it long has been for Mexico and other parts of the world.