In May of 2006, Rosario Martinez and Roberto Vega were fresh out of design school when the annual teachers union strike took on a sinister character as an explosive social movement of street protests turned into an seven-month war between the citizenry, organized by the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, and the state. Oaxacan Governor Ruiz Ortiz rejected calls for his resignation and instead ordered police to remove protestors at all costs and authorized the use of deadly force, at which point violence erupted in the streets. The teacher’s union called on the rest of civil society to act and the people of Oaxaca responded in kind.
By June 14th, protestors had occupied Oaxaca City’s historic Zócalo and the movement to remove Governor Ruiz Ortiz had gained momentum. Between June and November the government responded by sending in “death squads” comprised of police, military – mercenaries paid to gun down citizens. Protestors organized themselves into topiles (neighborhood watches) and built barricades around barrios to stop the transit of police and stem the encroaching violence. The more the repression intensified the more organized the protestors became.
Both Rosario and Roberto come from teachers’ families, so the protests hit close to home. It was at this time that they started making socially conscious art, forming an autonomous collective Lapiztola, a portmanteau of the Spanish words lapiz (pencil) and pistola (pistol). Their resistance began with small posters in support of the protest movement, particularly the public university’s radio station which served as an important communication platform during the protests.
Throughout the summer, Rosario and Roberto began to notice that their simple but iconic graphics were disappearing amidst the eruption of graffiti and public art that took over the city walls during the protests. They decided to go bigger, but unlike many of the murals they were seeing which depicted state violence directed at citizens, they wanted to focus on pride and not victimization. Among their most widely recognizable works was a stenciled, life-size image of balaclava clad protestors throwing Molotov cocktails, the message being: “We are winning, not the police.” Around this time, Rosario and Roberto began to receive threats of retribution if they continued their work. They were followed and required protective escorts home.
By the end of October, more than 6,000 state and federal police had been deployed around Oaxaca city and 5,000 army troops were positioned just outside the city. A month later, on November 25th, several thousand federal police officers stormed the city and the city-wide demonstrations came to a violent end. The movement has shifted and Rosario and Roberto had to ask themselves: “What do we want to keep doing?” It was then that Lapiztola began to concentrate its attention on working with other collectives and NGOs to secure the release of protestors from jail.
Lapizotla’s work is a combination of art and anarchy, studio practice and protest. When the movement started they were still young activists and relatively fearless. However, as word spread that activists were routinely being kidnapped, tortured, and jailed, Rosario and Roberto decided to change their mode of operation, go underground, and become anonymous and invisible artist-provocateurs.
Rosario and Roberto began working in communities outside the city and developing a less aggressive approach toward conceptualizing, producing, and communicating with their audience. They wanted to be more respectful and inclusive dialogue of the public, and their work transformed from the literal to more symbolic and metaphorical pieces of art.
After several of their murals were painted over, including a commissioned piece, they decided to collaborate with partner organizations and other collectives rather than run the risk of their work, and their messages, being destroyed. By this point they were recognized among Oaxaca’s new generation of artists and despite being courted by the municipality, but they opted instead to commute their work to alternative spaces outside the city center.
Rosario and Roberto’s decision reveals a hard truth for many Oaxacan artists, particularly those working in the streets: self-preservation and self-censorship are inextricably linked in Mexico. Corrupt governments, gang rule, and violent repression against civil society actors have effectively made speaking truth, or even pointing in its direction, a deadly proposition.
Two hundred-fifty kilometers southeast of Oaxaca city in Juchitán, Gotha has a full schedule between his tattoo shop and a contract with the municipality to paint 100 murals, half of which have been completed. Gotha says that he makes work that is critical of the system, yet that is hard to register in the seemingly ambivalent way he talks about the current situation in the Isthmus or the paintings and photos of past work that adorn the walls of his studio.
Gotha and his mural collective, Chiquitraca, which translates to “fireworks for children” in Juchitán slang, “try to capture local culture, to let people know and be aware of Zapotec culture.” But being in the employ of the state, their work, while aesthetically sound, is resoundingly in line with the impotent “neo-indigenismo” of the Lopez Obrador administration. Vicente is not opposed to the Transistmico in the way that some of his peers are, but chooses to see both sides – the possible benefits and the potential for unwanted changes.
Gotha is not naïve about the violent and contradictory politics of Juchitán, a rapidly growing urban hub that has become the epicenter of state and corporate sponsored violence in the Isthmus. It is a town of dirty politicians, cartel operators, paramilitaries, and meth heads – all employed in the service of extractive capitalism.
He says that the “strategy to create confusion through disinformation” has been effective in silencing artists, journalists and activists, including him and his peers. And as President Lopez Obrador ushers in the completion of the Transistmico by the end of 2021, the current environment of fear and paranoia does not bode well for those who are intent on resisting the ravaging impacts the project will have on the land and the livelihood of indigenous people in the Isthmus.