Featured illustration by Mirko Rastić.
In 2006 a popular mass uprising swept the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico, galvanizing hundreds of thousands of participants around the region and removing state power from the capital city and dozens of other municipalities. For nearly six months, there were no police in Oaxaca City, and at one point the cityscape was transformed by up to 3,000 barricades.
After years of repressive, authoritarian rule at the hands of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and Governor Ulises Ruiz, the uprising was triggered by a violent eviction of a teachers’ encampment in a central plaza during an annual strike of the Section 22 union on June 14. Thousands of Oaxacans poured into the streets to take back the square from police, and a spontaneous insurrection grew in which state authorities were physically removed and squares, government buildings, media outlets and city buses were taken over by protesters.
The movement formed a horizontal, central organizing body, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), which demanded the ousting of Ulises Ruiz. For seven months one of the poorest states in Mexico attempted to reorganize society without state governance or capitalist social institutions. When broadcasts from occupied radio stations began to sign off with the slogan “Transmitting from the Oaxaca Commune,” comparisons made to the historic Paris Commune were met with the response: “The Paris Commune lasted 70 days. We have lasted more than 100!”
The Oaxaca Commune ended on November 25, 2006 after the movement lost the battle for the streets to a violent and brutal siege by federal police and government-backed paramilitaries. By the end of the uprising, hundreds of people had been arrested and dozens were disappeared or assassinated.
Everyday Life at the Barricades
The formation of the Commune cannot be separated from the social organization of its everyday activity. The Oaxaca Commune was formulated not out of the means of the uprising—the barricades, the occupations—but out of the social relations formed by organizing everyday life to reproduce such means. Rather than being atomized into the home, the reproduction of everyday life was reorganized to disavow the capitalist logic of a gendered social division of labor and to give way to communal resourcing, belonging and life as a terrain of struggle.
While the APPO provided a formal alternative to state governance as a political body, the incredible longevity of the Oaxaca uprising and the takeover of the capital by the movement meant that questions of everyday life and the informal economy became key sites of contestation and a project of the political imagination in their own right. During the uprising the women’s movement directly raised some of these questions and also demonstrated that a conscious confrontation with the social division of labor is necessary to build a commune that actually challenges state power through the de-commodification of common resources and the de-privatization of domestic and reproductive labor.
A central contradiction in the Oaxaca Commune, as we will see, was therefore based around the social, political and strategic questions that arose when men attempted to uphold the gendered division of labor and force women back into the home.
The barricades that made up the cityscape of the Oaxaca Commune were not only sites of physical defense against military attacks, but were also home to a myriad of reproductive activities in which historically feminized labor became the basis for transformed social relations. The barricades were places where the people of Oaxaca slept, cooked and shared food, had sex, shared news, and came together at the end of the day. Resources such as food, water, gasoline and medical supplies were re-appropriated and redistributed, and in the same way, reproductive labor was re-appropriated from the specialized sphere of the home and became the underscoring way to reimagine social life and collective bonds.
Rather than returning home at night and turning on the television, Oaxacans would return to the barricades and listen to transmissions from occupied radio stations together before turning in for the night on makeshift beds of cardboard and blankets. At all hours of the day, coffee was carried out of homes or businesses and was brewed over fires at the barricade and passed around. Romantic messages and “shout-outs” were sent between participants on different barricades via the occupied radio.
Everyday events at the barricades, from distributing food from a Doritos truck that had been re-appropriated after being stopped on the highway to holding educational workshops, recreated a community infrastructure that is usually naturalized as women’s labor in the home and in neighborhoods. People belonged to the Commune simply because they took part in this reproduction of daily life—from cooking at the barricades, carrying coffee to the barricades from homes or businesses, carrying news between barricades, to making molotovs at barricades, stacking rocks or simply sharing stories.
Maintaining the barricades through maintaining day-to-day life on the barricades excavated the “home” and the work women do in the home as a buried site of isolated, unrecognized labor to reformulate such activities as public and collective relationships of struggle. The social organization of reproductive labor on the barricades began to erode the capitalist, gendered division of labor in which reproductive labor creates value or labor capacity elsewhere for capitalist extraction. The collectivization and generalization of reproductive activities allowed the movement to become increasingly “self-reproducing” and as such increasingly threatening to the social order.
Self-reproduction, or the movement’s ability to directly reproduce itself in day-to-day terms without the mediation of a gendered division of labor or an invisibilized labor force of women doing all the tasks necessary to maintain life so that the movement could persist, meant that the Oaxaca uprising reproduced itself as Commune. Self-reproduction forged a collective subjectivity out of the barricades as a shared experience of everyday life.
When people began to identify themselves as barricadistas, and then by specific barricades (“I am from la Barricada de Cinco Changos”, or “I am from la Barricada de Sonora”), there was a clear shift in subjective identification away from roles assigned by waged labor (“I am a doctor” or “I am a student”) or other subjectivities organized by capitalism. In these ways, the Commune forged subjects that identified not by the commodification of their labor but by the collectivization of everyday relationships and the means of self-reproduction at the barricades.
Given this need for the Commune to arise out of self-reproduction, it is not surprising that it was common to find mostly women at the barricades, or that many barricades were all-women. Women found that the terrain of struggle was precisely in the informal relationships required to hold communities together. Barricades also tended to protect the primary battlegrounds where the Commune was being forged, in neighborhoods and media occupations.
As the months of the uprising carried on and the numbers of assassinated and disappeared mounted, women participated in the protection of the barricades through nightly patrols and defenses against las caravanas de la muerte, the pickup trucks of paramilitaries who frequently shot up the barricades. Women began to assume the type of revolutionary political activities that have historically been defined as masculine.
The Women’s Television Occupation
The flashpoint of the Oaxaca Commune, and what was understood as the emergence of a women’s movement, was the bold takeover of the state television and radio station, Canal Nueve, by thousands of women on August 1, 2006. Enraged at the media for spreading lies about the movement, an all-women’s march called the cazerola (pots and pans) converged on the doors of the station and demanded 15 minutes of airtime. When they were denied, women forced their way into the station and spontaneously took it over. The women quickly taught themselves how to use the station’s equipment and began statewide television and radio broadcasts.
Although by August the APPO had been broadcasting from two radio stations in the capital city, the horizon of possibilities for the movement broadened beyond what anyone had imagined when the highpowered transmissions of the state television and radio stations were in the hands of the women of the Oaxaca uprising. Collectivizing communication and creating media as a communal form was a necessary part of reclaiming everyday life in terms of what these women called its “truths”. Many women who took over the station referred repeatedly to presenting the “truth” as a motivation for taking over the station and, as one woman aptly put it, “to present a little bit of so much truth that exists.”
This “so much truth” that the women sought to unveil on the radio and television station was a description of the economic and social conditions experienced by the communities most vulnerable to the socially destructive effects of neoliberal structural adjustment and the racist and repressive hegemony of the PRI. The privatization of public resources not only has deep neo-colonial effects on indigenous groups, which make up 70 percent of the population of Oaxaca state, but capitalist enclosures of resources and services such as education, healthcare and basic community infrastructure burdened women particularly, as such issues tend to be heavily “feminized” and mystified as “women’s work”.
The women’s broadcasts thus brought together indigenous groups, the urban poor and housewives to analyze these everyday realities across the state and to galvanize people to participate in the uprising. The ability of the “masses” to communicate en masse revealed not only a collective suffering but a collective will to continue en la lucha. The Commune may not have known itself as such were it not for the images and voices of so many others and the collective truths that were transmitted from the occupied station.
The tension over upholding the gendered, social division of labor became a central limit to the Oaxaca Commune realizing a collective identity in struggle. This contradiction arose in the Canal Nueve occupation and persisted on the barricades. When women fought to take control of social reproduction at the barricades and on the plantones (the occupied squares) by refusing to limit their contributions to the movement to the private sphere, domestic violence and threats as well as men’s refusal to collectivize work in the home undermined the entire structure of Commune and women’s ability to remain in the streets. As Ita, a participant in the Canal Nueve takeover explained:
There were comrades who complained that since August 1 (the takeover of Canal Nueve), my woman doesn’t serve me. There were many women who suffered domestic violence for being at the occupations and marches, sometimes their husbands even attempted to divorce or separate. The husbands didn’t take well to the idea of women abandoning the housework to participate politically. They didn’t help in the sense of doing the housework, such as taking care of kids or washing clothes, so that the women could continue being at the station.
The number of women circulating at the Canal Nueve occupation dwindled little by little as women had no other choice but to return home and take care of children or perform other domestic labor. On August 21, after three weeks of the Canal Nueve occupation, paramilitaries took advantage of the low numbers and shot up the network transmitters, rendering them useless. And yet the women were relentless: they came into the streets again the next day and led movement participants to take over and occupy ten different radio stations, four of which remained in the hands of the Commune for an extended period.
While housework required many women to return home, women on the whole did not solemnly submit to patriarchal violence and threats. One woman continued to defend a barricade after her husband broke her arm to prevent her from going to the streets. As Eva, a housewife, noted: “Nobody came to take us out of our houses saying, ‘go to the struggle’. On the contrary, they said: ‘stop leaving the house, calm down’—they repressed us. But we dared.”
So conscious were women of the gendered contradictions that were sure to arise due to their participation in the uprising that they hung a banner in the occupied television studio that appeared on screen during the first broadcasts reading: “When a woman moves forward, not one man is left behind.” In this respect, women tried to appeal to a sense of class belonging, suggesting that the women’s movement was an advancement for the class as a whole. Nevertheless, the tension over women’s participation in the movement was never resolved for the greater strategic or political project of the Commune. As Eva put it simply: “we kept fighting on two different fronts—against the system, and with the men inside our own movement.”
Reproductive labor was at once a limit to women’s participation as well as a galvanizing force for women’s autonomy and collective organizing. The power of communication and sociability in identifying and forging collective struggles did not only occur in the occupied media broadcasts but also in the informal discussions between women in the Canal Nueve occupation. When for the first times in their lives women had a space autonomous from men, they found that the authoritarian regime of the state and the economy extended into their experience of the social division of labor and everyday life in the home and with family. As Ita put it: “The beautiful thing that happened there was that at night all of us women began to talk about our life stories, and that’s where we got more rage to continue in this struggle—not just to topple the government, but to organize as women to confront what the majority of us are living.”
Being part of the Commune therefore did not mean that women universalized their political participation alongside everyone else, but that they understood their participation as specified by their struggle against the social division of labor and capitalism’s commodification of reproductive labor inside the home. The tension over upholding the social division of labor meant that for women fighting the government and fighting over reproductive labor became one and the same struggle.
Revolutionizing everyday life by taking back spaces and resources from their commodified and privatized forms was a central tenet of the Oaxaca Commune. It underpinned the way in which the movement evolved from its central demand to remove the governor to an articulation of how his policies had upheld capitalism’s encroachment on every sphere of public life. But it was the women’s articulation of exploitation in the home that truly called for a reorganization of everyday life outside of the logic of capitalism.
Informal Processes of Collectivization
Just as reproductive and unwaged labor is often informal, the informal social relations and the daily gestures of solidarity and mutual aid within the Commune constituted a political imaginary beyond—and at times without—the formal representations of the movement, the APPO.
In analyzing the Oaxaca uprising, the left has mostly centralized the APPO in its attempts to describe and account for the incredible seven months of insurrection against capitalism and the state. But this focus on purely formal organizing structures of the movement mimics in a sense the capitalist division of labor, in which value is only produced in a formal sphere, overlooking the social aspects of organizing that occurred beside public political demands and organizations. While the APPO was described as a movement of movements, and the political demands issued from the APPO—mainly the removal of the governing party—encompassed a collective political will, its description did not serve to encompass the informal processes of collectivization that struggled with the question of reproducing everyday life.
The sense of collective identity that underscored the Oaxaca Commune was not solely an identification with the APPO. In fact, many participants—especially housewives and the urban poor—identified themselves as militants of the uprising but not as a part of the APPO. It would require an entire separate sociological inquiry to examine all the reasons why participants in the uprising did not identify with the APPO or how the APPO failed to encompass the whole of the demographically diverse sectors of the uprising in its particular structures of organization and representation; certainly, women fought unsuccessfully for more equalized participation in the APPO, giving rise to another gendered contradiction of the uprising. It was not until November, seven months after the uprising began, that the APPO brought gender representation into express consideration, and failed then, even after the momentous women’s movement, to account for participatory parity.
Ultimately, the experience of everyday life that formulated the Oaxaca Commune and the articulations of women participants concerning the limitations of the Commune help broaden our understanding of struggle as a confrontation with ways in which capitalism has commodified reproductive labor into a feminized sphere—in which any serious anti-capitalist movement must engage directly with the gendered logic of the reproduction of collective social life.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/magazine/reproducing-the-oaxaca-commune/