The Art of Revolution: Social Resistance in Oaxaca, Mexico


Editors Note: The March 2009 issue has updated coverage of Oaxaca.

Nuestro Muertos Seran Vengados Como APPO
Our Dead Will Be Avenged By APPO

“What began in early June as the annual teacher’s strike for greater pay soon grew into a bitter struggle between Oaxaca’s governor and a broad coalition of leftist groups protesting poverty, corruption in state government and a lack of fair elections. Matters turned bloody…”
From the guidebook, Frommer’s Mexico 2008, referring to the events of 2006.

Open most any tourist book of Mexico and turn to the pages describing Oaxaca and you will find phrases such as “beauty of its architecture, richness of its cultural traditions, lovely temperate climate, and marvelous festivals.” What you won’t read about is the ongoing struggle that social and political groups have been locked in against the strong-arm state government for the past 19 months.

Oaxaca, located in the southern portion of the peninsula, is among the poorest states in Mexico. It is also the name of the largest city within that state. According to the Oaxacan Human Rights Network, 80.3 percent of the population lack sanitation services, street lighting, piped water and paved streets and 8 out of 10 citizens live in extreme poverty.

red-blackweb.jpg A strike led by the Section 22 of the National Teacher’s Union was called in May, 2006. Thousands of striking workers established camps in the city’s historic center. Following increasing pressure and escalating tensions, government forces attempted to remove the strikers on June 14. Excessive force and arbitrary detentions were employed according to reports of various agencies. In response, more than 300 other social and political organizations joined in a loose coalition called the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (Asamblea Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca, APPO) and demanded the resignation of State Governor Ulisis Ruiz of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI, known for corruption and human rights abuses, had been in control of national politics for more than 70 years, from 1929-2000, and still maintains control of Oaxaca.

Supporters of the opposition movement successfully occupied several public buildings, took over state-run radio stations and television stations. Throughout the summer and fall of 2006 there were continued demonstrations, confrontations and resulting paralysis of the city. Negotiations between the state and federal government and APPO collapsed.

In late October, the federal government ordered 4,500 Federal Preventive Police to end the protests and restore order. The following five days resulted in hundreds of injuries, scores of arrests and several deaths. The opposition movement was pushed back to a final encampment in front of Santo Domingo church and handed over control of the radio station at the Autonomous University of Oaxaca Benito Juarez.

Libertad Presos Politicos ACAXAO
Free the Political Prisoners “Oaxaca” reversed
libertad2web.jpgAmnesty International has published a report on the excesses of the government’s handling of the crisis, Oaxaca Clamour for Justice. At least 18 people have been killed and to date there has been no effective investigation by the government into the deaths or the many reports of abuse, intimidation, torture, and illegal detention. Another valuable resource for information concerning the struggle in Oaxaca is the University of Pittsburgh’s Latin American Studies Association,

While APPO publicly renounces violence, some business owners and shopkeepers in Oaxaca, who have suffered losses as a result of the conflict, accuse the social movement of being violent. The APPO coalition has brought together leftist groups of different stripes, causing some division and rancor within the organization concerning methods and goals.

During the height of the civil unrest in October, 2006, a meeting of artist collectives and independent artists from a wide spectrum of artistic disciplines joined the movement and the Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca (ASARO) was born. Their mission is “to take our artistic expression to the streets, to popular spaces, to raise consciousness about the social reality of the modern form of oppression that our people face.” (

Arte en Resistencia
Art in Risitance

dscf0393.jpgThe collective creates stencils, woodblock prints, and posters that appear on walls all over Oaxaca. The woodblock prints are offered for sale in Oaxaca’s public square or Zocalo. During the night, guerrilla artists blanket the walls of public buildings with graffiti and stylistic images of comrades who have disappeared, revolutionary heroes and goose-stepping police.

Kevin McCloskey, KU Professor of Communication Design, was one of 24 scholars to receive a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship with the project Oaxaca: Crossroads of a Continent. The group was comprised of professors representing various colleges and universities throughout the United States. Their fields of expertise included anthropology, archeology, and art history. During their stay in July 2007, they had the opportunity to study, observe and explore the rich visual culture of the state and city of Oaxaca.

kmccloskey1.jpgKevin was able to interview members of ASARO and visited their workshop. He collected a portfolio of some twenty woodblock prints, representing some of ASARO artist’s best work. Many of the prints were purchased directly from the artist on the sidewalks of Oaxaca’s public square. Most sold for 100 pesos, roughly $10, with the most expensive piece in the collection costing only $20. With the help of Sandra Allen, multi-cultural liaison for the Voices and Choices Gallery at Kutztown University’s Rohrbach library, an exhibition of the prints will be on view until January 7, 2008. The prints will then become part of the Rohrbach Library collection.
Kevin McCloskey, KU Prof. Comm. Design

We asked Kevin to describe his visit to the studio and the process of wood block printing. Kevin explained that thekmccloskey3.jpg artist carves the wood block from ordinary, three-ply sub-flooring. The negative areas created by the carving are the areas that will not be inked. Ink is applied to the raised areas with a roller. Paper and then felt are placed on top of the inked surface, which is pressed by a steel cylinder. Small prints can be burnished by hand to create the impression, but larger prints are done with a press. The press that is used in the ASARO workshop is not unlike those commonly in use 100 years ago in the US. Kevin inquired as to the age of the press and learned that this style of press is still being manufactured in some parts of Mexico. The process is not very sophisticated, but very effective. Most examples of wood block printing are simple black and white. There are a few examples of two color printing.

Kevin was surprised to find a computer and projector in the studio. These are used to create the stencils. A computer image is projected on the back wall, painted and cut out. Under cover of darkness, the stencil is placed on walls throughout the central area of the city and spray paint is applied. This can be done very quickly. The prints and stencils provide a valuable weapon in APPO’s arsenal, a means of communication that gets the message out to the populace at a time when other communication tools are not readily available.

Kevin’s interest in political art dates back to his student days, when he was a political cartoonist for his school newspaper. He also spent some time as a street artist in San Fransisco. Though his art was not political in nature, he empathizes with the ASARO artists, understanding how difficult it is to sell your art on the street.

La Tierra Es De Quien La Trabaja OPPA
“The earth belongs to those who work it.”
(reverse type:APPO)
La Tierra Es De Quien La TrabajaSome of the ASARO prints reflect the talent of experienced artists, while others are the passionate work of less schooled artists whose work is no less powerful. The older, more experienced artists act as tutors to the younger artists, teaching the printmaking process. In several prints, the text reads backwards. The young artists of these prints neglected to reverse the orientation of the text to account for the mirror image created by the printing process, so that APPO reads OPPA (image-left) and Oaxaca reads AcacaO (image-above).
Following in the traditions of Mexican popular art and printmaking, the works are simple, powerful and bold. Art as political statement has been an important element in Mexican art since the days of the Mexican Revolution, as evidenced by famed artists such as José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera. The slogan on the La Tierra print (above), ‘The earth belongs to those who work it’ can actually be seen in a reading primer that is in the display case of the exhibition.


Calaveras del Cinco de Mayo by Jóse Guadalupe Posado


Other popular themes emerge such as the use of the calavera (skulls) in many of the prints. These are very reminiscent of the work of José Guadalupe Posada, the renowned artist who used the calavera to satirize corrupt politicians of his day. Heroes of the past, such as Emiliano Zapata and Benito Juárez, are immortalized in some prints, while Governor Ulises Ruiz is demonized in others. The police are sometimes portrayed as reptilian like monsters. Kevin is unsure of the root of this symbol, but draws a parallel to the mythical type creatures portrayed in the folk-art form called Alebrijes.

Portrait of Zapata


Ulises Tirano. Todo el Poder al Pueblo
Ulises is a tyrant. All power to the peopletiranoweb.jpg

Kevin pointed out that some of the prints are similar to American political cartoons. The woman in the print below represents the bourgeois. Owning a pet, particularly a poodle, altofascismoweb.jpgis not typical for a Mexican worker. The figures on the dolly are tied up and are being delivered, possibly into a nightmare. The hand above them proclaims ‘End fascism in Mexico!’. The design and composition of the prints can be quite sophisticated.

Some of the pieces are printed on white paper, which creates greater contrast. These prints are the more expensive to purchase, typically $20. Most of the prints are done on a cheap, blotter type paper. The contrast is not as great and as revolutionary art, they feel a bit more authentic. The process of carving the block is in itself integral to the power and anguish that the prints emote. The artist has to throw himself into the carving. These are not delicate or refined, that energy can be felt in the sharpness of line and design.

El Autoretario, El Ratero, El Asesino
wallasaroweb.jpgThe image to the left illustrates the barricades with portraits of Gov. Ruiz labeled “Cynic, Thief, Autocrat, Repressor, Murderer”. The police can be seen beating demonstrators in the background. The women in the foreground are clearly anguished.


The religious imagery in the print below portrays the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saintvirgindeweb.jpg of Mexico, over a landscape with corn. Corn is very significant to the people of Oaxaca. They believe that it originated in Oaxaca. Some argue that the rest of North America should pay intellectual property rights for the use of corn based products, such as ethanol.

In the print below, the woman might be a “Casseroles”, a member of a women’s collective. The Casseroles go out in the street and bang their casserole covers together as an alarm when the police are entering their neighborhood.

Todo el Poder al Pueblo. Colonos en Pie de Lucha
All power to the people. Neighbors on our feet to fight!
todoelpoder.jpgThe people and artists of Oaxaca are necessarily cautious in speaking to tourists. When Kevin was speaking to one of the young men selling prints on the sidewalk of the Zocolo, he commented that one particular print, that of Zapata, was his personal favorite and was very good. The young man was obviously flattered, and Kevin correctly surmised that he was the artist of this print. “Would you sign it for me?” Kevin queried. The answer was an emphatic no. “Are you a business man trying to make some money off me?” Kevin said that he was a teacher and wanted the print for an exhibition. The artist explained that in the beginning of the resistance struggle it would have been dangerous to sign one’s work. They might get picked up and arrested. Now, they feel that they are part of a collective and do not want personal recognition. They want people to know about their struggle.

Signs in the square expressed APPO’s stand concerning the tourist industry. One such sign read “How much do you spend to come to our country tourist?…For your own security, get out of Oaxaca!” Others simply said “Tourists Go Home!”

There is an annual festival in Oaxaca called Guelaguetza, which comes from the Zapotec language and roughly translates as ‘offering’. It is based on a social tradition of exchanging products and services. Ruiz tried to make this a tourist event and charged $40 per person, but no one knows where the money went. The festival was not held in 2006 and protestors vowed to block the festival in 2007, staging their own ‘popular’ event. The government did hold an official Guelaguetza, but attendance was low and many seats were filled with state employees.

Calaveras with Helicopter
The Mexican army used helicopters in 2006 spraying chemicals to disperse protestors.

helicopterweb.jpgA tourist warning had been issued by the Mexican State Department following the shooting of American journalist and documentary film maker Bradley Will on October 27, 2006. The warning has since been rescinded. The National Endowment for the Humanities did issue its own warning to members of the group: “US citizens are reminded to avoid participating in demonstrations and other activities that might be deemed political by the Mexican authorities. The Mexican constitution prohibits political activites by foreigners. Such activities may result in detention and deportation.”

We asked Kevin if he felt safe while visiting and traveling around Oaxaca. He explained that for the most part, he was never really alarmed. At one point during his stay, there had been a demonstration, which included some rock throwing and the hi-jacking of a bus. The following day, Kevin went to the site to look around. There was a huge police presence and they were all staring at him. He kept his camera in his bag and kept on walking. The police dress in hi-tech looking, black, plastic armour which is very intimidating. Any discomfort felt was a fear of the authorities and not of the people.

Santo Domingo Church
santodomingo12-05oaxaca109.jpgSurprisingly, there is no obvious police presence in the Zocalo, though authorities were probably operating undercover. Even though the barricades are now down, it seems to be a no-man’s land. The governor’s palace stands nearby, but the governor has moved out to the suburbs. It is a bit distressing to see the beautiful, colonial architecture defaced by graffiti and stenciling, but Kevin admits that “If 18 people in my city were killed over the course of acathedralwall.jpg year, I understand why people are so upset that they deface the walls.” Banners of Lenin and Stalin wave above the square. These are not prints of ASARO, but commercial banners. Some of the populace and certain factions under the APPO umbrella are drawn to Communist idealogy. The ‘hammer & sickle’ symbol can be seen in many of the prints.

Stencils on the wall of the cathedral

Banners in Zocalo
zocalophoto.jpg Kevin has no interest in accumulating a personal collection of ASARO prints. He loves the work and wants to share it with as many people as possible. While expressing a wish that ASARO will continue to produce these remarkable prints, Kevin concedes that his real wish is that this resistance will succeed, life will become peaceful for the people of Oaxaca and the need for this revolutionary art will become a moot point. We hope that his wish will become a reality.

The exhibit titled ASARO: Revolutionary Mexican Prints for the 21st Century can be viewed at KU’s Rohrbach Library, Voices and Choices Gallery, from Oct. 25, 2007-Jan. 7, 2008.
Library hours:
Exceptions can be found on the bulletin board outside the library or by calling 610-683-4481.

Passaic County Community College, Paterson, NJ, to exhibit ASARO prints.

MEXICAN REVOLUTIONARY PRINTS from the collection of Kutztown University will be on display at the PCCC Gallery, March 11 – April 30, 2008, Paterson NJ. Opening Reception: March 11, 2008. Similar exhibitions are planned for the Fowler Museum at UCLA and Misericordia University, Dallas, PA. Commonsense2 will add details regarding these exhibitions as they become available.


Inquiries from galleries for future exhibitions can be addressed to Kevin McCloskey:


Oaxaca: Further Reading – and picture collections…

5 Responses to “The Art of Revolution: Social Resistance in Oaxaca, Mexico”

CommonSense2 Editor comments:

Great Job Pat

Bob Johns comments:

Mexico, ever since the European white Spanish colonialists set foot on native American land there has been a tradition of Rich and Poor. Usually Spaniards from the best families that trace their ancestors back to Spain represent the Wealthier of the two, for a long time no middle class was just fine. They have been getting away with it.Creating a middle class will be very hard but it’s necessary for their aspirations both personal and national and it is also in the interest of boardering countries as well.I wish them well.They should be encouraged.This kind of outreach should be world wide. Globalization will hert not help their cause as many will suffer.Thank you Pat for exposing us all to their causes.Well written, informative, artful.

Kathleen Welch comments:

Wow, this is amazing, Pat. I love reading your commentaries on the art work. A picture is truly worth a thousand word. Thanks for this.

juant comments:


Thanks for your great effort. Obviously you put a lot into this article; and it’s very educational as a result. And your choice of art gives more meaning to the subject.

I hate that this article was necessary; and I love that it was possible.



KevinMc comments:

Pat and Charlie,
Thanks so much for your great work on this project.
I emailed the link to Commonsense2 to the artists of ASARO in Oaxaca, Mexico.

They emailed back thanks to all who help get out their story. That would include Commonsense2. Thanks, as well, to Dr. Barbara Darden, KU’s Dean of Library Services. Prof. Sandra Allen, Director of the Voices and Choices Center and Gallery at the Rohrbach Library deserves many thanks for her encouragment and work on this project.

About the article in web format: It is great that you have links to two independent reports on Oaxaca, so folks can learn more.

Reminder: This exhibition at Kutztown U closes on January 8, I hope everyone gets to see the work in person.

Finally, The ASARO exhibit will travel from KU to PACC, Passaic Area Comm. College in NJ this spring. Then, Mexico Lindo Gallery in Pittsburgh has expressed interest in a summer show. And UCLA’s Fowler Museum has been in touch about an exhibtion there later in 2008. The curator at the Fowler told me he used this Commonsense2 article to pitch the show to his team, and they loved the work.

Muchas Gracias ,
Kevin McCloskey

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