Katie is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology at UNM.
The governor of Oaxaca, Gabino Cué Monteagudo, announced early on in his term that tourism was to be his administration’s number one strategy for economic growth, calling it the “anchor” for development (Gobierno del Estado de Oaxaca, A). While tourism has long been the lifeblood of the Oaxacan economy, the massive uprising led by the Popular Assemblies of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) in 2006, hit the industry hard. To recover, the state has ramped up its efforts to increase long-standing, reliable forms of tourism, such as cultural tourism, as well to capture new travel markets that cater to romance and business. This strategy, discussed below in greater detail, attempts to position Oaxaca as simultaneously “traditional and modern." Drawing on preliminary ethnographic research in the capital city, I examine the regulatory and disciplinary techniques that make this truth regime a reality. Next, I look at the illegal takeover of the Zócalo by vendors associated with dissident teachers who belong to Sección 22 of the National Union of Educational Workers (SNTE), as an example of “improper” participation in the tourist economy that fails to adhere to this truth regime. I argue that rather than provoking violence, which would threaten the tourist economy to a greater extent than an unsightly Zócalo, the state endeavors to constrain illegal vendors materially and affectively until they exhaust themselves.
Knowledge Regimes: Promoting Oaxaca as “Traditional and Modern”
In July of 2015, I sat at an outside table on the patio of a coffee shop with my Oaxacan friend Mateo, sipping coffee and discussing the upcoming festivities of the two week long celebration of indigenous cultural heritage, known as Guelaguetza. Mateo was reminiscing about time spent in Puerto Escondido with his first love, and insisting that I find my way to the coast after the events of the festival came to a close. He wrote down three suggestions for beachfront hotels, which I tucked away in my purse. It was not until days later that I opened up the paper to discover a typed letter addressed “Dear friends” with official government letterhead from the Secretary of Tourism and Development, José Zorrilla. While I do not know if this letter was sent directly to my friend or if he simply picked it up somewhere along his daily journey through the historic downtown, its contents epitomized how I came to understand the Oaxacan state’s tourism strategy.
Zorrilla began his letter extolling the glory of Guelaguetza as a festival that symbolizes identity and unity amongst the various ethnic groups and that brings pride, tourism, and development to the state. He then went on to insist that as their “maximum expression of culture,” the official Guelaguetza stadium, where performances take place on the last two Mondays in July, deserved to be remolded. These renovations would include new seats, improved bathrooms, remolding of the stairs leading up to the stadium, as well new signs and lights. Zorrilla explained that these improvements were part of a comprehensive project that included the construction of the new Cultural and Convention Center (Centro Cultural y de Convenciónes, CCCO) to be built next to the stadium on the hill that overlooks the city and is popularly known as Cerro del Fortín. Together, the improvements to the stadium along with the construction of the CCCO, were part of the government’s larger strategy to “position Oaxaca as a place that combines modernity and tradition,” that would integrate the past with
the present to strengthen tourism and lead to greater economic development (Secretaría de Turismo y Desarrollo Económico).
The government’s promise that tourism will lead to economic development, as well as its more specific call to carry out this mission in ways that integrate the modern and the traditional, operates as a knowledge regime that attempts to normalize all social processes according to this logic. Because knowledge is always situated within relations of power, it has the capacity not only to be understood “as truth,” but also to become true (Foucault 1977:27). As Foucault (1980:131) argues, each society has its own “knowledge regimes” or discourses that it “accepts and makes function as true” through acts of discipline. In other words, because the state says that Oaxaca is traditional and modern, and that those traits strengthen tourism, it governs events, fairs, festivals, and construction projects in ways that enact this truth.
In a general sense, the state’s efforts to convince the wider public that tourism is the key to greater development and opportunities for all, is part of liberal regimes’ tendency to rationalize the exercise of government by claiming to enhance life, and pointing to the market as an “objective” measure of its success (Foucault: 1979:318). Thus, state officials point to statistics that show the number of jobs created and money earned since the creation of the Secretary of Tourism and Development (Secretario de Tursimo y Dessarollo Económico, STyDE), in the years following the massive uprising of APPO and Sección 22. These statistics are part of a knowledge regime that says tourism is the best way to provide for Oaxacan citizens, and because this becomes understood as true, further tourism projects are created, and new regulatory and disciplinary technologies are enacted to control the conduct of Oaxacans in ways that advance this regime. These technologies are discussed in greater depth below.
The state’s more specific claims that combing the traditional and the modern is the best way to enhance tourism has many implications. For the state, the traditional encompasses handicrafts such as rugs, blankets, pottery, sculptures, jewelry, blouses, and bags that are “part of the culture of an ancient people” (Oaxaca.travel 2015) as well as cuisine that is rooted in the past and often sold in markets or street fairs. The modern refers to aesthetic qualities of the city that showcase it as clean, beautiful, and as having contemporary amenities and fixtures. At times, the state’s strategy is to envelop the traditional within the modern. Indeed, the festival that symbolizes tradition and culture must be housed within a stadium that is pristine and up-to-date. When the state sponsors and organizes artisan fairs, such as the ones I attended during Guelaguetza, it showcases traditional products from behind clean, white stalls, arranged neatly in parks or in tented, closed-off streets. Incorporation of the traditional within the modern occurs to varying degrees throughout the city, and some social processes are incorporated to lesser degrees. Certainty, the state has a vested interested in portraying Oaxaca as a city with deep roots and heritage, however, government officials are careful to ensure that this image is articulated in ways that do not interfere with its projects of modernity. As the state looks toward the future and attempts to capture new forms of tourism, such as romance tourism and business tourism, both listed as priorities on the STyDE website, it takes regulatory and disciplinary measures to garner support for its vision and to ensure that other projects do not interfere.
Regulatory and Disciplinary Techniques
The Oaxacan state disseminates understandings and images of the “ideal” tourism economy participant and employs disciplinary tactics alongside these images that aim to align the conduct of citizens accordingly. The ideal citizen is one who accepts the idea that tourism is the best way to create economic opportunities for all, and more specifically, one who accepts and participates in the Oaxacan state’s approach. Examples of how the state attempts to regulate tourism at the level of the population can be seen in its campaign for the building of the CCCO discussed above. Because the center would be built in the Cerro del Fortín, part of which is a protected nature reserve, many Oaxacans have protested its construction. As such, STyDE, in collaboration with the mayor and governor of the city, have taken great measures to ensure the wider public that the center is worth the investment and will enhance the quality of life for all. Some of these strategies include posting billboards on major streets, advertisements on busses, and flyers on the sides of buildings that argue “el beneficio es para todos” (the benefits are for all). One billboard I photographed promises employment opportunities over a backdrop of well-dressed tourists enjoying the future convention center with lush green mountains in the background. As an instantiation of what Foucault(1990: 140) called biopolitics, the dissemination of these signs aims to regularize behaviors at the level the population, encouraging citizens to align themselves with the state’s vision.
Disciplinary power, which works in tandem with regulatory power, centers on the “body as a machine,” and attempts to disciple, optimize and incorporate individual, docile bodies into efficient economic controls, through institutions like the army and schools, or more generally through educational tactics (Foucault 1990:139-140). Free workshops for artisans, sponsored by STyDE and the Tax Administration Service (Servicio de Administración Tributaria, SAT) for craftsmen and women that belong to the Oaxacan Institute of Handicrafts (Instituto Oaxaqueño de las Artesanías, IOA) are disciplinary mechanisms that seek to govern their conduct in ways that align with the state’s vision. A press release by the state government announced that in 2015, 25-30 free trainings provided information on how to “improve crafts, marketing skills, customers service, business image and English” (Gobierno del Estado de Oaxaca, B). Artisans who belong to IOA are also able to gain access to Expo fairs during major festivals like Semana Santa, Guelaguetza and Día de Muertos, as well national competitions and loans. In late July, during Guelaguetza, STyDE and IOA coordinated the artisan fair, “Encuentro Artesanal Guelaguetza 2015,” which took place in El Llano park (Gobierno del Estado de Oaxaca, C). Vendors sold from behind pristine, white, well-illuminated, uniform stalls that featured the region of the artisan. Attending workshops and conducting interviews with artists would allow for a greater understanding of how artisans are disciplined, however, based on my observations of the fair, I imagine that unlike the vendors I will discuss below, IOA vendors are required to appear apolitical and refrain from altering their stands in ways that would interfere with the overall “elegant” image of the fair.
New workshops for vendors that discuss proper hygienic practices in handling food also discipline the conduct of vendors (Servicios de Salud del Estado de Oaxaca). Not only must food vendors take classes in food hygiene management, but they are also subject to routine surveillance by state officials, who check to ensure their nails are trimmed, their hands are cleaned, and that their hair is covered (Servicios de Salud del Estado de Oaxaca). These techniques, along with the workshops for artisans, are more specifically geared toward the state’s mission to combine the modern and the traditional. They aim to create situations in which vendors index the traditional by selling authentic handicrafts or cooking popular Oaxacan food, such as memelas, on a stone comal, but from behind stalls that appear clean and orderly.
Improper Participation in Tourism
Not all vendors belong to official organizations that work in conjunction with the state or even have licenses that permit them to sell. While many vendors may have tried to get access to official channels, others may choose to evade such channels. The vendors associated with Seccíon 22 teachers have been taking over the Zócalo, where it is illegal to sell for all but balloon vendors, for several years. Rather than working with the state, it is widely reported that they pay “rent” to the teachers, who are camped out protesting in the same area, for protection of their posts (Medrano). The history of the teachers’ conflict with the state is too long to recount here, 1 however, it is important to note that the uprising in 2006 by teachers and APPO disrupted the functioning of the state government for months and injured the tourism market in Oaxaca for years. As such, the state is cautious when dealing with the teachers or those affiliated with the teachers. For the last several years, officials have been evicting illegal vendors from the Zócalo, and then turning somewhat of a blind eye for a period of time, only to evict them again days, weeks, or months later.
On July 17, 2015, the Oaxacan city and state police carried out what was widely referred to as a limpieza (cleaning) of the Zócalo in the historic downtown. This “cleaning” entailed removing vendors who had erected semi-permanent wooden stalls all around the plaza from which to sell street food, clothes, jewelry, handbags and pottery, among other commodities. Small business owners, along with the mayor and governor, argued that tourists ceased to book hotels or spend significant time in the Zócalo because illegal vendors overcrowded it, causing it to appear unsightly and to omit foul smells. The state consistently articulated that the clearing of the Zócalo was a necessary measure to restore the image of the historic downtown area, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, as well as to ensure that locals and domestic and foreign tourists could freely move throughout the area. City officials further reiterated the illegality of their posts and ensured that the cleanup was carried out peacefully (Gobierno del Estado de Oaxaca, D). Comments made by Oaxacans to me, as well as comments published in newspapers from legal vendors and business owners, indicate that many share the opinions of the state. These frustrations are part of a longer history of struggle, however, in addition to long-standing frustrations, these vendors may also be unwelcome because they do not adhere to the image of Oaxaca as traditional and modern.
During my fieldwork, I observed many “violations” of this truth regime. The stalls of the illegally posted vendors in the Zócalo were not pristine or uniformly organized. Some stalls were made of wood while others were made of metal, and they varied in size. Tents covering stalls were constructed from diverse materials that differed in color. Many vendors’ political signs were strung up with twine that stretched across streets and tied to railings on buildings. Signs asserted vendors’ right to sell, declaring “Oaxacan artisans also have a right to work, not just foreign business owners.” Other signs criticized the state sponsored Guelaguetza and proclaimed support for “La Guelaguetza Popular.” Many explicitly declared support for the teachers and demanded answers about the missing 43 students from Guerrero state. The image of and actions of these vendors stand in stark contrast to the vendors who participated in official markets and events during Guelaguetza. While streets vendors are often associated with the traditional, illegally posted vendors in the Zócalo fail to be traditional in modern ways. They do not sell from behind uniform, pristine stands and they are not apolitical. Most importantly, in the eyes of the state and business owners in the area, they interfere with something of greater “traditional” value – the cultural heritage of the historic downtown.
For all of these reasons, the police removed them in July, as they did in previous months in June and in May, and as they did after I left again in August and September. This continual dance of kicking vendors out and then allowing them to stay only to kick them out again, likely points to a reluctance on the part of the state to crack down harder on vendors because of their association with Sección 22. The state must be careful not to incite violence because armed conflict would threaten its development plan more than an “unsightly” Zócalo. The state’s strategy, instead, is to exhaust vendors; to slowly wear away at their material conditions and wills until they, hopefully, give up.
Material Destruction and Exhaustion
How might illegal vendors’ lives be materially constrained? To begin, the vendors’ material “lack” of licenses, either due to their financial inabilities or their firm commitment to the political causes of Sección 22, causes them to sell illegally and thus to be continually subject to forceful removal from the Zócalo. While the police did not inflict bodily violence on vendors during their removal in late July, the destruction of their wooden stalls can be understood as a form of violence that deprives them of the material “artifacts of their various potentials” (Povinelli 2001:113). As the hands of police officers and the wheels of heavy machinery rolled over stalls, the material substances from which vendors work to build alternative possibilities were destroyed. And, their wills to endure were likely weakened. This form of violence is what Elizabeth Povinelli (2013:132) refers to as the “violence of enervation,” which is characteristic of neoliberal regimes, and can be understood as “the weakening of the will rather than the killing of life” (Povinelli 2013:132). Neoliberalism, which already constrains the lives of so many, works by exhausting the alternative social projects that those trying to form a better life undertake, “by denying them sustenance” (Povinelli 2013:134). This exhaustion is tied to material constraint and material destruction. The materials that those struggling under neoliberal regimes have to work with reflect the circumstances of their struggle; they are tired and worn out. Subjects are counting on these materials to help them build a better life, but the materials often do not outlast the exhaustion that their owners face (Povinelli 2013:117). The vendors in the Zócolo work with materials that are easily broken down, but many continue to prevail in the face of material destruction. That many vendors returned the next week with blankets instead of stalls, is a testament to the endurance of many, but it remains to be seen for how long they will endure, especially if this “weak form of state killing” is enhanced with strong state killing (Povinelli 2011:151).
These processes of material destruction and exhaustion are linked to a deeper history of struggles, associated with class, gender, and racial inequality. Material destruction and exhaustion are also linked to the opposing projects of the vendors and the state. Vendors refuse to conform to the projects of the state, but they are not the only ones constrained. The state must be careful not to incite violence because that puts its project in great danger.
A constrained state bets on exhaustion instead. Finally, these processes are also linked to the wider Oaxacan society. Vendors who sell legally as well as business owners in the historic downtown, for instance, connect their own material constraints to the actions of vendors and teachers. In this sense, they may see the destruction of the material goods of the vendors as a means to their own endurance. Further fieldwork is needed to properly investigate and analyze these processes, but the purpose of this initial exploration is to open up greater avenues for understanding the ways in which the policing of improper tourism economy participants is linked to knowledge regimes and the state’s hopes for a better future Oaxaca.
This paper probed the social effects of putting tourism at the forefront of Oaxaca’s development strategy. Specifically, it examined the knowledge regimes at play that assert Oaxaca is simultaneously “traditional and modern,” as well as the ways that citizens are disciplined according to such truth claims. I argued that the illegal takeover of the Zócalo by venders associated with Sección 22 exemplifies “improper” ways of being traditional. While vendors sell products considered traditional, they do so in ways that the state and surrounding businesses consider to be disorderly, unsightly, and injurious to the historic downtown’s image as a World Heritage Site. I argued further that because these vendors participate in the tourist economy in improper ways, whether by necessity or choice, they become subject to what Elizabeth Povinelli (2013) refers to as processes of material destruction and exhaustion. Rather than provoking violence, which would threaten the tourist economy to a greater extent than an unsightly Zócalo, the state endeavors to constrain vendors materially and affectively until they exhaust themselves.
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