Today was another teaching day at Facultad de Idiomas at the Autonomous University Benito Juarez of Oaxaca – UABJO. I feel like I’m getting my bearings now—I know what street to wait on in the center near my home to find a “C.U.” (University City) bus which I now know doesn’t come nearly as often as other “centro” busses. I know what signs to look out for to get off the bus. I know the button to push to successfully stop and get off the bus. I know how to cross the carretera (highway) and where to walk through campus. Now I know that I must stick to that same blue covered pathway through campus to get to my department or else get caught by construction, mud, or gate blockages. I know where to buy snacks and lunch. I know so much that I am starting to feel I can really do this thing called being a professor (and mother and spouse) in another country.
So this morning I am an hour early for the 10am class, and I decide it would be nice to get a bell to use during class activities. Today, I will work with a large group of 30 students and I want to model strategies for teaching English as well as strategies for maintaining order in a large classroom. Since I am now comfortable with bus stops and asking perfectly kind strangers to help me, I turn to my bus seatmate to ask where he thinks I could get a bell. Not a fancy Tibetan singing bell or meditation chimes, just a simple little bell. La Soriana, he says. I know where the Soriana Supermarket is—just a few short stops after the one I had originally planned on using. Why not? A good walk before class—I can even tell the story of last minute planning for “materials.”
I went to the Soriana but there was no bell. Actually, the bus seatmate described “a bell and whistle store” (“dónde venden pitos y campanas, cosas asi”) without irony, this shop just outside the supermarket. But I see no such store either because it’s low profile, it doesn’t exist, or it’s not yet open at 9am. The only store open before 10 or 11am is the Soriana superstore where it appears they sell everything except little bells. Squeaky rubber ducks? Yes. Wrapping paper and tires? Yes. Bells, no.
I leave. I teach with my quiet sound device on my cell phone (thank goodness for Timer apps!). The sound device wasn’t great but it allowed me to talk about classroom planning and improvisation. After class, I decide to walk back to the bell and whistle-less mall and treat myself to some tacos to celebrate instructional success. Things were going so well that I decided to defer lunch and stop at the luxury superstore I’d seen closed earlier, to open at 11am. It was now 1pm and surely they’d have some overpriced decorative bell, something kitsch I could take home as a souvenir. With a real bell in hand next week, I would be an even better prepared profe for the next class. While at the mall, I may as well check out the movie theatre showtimes. Oh,yes and milk. I know we need milk so on my last stop before a savvy busride home, I’ll pick up a gallon of milk at the Soriana. We’re out. It’s not easy to get milk in a plastic jug and my son refuses to drink the boxed variety that one can find anywhere. Maybe I’ll catch a cab instead of a bus home.
It’s hot. It’s sunny. I’m hungry as I pass a half dozen taco stands and a man making fresh squeezed orange juice under a shade tree corner. But I’m holding out for food at the air conditioned mall. In fact, I decide to add a stop at the Chinese stall in the food court and get my son the Chinese beef and broccoli he so loves—not something one can easily pick up where we live.
But I tell my grumbling stomache to wait until I get that bell. More important than food is that fancy store I’ve been wanting to enter, one that looks like an upscale Macy’s and a handy Sears wrapped in one. Earlier I’d seen the familiar Clinique make-up logo—I sure could use some fancy face cream, I think as I approach the doors that by now should definitely be open. But the door I’d seen closed at 9am is still closed at 1pm, now blocked by a large tent filled with a group of very young adults lying down one practically on top of the other.
Is this the door? I ask.
Yes, but they’re not open.
I check the hours again: 11am the store should be open. It is now 1pm.
The young people are starting to laugh now. There’s a joke I’m not getting. Suddenly, the bilingual success I felt teaching an hour earlier deflated and I felt like a tongue tied newcomer again.
It’s the strike. We’re protesting. We are in solidarity with the teachers in Mexico City.
Ah, yes. I know about this. This is about the great teachers’ strike that has been blocking the main national capital plaza (6 hours away) for weeks, the blockage that began the day my flight arrived in Mexico City and made a 30 minute taxi ride to the hotel turn into a 2+hour taxi ride. The teachers who some say are forced to strike by their unions. The teachers who, some say, have paid (must pay) the unions to have access to their job posts. The teachers who must do what the unions say because without them, they wouldn’t have jobs. The teachers who the government insists, should take and pass exams to have those posts. The government who wants to enforce more quality and less graft in education. The government who is regularly accused of money grabbing graft and foul play. The government who forcibly removed the teachers from the downtown plaza on independence day. The teachers, some of whom are now blocking the door to the fancy mall store that is now closed when it should be open. No bell.
At this point I still don’t yet know that it’s the whole mall, not just the fancy store, that is closed. So I go to check out the movie theatre showtimes. I grab the heavy glass door and it shutters closed from crossed chains like a pair of stiff, muscled arms. The movie theatre manager says he can’t open the theatre because if he does, like he did the last time, the teachers will shatter his glass doors and windows. “The pinche teachers.” I know he’s cursing. He tells me his mom was a teacher “when being a teacher was an honest profession. Now this. The government must fix it. Pinche government.” Before any glass shatters, I ask him one last question:
Can I get my milk?
No. The whole mall is closed. Unlike the usual auto and taxi car racing I’ve come to expect when I go grocery shopping, the parking lot is oddly still. The sky darkens with the same dark clouds that have caused mudslides and hurricane damage on both of the country’s coasts. Something is about to break in this mountain city but the theatre manager goes on:
The Movies are cheapest on Wednesday nights. Surely they’ll be open again. Probably today after five. But not now, now everything is closed.
I have never in my U.S. life seen or heard of a shopping mall being closed because of civil unrest except in the most major of circumstances and even then—the L.A. and Watts race riots; Stonewall; Kent State; Crowne Heights; Wallstreet—surely these historic U.S. protests didn’t prevent numerous department and grocery stores from remaining open. Big Business must go on! Big business wouldn’t stand for it; consumers wouldn’t stand for it. But here, in Mexico, managers lock their doors; consumers go home.
Several colleagues and friends familiar with Oaxaca City, Mexico had warned me about the protests, the famous Oaxacan teachers. They virtually shut down the city’s tourism and business in 2006 and my husband and I hope this doesn’t happen again. The inner revolutionary and teacher activist in me is proud of the achievements of protestors, especially educators, in this country—their solidarity and persistence; their absolute action and conviction; their rejection of state imposed exams and government control vs. teacher control of classrooms and education. But the parent and teacher educator in me wants teachers to pass basic literacy tests, not to protest against evaluations to raise teacher quality.
The consumer in me just wants her milk.
An “informant” U.S. expat living in Oaxaca for over ten years tells me how Mexican business decided to address the problems caused by protestors in 2006: they raised prices. He says this with a kind of irony another American would understand—in the U.S. when business is bad, you lower prices to attract more customers, not raise them, duh!
Whereas in the US the mantra is that “the customer is always right;” here the mantra is “the customer always pays,” and pays more, not less, when social unrest disrupts business. After all, there aren’t many places you can get that bell or that gallon of milk.
I take in the day’s lessons—successes and confusions—on the bus ride home when I notice that the bus I think is going to turn North, closer to my home destination, turns South. I quickly get off, hoping I didn’t leave anything behind and walk, empty handed, several blocks uphill to my home. We didn’t really need milk, anyhow. Juice and water is everywhere and the protestors will probably be gone by five.