- We Are the Face of Oaxaca: Testimony and Social Movements by Lynn Stephen
The state of Oaxaca is a cornucopia of regions, languages, customs, cuisines—and opposition political movements. The Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO), the most recent and best known of these movements, transformed life in Oaxaca City for several years and attracted extensive international media coverage. Lynn Stephen’s book is the best and most thorough study of the APPO. Her primary purpose is to chronicle and preserve the movement’s history through testimonios (testimonies) of participants and others. To that end she has created a website to house videotaped APPO testimonies, photographs, maps, and documents, and to promote human rights in Oaxaca. The author has been working in the state for decades and considers herself a Oaxacan “citizen.” Her book is partisan: her loyalty to APPO is clear.
Stephen’s book and website will be a valuable resource for current and future scholars of Oaxaca. It traces the history of Oaxacan protest mobilizations and the specific circumstances that produced APPO. The radical statewide teachers’ union (Sección 22) played a key role in this evolution. Various chapters provide an ethnographic blow-by-blow account of events on the ground during the APPO takeover of downtown Oaxaca and the subsequent repression unleashed on the movement by the federal and state government. Two chapters deal with some of the biggest accomplishments of the APPO movement: the emergence of local and indigenous radio stations and the temporary takeover of state and commercial media. The movement also stimulated pan-ethnic and transnational ties among Oaxacans, always a positive development in the regionally divided and sometimes ethnically fractured state. [End Page 675]
Stephen presents some critics of the movement, although APPO supporters receive the bulk of coverage. Most average Oaxacans I have spoken with are more circumspect about the effects of the movement, and some are quite critical of it, but hers is an avowedly pro-APPO publication. At times a utopian streak emerges, as in the discussion of “a new political culture among youth unified around the concept of autonomy.” Do new political cultures emerge overnight? For that matter, are “horizontal” and “consensus” movements like the APPO, the Zapatistas, and Occupy really the wave of the future? They may be, but perhaps we should temper utopian desires with some cold realism. But that is a topic for future historians and anthropologists.
Stephen’s overriding interest is the role of testimonies in the emergence, strengthening, and historical preservation of popular social movements. Testimonies allow the disempowered to question and challenge official political interpretations. They are also a source of personal pride and self-realization. A testimony is truly a “weapon of the weak,” in Scott’s terms. I very much agree, but at times I feel that Stephen’s pro-APPO fervor may cause her to make exaggerated claims. For example, she states that “the theoretical innovation I am arguing for here—centering the role of oral testimony in human rights work, social movements, indigenous, and other forms of participatory democracy and community radio—emerges precisely from the particular collaborative methods used in this project” (p. 28). Undoubtedly, testimony plays a critical role in all such movements in Latin America, but haven’t we known this since the advent of Rigoberta Menchú? Are testimonies somehow even more important now in a world of cybercommunications and globalization? Are they really as powerful as the sorts of political propaganda and visual rhetoric found in YouTube videos produced by grassroots, opposition, or rebel movements as diverse as ISIS, Mexican drug cartels, and regional separatist groups all over the planet? These are questions that I would like to have seen examined to a greater extent, in lieu of repeated claims about APPO’s accomplishments.
In any case, a good book is one that provokes thought, new questions, and new research. Lynn Stephen’s book chronicles one of the most important contemporary Latin American social movements and raises many questions...