This article is from the May 2005 The Mexico File newsletter.
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What Are They Thinking?

by Maryanne Wilson 

A confirmed Mexicophile, Maryanne has visited Mexico a multitude of times. A native of New York City, and former travel agent, she considers herself a traveler, not a tourist. Having traveled to many places around the globe she finds herself drawn back to Mexico time and time again¼.particularly to Oaxaca. She is planning to spend about six weeks there this summer and will savor every moment. 

Its pedestrianized central square is truly the heart and soul of Oaxaca. It serves as a meeting place, shopping mall, and concert venue. Although not the geographic center of the city, it is used by locals and visitors alike as a directional guide, the place from which to get one’s bearings and the perfect spot at which to start and/or end the day. The zócalo itself is a feast for the eyes with is towering laurel and jacaranda trees, French-inspired gazebo, wrought iron benches and lush shrubbery.  

The zócalo was the central reference point for the city as originally planned by Alonso Garcia Bravo in 1529, after the city, formerly called Huaxyacac (“near the acacia tree”), was established by decree of King Charles V on September 14, 1526. Along with the ruinas of Monte Alban, the beauty of the zócalo was the reason Oaxaca was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1987.  

This extremely lovely spot is sometimes a feast for the nose and ears as well, courtesy of the amazing aromas of fresh tortillas and sizzling fajitas and, in the evening, the enticing rhythms of strolling mariachis. The numerous cafes and restaurants, although not the best in town, provide a place to relax and have a frosty cerveza or a steaming cappuccino. Besides offering cooling shade from the afternoon heat and protection from the rain, it is the best of all locations from which to behold the ever-changing, constantly moving parade of people – balloon sellers, multi-generational families out for a stroll, business men hurrying along, jewelry vendors and teenagers shyly holding hands.  

In mid-April, the powers-that-be in the local government began to dig up the zócalo, the city leaders having decided it needed a new look. Under the cover of night, jackhammers destroyed all the paved walkways around the zócalo and removed all the sidewalks and existing grass and garden areas. The bandstand and fountain remain, and it is promised that the canopy of Indian laurels shading the plaza will remain untouched. In the process, accidentally it is claimed, a centuries-old Indian Laurel tree had its roots cut so severely that it fell over onto the Palacio del Gobierno. The "new look" also incorporates the Alameda (the adjacent plaza) and the atrium of the nearby cathedral. Planned replanting will be in the style of Jardin Zoologico behind the Santo Domingo complex, using desert plants and smaller trees, and will probably be just as barren, uninteresting, and visitor-unfriendly.  

Devoid of the shade provided by the beautiful crown of ancient trees, daytime temperatures may roast protestors and vendors, as well as locals and visitors, who remain for any length of time in the new desert landscape.  

It is thought that the city leaders believe removing benches and other seating areas within the park is one way to keep local vendors (mainly members of the Triqui and other indigenous tribes) out of the square and restrict protest marches and sit-ins. City and state officials claim that all work will be completed by July 2005, in time for the anticipated hordes of visitors from around the world who come for the annual Guelaguetza Festival. In addition, plans are afoot to close the Benito Juarez Market for the duration, build an underground parking lot and then rebuild the market on top.

It has been reported that all business has been devastated in the zócalo area. Restaurants have erected high tin fences to block the view of the big dig. The tables, however, are empty of patrons who have been assaulted by noise, covered in dust and dirt and offended by the dreadful desecration all around them. First time and return visitors to Oaxaca are bound to be shocked and appalled when they see what is happening to the extraordinary space. It remains to be seen how the hotels, market stalls, vendors, shops and restaurants in the will fare during and after all this – not to mention the certain loss of tourist dollars which help keep this city alive.  

Indisputably, Oaxaca’s zócalo, and the ancient buildings surrounding it, including the Cathedral that was begun in 1544, deserve a better fate than this. Protests are planned and marches are being organized. The first one was held on April 24th. Critics, outraged over this misguided project, are crying “ecocide” and asking UNESCO to look into the matter. Let’s all hope that these efforts prove successful.  

© 2005 Maryanne Wilson