Self-Reproduction and the Oaxaca Commune

The Oaxaca uprising of 2006 teaches us that any serious anti-capitalist movement must engage directly with the gendered logic of social reproduction.

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By Barucha Peller

In 2006 a popular mass uprising swept the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico, galvanizing hundreds of thousands of participants around the region and removing state power from the capital city and dozens of other municipalities. For nearly six months, there were no police in Oaxaca City, and at one point the cityscape was transformed by up to 3,000 barricades.

After years of repressive, authoritarian rule at the hands of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and Governor Ulises Ruiz, the uprising was triggered by a violent eviction of a teachers’ encampment in a central plaza during an annual strike of the Section 22 union on June 14. Thousands of Oaxacans poured into the streets to take back the square from police, and a spontaneous insurrection grew in which state authorities were physically removed and squares, government buildings, media outlets and city buses were taken over by protesters.

The movement formed a horizontal, central organizing body, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), which demanded the ousting of Ulises Ruiz. For seven months one of the poorest states in Mexico attempted to reorganize society without state governance or capitalist social institutions. When broadcasts from occupied radio stations began to sign off with the slogan “Transmitting from the Oaxaca Commune,” comparisons made to the historic Paris Commune were met with the response: “The Paris Commune lasted 70 days. We have lasted more than 100!”

The Oaxaca Commune ended on November 25, 2006 after the movement lost the battle for the streets to a violent and brutal siege by federal police and government-­backed paramilitaries. By the end of the uprising, hundreds of people had been arrested and dozens were disappeared or assassinated.

Everyday Life at the Barricades

The formation of the Commune cannot be separated from the social organization of its everyday activity. The Oaxaca Commune was formulated not out of the means of the uprising—the barricades, the occupations—but out of the social relations formed by organizing everyday life to reproduce such means. Rather than being atomized into the home, the reproduction of everyday life was re­organized to disavow the capitalist logic of a gendered social division of labor and to give way to communal resourcing, belonging and life as a terrain of struggle.

While the APPO provided a formal alternative to state governance as a political body, the incredible longevity of the Oaxaca uprising and the takeover of the capital by the movement meant that questions of everyday life and the informal economy became key sites of contestation and a project of the political imagination in their own right. During the uprising the women’s movement directly raised some of these questions and also demonstrated that a conscious confrontation with the social division of labor is necessary to build a commune that actually challenges state power through the de-commodification of common resources and the de-privatization of domestic and reproductive labor.

Oaxaca WomanA central contradiction in the Oaxaca Commune, as we will see, was therefore based around the social, political and strategic questions that arose when men attempted to uphold the gendered division of labor and force women back into the home.

The barricades that made up the cityscape of the Oaxaca Commune were not only sites of physical defense against military attacks, but were also home to a myriad of reproductive activities in which historically feminized labor became the basis for transformed social relations. The barricades were places where the people of Oaxaca slept, cooked and shared food, had sex, shared news, and came together at the end of the day. Resources such as food, water, gasoline and medical supplies were re-appropriated and redistributed, and in the same way, reproductive labor was re-appropriated from the specialized sphere of the home and became the underscoring way to reimagine social life and collective bonds.

Rather than returning home at night and turning on the television, Oaxacans would return to the barricades and listen to transmissions from occupied radio stations together before turning in for the night on makeshift beds of cardboard and blankets. At all hours of the day, coffee was carried out of homes or businesses and was brewed over fires at the barricade and passed around. Romantic messages and “shout-outs” were sent between participants on different barricades via the occupied radio.

Everyday events at the barricades, from distributing food from a Doritos truck that had been re-appropriated after being stopped on the highway to holding educational workshops, recreated a community infrastructure that is usually naturalized as women’s labor in the home and in neighborhoods. People belonged to the Commune simply because they took part in this reproduction of daily life—from cooking at the barricades, carrying coffee to the barricades from homes or businesses, carrying news between barricades, to making molotovs at barricades, stacking rocks or simply sharing stories.

Maintaining the barricades through maintaining day-to-day life on the barricades excavated the “home” and the work women do in the home as a buried site of isolated, unrecognized labor to reformulate such activities as public and collective relationships of struggle. The social organization of reproductive labor on the barricades began to erode the capitalist, gendered division of labor in which reproductive labor creates value or labor capacity elsewhere for capitalist extraction. The collectivization and generalization of reproductive activities allowed the movement to become increasingly “self-reproducing” and as such increasingly threatening to the social order.

Self-reproduction, or the movement’s ability to directly reproduce itself in day-to-day terms without the mediation of a gendered division of labor or an invisibilized labor force of women doing all the tasks necessary to maintain life so that the movement could persist, meant that the Oaxaca uprising reproduced itself as Commune. Self-reproduction forged a collective subjectivity out of the barricades as a shared experience of everyday life.

When people began to identify themselves as barricadistas, and then by specific barricades (“I am from la Barricada de Cinco Changos”, or “I am from la Barricada de Sonora”), there was a clear shift in subjective identification away from roles assigned by waged labor (“I am a doctor” or “I am a student”) or other subjectivities organized by capitalism. In these ways, the Commune forged subjects that identified not by the commodification of their labor but by the collectivization of everyday relationships and the means of self-reproduction at the barricades.

Given this need for the Commune to arise out of self-reproduction, it is not surprising that it was common to find mostly women at the barricades, or that many barricades were all­-women. Women found that the terrain of struggle was precisely in the informal relationships required to hold communities together. Barricades also tended to protect the primary battlegrounds where the Commune was being forged, in neighborhoods and media occupations.

As the months of the uprising carried on and the numbers of assassinated and disappeared mounted, women participated in the protection of the barricades through nightly patrols and defenses against las caravanas de la muerte, the pickup trucks of paramilitaries who frequently shot up the barricades. Women began to assume the type of revolutionary political activities that have historically been defined as masculine.

The Women’s Television Occupation

The flashpoint of the Oaxaca Commune, and what was understood as the emergence of a women’s movement, was the bold takeover of the state television and radio station, Canal Nueve, by thousands of women on August 1, 2006. Enraged at the media for spreading lies about the movement, an all-women’s march called the cazerola (pots and pans) converged on the doors of the station and demanded 15 minutes of airtime. When they were denied, women forced their way into the station and spontaneously took it over. The women quickly taught themselves how to use the station’s equipment and began statewide television and radio broadcasts.

Although by August the APPO had been broadcasting from two radio stations in the capital city, the horizon of possibilities for the movement broadened beyond what anyone had imagined when the high­powered transmissions of the state television and radio stations were in the hands of the women of the Oaxaca uprising. Collectivizing communication and creating media as a communal form was a necessary part of reclaiming everyday life in terms of what these women called its “truths”. Many women who took over the station referred repeatedly to presenting the “truth” as a motivation for taking over the station and, as one woman aptly put it, “to present a little bit of so much truth that exists.”

This “so much truth” that the women sought to unveil on the radio and television station was a description of the economic and social conditions experienced by the communities most vulnerable to the socially destructive effects of neoliberal structural adjustment and the racist and repressive hegemony of the PRI. The privatization of public resources not only has deep neo-colonial effects on indigenous groups, which make up 70 percent of the population of Oaxaca state, but capitalist enclosures of resources and services such as education, healthcare and basic community infrastructure burdened women particularly, as such issues tend to be heavily “feminized” and mystified as “women’s work”.

The women’s broadcasts thus brought together indigenous groups, the urban poor and housewives to analyze these everyday realities across the state and to galvanize people to participate in the uprising. The ability of the “masses” to communicate en masse revealed not only a collective suffering but a collective will to continue en la lucha. The Commune may not have known itself as such were it not for the images and voices of so many others and the collective truths that were transmitted from the occupied station.