In the town plaza of the city of Oaxaca in the Mexican state of the same name, it was dawn, cloudy and cool. Murky would be a better description, with just an occasional soul hurrying to work. One man goes on his way crunched down into a blue, light-weight jacket trying to stay warm. An elderly lady, bent nearly double, shuffles by me with a reboso wrapped around her head and neck.. Then, I found myself nearly alone as I walked through the square toward the cathedal, a huge building brooding in shadows. There was no wind at all.
I felt the quiet of the early morning along with a kind of sadness. Mexico was undergoing a recession and last week the value of the peso had dropped nearly thirty percent overnight. That meant scrimping even more among a people many of whom were already barely sustaining themselves.
Imagine how you would feel knowing that you would not earn enough today to put tortillas and beans on the table. Instead of three meals a day there would be only two, lunch and supper. Maybe the kids would get something to eat at school, maybe not.
I’m from Chicago so a forty degree temperature didn’t seem cold to me but I hurried anyway up the side steps of the cathedral. But just as I was about to go inside some movement in the street to my left caught my attention.
There were men mounted on horses slowly entering the plaza on two sides. No one was talking. The horses seemed small for the size of many of the men who were riding them. Both horses and men looked exhausted and dust had settled on their shoulders and hats. They looked for all the world as if they had just completed a final round up. The whole scene seemed like an uncolored painting, all grey and dark brown figures moving slowly toward the square. The only sound was of the horses’ hooves clipping the cobblestones.
The horses looked as weary as the men. They dismounted wordlessly and began to set up a type of camp under the trees, near the gazebo across from the palacio, the large two-story building which housed the government of the state of Oaxaca.
It was time for me to celebrate the first Mass of the morning in the chapel of “The Christ of the Thunderbolt.” The cathedral had burnt down years before after a lightening bolt had hit one of the towers. A life-sized crucifix was spared and ever since then, that chapel had become a shrine of miracles.
After Mass, I found out that the men in the square had come down from the mountain to protest the low price they were receiving for their coffee beans. Minimum wage at that time, about ten years ago, was just about $2.50 per day. The day began with sunrise and ended with sunset and every day was a workday. (Fiestas are holidays–more about that some other time.) Their wages often did not reach the minimum level no matter how hard they worked.
The men in their work clothes lounged in the square for a week, their presence creating an unease for the local officials. Their horses were tethered to trees in the square and their droppings soiled the beautiful park where most Sunday afternoons the Oaxacan state orchestra played concerts.
Violence is not a typical part of a public demonstration in Oaxaca. These men just gathered in silent protest. No placards, no rousing chants, simply presence in the square. It was a powerful statement and demand that the government pressure the buyers to increase payment per sack of beans.
Would you like to know how much pressure a silent protest can exert? Then, listen to part two of this story:
Later that same evening, I had another Mass at the cathedral and was surprised to find the archbishop in the sacristy waiting for me. He told me to go ahead with the Mass and stay around afterwards as he had something he wanted to discuss with me. The archbishop, over six feet tall and in a white cassock was an imposing figure whose gravitas endured just about everything except a good joke. Then, he would erupt into a huge laugh and his face would transform in a grandpa-kind of warmth until reality drew him back into religious solitude.
When the cathedral was completely empty (the sacristan had told the people he was locking up), the archbishop told me that the king of Spain was going to make an unofficial visit to the cathedral at 8 PM.
“The king of Spain?,” I said. “He’s here? In Oaxaca?”
Then the archbishop explained that the Juan Carlos, the king of Spain, was an archeology buff and was visiting the local ruins, in particular, Monte Alban, an ancient seat of Zapotecan culture complete with pyramids, a ball court and mysterious buildings, all of which formed the heart of a long gone empire.
It was to be a quick visit to Oaxaca with no pomp, no speeches, no ceremonies of any kind. In fact, the king was staying like any other tourist in a small and elegant hotel within walking distance of the cathedral.
Juan Carlos wanted to see the square and the cathedral in particular so arrangements had been made and the archbishop’s presence was requested, but no publicity was permitted. It would be a private visit at 8 pm.
So we waited. The archbishop told me he didn’t know what the king expected. No trumpets, no special decorations would greet Juan Carlos, for sure. The archbishop guessed that he would show the king around and then bring him before the altar for a blessing. Meanwhile, the coffee workers mingled quietly in the square, right outside the cathedral.
For some reason, I’m not sure why, His Excellency had invited a small group of elementary school children to sing a song or two for the king of Spain. It was all on the QT and only their director was with them. She and the children were huddled in a small chapel as if they were little lambs flocked together for safety. Dios mio , they were going to sing for the king of Spain!
There were three of us clerics by now, the archbishop, myself and another tall -must I say it -bald, and anglo-priest who had joined us. We were all sitting on a bench just outside the sacristy talking as the eight o’clock hour passed. No king. No notice.
By 8:30 pm,, the bishop is becoming agitated and the children are falling asleep on their tiny chairs. However, one little girl gets up, walks over to the priest who had joined us late and said to him politely and with a lovely smile on her face: “Senor, es usted el Rey D’ Espana?” “Are you the king of Spain?”
He told her that he was sorry but he wasn’t the king.
Juan Carlos never did show up and the archbishop left in a huff at around 9 pm. Later, we learned that Juan Carlos’s security team did not permit him to enter the plaza because of the presence of the coffee plantation workers. I doubt very much whether the coffee workers would have reacted with anything more than a “Gracias” if the king would have stopped by.
Eventually, the governor of Oaxaca pacified the workers with a promise of better wages. The demonstration, after a week, broke up and the coffee workers returned to the mountains. These workers are descendants of the proud nations who had inhabited the valley of Oaxaca before Spain sent its conquerors. The indigenous land was taken from them and today tourists trample the site where Zapotecans reined long before Spain and her conquistadores drove the native peoples from the valley up into the mountains.
Think of what you pay for a cup of coffee and remember that those who grow and harvest coffee beans in Mexico are, for the most part, paid wages that hardly allow them to subsist. When you see coffee marked “fair trade” you might want to do your part in assisting coffee workers south of us by switching brands, even though it will cost you more. Seems a small price to pay for justice. A fair price for their work means more that just money to those workers. It means that they are respected.
At the Catholic Relief Services web site you can learn more about how you can buy free trade coffee and even get a supply to sell and use (Think of all the coffee served at the meetings and events in your parish .)