OAXACA, Mexico—Newsarama—The tragic and politically explosive teachers’ strike in the southern Mexican state Oaxaca has been over for two-plus years, but its story is still unfolding. In May 2006, Oaxacan teachers organized to strike for the 25th consecutive year. Previous gatherings had last one or two weeks and garnered small raises and school improvements; yet the 2006 strike encountered a new dilemma: Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz.
Tensions escalated until Ortiz sent 3000 police to take control of the Zócalo where the teachers assembled. More protests ensued, leading to an armed conflict on Oct. 27, 2006. Professor Emilio Alonso Fabián, Esteban López Zurita and American photojournalist Brad Will were all killed during the confrontation. Photographs taken by Will earlier in the day showed the protestors with sticks and rocks before being fired on by the armed police.
Into that revolutionary hotbed walked cartoonist Peter Kuper. With a long history as a political cartoonist, as the co-founder of World War 3 Illustrated and current author of Mad’s Spy vs. Spy, Oaxaca’s political turmoil seemed a perfect match for Kuper’s creative instincts.
Of course, he was there for entirely different reasons (we’ll let him explain), but once a political cartoonist, always a political cartoonist. His new book, Diario de Oaxaca, tells of his two years living in Oaxaca during and after that time of strife.
“The main reason was for our daughter, Emily,” Kuper explained of his family’s relocation. “We wanted her to get a second language and be in a place with fewer iPods and cell phones. She was nine when we made the move in 2006, a time when her young mind was able to easily pick up a new language. My parents had done something similar when I was ten and we lived in Israel for a year. It had a huge impact on my worldview. Being a stranger in a strange land (I got beat up a lot) and having to decipher the complex symbols of a new language helped me grow up to be a freelance cartoonist!
“For me I saw our time as an opportunity to get some fresh influences, work in my sketchbook and experiment as I had on previous trips.”
Having State-side friends ask about the family’s safety in light of news reports about the strike surprised Kuper, who found the reality clashing with what was being reported. That disparity between first-hand experience and news coverage first inspired Kuper’s journal keeping.
He explained, “I saw a lot of the news reports on the Internet and many described the situation as violent strikers giving the government and military a hard time. The opposite was true and where strikers threw rocks the governor’s forces shot guns. I noticed bylines for reporters sometimes being Mexico City (which is a seven hour drive away), meaning they were printing their stories based on the government’s official reports.
“There were even reports saying the strikers were responsible for shooting the American journalist Brad Will, when he himself filmed the shooters who were all identified as various undercover police and government employees.
“In general the experience was a reminder of how much of mainstream news is inaccurate.”
As Kuper spent two years in Mexico and the teachers’ strike occurred during only a small part of his time there, Diario de Oaxaca opens with considerable political content, but as his time there wore on, Kuper’s focus moved inevitably toward the culture and social life of his new home.
Peter Kuper: “The strike began in May, but we only experienced it from July, when we arrived, until the end of November 2006. I only really started drawing the events in September since I was on deadline with Stop Forgetting (his pseudo-autobiographical graphic novel Stop Forgetting to Remember) right up until October. We were living there over a year and a half after the strike ended, so the book represents that story. I didn’t have to consciously try to create a fuller picture, I just drew what I experienced through our entire time.”
Much of the content related to Governor Ulises and the teacher’s strike was created long before Kuper intended to create a book.
“Only late in the second year,” Kuper said of when he realized his experiences and sketchbook had the makings of a compelling book. “I had sent some of the work to a Mexican publisher and they had run my drawings in a magazine they published. At some point they suggested the possibility of doing a collection and then the book started to take shape as I drew like a fiend in my remaining time.”
Having authored a previous book of comic book travelogues in the early 90s (Comics Trips from NBM), Kuper’s newest book is a slightly different experience, being more a sketchbook and accompanying journal, with only a few short sequences in a traditional “comic” format. “It shares some similarities with aspects of Comics Trips (my sketchbook from Africa and South East Asia),” he said, “but this is more focused and fully realized with art and text. Also the strike introduced a political aspect my other travel work lacked.
“Initially the book was going to only come out in Latin America, and I wanted to have people who didn’t speak Spanish to be able to read it,” Kuper explained when asked about Diario’s unusual split language approach. Each of his journal entries are published in English, with a Spanish-translation appearing on the facing page. Even labels attached to his illustrations feature Spanish translations as well. “Then when I did find a U.S. publisher doing it bilingual meant very few pages had to be different in both editions, which made the printing cost much more affordable for a small publisher like PM Press to do the book.”
Getting Diario de Oaxaca into readers’ hands has faced at least one problem Kuper couldn’t have imagined when he first started in the industry in 1979. “I used to be frustrated that I couldn’t get my books into bookstores, now I can’t get them into comic shops! Go figure,” he laughed. Diario is another victim of Diamond Distribution’s higher cut-off numbers. “At least with the Internet people can get the book directly from PM without any sweat at www.pmpress.org. I’m also doing a daunting amount of running around on book tours and giving slide show talks. I just returned from SPX and Maryland College of Arts and over the next few months I’ll be in Ohio, Michigan, Dallas, Italy and Mexico. It’s all listed on PM’s site.”
Kuper’s family spent two years immersed in the local culture, mixing with both American expatriates and Oaxacan locals extensively. “We made contact with a good number of people in the arts community there as well as encountering the small handful of ex-pats (including cartoonist Steve Lafler, who moved down there during our second year.) We met many people through our daughter’s school, most Oaxacan. I got pretty involved in the art scene and curate a show there of local artist as well as bring down work by political cartoonists from New York,” he said. “The situation with the government was an ongoing topic of conversation with everyone,” he added.
The experience of living abroad was a very rewarding one for the Kuper family, though Peter admits one small misstep in the process. Taking his family to a place in the midst of such political turmoil:
“Ooops, my bad. Yes it's true; I failed to do my homework,” Kuper acknowledged. “Just getting prepared to move, putting things in storage among the millions of details while on deadline with my graphic novel Stop Forgetting To Remember made for a daunting juggle and I figured I'd get caught up when we got there. Had I looked into it I would have read about a strike that was an annual event for the last 25 years and not been especially alarmed. The political firestorm triggered by the death of American journalist Brad Will couldn't have been predicted and that happened after we'd been there for several months.”
Despite the strife, however, the Kuper family appreciated the experience, even young Emily Kuper, on whose behalf the relocation was initiated.
Peter Kuper: “At first it was tough since we dropped her directly into an all-Spanish speaking school and she didn’t have more than a few words of Spanish. Overall it was great though, since she is now fluent and it was an incredible experience being in the midst of everything down there.
“Still, by the end of our two years she was more than ready to come home. Ultimately, what she will get out of the whole experience she will probably appreciate more when she’s older.”
While Emily can converse comfortably in Oaxaca, Kuper admitted ruefully, “My Spanish is just passable. Getting a new language as an adult is a bitch.”
Now that he’s settled back to life in New York – when not out touring or speaking in support of Diario de Oaxaca, Kuper’s intends to keep working on the things that make him happy.
“I’m currently working for a small nonprofit organization—me,” he teased. “The cartooning roadmap is pretty vague in these tough economic times, but I remain optimistic that new things will crop up as the dust settles.
“Having gotten a book out of drawing things that interest me, I’m inclined to keep going in that direction. As the old saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make comics.”