There´s something brewing on the streets of Oaxaca. The genteel colonial centre is vividly scrawled with graffiti and much of it is political. Spray paint depicts everything from giant, masked Lucha Libre wrestlers with the caption La lucha sigue (The struggle continues), to repeated references to the Zapatistas, the indigenous-based rebel movement in the neighbouring state of Chiapas. Small, scrawny figures in the trademark Zapatista ski-masks adorn street signs, the masked face of Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos appears in bold black on freshly painted walls, while on another, stencils depict a masked indigenous woman harvesting corn beneath the line "corn is our life". Amid the Zapatistas, another line repeats itself, in stencil or running spraypaint: Oaxaca Libre, 14 de Junio, No se olvida (Free Oaxaca, June 14, Do not forget).
While it scarcely registered in the Australian media, and few media outlets anywhere fully grasped the depth of what was happening, for five months in 2006, the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca was, as Al Giordano describes "a government-free zone", "not governed from above, but rather self-governed by popular assembly.” What began as a teachers´ strike for better wages and conditions grew into a massive, non-violent, broad-based social movement that drove the corrupt and universally despised governor into hiding, and laid the foundations for a truly participatory democracy. As the people of Oaxaca realised that the corrupt government needed them more than they needed it, they began a shift (to use a phrase of Oaxaca´s Universidad de la Tierra) from the scarcity of dependence to the abundance of community self-reliance.
Oaxaca has a heritage of community self-government in its diverse indigenous population. Four out of five municipalities in the state still govern themselves through a process of communal assemblies, known as "practices and customs" or usos y costumbres, a system that doesn´t acknowledge political parties and functions by consensus. Furthermore, as Nancy Davies describes, "statewide, the greater part of public works in four hundred small communities are still carried out by citizen tequios [the traditional indigenous system of unpaid community service] that accomplish a variety of tasks like building roads; repairing churches, bringing in the harvest; and sharing the expenses of weddings, baptisms and deaths." With state and federal levels of Mexican government apparently riddled with corruption and with governments everywhere increasingly wedded to neoliberal economic policies that privilege the health of corporations over the health of communities, the critical importance of community self-reliance is becoming increasingly clear. It is this self-reliance that two Oaxaqueño organisations, Casa Chapulin and the Universidad de la Tierra, seek to cultivate.