One of the first things you notice when you first arrive at Oaxaca’s Zocalo (town square, in Mexico) is the masses of tourists and hawkers. The bars and restaurants on two sides of the square fill up every night with visitors, either international or Mexican. As it is southern Mexico, and it is a bad time for the peso, the prices are cheap for travelers, and I suspect most even well off Oaxacans only come here to entertain visitors. You see travelers who could afford to travel thousands of miles bickering with vendors over the equivalent of a few cents. Sitting in one of the coveted front row seats in the cafes, you have to cope with constant hawkers and beggars.
The other two sides of the square tell a different tale. The cathedral, of course, anchors one side, and is surrounded by vendors and by locals walking with their friends or family, buying balloons and kids´toys, cotton candy and elote (roasted corn either on the cob, or scraped off into a cup, served with mayonnaise, cheese, chilé, and more chilé). It is time out for families, or gaggles of women friends and clutches of lovers.
On the last side squats the encampment of of striking teachers and other political resisters. The tarp city starts in the middle of the zocalo, anchors the side and spreads to 2 0r 3 streets to the north and east. Political activism in the south of Mexico, the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, not coincidentally the poorest states, never really stops, and tolerance at least seem to prevail.
The zocalo is blessedly clear of international chains. The restaurants are local, and interspersed are shoe stores, a fabric shop, and an understocked grocery store. I was surprised to not see the controversial McDonalds that was in development when I was here in 2002. This was the same autumn that Rudy Giuliani was busy gentrifying Mexico City´s zocalo district and driving off the local street vendors in favor of the dozen or so Starbucks that now flank the historic district. But Oaxaca stood solid against the gentrifiers and chose to reject the McZocalo, as some called it.
And that is where the Oaxaca zocola differs from too many others. This is still the people´s space. While it at first feels too touristic, walking around you can feel how local it is. Oaxacans have pride of place, and this is a place to really be proud of.