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Rearticulating the Social: Spatial Practices, Collective Subjects, and Oaxaca's Art of Protest


My dissertation, titled "Rearticulating the Social: Spatial Practices, Collective Subjects, and Oaxaca's Art of Protest," explores how the popular uprising begun in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2006 is reconfiguring conceptions of public space and rights to the city, redefining political participation through novel practices of self-formation, and questioning the role of democratic government in Mexico's future. As both an architect and an anthropologist, my central research objective was to analyze how shifts in Oaxacan's habitual practices enabled and engendered socio-political and subjective transformations. In eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork (2007-2008), I thus worked closely with and became a member of a group of political street artists from marginalized communities who were part of the coalition of individuals, collectives, and social organizations that became the Popular Assembly of the People's of Oaxaca, or APPO. Focusing on practices of struggle such as the making and maintaining of barricades, protest marches, sit-in strikes, and making the art of protest, the dissertation argues that APPO's practices of struggle in Oaxaca have been both highly mobile and mobilizing. As the dissertation argues, greater attention to both senses of movement as moving bodies and the capacity of spatial practices to mobilize people affectively allows us greater understanding of the materiality and imagined political geographies of social movements.

The dissertation focuses on the role of practices of struggle and the competing aesthetics of political street artists, protest groups, elite cultural and governmental institutions, and ordinary Oaxacans to emphasize the importance of everyday spatial practices and a recognition that, as Michel de Certeau writes, "history begins at ground level, with footsteps" (1984:129). Whether manifested as literal occupations and appropriations of city spaces or as different modalities for inhabiting and making place, Oaxacans' spatial practices disrupted dominant understandings and uses of the open and democratic nature of public space. In stenciling their graphic messages on city walls, street artists gave visual form to a long history of the systemic marginalization of the Oaxacan people and, more importantly, to the Oaxacan people's courage in mobilizing to find a solution. Speaking from the perspective of shared experiences and struggles, images on city walls revealed common points of identification that interpellated the collective subject of el pueblo (the people). Focusing on the transformative potential of artists' spatial practices through their investment in the material spaces of the city, my dissertation contends that political subjectivities are formed in and through an encounter with the city's material environment. Consequently, I argue that urban space is not a passive landscape but is an actant--to use Bruno Latour's terminology--that interpellates individuals as members of particular political publics. This is rendered visible, for example, in how an anti-government stencil hailing el pueblo on the façade of a municipal building invites a different mode for inhabiting social and physical space from a billboard promoting tourism for foreigners framing the city as the heritage and patrimony of all Oaxacans. An empirical and theoretical focus on these practices of struggle is central to work that I conceive of as an anthropology of urban space and provides a critical perspective on spatial practices that are changing definitions of political agency and public responsibility in an increasingly polarized urban world.

Though artistic expression has been central to contemporary and past social movements such as those of the Black Panthers, the Chicano movement and the United Farm Workers, and more recent struggles against the World Trade Organization, the artistic and social relevance of this cultural production has not received much scholarly attention in anthropology. For the economically impoverished and socially marginalized youths that made up the street art collective I worked with, artistic expression and collective organization became a means not just to make their voices heard, however, but fostered communal practices that gave rise to alternative models of human flourishing or of "the good life." Organized through participatory assembly, creating and collaborating on art projects as a group, and holding art workshops to teach artistic skills to members and others, members of the art collective were able to transform their isolation and create a space of dialogue and debate that produced a powerful sociality that went beyond aesthetic expression or the imagined political and social horizon of the social movement engendered by APPO. Assessing the social and political dynamics produced by the art of protest, the dissertation addresses how Oaxaca's terrain of political positioning was constantly shifting, putting into doubt the notion of a possible scripted strategy pre-existing the mobile dynamics of contestation and struggle. The practices of struggle that APPO engendered were an invitation to insurgency, yet lacked any roadmap. As situated spatial practices with multiple mobile manifestations, the practices exceed the possibility to pin down APPO as a political formation, model, or organization. This raises challenges for mapping Left and populist politics in Latin America and the Global South, yet offers new opportunities for considering the power and possibilities of social movements from Caracas to Cairo to change and challenge not just governing regimes, but dominant social norms and forms.

Attentive to the spatial practices through which collective political subjectivities were formed in Oaxaca's social movement, my dissertation also brings a critical perspective to how social movements in the Global South are commonly assessed in political imaginaries in the West. Filtered through discourses of democratic representation or human rights, social movements are generally appraised in relation to the possibilities that these afford for subaltern groups to subvert the dominant structures that marginalize them by giving voice to the injurious workings of power. I argue that an important effect of the political imaginaries of resistance that emerge from this perspective is to conceive of political traction through the lens of what Michael Warner refers to as "state-based thinking." Under the framework of state-based political imaginaries, agency is acquired in relation to the state and the state remains the means of political self-realization. However, by looking at the internal processes that social movements enable, I consider how social movements produce possibilities for social transformation that go beyond the external goals that they set forth. The mobilizing practices of struggle in Oaxaca demanded and gained recognition and rights to the city at a multiplicity of social and geographic scales. While marches, local media takeovers, and stencils on city walls were localized political practices, their political traction and demand for recognition addressed multiple audiences that included, but were not limited to, regional or federal government bodies. The dissertation argues that, when the state is imagined as the ground by which to secure social justice and political change, this marginalizes the productive power of practices of struggle in social movements as transformative of spaces and social relations in their own right.

In a contemporary moment where democracy is both seen as the global future and yet is also in need of being defended and implemented militarily, the dissertation contends that practices of social protest in urban settings produce forms of organizing collective life that call into question prevalent conceptions of representative democracy and the state as the pinnacle of political organization. What emerges from an ethnographic analysis of the practices of struggle of the public assemblies, neighborhood barricades, political art on city walls, and the megamarches of millions are the ways in which these transcended the purely confrontational aspect of a repudiation of the governor to become their own point of reference; Oaxacans' embodied practices are forming alternative conceptions of ethical communities and a collective subject that bypasses state-based frameworks as the necessary horizon of Oaxaca's future. I thus argue that making the populist collective subject of "the people" is just as important as challenging the state in pursuing social justice and making a space for politics. Delimiting the political and social effect of APPO in relation to the authoritarian politics of Oaxaca's governor means neglecting how its mobilizing practices of struggle changed forms of political subjectivity and social community, with effects that continue to reverberate to this day.

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