Listen to this article
It is early afternoon in Mexico City and a group of women is stuffing a food processor with chopped onion and fistfuls of fresh coriander to make a spicy green sauce, a ritual played out in Mexican homes every day.
But these women are standing in a makeshift kitchen on a traffic lane in Paseo de la Reforma, a central avenue in Mexico City, as part of a protest that has turned one of the world’s busiest and most polluted streets into a carnival of culture.
Ever since July 30, when Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftwing presidential candidate, called on followers to camp along the avenue to demand a full recount of the July 2 election, the hissing and screaming of buses has been replaced by the giggles of children in painting workshops and old men plucking traditional melodies on guitars.
Attitudes to the protest – Mr López Obrador insists he won the election even thought the official count says he narrowly lost to the centre-right candidate, Felipe Calderón – depend largely on who you are.
Businesses, particularly hotels along Reforma, complain that the protest has scared away their corporate clients. Some estimates suggest that local commerce has suffered an 80 per cent decline in income.
The blockade has also made the lives of many city residents miserable. On Circuito Interior, a nearby avenue, the traffic has grown to proportions rarely seen in the city’s history, and drivers seethe in their motionless vehicles and blast their horns with frustration.
But on a bridge about 10 metres above them, on a part of Reforma that stretches over Circuito Interior, life has never been calmer. In the Magdalena Contreras camp, named after one of the city’s 16 districts, a group of boys and girls plays chess with crudely carved oversized pieces while two policemen yawn and smoke cigarettes.
DVDs about Pancho Villa, the revolutionary heroes, are on sale and a portly man promotes a reading workshop: free of charge to anyone with the time to sit down for a while are Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad. Also available is a dog-eared copy of Leftwing Governments in Latin America. Farther up the avenue, María Lydia Guadalupe Vela Chichino, a middle-aged woman with warm dark eyes and an engaging smile, has erected a bright orange sign outside her tent showing a stick person shovelling earth. “Sorry for the inconvenience – democracy at work,” it reads.
Life in the camps is both organised and tranquil, she says. The street is clean and the 150 people who live in her camp have drawn up rotas for cooking and cleaning. One of the reasons things are so pleasant along the roughly 6km of Paseo de la Reforma is the generous support, both political and financial, provided by the city government, which is run by Mr López Obrador’s Democratic Revolution party (PRD).
Peek into the storehouse of the Tlalpan camp, named after another of the city’s districts, and there are as many as 150 spare blankets. All are the same colour and all are new, which seems to undermine organisers’ insistence that they are all small donations from residents.
Another reason the camps work so well, argues Lidia Suárez Ojeda, a primary school teacher from Tlalpan, is that many of the participants learned their organisational skills as teenagers as they coped with the horror of a devastating earthquake in 1985.
Valentina Camila Rojas, a precocious 11-year-old, is in no doubt why she is protesting. “We don’t want the right to win. The right is not good,” she explains mechanically. “In Chile there was repression and if the right wins here there will be repression here too.” She and her three younger companions, all on school holidays, say life is fun in the camps. Valentina Camila says they spend the day painting, playing and translating political messages for tourists who pass by.
Towards town, more activities are getting started. A stocky man in tight shorts and a mask covered in black fur and a wide feline grin wrestles another to the canvas of an improvised ring. Later there will be an evening of theatre, outdoor cinema, aerobics, poetry and live music ranging from rock and reggae to jazz and traditional Mexican folk songs.
How long the blockade remains is anyone’s guess. But until Mr López Obrador announces a change of tactics it will continue to offer a logistics headache to those trying to get to work and a rare chance for others to enjoy the fun as they stroll unmolested down one of the world’s busiest avenues.