Truth in Beauty and Beauty in Truth: Graphic Memoir ‘Diario de Oaxaca’

Peter Kuper's work reminds us of the vibrant and inspired everyday people who live under the tyranny of petty and corrupt officials in both Mexico and the United States.

In 2006, cartoonist Peter Kuper and his family relocated from Manhattan to Oaxaca, Mexico, where they remained for roughly two years. Driven out in part by Bush-era politics, and in part by the desire to take a breather and give their young daughter some experience of the world, they descended directly into the horrific 2006 state-wide teachers’ strike. The seven-month strike by teachers and their supporters against state corruption and in support of education funding was violently repressed by the state’s governor with the aid of the federal police. More than 20 people were killed during the repressive state violence, including American journalist Bradley Will.

The tragic resistance by the state’s teachers comprises the first third of this powerful and creative book. Infuriated by the inaccurate and superficial coverage of the conflict by the world press, Kuper began doing sketches illustrating what was actually happening and sharing them with friends and family back home. Even after it was violently put down, the strike undergirds much of the rest of the book. The calm and colourful daily life of the region lies in contrast to the violence whose memory the state attempts to repress; the political silence in the wake of violent state repression is a condemnation of a different sort. But while posters and graffiti can be torn down or painted over, Kuper’s memory and the sketches inspired by it remain a poignant and potent tribute to the striking Oaxacans’ efforts to improve their lives.

Diario de Oaxaca isn’t just about the strike; it’s an eclectic and inspired collection of drawings and reminiscences of the author’s two years in Oaxaca. There’s a lot packed into the period, and yet one gets the sense that even this wide-ranging collection barely pierces the surface. From monarch butterflies and endangered tortoises, to Mesoamerican ruins, to the varieties of stray street dogs and the inspired art of a radish festival, Kuper offers the reader something more than just a sketchbook or graphic travelogue. It’s an impressionistic invitation to Oaxaca: a tantalizing sampling of the rich diversity the place has to offer. While acknowledging the violence that sometimes erupts in the place (as it does everywhere, including Kuper’s home country north of the border), he writes powerfully against the mainstream press’ depictions of an anarchic region paralyzed by daily violence.

“There I go again reiterating Oaxaca’s troubles, making it sound like a dangerous town,” he writes, during one of the diary-like entries which offer short analytical narrations of the experiences depicted in his illustrations. “Moving from light to dark and back again. It’s unavoidable; it’s the nature of the place. Or perhaps it’s in my nature to use a spectrum of hues when I paint my experiences. They say there’s truth in beauty, but there is also beauty in truth. That’s Oaxaca. But don’t take my word for it — go see it for yourself. It’s the only way to paint your own picture.”

The art and imagery of Diario de Oaxaca is impressively eclectic, and perfect for the nature of the work Kuper’s produced. Ranging from crayon-like splashes of symbolic and abstract art to cartoonish line drawings, he even integrates photos along with elements of Mexico’s diverse and ancient imagery. The eclectic style allows him not just to illustrate experiences but to express them, from psychedelic cultural fusions to ancient and mystical iconography. There are Mayan temples, scorpions and butterflies, market stalls and cobbled streets. There are stray dogs, riot police, bar scenes, and beaches.

Everywhere, there is life, and Kuper’s art expresses this in profusion: the teeming omnipresence of insects; the deep and sprawling roots of ancient trees; the stoicism of a woman sitting at a market stall and the laughter of a man downing a beer. Courage on the flaming barricades and the delighted laughter of children; a fight between a couple on the beach and the bright eclecticism of Day of the Dead festivities. Kuper succeeds handily in fulfilling his “desire to telegraph my enthusiasm for the place to anyone who will listen.”

Diario de Oaxaca is also fully bilingual, with short essays and illustrated captions alike all presented in both English and Spanish.

Kuper has been traveling to Mexico for decades, and it’s become a sort of second home for him. It’s been the inspiration for serious and complex work, like his award-winning graphic novel Ruins (also loosely based on his experiences of 2006-08). But Diario de Oaxaca is a much more personal sort of work, allowing him to reflect in first-person and adopt a more introspective tone. Originally published in 2009, the new edition includes several updated diary entries chronicling subsequent trips back to Oaxaca over the past decade, up through May 2017.

Diario de Oaxaca also feels driven by a sense of political urgency in the present and unfolding relationship between Mexico and the United States. Kuper doesn’t hold back any punches; he left America in part because of the mess President Bush was making of things, but he’s equally critical of the corrupt and violent political leadership of Oaxaca. President Trump’s anti-Mexicanism has added an entirely new dimension to the situation. Kuper’s work reminds us of the vibrant and inspired everyday people who live under the tyranny of petty and corrupt officials in both Mexico and the United States, and of the imperative to see the beauty of each place through the murky political fog and inaccurate, homogenizing reporting that so often obscures them.

“Given the xenophobic portrayals of Mexico spouted by U.S. government officials, my urgency to convey a broader vision of our neighbour is even greater today,” Kuper writes in closing. “With mandates to literally wall ourselves off from Mexico, it’s essential to question what would be lost. To narrow our vision of the planet into separate island-states is to isolate ourselves from art, culture, history and our collective means of survival. As if air can be halted by borders. As if weather can be contained by lines on a map. The ruins of fallen empires, evident throughout Mexico, are signposts our leaders would be advised to heed as they build their barricades.”

Rating: 8

RATING 8 / 10