Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Oaxaca Part 1: A jewel in the mountains

Marimba players entertain passersby near the Oaxaca zocalo's graceful bandstand. Carole and I recently paid a long-planned 9-day visit to the City of Oaxaca in southeastern Mexico. We had heard many wonderful things about Oaxaca from those who had visited before us and we were not in the least disappointed. Our trip became a bit precarious when our chosen airline, Méxicana, announced bankruptcy just before we were to leave. However, they honored our tickets and other than a couple of scheduling glitches en route, the journey to and from Oaxaca was reasonably smooth. For a look at where the State of Oaxaca lies in Mexico, and the regions within the state, click here. The City of Oaxaca is in the middle of the region called Valles Centrales.

Restaurant Casa de la Abuela occupies a strategic spot on the zocalo's corner. "Grandma's House Restaurant" occupies the upstairs floor of the blue building above. The sidewalk restaurant is a owned separately. The zocalo, or central plaza, hosted a virtual blizzard of activities from early morning until after midnight every day we were in town. One of the prime spots for viewing it all was a table under one of the umbrellas in front of the portales, or arches, under Grandma's House. Remarkably, despite all the activity, tables were always available, and the food was good, plentiful, and quite inexpensive. I decided to begin my series on Oaxaca with the zocalo because it is the main center of activity in the whole town, just as the City of Oaxaca itself is the geographic, economic, and political center of the state. Oaxaca lies at the junction point of three major valleys, a the key factor in its importance from Olmec times (500 BC), through the Spanish colonial period, and up to the present. To understand the geographic position of Oaxaca in these valleys, click here. Make sure to wait for the satellite picture to show the map overlay.

Morning in the zocalo brings a fine shine to many a shoe. The scene above is typical of morning activities as the zocalo comes to life. Many shoe shine proprietors have their own moveable stands which they set up each morning. As you can see, all of them appear to be busy. Nearby, a young woman chats cheerfully with an older one in a wheelchair. A massive Mexican flag waves in the distance. The State of Oaxaca is the fifth largest of Mexico's 31 states in terms of physical size: over 95,000 square kilometers (36,800 sq. mi). It is extremely mountainous, since several different mountain ranges intersect here from different directions. Less than 10% of the state's land area is arable, including the broad valleys around the City of Oaxaca and a handful of other areas. The nature and difficulty of the geography has tended to protect the social and cultural integrity of the indigenous people who live here. Currently the state's population is a bit over 3.5 million, including the heaviest concentration of indigenous people in Mexico. In fact, 53% of all Mexico's indigenous people live in the State of Oaxaca.

Goods balanced on her head, a colorfully dressed woman looks for customers. Next to her, a shoeshine man and a couple of other vendors share breakfast. Above all else, the zocalo is a place to buy and sell an amazing array of good and services, and vendors, known as comercientes, are everywhere. I got this shot, like many others during my stay, while sitting at a sidewalk restaurant table. I quickly learned to always take my camera and keep it on the table, ready for a quick photo. The municipality of Oaxaca, which includes the city and nearby villages, contains over 265,000 people, 97% of which live within the city limits. An astonishing 77% of Oaxaqueños are employed in jobs somehow related to tourism. Another 20% are employed in mining or agriculture. The City of Oaxaca's well-deserved designation as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO probably has something to do with this employment pattern. For a map of Oaxaca's Centro Historico (historic center), click here.

One of several fountains in the zocalo. The zocalo, planned by Juan Peláez de Berrio in 1529, is one of the oldest parts of the city. The site was never paved or given sidewalks during the entire colonial period. Its major feature was a marble fountain, not built until 1739. In 1857, the original fountain was removed and replaced by a kiosco, or bandstand, and trees were planted. In 1901, the original kiosco was replaced by the current Art Noveau structure seen in the first picture. Finally, in 1967 the fountain above was added, along with another on the other side of the kiosco. As is typical of Mexican plazas, Oaxaca's zocalo is surrounded by a church (the Catedral on the north), the Palacio Gobierno (on the south) which is now a museum. Commercial areas are on the east and west sides. These are mostly restaurants fronted by open arched walkways called portales and lined with sidewalk tables. In the middled of the 19th Century, a second large area was added, slightly offset from the northwest corner of the zocalo. This area, known as the Alameda de Leon contains a large garden and a statue of Antonio de Léon, the Oaxaca governor who created it in the 1840s, modeling it after the Alameda in Mexico City. His statue was added in 1885.

Another of our favorite restaurants in the zocalo. A table at one of these restaurants provides best show in town. Religious events, political demonstrations, street musicians, vendors hawking their wares, concerts in the kiosco or in front of the nearby Catedral, clowns, jugglers, mimes, and much more provided an ever-changing and seemingly endless performance. Best of all, it was free, except for the price of a cup of coffee or soft drink or inexpensive meal if we chose.

Oblivious to the passing spectacle, a Oaxaqueño enjoys a book. This fellow sat at the table next to us at the restaurant shown above. I sneaked a peek at the book and was amused that he was reading a Spanish-language version of F. Scott Fitzgerald stories.

The ex-Palacio Gobierno, now a museum, was closed during our visit. A series of on-going political disputes led to closure of the ex-Palacio as well as its adornment with various protest signs which can be seen in the background. Since, as labor and community organizer, I spent 30 years of my life organizing just such protests, I was very interested in what was going on. Over the course of our visit, we figured out a good deal of it. In one of my upcoming blog postings on Oaxaca we will take a look at these disputes and the high level of political activism for which Oaxaca is known. The ex-Palacio served as the state government headquarters until 2005, when it was turned into a museum dedicated to diversity. The original gothic-style Palacio Gobierno was opened in 1728. The government functions have been transferred to a building on the north side of the zocalo, across from the Catedral, which used to be a warehouse. There are reputed to be wonderful murals inside the ex-Palacio, but as it was closed, we never saw them.

An indigenous woman, dressed in the brilliant clothing of her village. There were quite a number of women with identical outfits in the immediate area, and as far as I could tell they were Mixtecas from the village of San Juan Copala. They had come partly to protest the military occupation of their village, and partly to sell their handicrafts in the zocalo. Oaxaca is widely known for its wonderful, and brilliantly colored, handwoven clothing. The intense red of her dress is probably from a dye called cochineal made from insects which infest the nopal cactus. In a later posting, we will examine the weaving process which produces beautiful garments like this.

Hotel Monte Albán hosts the Guelaguetza, a production of folk dances from around Oaxaca. The Hotel Monte Albán was named after the famous pre-hispanic ruins outside Oaxaca. It sits on the corner of the Alameda Léon park facing the Catedral. The hotel was built in the 18th Century as the town home of some Spanish grandee. The material used was andesite, a green volcanic stone unique to the State of Oaxaca which was much favored by architects in Oaxaca over the centuries. A sign advertising the Guelaguetza can be seen on the balcony at the upper left. Although the hotel's advertising claims a daily show, they require a minimum of 10 people to make reservations in advance and apparently there was not enough interest because we were turned away the two times we attempted to see it. It was a shame, because the Guelaguetza is internationally famous. Maybe next time...

The patience of age. As I was sitting at my table in one of the sidewalk restaurants, I spotted this elderly woman across the walkway. She was sitting quietly and with great dignity as she waited for customers to buy her small selection of brightly painted children's toys. The markings on her face are birthmarks. I was glad to see she eventually did sell some of her items.

Late 19th Century architecture graces a good deal of Oaxaca. Above, some upscale stores line Hidalgo street which leads directly to the zocalo. The blue building on the left is Restaurant Casa de la Abuela, "Grandma's House". The various mountain ranges which criss-cross the state from the north, east, and west, along with the variation of ecological zones from tropical Pacific beaches, to semi-desert, to high mountain valleys, have given Oaxaca the highest level of biological diversity in Mexico, with 8,400 plant species, 738 bird species, and 1,431 vertebrates, and 120 species of fish. Together, these account of 50% of all species in Mexico. Unfortunately Oaxaca is also listed among the top 5 areas in the world with the most endangered species.

A hammock seller hawks his wares. This husky fellow made sure he was noticed. I was intrigued by the technique of the vendors: where they placed themselves, how they approached customers, how they displayed their wares for best effect. There were also countless children selling everything from chiclets to swizzle sticks, sometimes with a parent or other adult, sometimes alone. One of the local expats has written of advice he received from a Mexican concerned with child welfare. The Mexican strongly advised not buying products or giving money to children because that simply gives their parents or guardians a strong incentive to keep them out of school so they can make money. In addition, there is no telling whether any of the money a child collects is kept by him or her or used for the child's own benefit.

Oaxaca Catedral at night. The Catedral was founded in 1522, barely a year after Cortés defeated the Aztecs. Moctezuma, whom he overthrew, told him that the Aztecs got their gold from Oaxaca, so Cortés and sent Spanish troops and Aztec mercenaries down to look into it. The action on the zocalo does not slow down at night. If anything, it increases. There is a large open area in front of the Catedral and another along its south side. In these areas we found dancers, various musical groups, and religious activities related to the Asunción de la Virgen. The Asunción relates to the time when the Virgin Mary was brought up to Heaven, according to the Catholic religion. In a future posting, I will focus on this great Catedral and some of the Asunción activities which have a distinctly indigenous feel.

This ain't no bull! A young man holds a wooden bull's head over his own as fireworks attached to the bull spark and explode. He whirled and danced in the plaza in front of the Catedral. Coming close to the appreciative crowd, he showered them with hot sparks as they laughed and reeled back. A small dog kept pace with him, leaping at the sparks. I was never sure whether the dog was part of the act, or just an interested bystander who decided to become a participant. When his bull went dead, another young dancer was ready with another blazing bull and continued the fun. I have seen this activity in other places and dangerous though it looks, everyone seems to have a good time. No doubt a US or Canadian fire marshal would have heart palpitations at the sight.

Lovely music with guitars and andean pipes. A trio of musicians entertained the part of the crowd that wasn't absorbed by the bull fireworks. They were one of several musical groups that performed for the crowd that night.

From the anarchy of burning bulls to a military quick-step. The next morning we came by the zocalo in time for the final leg of a military sports pentathlon. The young men marching above were some of the runners who came panting across the finish line as we arrived earlier. The local military were celebrating the bicentennial of Mexico's War of Independence and Revolution.

Young soldiers, male and female, line up for the awards ceremony. They seemed very spiffy, well-turned-out, and disciplined. Mexico has a very ambiguous relationship with its military. On the one hand, brave young soldiers are killed periodically in shootouts with drug cartel gunmen, as they attempt to defeat the criminals. On the other hand, there have been many accusations of human rights violations by the army against workers, campesinos, and grassroots political activists. Some of the protesters we encountered in Oaxaca were there for that very reason. Mexicans don't necessarily know whether or not to feel more secure when a truckload of heavily armed soldiers goes by. In my own personal encounters with them, they have always been friendly and courteous, but I have no idea whether this is at all typical.

Battle of the bands on the zocalo. Just a few yards away from the military awards ceremony, this orchestra filled with young people about the same age played classical music. In true Mexican style, the military band was belting out its own music, of a martial nature. This is not at all unusual in Mexico, where 2, 3 or more musical groups will play their hearts out, often in close proximity. This sort of anarchic approach to life is one of the things I love about Mexico.

In the end, the zocalo is about ordinary people. Three women, each with something different to sell, take a break for a few minutes gossip. Mexican plazas were designed as gathering places where the people could sell their wares, purchase items they need, celebrate religious and patriotic festivals, carry on romances, meet friends and generally live their lives out in the open. They are endlessly fascinating and entertaining for me.

This completes Part 1 of my series on Oaxaca. Part 2 will look at the great, and very scenic, ruins of Monte Albán, the capital of the Zapotec civilization, which lasted for almost 1500 years. If you would like to leave a comment, you can either use the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I may answer you.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Jim, I'm looking forward to your Oaxaca series. This is an intriguing city that combines a lot of what I'm looking for when I relocate (climate, culture, cuisine, art, affordability, reasonable coastal access). Did you get a feel for the Oaxacan expat community? Could you see yourself living there? - dobrien1[at]gmail[dot]com

  2. Jim,

    The condition the lady has is vitaligo, a gradual loss of pigment, common in many people; but more noticeable and distressing in darker skinned people.

  3. Hi Jim,

    We live a couple miles away from you and would appreciate getting in touch. Love to learn more about what you see in Oaxaca.

    Can I leave an email contact with you?

  4. hija de papi- you can reach me at jcmx07 (at) hotmail (dot) com We'd be happy to meet for coffee or lunch.

    Saludos, Jim

  5. Jim, as always I really enjoyed this post. What a vibrant place you picture. Oaxaca was my first incursion past the border towns into Mexico, about 15 years ago for Dia de los Muertos. There were political protests then as well. I'm looking forward to your post about Oaxacan activism. Gracias.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim