Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Oaxaca Part 4: The Zocalo's great Cathedral

Catedral Metropolitana de Oaxaca. The Metropolitan Cathedral of Oaxaca sits on the northeast corner of the zocalo. The broad plaza area in front and to the south is the site of an extraordinary number of religious, social, musical, and political events, sometimes all in the same day.

The Spanish arrived in the area in 1521, while they were still in the process of subduing the Aztec Empire. Moctezuma II had told Hernán Cortés that the Aztec's gold and silver came from the area, so Cortés sent three of his toughest conquistadores, Gonzalo de Sandoval, Francisco de Orozco, and Pedro de Alvarado to check it out. They brought with them the priest Juan Diaz, who founded San Juan de Dios, Oaxaca's first church. It was a humble adobe structure with a thatched roof. It is not clear what the Zapotecs called the area at the time. The Aztecs, who had moved in around the middle of the 1400s, called it Huaxacac in their Nahuatl language. This referred to the gourd trees growing along the Atoyac River among which the first Aztec warriors camped. The Spanish linguistic corruption of the Nahuatl name became Guajaca. This was later changed to Antequera and finally to Oaxaca (a further corruption of Guajaca) in 1821 after the War of Independence from Spain.

Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. The Cathedral was dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption in 1741, and the exterior displays the Baroque style of that era. The relief sculpture above is found immediately over the main door of the Cathedral and portrays the Virgin Mary ascending to heaven. As luck would have it, we arrived in Oaxaca on the beginning of the Fiesta de la Asunción, which celebrates this event. Like many of the colonial era buildings in Oaxaca, the Cathedral was built with the beautiful green cantera stone found in the area.

Pedro de Orozco brought in Spanish settlers in 1522 and built a town near the site of the former Aztec stronghold. Cortés had plans of his own which didn't include a town independent of his control. He obtained the title of Marquis of the Valleys of Oaxaca, and repeatedly ran the settlers out, even though they obtained their charter directly from Emperor Charles V. The struggle see-sawed back and forth for some time, during which the town gained the name Antequera, in 1529. Finally, in 1532, Charles V confirmed Antequera's independent status.

Engraved angels in the glass of the church doors. The beautifully carved wood doors were set with windows engraved in the image of angels. The fine detail of this work is remarkable. In 1534, Antequera became a diocese of the Catholic church and the new bishop, Juan Lopez de Zarate, arrived the following year. He began construction of the Cathedral in 1535, using the same type of basilica design found in Mexico City and Puebla. Construction of this first phase was completed in 1574, but the Cathedral has undergone numerous additions and reconstructions over the centuries. Major new construction occurred between 1667-1694. Then in 1714, the Cathedral was seriously damaged by an earthquake and closed to the public. Between 1724-1730, the church was reconstructed enough to resume religious activities, but the work wasn't completed until 1752. In the meantime, as noted above, the Cathedral was dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in 1741.

However, even as this and other beautiful colonial buildings were taking form, a holocaust was engulfing the indigenous population. Between forced labor in the mines of Oaxaca, and exposure to European diseases, the native population in the area of the current State of Oaxaca plummeted by 90%, from 1.5 million in 1521, to approximately 150,000 by 1650. The labor force grew so scarce that the Spanish resorted to importing African slaves. As a result, the Pacific Coast area of Oaxaca contains one of Mexico's largest concentrations of people of African descent.

A vaulted nave runs the length of the Cathedral. This is one of three parallel naves, separated by high pillars which support curved arches. The name "nave" refers to the resemblance of a church ceiling to the ribs found on an up-turned boat. There are lateral naves also, running off to the sides and containing chapels.

In spite of its mines, colonial Oaxaca remained isolated from the rest of New Spain because of difficult terrain and lack of roads. This isolation was the salvation of the indigenous survivors of the initial century's depredations by the Spanish and their diseases. Today there are at least 16 distinct indigenous groups in the State of Oaxaca, although the Zapotecs and Mixtecs by far predominate. Oaxaca has the highest concentration of indigenous people in Mexico, which has contributed to its distinct and flourishing culture and crafts.

Warm glow of the overhead dome suffuses the entrance area. Suspended from the center is a long support cable leading down to an elaborate chandelier. The arches lining the base of the dome contain cavorting cherubs.

During the initial stages of the colonial period, the Spanish allowed the indigenous hierarchical political structures to continue as long as the native nobility continued to swear fealty to the crown. As time went on, however, they began lumping all indigenous people under the appellation "indio", and everyone in that category fell to the lowest status. The decimation of the indigenous population, as well as its isolation in remote valleys, made this much easier. In addition to the gold and silver from the mines, the Spanish gained considerable wealth from the export of dyes made from the cochineal insect. These dyes had long been used by the indigenous people to color their woven cloth. The tiny cochineal insect is collected from the paddles of the nopal cactus, and then ground up on a stone metate. When it is mixed with water and other natural substances, it produces various brilliant colors. A later posting in this series will look at this process, which is still used to produce Oaxaca's world-famous weaving.

The main nave of the Cathedral is lighted by chandeliers and filled with flowers. The high stone pillars, lined with beautifully carved wood, provide both support and a conception of division between the naves, while still maintaining a sense of openness.

On September 15-16, 2010, Mexico celebrated the Bicentennial of the beginning of the War of Independence. When the War of Independence broke out in 1810, officials in Oaxaca remained loyal to the crown. They hanged the representatives of insurgent leader Miguel Hidalgo who showed up to ask for support. Just as Hidalgo, Ignacio Allende, and other early insurgent leaders came to a bad end, so did local insurgents who attempted an uprising. For a short time the insurgents held the city under José María Morelos y Pavón, but they later withdrew, and Morelos was captured and executed. After the war, the State of Morelos and the City of Morelia were named after him. Oaxaca remained in royalist hands until the war ended in 1821.

The choir area and the pipe organ. In the front part of the main nave, nearest the main entrance, is a beautiful "U" shaped set of seats for the choir, intricately carved from a dark stained wood. Above the wooden U are the massive pipes of the Cathedral's organ.

After the victory against Spain, Mexico remained in turmoil for much of the next 50 years, as two groups struggled for power. The liberals advocated modernization, the end of the all-pervading influence of the Catholic Church, and a platform of personal liberties that today we would describe as human rights. The conservatives wanted to maintain the society as it was under the Spanish, only with them in charge. This struggle played out in Oaxaca, as well as around the rest of Mexico. Two of Mexico's most famous political personalities, Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz, were natives of Oaxaca and they first emerged into the public eye during this period.

Sculpture of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción dominates the center of the Cathedral. The bronze statue was made in Italy by a sculptor named Tadolini and delivered to Mexico during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (called the "Porfiriate"). The spotlight produces an effect like a beam from the heavens. The statue is located about 1/2 way down the central nave.

Benito Juarez was a full-blooded Zapotec whose parents died in his native village outside of Oaxaca when he was only a boy. He moved to the city and was taken in by a kindly middle-class family who educated him to be a lawyer. He rose to become first the Governor of Oaxaca, then Chief Justice of the Mexican Supreme Court, then President of Mexico. As a liberal, he was committed to a wide range of personal liberties including freedom of religion, and to restricting the influence of the Catholic Church, particularly in the area of education. The Church was one of the bedrock supporters of the conservative party, and clearly saw liberal reforms such as freedom of religion and secular education as threats to its interests. A struggle called the Reform War broke out, which Juarez eventually won with the help of a fellow Oaxacan, General Porfirio Diaz.

At the rear of the central nave, another altar to the Virgin. She sits on a pedestal, attended by bowing angels below and two more floating above. In the background the light from a round window is emphasized by halo-like beams on the walls.

Juarez' victory in the Reform War was just the prelude to the main struggle. The conservatives, desperate to stop Juarez' liberal reforms, betrayed Mexico by inviting French Emperor Napoleon III to invade and install a European-style monarchy. Napoleon obliged in 1862 and sent in French troops to put Austrian Duke Maximilian on the throne as Emperor of Mexico. US President Abraham Lincoln strongly supported Juarez, but was pre-occupied by the American Civil War. Mexican patriots continued the resistance, even though they were forced into the north of Mexico. Finally, with the end of the American Civil War, Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson began to send weapons and other resources to Juarez, and the Mexican patriot forces began to win. When the US threatened to intervene militarily on Juarez' side, the French withdrew. Shortly after, the forces of Maximilian and the Mexican conservatives were defeated and collapsed. Juarez and General Diaz were triumphant and Maximilian and numerous conservative leaders were executed as usurpers and traitors to the Republic.

Side chapel in one of the transverse naves is dedicated to Jesus. As a non-Catholic, I am often puzzled by the religious priorities displayed in Catholic churches. For Protestants, Jesus is the central figure, second only to God. In Catholic churches I have visited during our adventures, Jesus is often relegated to a secondary position. Here, he is tucked into a small side-chapel near the back of the church. Clearly the main figure of the Cathedral is the Virgin Mary, as it is in a great many other Mexican churches. There are a number of different versions of the Virgin in different countries, depending on who sighted her apparition and when. The Virgin of Guadalupe is the supreme religious symbol of Mexico. As a dark-skinned Virgin, she is the patron of the poor, the campesinos, and the indigenous people. In a country that virtually invented the concept of macho, I also find it curious that a woman is at the center of religious veneration. I still have a great deal to learn about Mexico, evidently.

Benito Juarez served a total of five terms as President, finally dying of a heart attack in 1872 while working at his presidential desk. The man who tried to oust him, Napoleon III, was himself ousted in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. One of Juarez' most famous quotes was "Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace." Juarez' chief general, Porfirio Diaz, was not a devotee of this concept.

Gigantes cavort in front of the Cathedral on the eve of the Asunción. While strolling the zocalo one evening early in our visit, we were charmed by these huge puppets, as was the little boy in the bottom center of the photo. Giant puppets, called gigantes, have a long history in Mexico, and are part of many public celebrations. While we were watching, an older Mexican gentleman kindly explained to us that the gigantes were part of the Fiesta de la Asunción and that most of the people performing as gigantes and dancers had trained for the honor a long time.

The liberal Oaxacan Juarez was followed by the Oaxacan dictator Diaz. Four years after Juarez' death, in 1876, Porfirio Diaz was elected President of Mexico. Except for the brief interludes during which he remained the "power behind the throne," he held firmly to the position of president. Diaz maintained dictatorial power through electoral manipulation, buying off his opponents, and--if that didn't work--political repression and assassination. His policy was called "Pan o Palo" (Bread or the Stick). He was finally ousted in 1910 at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution.

A small boy peeps out of the viewing slit of a gigante. As small as this fellow was, I wondered how long he could have trained before putting on his gigante suit. Still, he did a good job, dancing and cavorting about in front of the delighted crowd surrounding him. Wherever we go in Mexico, we are constantly amazed and amused by unexpected spectacles like this.

Porfirio Diaz allied himself with large hacienda owners and domestic and foreign industrialists. His goals, aside from maintaining power and enriching himself, were to modernize Mexico's infrastructure and introduce large-scale capitalism. He crisscrossed the nation with railroads and telephone lines, brought in electricity in many areas, and built or instigated beautiful architecture in the 30 year period spanning the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of the benefits of his development projects went to a tiny group of the very wealthiest Mexicans and the owners of foreign corporations. The overwhelming majority of Mexicans were little more than serfs on haciendas, or wage-slaves in foreign-owned factory operations. Indigenous people were often rounded up as actual slaves for highly profitable operations such as the sisal plantations of Yucatan, despite the abolition of slavery in Mexico in the 1820s.

Indigenous dancer has fun while pleasing the crowd. We never learned the exact meaning of the dances, or what the gigantes were supposed to represent, except that it all had to do with the Asunción de Nuestra Señora.

By 1910, Mexicans had enough of the Porfiriate. Diaz attempted another electoral manipulation that year, pretending to offer a free election, but jailing his chief opponent Francisco Madero and altering the vote so that he would appear to win overwhelmingly. Diaz' fraud was so obvious that it set off a huge outcry, and Madero--who had escaped from prison--announced an open revolt. The Mexican Revolution was on! Before it was over, as many as 2 million people (1 out of 7) would die or leave Mexico. The nation will be celebrating the Centennial of the Revolution on November 20, 2010.

Colorfully dressed female dancer balances a large flower basket on her head. This woman whirled and twirled around the stone plaza, always with a very serious expression on her face.

During the Revolution, Oaxaca was a strong-hold for Emilanio Zapata. His slogan "Tierra y Libertad" (Land and Liberty) resonated with the landless, oppressed campesinos and indigenous people of the Oaxaca backcountry. Zapata called for the return of communal land illegally seized from indigenous people by hacienda owners under Diaz. Zapata's call terrified the wealthy landowners, who threw their support to a more conservative revolutionary, Venustiano Carranza. The constitutional convention held after Diaz was overthrown did not chose Carranza as president, and he staged a coup with the support of the conservative elements of society. Soon, he was fighting both Zapata in southern Mexico and Pancho Villa in the north. Carranza was so unpopular in Oaxaca that his brother was assassinated there. The struggle by Oaxacans against Carranza lasted from 1916-1920, but he eventually won. In 1917, Carranza arranged the assassination of Emiliano Zapata, but was himself assassinated in 1920. The old saying "Revolutions eat their own children" was never more true than in Mexico.

The Virgin on her float, with angels in attendance. After the gigantes and dancers finished, a large float full of children dressed as the Virgin and attending angels pulled away from the front of the Cathedral. The crowd followed closely, but it was late and we decided to return to our hotel. It had been a delightful experience, pagan and Catholic all wrapped together as one usually finds in Mexico.

After the Revolution, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was created to meld together all the key elements which had created the revolution. Over the next 70 years, the PRI ruled Mexico, losing national power only in the 2000 elections. However, the PRI remained in power in Oaxaca until 2010. This year the National Action Party (PAN), a conservative business-oriented party, won the election, largely due to the long history of corruption and political violence by the out-going governor. PAN didn't win on its own, however, but with a broad coalition of other parties from the far left to the right side of the political spectrum. Since the only thing uniting them was universal revulsion toward the PRI and its long-standing Oaxaca governor, it is not clear how long the coalition will last.

Mimes dressed as Golden angel perform outside the Cathedral. These two appeared to be unconnected to the Asunción activities. For a small donation, they agreed to a tourist photo. Such mimes, in a wide variety of costumes, are to be found throughout Mexico. We saw them dressed as pirates and cowboys in Vera Cruz.

What happens next in Oaxaca? There is a strong history of grassroots activism and unionism in Oaxaca. Workers and campesinos from the Central Valleys and indigenous people from the remote villages all seem determined to hold the new government accountable. While we were there, we saw almost continuous peaceful demonstrations in the zocalo over a variety of issues. In a future post, we will take a look at some of these demonstrators and their issues.

This completes Part 4 of my Oaxaca series. I hope you enjoyed learning about the Cathedral, as well as an extremely brief history of Oaxaca. If you would like to leave a comment, you can do so either by using the Comments section below, or by emailing me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I am respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Jim, thanks for the history lesson. So, this year is the bicentennial of the beginning of the War of Independence (just celebrated) as well as the centennial (in November) of the revolution against Porfirio Diaz. What is Cinco de Mayo? I like the way you interwove the history lesson with your impressions of the incredible cathedral and street scenes.

  2. Thank you so much for featuring this lovely building and for the research and presentation.

    I used one of your photos and credited it to you along with a link to your blog. Please let me know if that is not okay.

    Here is where it is:

    Your blog is a real treat, with such an open, enthusiastic attitude towards Mexico.

    (my address is my username +


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