Saturday, September 25, 2010

Oaxaca Part 5: The fabulous Mercados

Beautifully embroidered dress in one of Oaxaca's many mercados. Oaxaca has numerous mercados (markets), mostly concentrated in the southwestern part of the Centro Historico. For a map showing market locations and other sites of interest, click here. The two we visited were Mercado Benito Juarez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre, which are adjacent to each other about 3 blocks southwest of the zocalo. The location of the present markets as been devoted to this activity since the 17th Century. The markets we see today were built in 1893 during the regime of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. The antiquity of the site is demonstrated by the adjacent Iglesia de San Juan de Dios, the first church built in Oaxaca by the priest Juan Diaz, who accompanied the first conquistadors to the area. The church still serves the mercados' vendors.

Mercado Benito Juarez' vendors primarily sell food and household items. Above, the stall vendor displays some artfully arranged camarones (shrimp). Her customer is studying the selection carefully. Camarones are very popular in most areas of Mexico. The "grande" or large-size shrimp sell for the equivalent of $9.56 (USD) for 2.2 lbs.

Fresh chicken feet anyone? In a north-of-the-border supermarket, chickens are usually sold sans feet, and fish sans heads or tails. In Mexican mercados, such niceties are not usually observed. Chicken feet are considered edible here, although I have not tried them. So are fried chapulines (grasshoppers) which I have also not tried, although they too are available in the mercado. They are reputed to be nice and crunchy.

The scent of fresh flowers permeated this area of Mercado Benito Juarez. A wide variety of fresh flowers adorned the various stalls. Mexicans love flowers, a taste that goes back to prehispanic times.

Mercado 20th de Noviembre features various crafts. November 20 refers to the beginning of the Revolution, the centennial of which is coming up very soon. This stall specialized in small tin decorations, mostly mariposas (butterflies) as far as I could see.

Catrina dolls were the specialty of this stall. Catrina is the feminine of catrin, which means elegant. The dolls are skeletons, both male and female, dressed in a variety of clothes and engaged in a variety of activities. They are closely associated with the Mexican Days of the Dead tradition (Nov. 1-2). Catrinas come in all sizes, from tiny to 6 feet tall. 19th Century Mexican cartoonist and printmaker Guadalupe Posada invented catrinas as a way of satirizing upper class pretensions during the Diaz regime (1876-1910). Catrinas hold a special appeal for Carole, who has amassed a small collection.

Sombreros for all tastes. The name sombrero comes from the Spanish sombra which means shade. I am a "hat person" so I tarried at this booth to see if anything appealed to me. "Sunny Mexico" was given that nickname for a reason. You are much closer to the Equator here than north of the border, and most of Mexico is comprised of mountains and high plateaux. Oaxaca lies at 1550 meters (5080 ft.) and given the altitude and latitude, the sun can be intense. Light-skinned folks from the US or Canada or Europe would be well advised to pick up one of these broad-brimmed hats, even if the weather is cool when you visit.

This vendor featured Huaraches as well as other types of footwear. Huaraches originated in Mexico during colonial times as footwear for the peones (peasants). The name comes from the Purepecha language of the indigenous people of Michoacan, sometimes called Tarascans. Originally the entire sandal was made of leather, but in the 1930s people began to form the soles from the rubber of old tires. Huaraches eventually became popular both north-of-the-border and elsewhere in Latin America. They are quite comfortable and tend to mould themselves to the foot of the wearer.

Embroidery in the Oaxaca area long-predates the Spanish. Oaxaca is famous for its beautiful weaving and borado (embroidery). The traditional dress is called the traje, and is still worn in remote villages. The best known type of traje is the huipil, generally made of white cotton with colorfully embroidered shoulders and mid-sections. While women still wear traje, but men rarely do, than those in dance troupes. Village men tend to prefer blue jeans, broad-brimmed straw hats, and cowboy boots. Clothes found in the mercados are generally intended for the tourist trade, both Mexican and foreign.

"Green energy" at work. I spotted this blade sharpener just outside one of the mercados. Mexicans are excellent at recycling anything useful such as this old bicycle, now transformed into the power mechanism for a grinder. It is very energy efficient, easily transportable, and takes up minimal space. The blade grinder can set up for business in seconds almost anywhere. He can also keep an eye on his two small sons while he works. Finally, he gets his exercise while he works!

Chocolate is a truly ancient treat. Vendors in several mercado stalls sell chocolate, but we decided to visit a tienda de chocolate, or chocolate mill. where it is made. There are several adjacent to the mercados. Chocolate starts with a tree called Theobroma cacao, or simply the cacao tree. Although 3/4 of cacao now cultivated is grown in Africa, it originated as a wild plant in the Amazon and on the slopes of the Andes in South America. The use of its fruit migrated up to the area of present-day Mexico in pre-historic times. Archaeologists have found traces of cacao in pottery dated 1100-900 BC at Puerto Escondido on Oaxaca's Pacific Coast. The fruits containing the all-important cacao beans grow on a relatively low tree.  In ancient times, the beans were considered so valuable that they were used as a form of currency. 80-100 beans could buy a fine cloth garment, and the Aztecs complained about cacao bean counterfeiters. The beans were still used as currency in parts of the Yucatán as late as the 1840s.

Cacao fruit drying on a wall of a fabrica. The fruits, called ponchas, are about the size of an elongated tennis ball. A mature tree will only produce 20 ponchas a year, each with 30-60 beans. The very best cacao beans are called Criollo, and were developed by the Maya with whom Oaxaca's ancient Zapotecs and Mixtecs traded regularly. Christopher Columbus came across what he thought were almonds in 1502. Like the Americas, he didn't really understand what he had found.  The European world knew nothing about cacao or chocolate until Cortés and his conquistadors saw Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II drinking it in Tenochititlan (modern Mexico City) in 1519. Chocolate quickly became the "in thing" among upper-class Europeans.

Roasted cacao beans, called cacao crudo, are the basic ingredient of chocolate. The beans above are selling for $5.58 per kilo (2.2 lbs). After the ponchas are harvested with machetes, they are opened and the beans extracted and laid out on grates to "sweat" the pulp away. The sweating process is critical because it decreases the bitterness of the beans. After sweating, the beans are left out to dry in the sun. Next, they are packed in jute bags, like the one above, in preparation for shipping.

Grinding cacao beans, the old fashioned way. I found this wonderful painting in the tienda de chocolate we visited. The story is told by the wistful expression of the boy and the quiet amusement of his mother. Using a stone mano and metate to prepare the roasted beans is an extremely ancient method. Such stone implements can still be found for sale at ferraterias (hardware stores) in Mexican villages today.

A more modern method of preparation. It takes about 300-600 beans, or the product of 10 trees over one season, to make 1 kilogram of chocolate. The beans are cracked and roasted to create "nibs", which are then ground into a paste. This is then mixed, as shown above, with sugar, nuts and other ingredients. The paste can then be formed into finished products such as candy bars, or mixed with chiles into Oaxaca's famous mole. Needless to say, Carole and I picked up a box of chocolates before we left. Delicious!

"Getting a leg up" on the Oaxaca scene. I couldn't resist this photo taken on a street adjacent to one of the mercados. It is just the sort of quirky sight that confronts a visitor to Mexico around every corner. Carole and I have often mused about the skinny jeans sold everywhere, and who in the world could ever fit in them. But, Mexico is a very young society, with 1 out of 3 people younger than 15 years old, although this is gradually changing as Mexico's life expectancy increases. I suppose there are plenty of young girls who wouldn't have much trouble slipping into these jeans.

This completes Part 5 of my series on Oaxaca. Next week, I will take you on a random ramble around the streets surrounding the zocalo for some interesting and sometimes very unusual encounters. 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 on the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. What? you didn't try chapalines? Tampoco!!!

  2. This brings back smiling memories of Oaxaca from about 15 years ago. What's not to love about the variety and liveliness of Mexican mercados? Did try the fried grasshoppers--just crunch, no substance, thank God. It was at the huge Mercado de Abastos with its many tiny indigenous vendors that I, for the first time in my life, experienced life as a tall person. Gracias as always for the pictures and post, Jim. Do you still have plans for a post about the political activism there?

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