Thursday, September 30, 2010

Oaxaca Part 6: Street scenes in the Centro Historico

Statue of a Flagellant. The statue of the Flagellant above is all that is left to indicate the former religious function of a now-commercial building on Calle Independencia, east of the zocalo. I decided to devote a segment of my Oaxaca postings to the odd and interesting things Carole and I found while randomly wandering the streets of the Centro Historico. In the right hand of the statue, extending back across the left shoulder, is a leather whip. The Flagellants used whips like this to beat themselves bloody as they marched with great fervor in huge processions across late-Medieval and Renaissance Europe. The Flagellant movements sprang up at times of great crisis such as crop failures and outbreaks of the Black Death (bubonic plague). Because they sometimes brought plague with them, they were often barred from towns and cities. In addition, their free-form fervor represented a threat to Church control and they were banned by various Popes and hundreds of Flagellants were burned at the stake. Spanish Flagellants were called Hermanos Penitentes (Penitential Brothers) and began to appear in colonial New Spain not long after the Conquest. Interestingly, the ancient Meso-American cultures also practiced ritual blood-letting and self mutilation. Scientists believe that pain releases endorphins which may produce an ecstatic state. The Flagellants still exist as part of the Catholic Church.

Rough old stone walls from the colonial period. This photo was taken on Calle Trujano, one block west of the zocalo. The rough stone blocks, arched doorways, and wrought-iron balconies are a mark of the colonial era. Streets in the Centro Historico are often narrow, and vendors who set up booths along the curbs make auto use a tricky proposition. Oaxaca is best seen while walking.

Café Royale on Calle Macedonio Alcala occupies an old colonial home. The doors on opposite sides of the corner both enter into the small cafe. Café Royal serves pastries and Oaxaca's excellent coffee. The 5-block section of Macedonio Alcala between the ex-convento Santo Domingo on the north and the zocalo on the south is pedestrian-only. Kind of a long, narrow plaza in itself, it is lined with cafes, restaurants, galleries, craft markets and much more. Street musicians and mimes abound. Throngs of people stroll along the old colonial street, enjoying the ambiance throughout the day and late into the evening.

A profession as old as the pyramids of Monte Alban. Stone masonry may be the second oldest profession. Except for the metal in the hammer and the chisel, the man above is acting out an almost literally timeless scene. As I watched, I was impressed by how quickly the man could shape and smooth the stone. The ancients of Meso-America built their great stone pyramids, palaces, and sculptures without the benefit of metal tools (or draft animals or the wheel for that matter). It was an astonishing accomplishment when you think of it.

Oaxaca Central Library began as a girls school in the early 19th Century. Started by a private individual, the Catholic Church later took it over and invited a group of Irish nuns to run it. They were led by a mother superior named Patricia Cox. This is part of a long and traditionally close relationship between Mexico and Ireland. Later, a group of Mexican nuns took over and founded the San Jose Girls School. During the Cristero War (1926-1929), fought by the Revolutionary government against radical Catholics activists, the school was closed. Eventually, the Oaxaca State Government took over the building, and in 1985 it became the Central Library. The structure is graceful, with many arcades and side passages.

Blind accordionist plays to an almost empty street. His sign, suspended below the accordion, says Soy ciego total (I am totally blind). Also attached to the accordion is a wicker basket for donations. I am a sucker for street musicians, and a blind one prompted an especially generous tip. He was pretty good with the squeeze-box too.

Los Arquitos are part of an ancient aqueduct. Built in the 18th Century, Los Arquitos (the little arches) formed part of the support structure for a long aqueduct which brought water down from the San Felipe mountains to the north of Oaxaca, through the village of San Felipe de Agua, finally ending near the ex-convento Santo Domingo. The locals have adapted the arches to their own purposes, building entrances to their homes and shops underneath. Some of the arches form the entrances of callejones (alleyways) leading through the old neighborhood behind the aqueduct. The aqueduct formed a part of Oaxaca's water system until 1934.

Centro Historico streets always seem to have a church in view. I took this photo looking west down Calle Morelos, three blocks north of the zocalo. Notice the fine wrought iron balconies on the yellow building on the left, and its rooftop garden. I believe the red-domed church is known as Carmen Bajo. The original church was built in 1554, but it was replaced after being destroyed in a fire in 1862.  The name of the church in Spanish means Low Carmen. It was given to distinguish it from another church several blocks north called Carmen Alto (High Carmen). The high and low designations refer to the social status of the congregations, Bajo being for the lower classes, and Alto for the elites.

La Biznaga Restaurante is famed for its mole sauces. We ate at La Biznaga several times because the food was excellent and reasonably priced. There are no table menus, just huge chalk boards up on the walls on which a seemingly endless list mole dishes is offered, along with other choices. The restaurant is located at Calle Garcia Virgil #512, several blocks north of the zocalo. The tables are set up in a courtyard, protected by an overhead screen, but otherwise open-air. Mole is a specialty of Oaxaca, which claims to have invented it (other cities in Mexico dispute this). One of the many stories of its invention involves the unexpected visit of a high church official to an early colonial convent. With few resources to draw upon, the nuns scurried about, throwing together a bit of this and a pinch of that. In the process, they created a sauce that the official loved. Mole (pronounced "mo-lay") actually originated with pre-hispanic people who concocted a variety of chili-based sauces called mulli. The Spanish later improved upon the native mulli by adding various ingredients including chocolate. There are almost as many different moles as there are varieties of tequila. However, moles virtually always involve chili pepper. Culinary experts estimate that 99% of Mexicans have tried at least one form of mole.

Templo y Convento de San Augustin. In 1576, the Augustinian Order arrived in Oaxaca and in 1586 they began work on this edifice. The original Templo was built of adobe with a beam and tile roof. Do to the frequency of earthquakes in the area, the Templo has never had a cupola (dome). This original structure was completed in 1596. Toward the end of the next century, the Augustinians began work on the present church, which was consecrated in 1722. During the Reforms of Benito Juarez in the 1860s, the Augustinians were ousted, and the church was taken over by the Institute of Art and Sciences. It was allowed to deteriorate, however, and in 1893 Bishop Eulogio Gillow acquired the ex-convento and turned it into a Childrens' Home.

St Augustine and his followers are shown in one panel on the front of the Templo. Around and above the Templo door are a rich collection of sculptures like this. The Augustinians were great educators in their time, and established a school in Oaxaca for the arts and humanities. At one point, they occupied all the professorships at the newly established colonial university.

Teatro Macedonio Alcala. The teatro (theatre) occupies the corner of Calle Independencia and Calle Armenta y Lopez. It is one of many beautiful theatres built throughout Mexico during the last part of the regime of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. Construction began in 1903 and finished in 1909, only a year before Diaz was ousted by the Revolution. Teatro Macedonio Alcala was named after a famous Oaxacan composer.

Closeup of Teatro Macedonio Alcala's second floor. All we could admire was the exterior, because the teatro was closed when we dropped by. However, my research indicates that it has a stunning interior, well worth a visit. The interior mixes Renaissance, French Louis XV, and other styles. There is a magnificent white marble grand staircase leading to the second floor. The whole complex was a monument to the wealth and pretensions of the elite class running Mexico at the time. They were, of course, the only ones who could afford to attend performances. 

Shoe shiner plies his trade, while his customer takes in the local news. One can always find a good shoe shine in Mexico, usually in the area around the zocalo. The seat holding the customer can be folded up and carted away in the evening, to be quickly set up the next morning. I usually gravitate toward the more down-on-their-luck shiners. They often own only a wooden box with a metal stirrup on top and a few of the implements of their trade. Despite their limited tools, they always give me a good shine, worth every peso. 

Templo San Felipe Neri. The original church was founded in 1661. Construction began on the current Templo in 1733 and was completed in 1770. San Felipe Neri was a saint noted for his medical charity, so it should be no surprise that the Angel Vasconcelos Hospital occupies the old convent facilities. In 1843, Benito Juarez married Margarita Maza in this church. Ironically, the Reform Laws he later instituted as President included nationalizing this church.

Interior of San Francisco Neri church. While the exterior is of the Baroque style, the interior shows very early elements of ornate Rocco style from the mid-18th Century. The church is located on the corner of Calles Independencia and Tinoco y Palacios, about 2 block from the zocalo.

Hotel Tipico. I was intrigued that any business would call itself Hotel Typical. I would expect something more like Hotel Unique, or Hotel Outstanding. In any case, it appeared clean and comfortable, and possessed an attribute of major importance in the Centro Historico: off-street parking. The hotel parking is accessed through this old carriage gate.

The conversation. I was rapidly snapping pictures in the area and didn't realize I had taken this little jewel until I downloaded it onto my computer. In my imagination, the conversation occurring above was going something like this: 
Mother- "Maria, I don't like that young man you've been with lately. Now in my day..." 
Maria- "Oh, Mom!!!"

I hope you have enjoyed the scenes we encountered while wandering the streets of Oaxaca as much as we did. Around every corner we were always encountering some new treasure of architecture, or wonderful human vignette. If you would like to leave a comment, you can do so in 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 respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

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