Oaxaca, Mexico: An Overview

It has peaks almost 10,000 feet (more than 3,000 meters) high, caverns among the deepest in the world, virgin beaches, hidden jungles, and luminous valleys that house populations where, as a crucible, cultures of all people who once lived in its midst come together. Zapotecs, Mazatecs, and the fourteen other ethnic groups still present in its culture and customs; even the Spaniards. Oaxaca is the most diverse state in Mexico.

According to Mazatec tradition, a healthy individual is someone who is happy, at peace, willing to work and eat; their eyes are luminous, and live harmoniously with their family, neighbors or authorities. Any individual can attain such health state. The hard part is to do it away from Oaxaca, its valleys, its beaches, its marketplaces, its fiestas, its different languages, its mysteries, and its light.

Every year, thousands of sea turtles arrive at its shores, not far from tourist centers, such as the Bays of Huatulco (Bahías de Huatulco) or Puerto Escondido, where visitors from around the world enjoy the warm Pacific Ocean waters at luxurious hotels. In Oaxaca there are two places declared as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, the Historical Centre and the Monte Albán archaeological area. It houses pre-Hispanic and colonial treasures unparalleled in Mesoamerica. It enjoys all features of progress, communications, transportation, and health codes, especially in its capital city, without losing that air of innocence, of a community anchored in thriving times so characteristic of Oaxaca. This is due, most of all, to the presence of its ethnic populations: sixteen indigenous groups who speak more than 150 different dialects, preserve their legacy and way of life with pride and contribute cultural plurality and that most greatest of treasures: its people.

Close to the City of Oaxaca, the state capital, stands the oldest tree in the world: el Arbol de Tule, measuring 42 metres in diameter, and over 2,000 years old. This tree has witnessed a great part of Oaxacan history. The Christian era was just beginning for the Western world when a superlative cultural empire thrived in Monte Albán. It was a city inhabited by wise men, warriors, astronomers, and farmers. This cultural empire governed the destiny the people of the clouds, which later become known in Nahuatl, as the Zapotecs. Zapotecs believed that the world was ruled by a power without beginning or end, unknown, and all mighty. The supreme deity, human beings, and nature formed an indivisible whole and their interaction had to be most respectful, balanced, and grateful. Years and seasons were marked on a 365-day solar calendar, while another, a ritual calendar of 260-days, marked life codes and the times when the world self-destructed and renewed itself as if shaken by a purifying cosmic fire.

The Mixtec splendour followed the Zapotec decline, and was displaced in turn, by the Aztecs momentum, without becoming completely extinct. When the Spaniards arrived in Oaxaca, they found a cultural mosaic extending over rugged terrain and inhabited by people whose lives were ruled by rites and traditions. In 1542, Hernán Cortés wrote a letter to the King of Spain protesting the obstacles found in Oaxaca for his conquering endeavours. “This land”, he says referring to the valleys occupied by Mixtecs and Zapotecs ” is so mountainous that cannot be travelled even on foot.” Of its people, Cortés narrates that he sent troops in two occasions against them, “but were incapable of victory because the warriors were ferocious and well armed.” Later, Cortés, bewitched by Oaxaca, would confess his passion for the same lands that seemed rugged and wild to him. “I thank God for allowing knowledge of these places,” said the Spaniard, who obtained from the King the title of Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca.

In colonial times, Oaxaca came to occupy a prominent place in the New Spain development. Animal farms provided wool for the Puebla looms, haciendas cultivated sugar cane with which the most famous sweets were prepared for the Viceroyalty. There, the best horses in the continent were bred; gold and silver were mined; the tints derived from use of grana cochinilla (cochineal grain). Treasures from Peru, Guayaquil and Guatemala, and silk and spices from the Philippines arrived at the Huatulco and Salina Cruz ports. The development of cities, ports, sugar mills, and industries, parallel to the glory and hardships of the evangelical work did not derail the indigenous population’s beliefs or way of life. Instead, the ethnic population integrated their values, scarcely modifying them, with the symbols and practices of the new faith. In 1577, the Bishop of Oaxaca, Fray Bernardo de Albuquerque, narrates that Felipe II, had difficulties with his work in a land where people spoke 22 different languages, lived more scattered and disperse than in Vizcaya and Navarra, and feed on idolatries at their mother’s breast.

Century upon century, the pre-Hispanic past has been transmitted from parents to children and still lives and it is manifest in the fiestas, markets, music, clothing, speech, and gastronomy. In the importance given, still, to communal work, exchange rituals, reciprocal help, and the close link between daily life and the rituals reaching the sacred spheres.

Tradition, ritual and magic are expressed through the dances, medium used secularly to propitiate and dominate the will of mysterious powers, according to a study performed by the researcher, Dr. Margarita Dalton. In each community, the elder’s council, town councils and wise people have maintained and nurtured customs related with dances and music, which unavoidably accompany men and women when they must act upon the powers of the universe to propitiate rain, good hunting or good harvests. When they celebrate weddings, welcome the new-borns or bid farewell to a dead loved one. The dancers, says Dr. Dalton, do not dance for their own or the audience’s enjoyment: his or her dances are prayers invoking the aid of the supreme powers, which they consider dominate the world.

The dances, different in each region and community, evoke strange and profound rhythms though usually accompanied by recognisable music, born, maybe in Maid or in Durango, in Napoles or Zaragoza. The masks serve the dancer to take on the personality of the bull, tiger, a European, or the devil. The customs are the owner’s pride and joy and the most colourful, brilliant and distinctive note, not just of the dancers, but of all the indigenous communities and Oaxaca itself.

The traditional attires are surprising and bewitching. Its designs, colours, and textures are a blend of colonial techniques, indigenous symbols, and the captivating colours of the silks imported from the Orient. There are flamenco ruffles, bobbin lace, grecas with the mysteries of Mitla, embroidered batiste, and linen patterned to the Spanish fashion of the XVII century. Each stitch reveals an idea and a job. Colours are obtained from nature: reds from the grana cochinilla, an insect that lives in the Nopal cactus that once boiled and triturated, provides up to sixteen shades of red; blue, born from the indigo plant fermentation; black, from huizache; yellow, from rock moss; and purple, from a type of sea snail, who is captured, milked, and once its essence is used, it is returned to the sea.

The most appropriate venue to display and observe, teach and share, are the fiestas. In Oaxaca, they celebrate all of them: Christmas, All Saints Day, Constitution Day, Workers Day, the Virgin Day (each town has its own Virgin), or local saint, national Heroes, historical victories and defeats, Easter, and of course, the New Year. There are special days to celebrate teachers, mailcarriers, physicians, and journalists. In addition, each neighbourhood has a community celebration, and each family its respective births, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, funerals, and sweet-fifteen parties.

The greatest celebration in Oaxaca, the Guelaguetza, is the institutional form of reciprocity. The two first Mondays after July 16, representatives from each community celebrate a fiesta whose name means mutual present or offering. It manifests signs and codes from pre-Hispanic tradition, and adorns with music and dances the sharing of the harvest and activities of each region: different types of pineapple, mango, sarapes, baskets, beverages, breads and coffee grains rain over the guests as a symbol of their general disposition to share, exchange and survive together.

The trading place par excellence is the market. The writer, D.H. Lawrence, who lived in Oaxaca, understands Oaxacan markets as a space created for the communion of people. Human beings, writes in his book, “Market Days in Oaxaca” have created two excuses to get closer and mingle freely in heterogeneous masses without suspicion: religion and the marketplace. An armful of wood, a blanket, a few eggs, and tomatoes are enough to sell, buy, bargain, and trade. Exchange, most of all, human contact. This is the reason of their love for bargaining, even if the difference is equal to 0000 cents.

Markets follow one another and multiply. Sunday in Tlacolula, Monday in Miahuatlán, Tuesday in Ayoquezco, Wednesday in Etla and Zimatlán, Thursday in Ejutla and Zaachila, Friday in Ocotlán, and Saturday in Oaxaca. Stalls are organised by unions, customs, families, or by chance. Women wrapped with their prodigious huipiles rule most of the stalls, which generally sell only one type of product, so it is necessary to through the entire market to obtain a complete representation of the world.

Cortés loved Oaxacan marketplaces, whose origins can maybe be found along with the first harvest, the first ever toil. The main space in Monte Albán is a square, a market place. The Spaniards founded the City of Oaxaca over an axis in which the public and religious power, and the market were organised. Buy, sell, trade, and especially, take communion.

Colonial temples had to compete, on one side with the marketplace life explosion, and on another with the exuberance of Mother Nature, whose colours and forms could not be imagined in the sober Spain. Temples had to be taller than the savins, bigger than marketplaces, and richer than the richer mines. And that is exactly what they are. Such was their madness. In 1546, Gonzalo de las Casas, a distant relative of Cortés, made Francisco Becerra Trujillo (author of the first project for El Escorial) come from Spain to direct works for the church of Yanhuitlán. Six thousand indigenous people worked incessantly during twenty-five years in this construction of prodigious architecture, finished with magnificent caissons of Arab inspiration. Spanish direction and indigenous manufacture.

The Spanish baroque found a perfect site for its ingenious excesses in Oaxaca. The greatest example could be the Santo Domingo temple in the capital city, since not in vane it was dedicated to the patron founder of the Order most distinguished for his evangelical works in these lands. The altarpiece monumental, a gem among colonial gems, is made of gold.

The Dominicans took their building fervor to an extreme throughout the Valley grounds, especially in the Mixteca region. In Cuilapan, they blended all the renaissance architectural European styles. In Tlacolula, they even made an iron pulpit. In Teposcula, there is an open chapel, considered a masterpiece, luminous and ingenious.

It was another Dominican, Friar Jordan de Santa Catalina, who founded the San Jeronimo Tlacochahuaya Church, which he kept apart from the richness of the rest of the Order and completely dedicated it to meditation. Consequently, its cells are lugubrious, low, and dark. Friar Juan de Cordoba spent 25 of his 100 years of life. It is said that he never touched any type of currency, only wore shoes to say mass, and wrote the first Zapotec language dictionary. The indigenous people of the region still consider him a saint.

Oaxaca, land of visionaries, enlighten people, artists, dreamers and poets. It is no surprise that Salvia divinorum and Magic Mushrooms play such an important role to the spirituality of these rich people. It has a history as old as Oaxaca, and Ska Maria Pastora has played a sgnificant role in shaping the culture of this ancient people. Salvia, Diviner’s Sage, or Ska Maria Pastora are plants that are a species of sage native to the region of the Oaxaca mountains. It propagates by falling over, and rooting wherever the plant has fallen and touches the ground. When Magic mushrooms weren’t available, shamans would chew between 6-60 leaves of this sacred plant, to get in touch with the spirit world, and to diagnose illnesses.

The philosopher Nietzsche wanted to live in Oaxaca. The French surrealist, André Pieyre de Mandigares, dreamt, after loving Tehuantepec women, with a small female angel, who appeared to him, enveloped in a shinny armour over a white lily field. John Lennon visited the high peaks of Huautla, the mountain with small mushroom that connect with the deity, and the caverns that reach the core of the earth. Benito Juárez was born in Guelatao, Ixtlán, Oaxaca, on March 21, 1806. And Porfirio Diaz, who was State Governor, during his exile in Paris asked his wife everyday, Doña Carmelita, for news of Oaxaca; how was it possible to live without the light and sky of Oaxaca; without the fiestas and market places, without the food of Oaxaca.

In Paris, Don Porfirio hated the French food, and missed the richness, the imagination, the variety, and poetry of the Oaxacan cooking. Oaxaca is home of the “siete moles” (seven moles), fresh cheese, meat cooked underground, the most delicious tamales in all of Mexico, the most incredible sweets, the chocolate Atole, the coffee made in a pot (café de olla), the yellow bread, and all the imagined and imaginable corn varieties. Anthropologist Kent Flannery suggests that the Valley of Oaxaca could have been the first place in America where corn was domesticated and cultivated. History states that Oaxacan cooking can only be explained from the mix of indigenous traditions, the splendid Aztec table, the colonial baroque, a complex technique, and the addition of an indispensable ingredient, which has become unusual among others in the world – time.

Each Oaxacan dish involves many hours of work in front of the stove. Tamales, for instance, demand washing, broiling, soaking the wrapping leaves, toasting, and grinding hot peppers, cooking, cleaning and crushing the corn, make the filling, coating, filling, preparing the cooking container, folding, tying, accommodating, cooking and finally, serving. The only way, in which the writer Italo Calvino can explain the luxurious Oaxacan cooking, is attributing authorship of such complicated recipes to the nuns of the colonial temples. Entire lives, writes Calvino in “Bajo el Sol Jaguar”- dedicated to search new ingredient medley and dosage variations, to the attentive combination patience, to the transmission of a detailed and punctual knowledge. Guests of a sacred architecture specialist of excessive and overflowing sensations, refined women, cloistered, needing nothing, had only to design recipes dictated by the market possibilities and their imagination, while an army of servants worked in their execution. The burning imagines Calvino- of more than 100 varieties of indigenous pimentos judiciously chosen for every dish, offered perspectives of blazing ecstasy.

The Oaxacan Mole requires at least of thirty-one ingredients. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz used to make it. In her time, it was prepared with toasted cilantro, four roasted garlic cloves, five nutmeg sticks, six pepper seeds, cinnamon and pasilla hot peppers browned in lard. Everything is ground, fried with pork meat, chorizos, and hen, and once ready, seasoned with roasted sesame seeds. A huge undertaking for a sauce, that today, has about two hundred varieties.

Oaxacans also eat flowers: rose petals in ice cream; bean flowers in Mole, pumpkin flowers in “empanadas” (turnovers), cocoa flowers in Tejate: carnations preserved, and bugambilias in Horchata. There cannot be greater communion with nature, a greater poetic sense of existence.

Living in Oaxaca is an aesthetic experience. Tourists and travellers quickly perceive Oaxaca’s fascination. The sky, the light. We recommend visiting Monte Albán at sunset, when the rocks acquire a reddish colour, clouds accelerate their crossing over the mountains, and the echo produced by the disposition of the old temples increases in gravity. Art in nature and the attire, the wood, the cloth, the stone and the food. And the people, the memory of centuries through the people. Magic Oaxaca. According to the Mesoamerican tradition, which pays homage to Ometeotl, God of Duality, paradise has already been granted to the human race, but to conquer it, personal effort is needed. Sometimes, one is already predisposed: is able to feel, perceive, and discover places like Oaxaca.