Colors of Oaxaca

By Jaffe, Matthew | Sunset, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Colors of Oaxaca


Jaffe, Matthew, Sunset


From Zapotec ruins to indigenous folk art to the life-affirming pageantry of the Day of the Dead, Oaxaca is Mexico's most enchanting city

Piled high with bunches of marigolds and cockscombs, the flower trucks arrive outside the Mercado de Abastos as Oaxaca prepares for Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

The flowers are destined to adorn altars and to blanket grave sites in cemeteries in Oaxaca and outlying towns. But before they can fulfill their sacred role, they must suffer the indignities meted out to all of the market's commodities. A seemingly endless number of enormous, armful-size bouquets are unceremoniously tossed into piles on the pavement by sweating truck drivers, for whom spiritual concerns will just have to wait for another day.

A few steps, and the market quickly engulfs my friend and me; we disappear into a sea of frenetic commerce, whose sacred undercurrents swirl about us.

Hawking vendors and negotiating buyers drive the din, when not drowned out by the cranked-bass thump of boom boxes. The air is seasoned with the smokiness of huge sacks of chilies, the rich aroma of freshly ground chocolate, and the spicy incense of copal, the resin burned at graves. We are pulled deeper into the maw of stands.

Like Mexico itself, the holiday is the product of Spanish and native traditions, forged into something wholly unique. Actually a three-day celebration that runs from October 31 to November 2, the Day of the Dead is the time of year when the dead are said to return to earth.

City residents build home altars and spend nights at their loved ones' graves, which are transformed into achingly beautiful tributes. The light of candles and long-burning veladores suffuses the flowers with a glow so rich that a country cemetery becomes, for a couple of days, as magical as any place on the planet.

The holiday's presence colors the market: vendors sell sugar skulls, which are offered to children as a treat, while nearby stands display small plaster and cardboard skeleton figures playing soccer, trumpeting in mariachi bands, watching television, or even typing at computers. These figures are placed at altars or on graves by family members to commemorate a departed loved one's favorite activity in life.

But even on the eve of the sacred, the market is, first and foremost, a market. Plucked amber bodies of chickens, their throats freshly slashed, pile up on counters, and still-flapping turkeys are carried through rows of stalls by their feet, bound for tomorrow's mole poblano.

As I awkwardly stoop beneath sagging awnings, tiny Indian women wearing traditional clothing effortlessly move around me. The Zapotec faces of vendors peer over stacks of flowers and across the centuries, while the faces of plaster angels, baked into traditional holiday breads (see page 142), look beatifically upon the chaos.

In reality, Oaxaca is less chaotic than it is complex. All 16 of the Indian cultures in the Oaxaca area at the time of the Spanish conquest still live here, most notably the descendants of the great Zapotec and Mixtec cultures. So if you can't follow a conversation at the market, it may not be that your Spanish is rusty. More likely, you probably just need to brush up on your Popoloca or one of the many other languages spoken locally.

Walking to the center of town, I find the zocalo lively, too. As ancient as Oaxaca is, it's not immune to the modern world. An MTV Latino crew is camping it up as its members sample the spicy grasshoppers that are a Oaxacan tradition. And because the Day of the Dead coincides with Halloween, schoolchildren dressed as devils and witches - and one boy with a painted skeleton face and cardinal's vestments - march about. Others, less fortunate, hawk cheap crafts. Some of these sweet kids will become part of the cast of characters that I will recognize over the next few days.

What a temptation to just blend into the nonlinear parade that is Oaxaca, to sacrifice its guidebook attractions and take in the action on the streets. …

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