My Visit to Oaxaca

No lo dudes de Manuel Mijares

I recently spent a few days in Oaxaca, one of the most-loved states in Mexico.

It’s to the south of Mexico City, about 5-6 hours away (by car).

Oaxaca is known for its wonderful natural landscapes, its delicious food, its traditions, its artisans, its dances, and its people.

Three of my grandparents are from this state so it has always felt close to my heart. 

Camino al Auditorio Guelaguetza

I had visited Oaxaca before several times but this time I went with the purpose of connecting with the people. I went to the City of Oaxaca, the capital of the state which is known as a colonial city for all its colonial architecture and heritage.

Street Art

As I walked the many beautiful, cobblestoned streets of the city, I found many people who were willing to have a conversation. The people of Oaxaca are very warm to visitors. Even though I am Mexican, they could tell right away I was not from there (which I didn’t like one bit, but okay). They were all kind, welcoming, and warm, and their faces lit up when I told them my grandparents were from Oaxaca, from a tiny town called Chilapa de Díaz (Díaz as in Porfirio Díaz, one of the most famous presidents of Mexico who was in power for 30 years). After I told them this, I felt like they talked to me more at ease, as if I was one of their own. I liked that more. 

Dancing in the square

I love being from Mexico City, it is such a huge city with lots of everything. It is convenient to be from and live in Mexico City but I think it must be enchanting to be from and live in Oaxaca. 

I spent my days in Oaxaca sightseeing, taking pictures, looking at art, eating and eating and eating delicious food, drinking hot chocolate (Oaxaca is known for its excellent hot chocolate – it can be done with water or milk), listening to live music, getting sun-tanned, and talking with the local people. 

Oaxaca Hot Chocolate

I interviewed them. I wanted to know how they felt about their city and their state. I wanted to see their culture through their eyes, too. Here is a list of their experiences, wisdom, and light they shared with me:

Mayra

Trabaja como mesera en Tres Bistros / Works as a waitress in the restaurant Tres Bistros.

Lugar de origen: Oaxaca (estado) / Place of origin: Oaxaca (state)

¿Qué es lo que más te gusta de Oaxaca?  / What do you like the most about Oaxaca?

Mayra: ¡La comida! No sé que sería de mí sin las tlayudas! / The food! I don’t know what I would do without tlayudas! 

Tlayuda con tasajo

(Tlayudas are a Oaxacan dish, with a big crispy corn tortilla, with a spread of refried beans, lettuce or cabbage, avocado, meat, Oaxacan cheese (quesillo in Spanish), and salsa. It’s one of the most iconic Oaxacan dishes).

¿Qué más? / What else?

Mayra: ¡Los bailables! / The dances! 

En mi pueblo tienen la Danza de la Pluma. Los hombres bailan representando a Moctezuma que baila con dos mujeres, una española y una indígena. Este baile representa un encuentro entre dos mundos, entre los colonizadores europeos y los nativos indígenas. Se baila cada año en la Guelaguetza.

In my town, there is the Dance of the Feather. The men dance as Moctezuma (the Aztec emperor that ruled over Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, when Hernán Cortés came to colonise), and he dances with two women, one Spanish woman and one indigenous woman. This dance represents the meeting between two worlds, between the European colonisers and the native indigenous people. It is danced every year in the Guelaguetza. 

¿Qué es la Guelaguetza?

Mayra: Es un evento cultural indígena que se celebra cada año en Julio en Oaxaca. Vienen varios equipos representativos de muchos pueblos y bailan en el Auditorio Guelaguetza, en el cerro del Fortin. Cada pueblo tiene su propio baile y sus propios trajes típicos. Sólo los mejores son escogidos para que vengan a participar en la Guelaguetza. 

It is a cultural annual indigenous event that it is celebrated each July in Oaxaca. Teams from various towns come to dance in the Guelaguetza Auditorium in Fortin Hill. Each town has its own dance and their own costumes. Only the best are chosen to come and dance in the Guelaguetza. 

 ¿Te gusta vivir en Oaxaca? / Do you like living in Oaxaca?

Mayra: ¡Sí, me encanta vivir en Oaxaca! Aquí siempre es fiesta, fiesta, y fiesta. ¡Aquí celebramos la vida! ¡También celebramos la muerte! En noviembre, en Día de Muertos (1 & 2 de noviembre) honramos la memoria de nuestros seres queridos que ya murieron, celebrando su vida, comiendo sus platillos favoritos, bebiendo lo que les gustaba, oyendo su música favorita! ¡No es triste, es un festejo que celebra la vida del que se fue y de los que siguen aquí!

Yes, I love living in Oaxaca! Here it is always party, party, and party. Here we celebrate life! We also celebrate death! In November, on Day of the Death (November 2nd) we honor the memory of our deceased loved ones by celebrating their life, we eat their favourite dishes, we drink what they liked, we listen to their favourite music! It isn’t a sad thing, it is a party that celebrates the life of the ones that are gone and the ones that are still here!


Conchita 

Mujer indígena zapoteca / Indigenous woman – Zapotec (Zapotecs are an indigenous Mexican group)

Lengua materna: Zapoteco / Native tongue: Zapoteco

Segunda lengua: Español / Second language: Spanish

Conchita es una mujer zapoteca que trabaja en la Ciudad de Oaxaca vendiendo comales de barro que ella misma fabrica. 

Conchita is a Zapotec woman that works in the City of Oaxaca selling clay comales (flat griddles) which she makes herself. In Mexico all kitchen stoves have a steel comales and we use them to make or heat up tortillas. (When I moved to London I was shocked to discover that not all the stoves of the world have comales. In London I was first like “Where is the comal??!” haha. I guess I should’ve known since not all countries are big on tortillas like we are but well… it was a very big shock for me haha)

Conchita:

Yo hago mis comales con mis propias manos. Me tardo tres semanas en hacerlos y vengo a venderlos a la ciudad. Yo casi no fui a la escuela. Pero te puedo decir un dicho en Zapoteco: Jun navies quinsao (Esta no es la escritura correcta, sólo que así se escucha en español). 

Quiere decir estar bien consigo mismo. Eso es muy importante. 

I make my comales with my own hands. It takes three weeks to make them and I come to the city to sell them. I didn’t go to school much. But I can tell you a saying we have in Zapotec: “Jun navies quinsao” (This is not the correct spelling, but it sounds like this in Spanish). It means “to be at peace with oneself”. That is very important. 

Comales de barro – Clay comales

Miguel Ángel 

Lugar de origen: Chiapas / Place of origin: Chiapas (Southern state of Mexico)

Trabaja en la ciudad de Oaxaca vendiendo piedras, aretes, cristales, y brazaletes con su hija Azul y su esposa.

He works in the city of Oaxaca selling stones, crystals, earrings, and bracelets with his daughter, Azul (Blue), and his wife.

¿Por qué veniste a Oaxaca? / Why did you come to Oaxaca?

Miguel Angel: Para trabajar. Yo soy ingeniero de innovación y desarrollo pero no pude encontrar trabajo en Chiapas, allá no hay, así que nos venimos para acá, para trabajar, buscando salir adelante de manera honrada.

To work. I am an innovations and development engineer but I couldn’t find work in Chiapas, there aren’t any jobs, so we came here to work, to look for a way to live in an honest way. 

¿Qué es lo que más te gusta de Oaxaca? / What do you like the most about Oaxaca?

Miguel Ángel: Hay mucha fiesta, muchas tradiciones, las ruinas arqueológicas. La música, los bailes, ¡la comida!

There is a lot of parties, lots of traditions, and the archeological ruins: Monte Albán, Mitla, etc. The music, the dances, the food!

Archeological Site: Monte Albán

Si les pudieras dar un consejo a la gente jóven, ¿qué les dirías? / If you could give young people some advice, what would you say?

Miguel Ángel: Que disfruten la vida, sin vicios, sin alcohol y sin droga. 

That they enjoy life without vices, without alcohol, and without drugs. 

I bought a beautiful necklace and bracelet from him and his wife made of piedra luna which can attract positive things and patience. He also told me that amber (ámbar) can ward against envy.  He also let me hold little Azul who was smiling at me the whole time, melting my heart. 

Piedra Luna

Ángel Segura 

Maestro en la Universidad Mundo Maya de Oaxaca / Teacher at the Mayan World University of Oaxaca

Lugar de origen: Oaxaca / Place of origin: Oaxaca

¿Qué es lo que más te gusta de Oaxaca? / What do you like most about Oaxaca?

Ángel: ¡La comida!  Las tlayudas con tasajo, las empanadas de chileatole. Los postres – las donas, la lechecilla. La arquitectura colonial y el Art Deco. Las playas – Puerto Escondido, Huatulco, etc. La artesanía hecha a mano. Las tradiciones como el Día de Muertos, Semana Santa, etc.

The food! The tlayudas con tasajo, the empanadas of chileatole. The desserts – the doughnuts, la lechecilla. The colonial architecture and the Art Deco style. The beaches – Puerto Escondido, Huatulco, etc. The hand-made art. The traditions like the Day of the Death, Easter (Holy Week), etc.

Día de Muertos

¿Qué más me puedes contar de Oaxaca? / What else can you tell me about Oaxaca?

Ángel: Aquí hay un hombre llamado Alfredo Harp Helú (aunque aquí le dicen el Tío Alfredo) quien es un hombre de negocios que ha invertido mucho en la Ciudad de Oaxaca. Por ejemplo, él hizo el Museo Textil, el Jardín Etnobotánico, etc. Trabajó con Francisco Toledo, un artista zapoteco de aquí de Oaxaca y juntos hicieron mucho por Oaxaca. Harp Helú ponía el dinero y los recursos y Toledo las ideas. Por ejemplo, hicieron el Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca (IAGO) y el Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca (MACO). Francisco Toledo también es muy querido aquí, se acaba de morir en el 2019. 

Para honrar a los 43 estudiantes desaparecidos de Ayotzinapa, Toledo hizo una exhibición de papalotes aquí en Oaxaca. Sus obras siempre eran para el pueblo. 

There is a man here called Alfredo Harp Helú (although here he is known as Uncle Alfredo) who is a business man that has invested a lot in the City of Oaxaca. For example, he made the Textile Museum, the Ethnobotanic Garden, etc. He worked with Francisco Toledo, a Zapotec artist from Oaxaca too and together they did a lot for Oaxaca. Harp Helú provided the money and resources and Toledo gave the ideas. For example, they founded the Institute of Graphical Arts of Oaxaca (IAGO) and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Oaxaca (MACO). Francisco Toledo is also very loved here, he has just passed away in 2019. 

To honor the 43 disappeared students of Ayotzinapa, Toledo made an exhibition of kites here in Oaxaca. His artwork was always for the people. 

(Back in 2014, 43 students from the state of Guerrero in Mexico were kidnapped and ‘disappeared’. Though the government claims otherwise, most people believe it was the former government who not only kidnapped them but killed them. They haven’t been found nor their bodies. And their families are still searching for answers.)


Brenda Gandarilla

Artista / Artist 

Lugar de origen: Oaxaca / Place of origin: Oaxaca 

Brenda makes beautiful wooden artworks. They are wooden puzzles that make shapes like animals, geometric shapes, or trees that can stand as ornaments. She sells these in Oaxaca City near the Church of Santo Domingo.

Brenda and her artworks

¿Qué te gusta más de Oaxaca? / What do you like most about Oaxaca?

Brenda: ¡Oh, muchas cosas! ¡Qué difícil pregunta! Pero yo diría que mis tres cosas favoritas serían las playas, las calles bonitas y las zonas arqueológicas…. ¡Hierve el Agua, también!

Oh, so many things! What a difficult question! But I would say that my top three are the beaches, the pretty streets, and the archeological zones… Hierve el Agua, too!

So you can have an idea of what is Hierve el Agua, here are some pictures:

¿Cómo haces tus artesanías? / How do you make your artworks?

Brenda: Primero compramos la madera, usamos caoba y huanacaxtle. Luego, hacemos los cortes depende del diseño, y se hace el calado. Después se lija y se trata la madera para que brille. Mi diseño favorito que vendemos es el del árbol, inspirado por el Árbol del Tule.

First we buy the wood, we use mahogany and huanacaxtle. Then, we make the cuts depending on the design and we make the calado (the technique to shape the wood). Then we sand the wood and we treat it to make it shiny. My favourite design is the tree, it’s inspired on the Tree of Tule (Tule is a town near Oaxaca City that houses the widest tree in the world which is an Ahuehuete – in English this type of tree is known as Montezuma cypress). 

The Árbol del Tule is a must-see for when you go to Oaxaca! And now, it has a baby tree near it! It’s child! (Fun fact: Trees also have families).

Here are some pictures of the Árbol del Tule:

And street art of the Árbol and his baby:

Street Art – Árbol del Tule con su hijo/a – Tule Tree with its child

Si les pudieras dar un consejo a la gente jóven, ¿qué les dirías? / If you could give young people some advice, what would you say?

Brenda: ¡Que se arriesguen a salir, a conocer, a viajar! / That they must dare to go out, to know, to travel!

I bought one of Brenda’s art pieces: a beautiful wooden puzzle elephant that now stands on my bookshelf guarding my books. I love it!

Wooden Puzzle Elephant

Ilantli

20 años / 20 years old

 Lugar de origen: Oaxaca / Place of origin: Oaxaca

¿Qué significa tu nombre? / What does your name mean?

Ilantli: Es Náhuatl, y significa ‘la vieja consejera’.

It’s Náhuatl, and it means ‘the old adviser’ (as in someone old and wise that gives advice).

Wow!

Ilantli: ¡Ya sé! / I know!  (She smiles.)

¿Me puedes contar un poco sobre ti? / Can you tell me a little bit about you?

Ilantli: Yo estudio en la universidad Enseñanza de Idiomas y Psicología. Hablo 4 idiomas: español, zapoteco, inglés, y francés. 

I study in university Teaching of Languages & Psychology. I speak 4 languages: Spanish, Zapotec, English, and French.

Wow! ¡Eso es increíble! / Wow! That’s amazing! 

¿Qué son las tres cosas que más te gustan de Oaxaca? / What are the top three things that you love about Oaxaca?

Ilantli: La comida – ¡las memelas en salsa de chapulín! La historia prehispánica y las cosmoviciones mesoamericanas. El clima.

The food – the memelas in chapulín sauce! The pre-hispanic history and the cosmovision of Mesoamericans. The weather.

Si les pudieras dar un consejo a la gente jóven, ¿qué les dirías? / If you could give young people some advice, what would you say?

Ilantli: La educación es lo único que puede cambiar el mundo. 

Education is the only thing that can change the world. 

Here is a photo of Ilantli with her Xoloitzcuintle dog, Navi.

Xoloitzcuintles are native to Mexico. Have you seen the Disney-Pixar movie, Coco? You know the little dog that Miguel has, Dante? That’s a Xoloitzcuintle or Xolo dog, they are usually hairless but not always, certainly not Navi.

Ilantrli & Navi

Leonor

Trabaja como mesera en el centro de Oaxaca / Works as a waitress in the city centre of Oaxaca

Lugar de origen: Oaxaca / Place of origin: Oaxaca

¿Qué te gusta más de Oaxaca? / What do you like most about Oaxaca?

Leonor: La gastronomía. ¡Los chiles rellenos, los siete tipos de mole, el chocolate caliente, el pan de yema! También que las personas son muy trabajadoras, honestas y amables. Y lugares como el Templo de Santo Domingo.

The gastronomy. ¡The stuffed chillies, the seven types of mole, the hot chocolate, the egg-yolk bread! Also the people are very hardworking, honest, and kind. And places like the Church of Santo Domingo. 

Templo de Santo Domingo

Si les pudieras dar un consejo a la gente jóven, ¿qué les dirías? / If you could give young people some advice, what would you say?

Leonor: Que sigan estudiando para que se superen. Yo desearía haber seguido estudiando, tal vez estaría haciendo algo diferente…

They they keep studying so they can better themselves. I wish I had kept studying, maybe I would be doing something different…


Jesús Torres

Abogado / Lawyer

Lugar de origen: Ciudad de México. Su madre es Oaxaqueña / Place of origin: Mexico City, his mother is from Oaxaca.

¿Qué te gusta más de Oaxaca? / What do you like most about Oaxaca?

Jesús: ¡La comida, claro! Los valores de la gente, son gente buena, buenos hombres y buenas mujeres, aunque la sociedad sigue siendo muy patriarcal aquí. Mi suegro era un gran ejemplo de un buen oaxaqueño, trabajador, honesto, inspirador. Nunca se arrepentiría nadie de contratar a un oaxaqueño. Pero no hay que subestimarlos porque no se dejan, son muy dignos. Admiro mucho a la gente de aquí, es honrada y muy valiente, ¡son bravos!

The food, of course! The values of the people, they are good people, good men and good women, though society here is still very patriarchal. My father-in-law was a perfect example of a good Oaxacan man, he was hardworking, honest, inspiring. Nobody would ever regret hiring a Oaxacan person. Though you must not underestimate them because they don’t let themselves be taken advantage of, they are very dignified. I admire people here, they are honest and very brave, they are courageous! 

¿Qué sientes al estar aquí? / What do you feel when you are here?

Jesús: Paz. / Peace. 

Street Art

Pueblo Mágico de Tilcajete

One of my favourite parts of the trip was our visit to a nearby town called Tilcajete, known for its artesanos (artisans) who make alebrijes. The alebrijes are wooden figures of fantastical creatures that are made up from the mix of different animals. They are made with copal wood.  They have bright colours and each artisan has their own style and they pour their feelings, emotions, and intentions into their work. The alebrijes have their origins in the traditions of the carnivals in which people used to wear wooden masks. In Tilcajete there are around 157 workshops where the artisans produce alebrijes which are known throughout the country and abroad. When we were there, they received us with open arm and were ready and eager to answer any questions I had. 

They explained that there are three types of alebrijes (which is the umbrella term for all of them):

  • Alebrijes (seres fantásticos – fantastic creatures)
  • Nahuales (humanos que se pueden transformar en animales – humans that can transform into animals)
  • Tonas (animales protectores – animal protectors)

They also told me that some alebrijes have a particular meaning for example, el colibrí, the hummingbird. 

Alebrijes de colibrí – Hummingbird alebrijes

El colibrí significa libertad y es un ser del inframundo pero no en un sentido negativo, es un ser que tiene la habilidad de visitar el mundo de los muertos y el mundo de los vivos. En culturas prehispánicas se creía que cuando aparece un colibrí alguien que amas que ya se murió te está viniendo a saludar. 

The hummingbird signifies freedom and it’s a being from the underworld but not in a negative sense, it’s a being that has the ability to visit the world of the dead and the world of the living. In pre-hispanic cultures, it was believed that when a hummingbird appears someone you love that passed is saying ‘hello’.

The artisans are very proud of their work and they are happy to give people a tour of their workshop and to answer any arising questions. I can attest that what I heard about Oaxacan people it’s true, they are kind, hardworking, and honest. 

Artisan with his alebrijes

Plus, if you are an art enthusiast you will also love to walk around the city of Oaxaca finding and admiring the beautiful street art.

Here are some pictures of Oaxaca’s street art:

Overall, my trip to Oaxaca was full of exquisite food, delicious hot chocolate, lively conversations, beautiful art, and wonderful sights. If you ever come to Mexico, Oaxaca is definitely worth a visit!

View from the Auditorio Guelaguetza

Published by Mariel Torres

Wandererer whose feet follow where the pen leads...

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