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Oh! Oaxaca

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Published in Sunday Herald on August 7, 2016

A place’s pride rests, among other things, in its name being spoken right. With Oaxaca, where I begin my Mexican journey, my first concern is to be able to pronounce it right.

It is certainly not what the spelling suggests, and after a bit of ambiguity there, I understand that it is spoken as “Wa-ha-ka” with stress on the first syllable (Wah). The residents, Oaxaqueña or Oaxaqueño, depending on the gender, lent by the Spanish.

The tiny town of Oaxaca or Oaxaca de Juárez (after Benito Juárez, their hero), at the base of the valley, is both old-world simple and trendy-opulent, swinging seamlessly between the two. When I land there, it is on the lip of New Year celebrations and is tipsy on music, dance, drinks and food…


Music in the air


The town square of El Zócalo is pulsating with live music, with the guitarists strumming in abandon to the drums. This is the kind of music that makes you forget your business and dance to the mood.

Stepping out the morning after, I walk down the most absurdly beautiful street, lined with rainbow-coloured houses of deep cornflower blue, russet red and sunflower yellows. My gaze riveted by the church of Santo Domingo De Guzman at the far end. With a deceptively subdued façade, though imposing and majestic, it reveals heartbreakingly beautiful interiors. Did I say St Peter’s Basilica was the most opulent? I stand corrected. Smaller in dimension, understandably, with ornate interiors that date back to 17th and early 18th centuries, the rich baroque craftsmanship is like none other.

The ceiling of the under choir spreads out in a panorama of the biblical “tree of Jesse” done in Churrigueresque style, also known as Mestizo style, with the members of the Guzman family flowering from its gilded branches. (The word Guzman translates into ‘good man’ and here possibly refers to the founder of the noble family of the name in Burgos.)

I walk down an aisle with vintage wooden pews and the side walls richly painted in gilded relief. Ornate side chapels guide me to the nave with a soaring dome above that features numerous Dominican saints crowned by the Virgin of the Rosary. The circular nave is the highlight with stucco reliefs illustrating the Marian mysteries and the ornate gilded pulpit. The Rosary Chapel, completed in 1720s, is surrounded by an entrancing maze of saints and cherubs and arabesques. The retablo (painting) of the Virgin stands out among the many distractions.

Oaxaca’s main square called the Plaza de La Constitucion, commonly referred to as the Zocalo, is certainly the heart of the city. Vendors of handicrafts, ladles and pans, baskets and bags of crafted leather, prettily embroidered skirts and beadwork, set out their wares, often to the accompaniment of live music.


Eats & more


As the crowds gather, the Mariachi and the Marimba music floods the square with Oaxaquenean flavour. Music is almost always in the air, and at any street corner, one can find a musician playing his accordion with his hat out for the large-hearted.

The streets get their reference from Zocalo, and many of them are christened after the months of the year, Calle de Noviembre, Deciembre, Febrero etc. They are fringed with cafés and bakeries, while the street corners, especially towards evenings, are abuzz with streetfood carts selling a wide range of comida corridas (fast foods) that are lip-smackingly delicious. Tapas, tortillas, casadillas with suitable dips can set the tongue on fire. Oaxaqueneans love their chillies like us Indians, and add them fresh, fried, dried, pickled or salted to most of their food.

For the carnivores, the range is endless. The short eats can be from the vegetarian eats such as the papas fritas (potato chips or fries), roasted peanuts, dried fruits and a mix of these to insects like the chapulines or grasshoppers. These are a much favoured delicacy fried and seasoned with chillies, salt and lime. Desayunos is your breakfast, comidas your lunch and cena your dinner.

As I wander around the busy local mercados of Calle de 20 Noviembre and the Benito Juárez, there is a pleasant bustle around me of Oaxaquenean shoppers and women sitting together for gregarious mini meals bursting with tastes and smells, while small-time vendors of combs, tapas, tortillas and what-have-you sell their wares to their captive clients. The energy is familiar and infectious.

The chocolates (cho-co-la-tey) of Oaxaca are famed and have variants such as nuez, or walnuts, canella, or cinnamon (bitter sweet to taste), the ones loaded with azucar (sugar) other than the 100% cocoa, the primos. I move on among shops spilling over with baskets of wicker and cane ladles and churners, bags and curios.

And the moles (mo-lays)! Simply put, these are elaborate Oaxaca sauces without which no morsel of food is eaten. In fact, the state of Oaxaca is called the land of the seven moles. These being moles rojo (red), verde (green), negro (black), amarillo, estafado, coloradito, and chichilo. Another must-try delicacy is the potent local brew of mezcal, a 100% extract of the agave (a-ga-way). This is the holy drink of the Oaxaqueños and the big boss of the Tequila.

Oaxaca has its own eco-system, even being essentially of the Mexican flavour. It is what Mexico City would have been half a century ago. Arts and crafts spill out on streets and bylanes, and remind you of India at every step. There is more of crafts and culture in these rustic outlets than in all the emporias. The Oaxaquenian handicrafts come from its artesenals in small villages that surround it, and as village handicrafts go, get sold often at sub-optimal prices.

Nowhere is there a conscious effort to overprice and there is much too much craft that speaks for itself.

The Santa Maria Atzompa is the borough that produces the alluring seaweed green (verde) ceramic pottery, the Barro (borough) Negro, the black-clay artefacts of the most exquisite handwork, prominently of the Dona Rosa family, generations of which are continuing with the good work. Barro Rojo of the rust red variety comes from San Marcos Tlapazola…the trade handed down through generations, and handled mostly by women. Unlike the products of Barro Verde, these are lead-free and safe for cooking and storing. Most of these crafts are intertwined with the history of the ancient civilisations of the Zapotec that were ethnic to the region and have been deeply entrenched in the soil.

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