Oaxaca Update: All Clear? Shhhh!!

Logue readers Robert Adler and Jo Ann Wexler posted this as a comment on my previous post about Oaxaca. I’m re-posting it here. Thanks for the update!

It’s very tempting to keep Oaxaca’s current situation a secret. For once, there are no tourists to clog the tables at our favorite restaurants, wander into our photos of Monte Alban and Mitla, or get in our way as we scout the vibrant outdoor markets at Ocotlán, Tlacolula or Ejutla. Oaxaca is sparkling under a warm winter sun, her grand colonial buildings are being cleaned and repainted, the State Band is once again giving free concerts in the shade of the zócalo’s towering laurel trees, and those of us who are here from north of the border pretty much have the place to ourselves.

The only reason we might share the secret that it’s once again great to be in Oaxaca is that our Oaxaqueño friends—the hotel and B&B keepers, restaurateurs and waiters, artists and craftspeople, taxi drivers and street vendors–are ready, willing and eager to host visitors, but have nobody to whom they can offer their warmth and hospitality. Oaxaca is an enchanting tourist destination missing one vital ingredient—tourists.

But what about the advisories from the U.S., Canadian, and Australian governments warning their citizens that it’s dangerous to travel to Mexico, and even more so, to Oaxaca? What about the newspaper stories describing a city under siege, burning buildings, and pitched battles between activists and the Mexican federal police?

The short answer is that those problems appear to be over. Six months of confrontations between the government and Oaxaca’s teachers and their allies–under the banner of APPO, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca– reached a peak on November 25. A massive march by what once had been a popular, non-violent reform movement turned ugly, and the Federal Preventive Police, who had been remarkably restrained for more than a month, took control. They aggressively broke up the demonstration with teargas and water cannons, arrested hundreds of activists, swept away APPO’s last encampment, and made it clear that Oaxaca’s six months of lawlessness was over. The next day, APPO handed its radio station—it’s command center and last bastion—back to the university.

Since then, Oaxaca has experienced a renaissance. Hundreds of buildings have been scraped clean of their political grafitti and repainted. Streets and sidewalks have been scrubbed. Restaurants, craft shops, and galleries have unlocked their doors and extended their hours. Oaxaca’s once nearly deserted streets again surge with traffic and bustle with crowds of Oaxaqueños. The zócalo, for months a grim, slogan-filled political encampment, has sprung back to life. Customers again sip café de la olla or Oaxaca’s cinnamon-and-almond laced hot chocolate at the zócalo’s arcade-sheltered cafes. The concerts of the State Band compete with the sounds of tinkling marimbas and jaunty mariachis. In the evenings, dancers once again trace the steps of the stately danzon. People are smiling again, and their enthusiasm at having their city back is contagious.

That’s not to say that Oaxaca’s long-standing social and political problems have been solved. It remains Mexico’s most indigenous state, and hundreds of thousands of indigenous people continue to live in poverty (or seek work north of the border). Despite the reformers’ best efforts, the unpopular governor, Ulises Ruiz, remains in power. He is unlikely to make the government more inclusive or responsive to people’s real needs. There may well be more marches and demonstrations (although, under the watchful eye of the PFP, they almost certainly will be studiously non-violent). The federal government under Mexico’s new president, Felipe Calderon, shows some signs of addressing Oaxaca’s and the nation’s real problems, but serious issues remain that will require far more than a fresh coat of paint to resolve.

What has changed is that the striking teachers are back in school, APPO’s barricades and encampments are gone, and six months of daily strife has ended. State and local police, backed up by the Federal police, are firmly in control. It’s once again safe and enjoyable for tourists to stroll Oaxaca’s streets. The city and state are returning to normal just in time for the Christmas season, our favorite time to enjoy the city’s charms.

Calendas, Posadas, radishes, and floats

Starting around the middle of December, neighborhood churches and other groups start to organize calendas and posadas. Calendas are exuberant parades accompanied by musicians, fireworks, and huge whirling papier-mâché figures. Posadas are quieter and more touching. As night falls, groups of people carrying candles, and led by a boy and girl dressed as Mary and Joseph, visit a series of houses or businesses, singing a traditional song asking for shelter. They are turned away again and again, but finally they are told in song, “Come in, pilgrims; we didn’t recognize you. Happy is the house that shelters today the pure Virgin, the beautiful Maria.” As these processions form, curious visitors will almost always be handed a candle and invited to join in.

Oaxaca’s historic basilica, Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, fetes its namesake, the Virgin of Solitude, during the week culminating in December 18. The avenue leading to the basilica turns into a vibrant marketplace selling traditional food and crafts. On the night of the 18th, the gleaming statue of the Virgin is carried in solemn procession around the churchyard on a flowered palanquin, accompanied by towering, jewel-laden banners.

Just before Christmas, on the 23rd of the month, Oaxaca celebrates its famous Night of the Radishes. Starting early in the day, the zócalo is ringed by tables on which appear magical scenes sculpted and built out of nothing but giant radishes. (Actually, the festival also features equally charming scenes made from corn husks or from a special kind of dried flower.) If you are like many of our friends, you may be highly skeptical about this particular art form. All we can say is, if you come, bring your camera and prepare to be pleasantly surprised, and perhaps, like us, enchanted.

On Christmas Eve, people arrive at the zócalo early in the evening to stake out a sidewalk table for a leisurely meal or drinks. Around 8:30, colorful floats and processions from all of Oaxaca’s parishes begin to appear, accompanied by their own musicians. Some of the floats are simple, perhaps just carrying some sleepy young children dressed as angels. Others are works of art, recreating aspects of the Christmas story in radiant tableaux.

There’s still time to get to Oaxaca for this holiday season. For once, and unlike Mary and Joseph, you won’t have trouble finding shelter during the holidays. Many of Oaxaca’s charming hotels and B&Bs are offering discounts to lure visitors back to Oaxaca, or may be more than usually willing to offer a lower rate if asked.

Even if you can’t make it here before the end of the year, we recommend that you put Oaxaca back onto your “must visit” list. Even when the December festivals are over, Oaxaca continues to find reasons to celebrate. (Our Oaxaqueña landlady points out that the December festivals extend into early February). Visitors who witness the silent, hooded processions on Good Friday, just before Easter, will experience a bit of the middle ages alive and well in this amazing city. In mid-July, Oaxaca will put on an extra-special Guelegüetza, it’s eight-day offering of regional and indigenous dance and music, to make up for the 2006 program, which was cancelled due to “the problems.” Oaxaca is ringed by archaeological sites, including the world-class ruins of Monte Alban, and by picturesque villages, such as Teotitlan del Valle or Ocotlán, known for their crafts or vivid outdoor markets. The nearby mountains offer hiking, climbing, and birding, and the Pacific coast’s palm-shaded beaches are just a forty-minute flight (or an overnight bus ride) away.

It’s going to take a long, long time for government wheels to grind out an official announcement that Oaxaca is safe to visit once again. In the meantime, the sun is shining, the giant radishes are nearly ready to be carved, the smells of Oaxaca’s savory cuisine are wafting through the air, and the traditionally gracious Oaxaqueños are waiting to welcome you. Hasta pronto—see you soon.


Robert Adler and Jo Ann Wexler spend half of each year in Oaxaca. They are the authors of Viva Oaxaca: An Insider’s guide to Oaxaca’s Charms, and maintain the website www.si-oaxaca.com.

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