MEXICO — knew Mexico long before I ever visited it -- knew it from novels, and while that may be a strange way to know a place, it is not an uncommon one.
I suppose I ought to tell you, too, that nearly all of my images of Mexico were from fiction by non-Mexicans: the whiskey priest in Graham Greene's "The Power and the Glory," the drunken consul in Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano," the prospectors in B. Traven's "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," which John Huston filmed with Humphrey Bogart. Or the Mexico of the satirist Ambrose Bierce, who vanished across the border into Chihuahua in 1913 and last was heard from en route to visit Pancho Villa's troops. The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote "The Old Gringo" about Bierce's disappearance.
Tired of life, the 71-year-old Bierce sent this letter to a relative shortly before his trip south:
"If you should hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think it is a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico -- ah, that is euthanasia."
There were other Mexicos, too -- the Mexico of D. H. Lawrence or the Mexico of the Beats in the 1950s: William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac or Neal Cassady, that prince of disorder who died on the railroad tracks outside of San Miguel de Allende. Or the lovers in Harriet Doerr's "Stones for Ibarra."
These writers created a world populated by lost souls, dissolutes.
Alas, they are only illusions, and the travelers whose appetites have been fed on fiction eventually must acknowledge that the Mexico of novels exists only between bound pages.
But traces of the Mexico that inspired those novels still may be found in the province of Oaxaca, particularly in the capital city of the same name. The tourism boom of the last 25 years mostly bypassed the country's southernmost state. So in Oaxaca it is possible to find an older, grander, if slightly seedy Mexico without the high-rise beachfront hotels of Cancun or Acapulco, or the smog and mayhem of Mexico City. And there are fewer foreigners in Oaxaca than in the coastal resorts.The visitors are mostly Mexicans, businessmen or Indian villagers up to the capital for the day.
If Oaxaca is not quite as bizarre as Graham Greene or Malcolm Lowry would have it in fiction, it's still a long way from the sanitized holiday of Club Med. Here you still can see the Third World and the Old World conjoined in a wonderful, vulgar and sad spectacle.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the zocalo, or Plaza de Armas (Plaza Central), which sits at the heart of Oaxaca. You can sit on one of the ornate wrought-iron benches or sip coffee at a cafe and watch a continuous pageant, a never-ending procession of protesters demanding land reforms, underpaid school teachers, angry farmers and regiments of young soldiers, sometimes complete with a military brass band. Men with raised, clenched fists and a flurry of leaflets are followed by two dozen little girls dressed in costumes of sombreros and serapes, singing traditional music.
The zocalo is a place of rich street theater, too, and among the most diverting players on this stage are the hustlers, vendors and shoeshine men and boys who stalk the great plaza.
Because of the heat in Oaxaca, the rays of the strong sun intensified by the altitude, the zocalo really comes alive after dark. In the evening, musicians perform impromptu in front of the genteel, shabby Monte Alban or Marques de Valle hotels. A group of middle-aged men accompanied by an accordionist stops to serenade some friends drinking coffee. A small crowd intently studies a pair of chess players. Many of these are the characters out of all of the fiction that fed my imagination's Mexico, sprung to life.
The extraordinary and concentrated day- and nightlong spectacle gives Oaxaca's zocalo the deserved reputation of the best plaza in Mexico.
The zocalo, actually two squares, is part tree-shaded park with an enormous and elaborate old bandstand that hosts nightly concerts, part central meeting area bordered by arcades of shops and outdoor cafes. The baroque-style cathedral, which dates from the 16th century, and the Palacio de Gobierno, stand on opposite sides of the zocalo.
There is a lot of pain and misery in Mexico, and you will see that in the zocalo, too. The posters on the main streets in Oaxaca promote the campaign against polio. Cripples drag themselves along the streets or beg. Blind Indians play their little wooden flutes on street corners at the same spot every day. The families of the afflicted gather in the shade under the porticos that surround the zocalo. Every blind or crippled man in Mexico travels with an entourage.