The Soul Of Mexico

Oaxaca: If it's part of the national spirit and history, chances are it converges in the colorful town squares, faces and architecture of this southern city and state.

February 21, 1999|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff

At the end of every street in the city of Oaxaca, a mountain rises, a nubby tooth in the eternal smile of the Sierra Madre. If you look down from a balcony or window upon the central plaza of the town, the zocalo, your mind inevitably brings forth the analogy of an immense school of fish, an undulating swarm that defeats all efforts to focus upon any individual within the collectivity.

It's only when you go down and get among them that you can see things in their particularity. A young woman rushes to work, her remarkably long hair flying behind her like the tail of a brown fox in flight. There are a few joggers, including one in a baseball cap (Oaxaca Guerreros). A vendor near the gazebo languidly arranges his hammocks. A child in a red-striped poncho waits to buy chocolate to drink, sold by a man with a cart. Chocolate is to Oaxaca what beer is to Milwaukee and is a better drink in the morning than Mexican coffee. An Indian woman -- Zapotec, Mixtec (one would have to ask) -- displays her blankets. Another brings forth her inventory of pastries, her face stained with sleep. She has a black eye.

The gazebo seems larger than it does in the evening, when so many people cram its pavilions, climb over its iron rails to get closer to the marimba players who appear intermittently and draw dancers from the crowds.

The gazebo is at the center of the zocalo. It is a big Victorian structure of concrete and green steel, a church of human pleasure -- relief from the nearly 30 churches of godly piety within this city of 170,000 people.

In the morning the smoke from the charcoal cooking fires set by the Indian women drifts into the huge laurels. These trees form the canopy over the plaza. They are green thunderheads, so large that you can always locate the zocalo simply by climbing to an elevated place in the city and looking around for the dense leafy clouds rising above the buildings, all built low here as a defense against frequent earthquakes. Trees are not plentiful in the greenish-brown, semi-arid valleys around Oaxaca (pronounced wa-hock-a),though lemon trees and jacaranda flourish in many a secret patio garden throughout the city.

But such native trees as there are must be reckoned with. In the village of Tule a few miles outside of town, there is a cypress tree said to be more than 2,000 years old. It has a twisty, rough bark, and here and there it seems almost hairy, so that one thinks of the skin of a mammoth. It is highly revered, and lovingly cared for. You might come all the way to Oaxaca from anywhere in the world just to see the tree at Tule, and be satisfied the trip was worthwhile. Nearby, on the other side of the nondescript church dwarfed by the big tree is a younger cypress, a child of the great tree. It is only 1,000 years old.

And yet the cypresses are not the most salient signposts in time as it unfolded in these parts. For upon the summit of a nearby mountain, 800 years before the great cypress of Tule pushed its first hopeful tendril up through the sand, the people known as the Zapotecs undertook to chop the top off the mountain and thereupon build a fortress city.

It took them 300 years to level the peak, another century or so to finish all the fine temples, ball courts for that mysterious game favored by the ancient peoples of Meso-America, and site the pyramids upon the extensive platforms they created. There they lived, the Zapotecs, high and mighty and secure for nearly another millennium. Then they left, for reasons no one has ever been able to determine with any certainty. They moved down into the valley. They left their dead behind in hundreds of secret tombs filled, in some cases, with immense treasures. Their enemies, the Mixtecs, took over the mountain for a while, then they, too, abandoned the place.

The temples and other edifices of this American Xanadu slumped into the sand. The wild morning glory crept back up the slopes and covered the rubble. They were in bloom when the first Spanish conquistadors came into the valley in 1519. One of them, looking up and seeing all the flowers, said, "Look, a white mountain!" Or words to that effect.

So today that is how it is known: Monte Alban. White Mountain.

The Zapotecs and the Mixtecs are still here, in the city itself, and in villages nearby. They thrive in Coyotepec, where they make the lustrous black pottery coveted by collectors throughout the world. They are in Teotitlan del Valle, weaving primeval designs into fine woolen rugs, and in Arrazola, where they carve and paint those brightly colored fantastical animals -- dragons and jaguars with wings -- so emblematic of Oaxaca, and which seem to represent the hallucinations occasionally induced by the mezcal, the drink of which Oaxacans are so oddly proud.

Mezcal, distilled from the maguey plant, "is good when everything goes bad for you," they say, "and good when everything goes well." You just can't beat it.

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