Oaxaca: A Self-appreciative Culture

After a decade of wanting to go, I finally made it to Oaxaca! Though the trip was probably not how I had imagined it years ago, it was a wonderful first exposure. From Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca (more on that later) we took a private plane to the capital. It was just a thirty minute, smooth flight and a pretty fun experience. It gave us a whole extra day in Oaxaca. If we had taken the windy bus ride, we would not have made it there until evening. We had breakfast and began to explore the city. It was amazing how in one day I got a very different sense than I had in Chiapas. Chiapas is the poorest Mexican state and Oaxaca is second. Both have large numbers of indigenous peoples living within them. However, everywhere I went in Chiapas was very commercialized. I already expressed my opinions on the crowded “ecotourism” sites. Apart from this, you cannot go anywhere without very aggressive vendors trying to sell something to you. This included while you were seated inside at a restaurant. It made me not even want to just sit on a bench and enjoy the surroundings for a minute because I didn’t want to have to say “no” ten times in five minutes. There were vendors and peddlers in Oaxaca as well, but not as many and they seemed to be much more respectful of their customers, or maybe respected themselves more. In Chiapas, it seemed like all of the natural assets of the state existed for tourism and were milked for all they were worth, but in Oaxaca, it was different.

The best part of the city for me was the Culture Museum in a restored ex-convent. It was an incredible museum, on par with many in the states and better and bigger than any others I’d seen in Mexico (though I haven’t made it to Mexico City yet). The building it was housed in was beautiful itself. Huge open hallways with gigantic windows at each end, courtyards and balconies overlooking the botanical garden below. Just beautiful. The course of the museum started with the early history of the state of Oaxaca, moved through the Mayan dynasty, the Spanish Conquest, the Independence, and up to modern day. This museum also affirmed my sense that the people of Oaxaca had more personal dignity as the final few rooms of the museum emphasized and celebrated the continued development of the indigenous cultures. Later in the day, I went back to the location to get a tour of the garden surrounding the ex-convent. The garden was not old, but it was very tastefully done and was a showcase of plants and trees indigenous to the state of Oaxaca specifically. We had a great tour guide who was very knowledgeable about the historical and cultural significance of the plants as well as the scientific details.

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After a visit to Foundation for His Ministry (more later), I returned to the capital for an evening dinner and show. The show was called the Guelaguetza and was advertised as show casing dances from all seven regions of Oaxaca. While visiting the mission, I happened to pick up a book that gave me some more information. The Guelaguetza was a prehispanic tradition of the people in Oaxaca coming together to share culture, food, and dance from the various indigenous groups. It was a way of celebrating diversity. In 2006, there were a series of strikes that affected Oaxaca all year long. The people were upset with the corruption in the government (an unfortunately common sentiment through Mexican history) and people were striking for better investment in schools, for the rights of the indigenous, etc. At this time, the Guelaguetza had become a commercial annual event which was so expensive only tourists could afford to go. The people decided to boycott the commercial one, eventually forcing them to cancel and the people hosted their own, which was completely free to Oaxacans and represented many more dances and foods than the commercial one ever had. Again, this demonstrated to me an inherent pride in their culture whether it was shared and produced money or not. The show we went to was not the large annual event, but a representation. Watching the dance was a fun experience, as I always enjoy watching good dancing.

Our last day, we created a custom tour of the area. We do things the classy way. We skipped some of the more common tourist sites and went to visit three artisan villages. The first was where they carve and paint alebrijes, incredibly complex wooden statues of animals. Originally, they were tied into the Mayan religion and superstitions as a kind of protection. They remain breathtaking art, which I imagine has only grown more complex and beautiful with time improve the talent.

In the second village, we visited a workshop that makes pottery out of black clay. Oaxaca is known for this particular technique of rubbing the clay with a certain stone before firing to create the appearance of a glaze. What I didn’t realize is that we were taken directly to the workshop of the woman who had discovered the technique in the 1930s! She has since passed away, but her legacy continues.

After a brief stop at the Tule (the widest tree in the world), we finally visited a town that specialized in wool weaving. We visited a co-op of 20 families. One of the weavers gave us an explanation of the natural dyes, showing us how to mix some colors in our palms. In my hand, he broke some pomegranate seeds and mixed it with limestone and created a turquoise. Another woman demonstrated how to card and spin the wool. We also got to watch them creating the pattern on the loom. It was incredible how fast they went because they had a complex pattern memorized in their heads.By the way, they offer workshops where they teach people the process, starting with going out to gather the materials for the natural dyes!

That evening we enjoyed one more walk through the markets and stores with a new appreciation for the art. I wish that I had more money available to support more of these talented, hard working artists. I was happy to make a few small purchases to enjoy for myself and to show appreciation for the culture at the same time. That is how I have come to view souvenir shopping in other countries. It is no fun if I am just looking for myself or am trying to drive the hardest bargain I can (though I do barter a little and I don’t like it when people intentionally take advantage of me being foreign). I get so much more enjoyment knowing that what I am buying is supporting local economy and appreciating local culture, which is why I try to buy directly from the artisans if possible and avoid the manufactured souvenirs.

So thankful to finally have this opportunity!

Photos are my own.

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