We were an international gathering of friends spontaneously re-writing the lyrics to the 12 Days of Christmas — Mexico City-style. “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me … un tamale oaxaqueno.” (a tamale from Oaxaca) As we went around the circle with everyone contributing lyrics, I learned that “ocho secuestrados” (eight people who have disappeared) were on people’s minds along with “tres pinatas bellas” (three beautiful pinatas) and cuatro estrellas brilliantes (four brilliant stars.)
Many people are afraid to travel to Mexico because of the violence which is largely to the north. However, those who are brave enough to travel to the central part of the country will find a great deal of thought-provoking and vibrant art.
For “la noche de la Navidad” we traveled through canyons dotted with cactus six hours south of the “Distrito Federal” to the beautiful colonial city of Oaxaca, a World Heritage site. We wondered what colorful planet we had landed upon.
Large puppets stood like sentinels in the streets. The hand-stamped tin ornaments with their bright designs were strung on Christmas trees. The colorful pinatas dangled from lamp-posts at street corners, while great clouds of balloons for the children swayed in the wind.
People found myriad ways to express their faith through their artistic endeavors. The silver-crowned head-dresses of the religious parade-goers headed to church bobbed wildly along like they were on their way to Mardi-gras. Some women walked carefully with gifts side-by-side with the baby Jesus dolls that they carried in baskets.
In the old town north of the Zocolo, the main plaza, we were astonished by the variety and quality of the handicrafts made in the surrounding valleys throughout the state of Oaxaca by over 16 indigenous tribes. Color in many forms delighted the eye at every turn. Hand-woven carpets were dyed with natural ingredients — vibrant marigold, moss, indigo and brilliant red from the cochinilla, small insects on the underside of the agave.
In several shops, we met whole families who made carpets. My sister bought a carpet from a man who had woven it by hand. He told us of the stories of all the birds on the branches of his “Tree of Life” and the human emotions they conveyed. I bought a red carpet made by the sister of his cousin. The arbol, or sacred tree, was one of its elemental designs, featured along with the key design that we had seen at the ruins.
The day we went to the ancient Zapotec ruins at Mitla we learned 80 percent of the indigenous people died when they got sick from the many diseases brought by the Spanish colonists. We saw how poor many of the people are in the countryside and how simply some of them live. One cannot help but be struck by what they produce everyday to sell in the markets. How beautiful and bright are the things that they make with their hands. How humbling it is to see how they transcend their poverty with their art.
How much love, spirit and humor goes into every piece of the alabrijes, for instance, the brightly painted animals made out of copal wood. A believer in feng shui bought two turtles to attract love into her life. I brought home a cool cat with an arched tail to remind me not to take life so seriously…
Every day I am inspired when I see some of these beautiful things now in my home in Northern California. I remember that life is short and can be transformed into a thing of beauty. And I remember the people I met along the way in Mexico who express their humanity and affirm life through the beautiful things they are constantly creating.
Cultural Adventures: Mexican Art (San Francisco Bay Area) Take part in the Mission Arts and Performance Project (MAPP) a bi-monthly neighborhood inter-cultural arts event featuring live music and performance. (Oaxaca, Mexico) Visit the lovely colonial city of Oaxaca during a festival of folk dance, the Guelaguetza in July or Noche de los Rabanos (Night of the Radishes on Dec. 23.)
Copyright Marian Hubler 2012, All Rights Reserved
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Holly Hubler said:
Marian describes beautifully the essence and spirit of Oaxaca, the heart of colonial Mexico. We shared an experience which we’ll cherish, and the warmth and depth of the Oaxaquenos and their culture will live on within us.