Many things stopped me in my tracks as I toured the exhibit. Anni's textiles, with which I was less familiar than her husband's paintings, were stunning in their beauty and link to the weavings and other art forms she had found in Mexico. Josef's paintings, set along side photographs he had taken of Mexican homes, made really clear the connections between his iconic square paintings and what he had seen when he looked at Mexican windows and doors.
It is certainly tempting to tell you the story of our trip chronologically, moving day by day from November 8th to November 18th; starting with our leaving Ula in New York City in the good care of our friend, Patrice Wynne, and ending with our happy reunion. But that won't do. A simple linear approach just doesn't fit the experience of being in Oaxaca. Oaxaca struck us as filled with complexities, many-layered, multidimensional; moving not just toward the future, but always pointing towards the past while very much in the present.
When I taught the psychological study of lives, I told students they should find a structure for their biographical writing that mirrored the structure of the life that they were trying to write about. Now, here I am trying to find a structure that fits Oaxaca. Seems right to write about what I experienced, as closely as I can to how I experienced it, without imposing any kind of trajectory. Actually, I am writing about arenas of experience, or better, "niches of experience." Merriam-Webster defines niche as "a habitat supplying the factors necessary for the existence of an organism or species." The Urban Dictionary says that Native Americans use the word to indicate something sweet. William James, the psychologist and philosopher, expands the meaning to include that place in a person's ecology especially well suited to her energies, that enables her to have an impact on the environment, that supports her creation of meaning in the chaos of life. All of those definitions work for me. So, what follows is some of the story of just three Oaxacan niches.
What Goes on at the Zócalo
Everyone who gave us tips on what to do in Oaxaca began with the Zócalo. They all recommended we go there to sit at a café or restaurant, watch the flow of people, and feel part of many very human stories. Some friends even said they went there everyday, no matter what else they might be doing. So, soon after our arrival on the evening of the 8th, we headed out the hotel door for the public square. Without a map, long after the sun had set, and not quite sure of where we were in relation to the square, we just couldn't find the lively open space that everyone had recommended. Instead, we fell into a nice, traditional Mexican restaurant, Restaurante Catedral, and ordered our first mescal and mole.
We decided we would look for the Zócalo in the morning light. We found it and instantly learned why we didn't see it the night before. The square was no longer an open space. It was completely filled with tents and other housing structures. Some looked very temporary but others constructed with heavy black plastic and ropes seemed more permanent. Many people were living here, many families with people of all ages, infants to grandparents. Clothes were hanging to dry and food was being prepared on makeshift surfaces. Also, signs of human habitation filled the small streets leading into the square. Large, low-hanging tarps, covered sleeping bags and cardboard platforms for sitting and gathering.
Later in the week, we went back to the square. Some of the housing structures had been removed and we could see parts of an open public space. As our friends had recommended, we sat at a café and watched life but we were amongst just a handful of visitors. It was also now easier to see the many large banners of protest and also to notice the many groups of young people. They met in circles to discuss what seemed to be issues very important to them. They formed a kind of university of the public square. I am sure these young people could have taught me a lot about what was happening at the Zócalo but my poor Spanish language skills kept me from joining them.
Hopefully, when we return (and we will), my Spanish will be better.
Conversations with Henry were gifts. Before we met him, we knew we would soon be returning to Oaxaca; but after spending time listening to him, I knew we would return with our eyes open wider. On our last visit to the store, I purchased a book called Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca, edited by Diana Denham and C.A.S.A Collective, published by PM Press, in 2008. The book is a collection of testimonies by twenty-three people -- activists, schoolteachers, students, housewives, children, organizers, artists, journalists, religious and union leaders, journalists -- who participated in the 2006 movement for social justice in Oaxaca and what became known as the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca. These are wonderful stories about life in a time of great change, told by those living it. If I were still teaching, I would ask my students to read this book.
Henry's store was not our only interaction with books in Oaxaca. Here is a delightful photograph I took of the facade of the public bibliotheca/library on Alcalá. It is never too late to read.
Our first encounter with this wonderful phenomenon was the Museo Arte Prehispanico de Rufino Tamayo. Tamayo, a famous Mexican artist, not only donated his entire collection of more than 1,000 pieces of pre-Columbian art to his hometown of Oaxaca City. He also renovated an important 18th century structure to house the collection. Tamayo intended each piece which he carefully selected for its aesthetic and emotionally expressive qualities to teach his community about the diversity and skill of their ancestors who had created the work. His message reaches all of us. I took lots of photographs in this space. Here are a few 0f my favorites.
But his influence does not stop with art. One of the most impressive gardens I have ever visited, rich with historical and cultural significance, is the Ethnobotanical Garden nearby the Templo Santo Domingo. With others, Toledo was responsible for securing the site and the creation of this garden.
Time to Pack!
There are many more Oaxacan niches to write about, but they will need wait. Within a week, we are returning to this magical place and I need to get ready for that. Writing will continue while I am there. Stay posted.
I will end this blog with some of the photographs I took in Oaxaca, with a brief description of each.
These appear in the order in which I took them:
On my first morning walk in Oaxaca, this is what I saw.
Sitting in the back seat of a car, on our way to the first of many excursions I was stunned by the beautiful deep blue color of the sky (you can see that in many of the photographs posted earlier). I think the person responsible for the building we drove by also liked the color.
There are sooo many wonderful Mexican restaurants in Oaxaca. Some say that here is the best Mexican food. But, where ever we are, even here, David will find a splendid Italian restaurant.
We heard wonderful music in Oaxaca. One special chamber music concert was in the beautifully restored chapel at the Templo y Ex-Convento de San Agustin, just east of the Zocal0. This is a beautiful window from that chapel.
Markets make up a big and important part of a visit to Oaxaca. There is a nearly daily one in Oaxaca City and the villages that surround the city have their own special market days. You can plan your week around them.
Here is a very splendid creature. We found him on a craft tour across a number of villages. He comes from San Martin Tilcajete, the village that specializes in alebrijes, fanciful wooden creatures. This particular piece was made in the workshop of Jacabo and Maria Angeles, master and mistress of this craft.
Just a few more shots from the magical ethnobotanical garden.
Be sure not to miss the wonderful cultural and historical center, Centro Cultural Domingo (right next door to the Ethnobotanical Garden). Beautiful buildings, a museum chock full of wonderful pieces, great concerts in the cloister, and very special exhibitions of contemporary art.
And then, there were the ruins. We visited the two major sites. The first was Monte Alban. Spectacular.
Just a couple more shots from the Cultural Center at Etla San Augustin, at the old textile factory restored by Toledo. The first is of the paper making facility just a short walk down the hill from the main building. A beautiful place in which to make beautiful paper. And then, just one of the many charming details in the complex.
And then it is time to go. We depart from the charming colorful Oaxaca Airport to find ourselves hours later in a neighborhood restaurant listening to jazz. There are many good things to celebrate.