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This story appears in SUITCASE Volume 14 The Art Issue
“I’m a poet.” The lie slips out of my mouth without a second thought. What on earth has compelled me to tell the man who’s trying to teach me to salsa dance that I write poetry for a living? It could be that it’s 2AM, I’m a couple of mezcals down, and I’m desperate to compensate for the fact that the whole courtyard salsa club is moving to the rhythm in a way that I categorically cannot manage. Even so…a poet?
I’m making this false statement on my final night in Oaxaca, the capital city of the southerly Mexican state known by the same name. Over the past three days I have watched artisans craft fantastical creatures out of single pieces of wood, met weavers practising centuries-old techniques and witnessed how the ancient craft of mezcal distillation is being brought into the modern age. I have come here to learn about Mexican folk art and its links to indigenous cultures, but I have wound up discovering a creative community more contemporary than I could ever have imagined – one that I am now lying to be a part of.
Before my trip, a Mexican curator warned me against organising her country’s culture into stereotyped motifs of magic, folklore and myth, and her voice is in the back of my head as I arrive. I try not to think of Oaxaca as magical, but the city resists my efforts from the start.
Light pours across the whitewashed walls of an interior courtyard as I check in at Hotel Azul, where it seems like the sky, as though freshly washed, is being hung out to dry in the sun. Leaving my belongings in one of the bedrooms, all of which have been designed by local artists, the concierge welcomes me, handing me a mezcal, and I wince as it burns the corners of my mouth. I’m ready to explore.
A short walk away, I can tell the time of the day by watching the movements of people across the Santo Domingo plaza, as though the whole universe revolves around this one square-shaped pivot. The city is in the middle of a post-lunch lull that first afternoon – in front of the church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán that dominates the square there is an an artist at work under a pink-and-orange striped parasol. Nearby there is a man playing the accordion in between tufts of yucca shrubs and a woman hanging white linen dresses against a cobalt-blue wall.
The colours make a real impression on me. On one cobbled corner an anonymous painter plays with a contrast that would never have occurred to me, depicting a peeling, rust-orange wall interrupted by turquoise pilasters; elsewhere, a green stucco-fronted house is offset by borders painted lemon-yellow.
Macedonia Alcalá street connects the Santo Domingo plaza with the zócalo (central square) and I spend that first hour darting in and out of odd shops that line the pedestrianised road. I sift through beautiful huipil blouses in a textiles shop called Los Baúles de Juana Cata, and in the Contemporary Art Museum of Oaxaca I find cutting-edge installations by the Spanish artist Eugenio Ampudia.
By the time I reach the zócalo, Oaxaca has woken from its slumber. Shoeshine boys polish the boots of middle-aged men whose heads disappear between flourished pages of newspaper print. Children run around the curved bandshell stage in the shade of laurel trees, ducking between balloon vendors whose heads disappear into explosions of pink and silver.
It is the second week of December and outside the 20 de Noviembre market, which lies just south of the zócalo, vendors are selling nativity sets and fierce red poinsettias, known as the flowers of Christmas Eve. At the entrance women flog bags of dried chillies and crunchy chapulines (grasshoppers). Inside, the stalls file off in straight lines: to the right, there are brilliant fruits and vegetables; to the left, pillowy sweet buns; at one end, woven baskets and at another, sandals and leather goods. Everywhere, the imploring calls of “¿qué le damos?” (what can we offer you?) are interspersed with murmurs of indigenous languages.
As the light starts to fade, I walk back to the Santo Domingo plaza where the vendors selling aguas frescas (‘fresh waters’ infused with fruit or herbs) are making way for mezcal stands. I’m curious to know what all the fuss is about, so I make an appointment at La Mezcaloteca, a reservation-only tasting room dedicated to the spirit of the moment.
Inside at the dark wood bar, which is silent and illuminated by green bankers’ lamps, the female proprietor takes me through a tasting menu and explains that some mezcals are dry and smoky, while others are fresh and herbal.
Once night has fallen and the air is cooler, I head to the patio of Casa Oaxaca, widely believed to be the city’s best restaurant. Oaxaca is serious about food, and the state’s geographic and ethnic diversity has gifted it with some of the richest and most varied cuisine you’ll find in Mexico.
I start with a ribeye tlayuda, a crunchy tortilla spread with refried beans, avocado and quesillo, a regional cheese that resembles mozzarella. Next, I try turkey smothered in thick black mole, the famous sauce that was first created in the 16th century and contains over 20 ingredients. Eventually I start to taste bittersweet tones of dark chocolate counteracting the spice of peppers, but the complex flavours take some time to unpick.
Along the road back to Hotel Azul three women in indigenous dress walk without talking in a single-file line with goods piled in baskets on top of their heads. They dart in and out of my vision, passing momentarily into the pools of light cast by streetlamps, before quickly disappearing into obscurity.
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