I Moved To Oaxaca

Sunday, November 02, 2003

I’m boiling some water to do the dishes. It’s Sunday morning, and Greg just came back from the estacionamiento, or parking lot, where we’ve ensconsed Little Jumbo. The holidays finally convinced us to put her in a lot instead of leave her parked overnight on the street. Osbelia says Day of the Dead brings in thieves from out of town. Not only did Timothy’s pickpocketing incident unnerve us, but someone’s been leaving women’s clothing in the backseat.

Oh, yes, the pickpocketing incident. Timothy had planned on spending Day of the Dead back up in San Sebastian in order to get a more traditional take on the holiday than the very public, very tourist-oriented version in Oaxaca. He’d planned to take the bus out to Miahuatlan and then on up to Marcos’s place, but as he was getting on the second-class bus at the Abastos, he got pickpocketed! He thinks it was the driver’s assistant. He had his wallet in his front pocket, and his bags strapped across his chest, but as he and others were getting on the bus there was a big push from behind, and rather than fall onto the steps or into the person in front of him, he reached out to grab the rail. And that’s when he felt a hand pluck his wallet out of his pocket. They made off with his money and credit cards, now cancelled; fortunately Timothy’s passport and plane ticket were with most of his stuff back at our place. But anyway, he was bummed and not really looking forward to any more second-class bus rides, so he stayed and hung out with us.

When Marlys was over the other day we got another dose of building gossip: our handyman Carlos, Miguel’s nephew, threw in the towel and left over the crummy pay – I wish we’d been able to clear the air first – and Miguel’s mother, who owns the building, has to pay her son rent!

Water’s almost ready. I’m writing this one at home instead of at the keyboard at the Internet café. Not that typing this on the clock would break the bank, but there’re a lot of people in town now and the café’s been crowded.

Right now I’m listening to “Sonora Santanera: 25 Grandes Exitos,” a cd Oscar bought for us in Tlacolula’s market. He and Claire are in Mexico City now for Day of the Dead, and they’re heading to Morelia after that. Yep, they moved away. At first they were going to go to Cancun, but after hearing everyone say, Why are you going there? they decided to give the mountains a try. Marlys told us what she’ll say to Oscar if she sees him again – he left without saying goodbye to her – and while I didn’t catch all the bad words, I understood her pantomimed slap across the face.

Anyway, after school yesterday we drove Timothy out to Teotitlan Del Valle. He’s thinking to do an article around Day of the Dead celebrations – who hasn’t? – but as we had seen the scene at Xoxo the three of us for varying but similar reasons wanted to see a more typical celebration. We didn’t have enough time or inclination to drive to San Sebastian, so we took him out to Teotitlan to see Zachirias, the guy he met out there that does temescal ceremonies.

It rained again yesterday, so the mountains and fields shone with that lovely, post-rainstorm glow from the afternoon sun, making it a beautiful drive. We pulled up to Zachirias’s, and found him there with his wife whose name I can almost remember, one of his sons, and a visiting relative. Zachirias doesn’t speak English, but his son Antonio does (along with some French and Italian to round out his Spanish). Zachirias’s wife speaks Spanish and Zapoteca, and I think I only heard the elderly relative speaking Zapoteca, which is what Antonio said they all spoke at home. And since Spanish is a second language for them, they spoke it slowly enough, and without a lot of idioms, so that I found it fairly easy to follow.

Antonio showed us the altar along one wall of the big room we were in, about 15 feet across, and very heavy on the catholic symbology, what with big prints of the BVM of Guadalupe, Jesus on the cross, and a saint whose iconography I didn’t recognize. And tons of flowers and dead bread and mescal and fruit and candles. It was quite pretty, set against the white-walled and blue-ceilinged room. Antonio explained that their custom (and by that I believe he meant valley Zapotecs, not just Teotitlan) during the holiday, the male head of a household must visit his father’s house, his father-in-law’s house, and his godfather’s house, but since Antonio was still living at home he only had to visit his godfather’s house. He also explained that because All Saint’s Day fell on a Sunday this year, the spirits of the deceased, which usually go back to the graveyard on All Saint’s Day, had to wait until Monday because they don’t travel (or maybe it’s that they can’t go into the graveyard on a Sunday? again, I’m not sure), making it a three-day holiday this year.

Zachirias then invited us to sit down and have a drink, so we sat at a big table while Antonio fetched a bottle of mescal off the altar and Mrs. Zachirias brought in a little silver tray with shotglasses. Zachirias poured us each a shot of mescal, and explained that the bits of fruit floating in it were apples from the mountains – from Benito Juarez, I asked, and they said yes, and were pleased that we’d been there – and that the mescal, though in a commercial mescal distiller’s bottle, was home-brew from Matatlan, the center of mescal brewing in Mexico. It sure was good. As we drank (after the mescal he brought out some Corona beer) he and Antonio told us stories about Teotitlan, including one about a Robin Hood-type guy back in 1600 who would steal money from government agents, hand it out or bury it around the village, and was impervious to bullets. But, this guy was apparently also a ladies man and, without a Maid Marian, played the field until one day he pissed off the wrong woman, who told authorities that the man’s heart wasn’t in his chest, but in his foot. She told them where to find him, and when the g-men did they shot him in the foot and killed him.

And Zachirias told us a story about a man his father knew, who made a bargain with an otherworldy race called the gentiles, who lived under the hills and had fabulous wealth. It was a story about this man, who was very skilled in finding lost livestock that had wandered into the mountains. One day, a man who had agreed to work for the gentiles took this other man into the otherworld through a crack in a rock, and while he was down there, the agent of the gentiles told him, if you become scared at the things they ask you to do, you’ll never get back to the village. And then they asked him to ride a bull – no big deal to this man, except that instead of a rope to hold onto, it was a snake, and another snake tying his feet underneath the bull. But he got on, and as the bull jumped and spun around, the man didn’t see anything, but when the bull paused, the bull rider would see different parts around the Teotitlan valley, until finally the bull was back where they had started. He got off and, because he’d proved he was brave, the agent let him go. And then there was an epilog where the man got some money, but I’m not too clear on what happened there.

After I mentioned that we’d been to Benito Juarez, Antonio said that even though they’re Zapotecs, they can’t understand their language. The people in Teotitlan can understand, albeit with regional accents, the people in Matatlan, Oaxaca, Mitla, Ocotlan – basically, the Zapotecs living in the Oaxaca Valley – but not the people only a couple of miles away up the mountain. When Greg took Timothy to Monte Alban on Thursday they came back with some really nice magazines, Arqueologia, on different subjects. The one on Oaxaca has really nice photos of people in typical traje from different villages around the state, and a map showing the different cultural groups. It divides Zapotecs into Valley, Sierra (like the people in Benito Juarez), Southern, and Isthmus, twenty-one groups in all.

Zachirias invited us to stay the night, but as I was both unprepared with contact paraphernalia and wanting to spend some time with our family altar, Greg and I declined, but we left Timothy there; we’re going back this afternoon to scoop him up and have lunch with Zachirias and his family, and maybe see the graveyard, too. Should be exciting.

Now, what about the graveyard we did see, the one in Xoxocotlan? Timothy took pictures with his ultra-groovy digital camera, so I’ll try to get pictures from him to post. How to describe this? Most cemetery action takes place on Day of the Dead, Nov. 1, but in Xoxo they have their big to-do on Halloween. It’s so popular now, with foreign and domestic tourists, that they have a big estacionamiento set up to handle the traffic, and tour buses from Oaxaca. We met my student Victor at his house, and joined his wife, another student and her family, and about ten Michiganers in town for a student exchange program (one of whom is staying at Victor’s), piled into the cars, and drove out to the cemetery. We got there a little before 10pm. In front of the cemetery gates was a stage and chairs, and a string band playing music. Beyond that were 20 or more food booths set up and doing a brisk trade. There were a lot of people streaming in to the cemetery. We made plans to meet up again at 11:30, and at first I was thinking, how are we going to kill an hour and a half in a cemetery, but we ended up rushing back to be on time. The cemetery was fairly big, and it was teeming with people sitting up with their dead around graves decorated with cempasuchiles, alcatrazes (calla lilies), and coronas del gallos (Antonio told me the name of the big, fuzzy magenta flowers everybody has on their altars.) plus candles, banners, sand paintings, all manner of Halloween decorations, and fireworks. I guess dead people like fireworks, too. Some graves had maybe a dozen flowers and a candle or two, while others were so brightly lit it was like being at a night game. And nobody seemed to have a problem with photographers – some of the more elaborate graves practically invited photography. So while Timothy snapped away we wandered around and took it all in: the graves, the celebrants (some sad, some in a party mood), the smell of burning copal, the cotton candy hawkers, the hordes of small children running up to every gringo they saw and shouting “Halloween!” and holding out a small plastic jack o’lantern, and the older kids in Halloween costumes. Surreal is the most accurate description I can think of.

And before we knew it, it was time to meet back up with the group. The three of us grabbed an exquisite hotcake apiece at one of the food stalls, then waited over by the stage for everyone to show up.


Post a Comment

<< Home