Thursday, September 30, 2010

Oaxaca Part 6: Street scenes in the Centro Historico

Statue of a Flagellant. The statue of the Flagellant above is all that is left to indicate the former religious function of a now-commercial building on Calle Independencia, east of the zocalo. I decided to devote a segment of my Oaxaca postings to the odd and interesting things Carole and I found while randomly wandering the streets of the Centro Historico. In the right hand of the statue, extending back across the left shoulder, is a leather whip. The Flagellants used whips like this to beat themselves bloody as they marched with great fervor in huge processions across late-Medieval and Renaissance Europe. The Flagellant movements sprang up at times of great crisis such as crop failures and outbreaks of the Black Death (bubonic plague). Because they sometimes brought plague with them, they were often barred from towns and cities. In addition, their free-form fervor represented a threat to Church control and they were banned by various Popes and hundreds of Flagellants were burned at the stake. Spanish Flagellants were called Hermanos Penitentes (Penitential Brothers) and began to appear in colonial New Spain not long after the Conquest. Interestingly, the ancient Meso-American cultures also practiced ritual blood-letting and self mutilation. Scientists believe that pain releases endorphins which may produce an ecstatic state. The Flagellants still exist as part of the Catholic Church.

Rough old stone walls from the colonial period. This photo was taken on Calle Trujano, one block west of the zocalo. The rough stone blocks, arched doorways, and wrought-iron balconies are a mark of the colonial era. Streets in the Centro Historico are often narrow, and vendors who set up booths along the curbs make auto use a tricky proposition. Oaxaca is best seen while walking.

Café Royale on Calle Macedonio Alcala occupies an old colonial home. The doors on opposite sides of the corner both enter into the small cafe. Café Royal serves pastries and Oaxaca's excellent coffee. The 5-block section of Macedonio Alcala between the ex-convento Santo Domingo on the north and the zocalo on the south is pedestrian-only. Kind of a long, narrow plaza in itself, it is lined with cafes, restaurants, galleries, craft markets and much more. Street musicians and mimes abound. Throngs of people stroll along the old colonial street, enjoying the ambiance throughout the day and late into the evening.

A profession as old as the pyramids of Monte Alban. Stone masonry may be the second oldest profession. Except for the metal in the hammer and the chisel, the man above is acting out an almost literally timeless scene. As I watched, I was impressed by how quickly the man could shape and smooth the stone. The ancients of Meso-America built their great stone pyramids, palaces, and sculptures without the benefit of metal tools (or draft animals or the wheel for that matter). It was an astonishing accomplishment when you think of it.

Oaxaca Central Library began as a girls school in the early 19th Century. Started by a private individual, the Catholic Church later took it over and invited a group of Irish nuns to run it. They were led by a mother superior named Patricia Cox. This is part of a long and traditionally close relationship between Mexico and Ireland. Later, a group of Mexican nuns took over and founded the San Jose Girls School. During the Cristero War (1926-1929), fought by the Revolutionary government against radical Catholics activists, the school was closed. Eventually, the Oaxaca State Government took over the building, and in 1985 it became the Central Library. The structure is graceful, with many arcades and side passages.

Blind accordionist plays to an almost empty street. His sign, suspended below the accordion, says Soy ciego total (I am totally blind). Also attached to the accordion is a wicker basket for donations. I am a sucker for street musicians, and a blind one prompted an especially generous tip. He was pretty good with the squeeze-box too.

Los Arquitos are part of an ancient aqueduct. Built in the 18th Century, Los Arquitos (the little arches) formed part of the support structure for a long aqueduct which brought water down from the San Felipe mountains to the north of Oaxaca, through the village of San Felipe de Agua, finally ending near the ex-convento Santo Domingo. The locals have adapted the arches to their own purposes, building entrances to their homes and shops underneath. Some of the arches form the entrances of callejones (alleyways) leading through the old neighborhood behind the aqueduct. The aqueduct formed a part of Oaxaca's water system until 1934.

Centro Historico streets always seem to have a church in view. I took this photo looking west down Calle Morelos, three blocks north of the zocalo. Notice the fine wrought iron balconies on the yellow building on the left, and its rooftop garden. I believe the red-domed church is known as Carmen Bajo. The original church was built in 1554, but it was replaced after being destroyed in a fire in 1862.  The name of the church in Spanish means Low Carmen. It was given to distinguish it from another church several blocks north called Carmen Alto (High Carmen). The high and low designations refer to the social status of the congregations, Bajo being for the lower classes, and Alto for the elites.

La Biznaga Restaurante is famed for its mole sauces. We ate at La Biznaga several times because the food was excellent and reasonably priced. There are no table menus, just huge chalk boards up on the walls on which a seemingly endless list mole dishes is offered, along with other choices. The restaurant is located at Calle Garcia Virgil #512, several blocks north of the zocalo. The tables are set up in a courtyard, protected by an overhead screen, but otherwise open-air. Mole is a specialty of Oaxaca, which claims to have invented it (other cities in Mexico dispute this). One of the many stories of its invention involves the unexpected visit of a high church official to an early colonial convent. With few resources to draw upon, the nuns scurried about, throwing together a bit of this and a pinch of that. In the process, they created a sauce that the official loved. Mole (pronounced "mo-lay") actually originated with pre-hispanic people who concocted a variety of chili-based sauces called mulli. The Spanish later improved upon the native mulli by adding various ingredients including chocolate. There are almost as many different moles as there are varieties of tequila. However, moles virtually always involve chili pepper. Culinary experts estimate that 99% of Mexicans have tried at least one form of mole.

Templo y Convento de San Augustin. In 1576, the Augustinian Order arrived in Oaxaca and in 1586 they began work on this edifice. The original Templo was built of adobe with a beam and tile roof. Do to the frequency of earthquakes in the area, the Templo has never had a cupola (dome). This original structure was completed in 1596. Toward the end of the next century, the Augustinians began work on the present church, which was consecrated in 1722. During the Reforms of Benito Juarez in the 1860s, the Augustinians were ousted, and the church was taken over by the Institute of Art and Sciences. It was allowed to deteriorate, however, and in 1893 Bishop Eulogio Gillow acquired the ex-convento and turned it into a Childrens' Home.

St Augustine and his followers are shown in one panel on the front of the Templo. Around and above the Templo door are a rich collection of sculptures like this. The Augustinians were great educators in their time, and established a school in Oaxaca for the arts and humanities. At one point, they occupied all the professorships at the newly established colonial university.

Teatro Macedonio Alcala. The teatro (theatre) occupies the corner of Calle Independencia and Calle Armenta y Lopez. It is one of many beautiful theatres built throughout Mexico during the last part of the regime of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. Construction began in 1903 and finished in 1909, only a year before Diaz was ousted by the Revolution. Teatro Macedonio Alcala was named after a famous Oaxacan composer.

Closeup of Teatro Macedonio Alcala's second floor. All we could admire was the exterior, because the teatro was closed when we dropped by. However, my research indicates that it has a stunning interior, well worth a visit. The interior mixes Renaissance, French Louis XV, and other styles. There is a magnificent white marble grand staircase leading to the second floor. The whole complex was a monument to the wealth and pretensions of the elite class running Mexico at the time. They were, of course, the only ones who could afford to attend performances. 

Shoe shiner plies his trade, while his customer takes in the local news. One can always find a good shoe shine in Mexico, usually in the area around the zocalo. The seat holding the customer can be folded up and carted away in the evening, to be quickly set up the next morning. I usually gravitate toward the more down-on-their-luck shiners. They often own only a wooden box with a metal stirrup on top and a few of the implements of their trade. Despite their limited tools, they always give me a good shine, worth every peso. 

Templo San Felipe Neri. The original church was founded in 1661. Construction began on the current Templo in 1733 and was completed in 1770. San Felipe Neri was a saint noted for his medical charity, so it should be no surprise that the Angel Vasconcelos Hospital occupies the old convent facilities. In 1843, Benito Juarez married Margarita Maza in this church. Ironically, the Reform Laws he later instituted as President included nationalizing this church.

Interior of San Francisco Neri church. While the exterior is of the Baroque style, the interior shows very early elements of ornate Rocco style from the mid-18th Century. The church is located on the corner of Calles Independencia and Tinoco y Palacios, about 2 block from the zocalo.

Hotel Tipico. I was intrigued that any business would call itself Hotel Typical. I would expect something more like Hotel Unique, or Hotel Outstanding. In any case, it appeared clean and comfortable, and possessed an attribute of major importance in the Centro Historico: off-street parking. The hotel parking is accessed through this old carriage gate.

The conversation. I was rapidly snapping pictures in the area and didn't realize I had taken this little jewel until I downloaded it onto my computer. In my imagination, the conversation occurring above was going something like this: 
Mother- "Maria, I don't like that young man you've been with lately. Now in my day..." 
Maria- "Oh, Mom!!!"

I hope you have enjoyed the scenes we encountered while wandering the streets of Oaxaca as much as we did. Around every corner we were always encountering some new treasure of architecture, or wonderful human vignette. If you would like to leave a comment, you can do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I may respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Oaxaca Part 5: The fabulous Mercados

Beautifully embroidered dress in one of Oaxaca's many mercados. Oaxaca has numerous mercados (markets), mostly concentrated in the southwestern part of the Centro Historico. For a map showing market locations and other sites of interest, click here. The two we visited were Mercado Benito Juarez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre, which are adjacent to each other about 3 blocks southwest of the zocalo. The location of the present markets as been devoted to this activity since the 17th Century. The markets we see today were built in 1893 during the regime of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. The antiquity of the site is demonstrated by the adjacent Iglesia de San Juan de Dios, the first church built in Oaxaca by the priest Juan Diaz, who accompanied the first conquistadors to the area. The church still serves the mercados' vendors.

Mercado Benito Juarez' vendors primarily sell food and household items. Above, the stall vendor displays some artfully arranged camarones (shrimp). Her customer is studying the selection carefully. Camarones are very popular in most areas of Mexico. The "grande" or large-size shrimp sell for the equivalent of $9.56 (USD) for 2.2 lbs.

Fresh chicken feet anyone? In a north-of-the-border supermarket, chickens are usually sold sans feet, and fish sans heads or tails. In Mexican mercados, such niceties are not usually observed. Chicken feet are considered edible here, although I have not tried them. So are fried chapulines (grasshoppers) which I have also not tried, although they too are available in the mercado. They are reputed to be nice and crunchy.

The scent of fresh flowers permeated this area of Mercado Benito Juarez. A wide variety of fresh flowers adorned the various stalls. Mexicans love flowers, a taste that goes back to prehispanic times.

Mercado 20th de Noviembre features various crafts. November 20 refers to the beginning of the Revolution, the centennial of which is coming up very soon. This stall specialized in small tin decorations, mostly mariposas (butterflies) as far as I could see.

Catrina dolls were the specialty of this stall. Catrina is the feminine of catrin, which means elegant. The dolls are skeletons, both male and female, dressed in a variety of clothes and engaged in a variety of activities. They are closely associated with the Mexican Days of the Dead tradition (Nov. 1-2). Catrinas come in all sizes, from tiny to 6 feet tall. 19th Century Mexican cartoonist and printmaker Guadalupe Posada invented catrinas as a way of satirizing upper class pretensions during the Diaz regime (1876-1910). Catrinas hold a special appeal for Carole, who has amassed a small collection.

Sombreros for all tastes. The name sombrero comes from the Spanish sombra which means shade. I am a "hat person" so I tarried at this booth to see if anything appealed to me. "Sunny Mexico" was given that nickname for a reason. You are much closer to the Equator here than north of the border, and most of Mexico is comprised of mountains and high plateaux. Oaxaca lies at 1550 meters (5080 ft.) and given the altitude and latitude, the sun can be intense. Light-skinned folks from the US or Canada or Europe would be well advised to pick up one of these broad-brimmed hats, even if the weather is cool when you visit.

This vendor featured Huaraches as well as other types of footwear. Huaraches originated in Mexico during colonial times as footwear for the peones (peasants). The name comes from the Purepecha language of the indigenous people of Michoacan, sometimes called Tarascans. Originally the entire sandal was made of leather, but in the 1930s people began to form the soles from the rubber of old tires. Huaraches eventually became popular both north-of-the-border and elsewhere in Latin America. They are quite comfortable and tend to mould themselves to the foot of the wearer.

Embroidery in the Oaxaca area long-predates the Spanish. Oaxaca is famous for its beautiful weaving and borado (embroidery). The traditional dress is called the traje, and is still worn in remote villages. The best known type of traje is the huipil, generally made of white cotton with colorfully embroidered shoulders and mid-sections. While women still wear traje, but men rarely do, than those in dance troupes. Village men tend to prefer blue jeans, broad-brimmed straw hats, and cowboy boots. Clothes found in the mercados are generally intended for the tourist trade, both Mexican and foreign.

"Green energy" at work. I spotted this blade sharpener just outside one of the mercados. Mexicans are excellent at recycling anything useful such as this old bicycle, now transformed into the power mechanism for a grinder. It is very energy efficient, easily transportable, and takes up minimal space. The blade grinder can set up for business in seconds almost anywhere. He can also keep an eye on his two small sons while he works. Finally, he gets his exercise while he works!

Chocolate is a truly ancient treat. Vendors in several mercado stalls sell chocolate, but we decided to visit a tienda de chocolate, or chocolate mill. where it is made. There are several adjacent to the mercados. Chocolate starts with a tree called Theobroma cacao, or simply the cacao tree. Although 3/4 of cacao now cultivated is grown in Africa, it originated as a wild plant in the Amazon and on the slopes of the Andes in South America. The use of its fruit migrated up to the area of present-day Mexico in pre-historic times. Archaeologists have found traces of cacao in pottery dated 1100-900 BC at Puerto Escondido on Oaxaca's Pacific Coast. The fruits containing the all-important cacao beans grow on a relatively low tree.  In ancient times, the beans were considered so valuable that they were used as a form of currency. 80-100 beans could buy a fine cloth garment, and the Aztecs complained about cacao bean counterfeiters. The beans were still used as currency in parts of the Yucatán as late as the 1840s.

Cacao fruit drying on a wall of a fabrica. The fruits, called ponchas, are about the size of an elongated tennis ball. A mature tree will only produce 20 ponchas a year, each with 30-60 beans. The very best cacao beans are called Criollo, and were developed by the Maya with whom Oaxaca's ancient Zapotecs and Mixtecs traded regularly. Christopher Columbus came across what he thought were almonds in 1502. Like the Americas, he didn't really understand what he had found.  The European world knew nothing about cacao or chocolate until Cortés and his conquistadors saw Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II drinking it in Tenochititlan (modern Mexico City) in 1519. Chocolate quickly became the "in thing" among upper-class Europeans.

Roasted cacao beans, called cacao crudo, are the basic ingredient of chocolate. The beans above are selling for $5.58 per kilo (2.2 lbs). After the ponchas are harvested with machetes, they are opened and the beans extracted and laid out on grates to "sweat" the pulp away. The sweating process is critical because it decreases the bitterness of the beans. After sweating, the beans are left out to dry in the sun. Next, they are packed in jute bags, like the one above, in preparation for shipping.

Grinding cacao beans, the old fashioned way. I found this wonderful painting in the tienda de chocolate we visited. The story is told by the wistful expression of the boy and the quiet amusement of his mother. Using a stone mano and metate to prepare the roasted beans is an extremely ancient method. Such stone implements can still be found for sale at ferraterias (hardware stores) in Mexican villages today.

A more modern method of preparation. It takes about 300-600 beans, or the product of 10 trees over one season, to make 1 kilogram of chocolate. The beans are cracked and roasted to create "nibs", which are then ground into a paste. This is then mixed, as shown above, with sugar, nuts and other ingredients. The paste can then be formed into finished products such as candy bars, or mixed with chiles into Oaxaca's famous mole. Needless to say, Carole and I picked up a box of chocolates before we left. Delicious!

"Getting a leg up" on the Oaxaca scene. I couldn't resist this photo taken on a street adjacent to one of the mercados. It is just the sort of quirky sight that confronts a visitor to Mexico around every corner. Carole and I have often mused about the skinny jeans sold everywhere, and who in the world could ever fit in them. But, Mexico is a very young society, with 1 out of 3 people younger than 15 years old, although this is gradually changing as Mexico's life expectancy increases. I suppose there are plenty of young girls who wouldn't have much trouble slipping into these jeans.

This completes Part 5 of my series on Oaxaca. Next week, I will take you on a random ramble around the streets surrounding the zocalo for some interesting and sometimes very unusual encounters. If you would like to leave a comment, you can either use the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question on the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Oaxaca Part 4: The Zocalo's great Cathedral

Catedral Metropolitana de Oaxaca. The Metropolitan Cathedral of Oaxaca sits on the northeast corner of the zocalo. The broad plaza area in front and to the south is the site of an extraordinary number of religious, social, musical, and political events, sometimes all in the same day.

The Spanish arrived in the area in 1521, while they were still in the process of subduing the Aztec Empire. Moctezuma II had told Hernán Cortés that the Aztec's gold and silver came from the area, so Cortés sent three of his toughest conquistadores, Gonzalo de Sandoval, Francisco de Orozco, and Pedro de Alvarado to check it out. They brought with them the priest Juan Diaz, who founded San Juan de Dios, Oaxaca's first church. It was a humble adobe structure with a thatched roof. It is not clear what the Zapotecs called the area at the time. The Aztecs, who had moved in around the middle of the 1400s, called it Huaxacac in their Nahuatl language. This referred to the gourd trees growing along the Atoyac River among which the first Aztec warriors camped. The Spanish linguistic corruption of the Nahuatl name became Guajaca. This was later changed to Antequera and finally to Oaxaca (a further corruption of Guajaca) in 1821 after the War of Independence from Spain.

Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. The Cathedral was dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption in 1741, and the exterior displays the Baroque style of that era. The relief sculpture above is found immediately over the main door of the Cathedral and portrays the Virgin Mary ascending to heaven. As luck would have it, we arrived in Oaxaca on the beginning of the Fiesta de la Asunción, which celebrates this event. Like many of the colonial era buildings in Oaxaca, the Cathedral was built with the beautiful green cantera stone found in the area.

Pedro de Orozco brought in Spanish settlers in 1522 and built a town near the site of the former Aztec stronghold. Cortés had plans of his own which didn't include a town independent of his control. He obtained the title of Marquis of the Valleys of Oaxaca, and repeatedly ran the settlers out, even though they obtained their charter directly from Emperor Charles V. The struggle see-sawed back and forth for some time, during which the town gained the name Antequera, in 1529. Finally, in 1532, Charles V confirmed Antequera's independent status.

Engraved angels in the glass of the church doors. The beautifully carved wood doors were set with windows engraved in the image of angels. The fine detail of this work is remarkable. In 1534, Antequera became a diocese of the Catholic church and the new bishop, Juan Lopez de Zarate, arrived the following year. He began construction of the Cathedral in 1535, using the same type of basilica design found in Mexico City and Puebla. Construction of this first phase was completed in 1574, but the Cathedral has undergone numerous additions and reconstructions over the centuries. Major new construction occurred between 1667-1694. Then in 1714, the Cathedral was seriously damaged by an earthquake and closed to the public. Between 1724-1730, the church was reconstructed enough to resume religious activities, but the work wasn't completed until 1752. In the meantime, as noted above, the Cathedral was dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in 1741.

However, even as this and other beautiful colonial buildings were taking form, a holocaust was engulfing the indigenous population. Between forced labor in the mines of Oaxaca, and exposure to European diseases, the native population in the area of the current State of Oaxaca plummeted by 90%, from 1.5 million in 1521, to approximately 150,000 by 1650. The labor force grew so scarce that the Spanish resorted to importing African slaves. As a result, the Pacific Coast area of Oaxaca contains one of Mexico's largest concentrations of people of African descent.

A vaulted nave runs the length of the Cathedral. This is one of three parallel naves, separated by high pillars which support curved arches. The name "nave" refers to the resemblance of a church ceiling to the ribs found on an up-turned boat. There are lateral naves also, running off to the sides and containing chapels.

In spite of its mines, colonial Oaxaca remained isolated from the rest of New Spain because of difficult terrain and lack of roads. This isolation was the salvation of the indigenous survivors of the initial century's depredations by the Spanish and their diseases. Today there are at least 16 distinct indigenous groups in the State of Oaxaca, although the Zapotecs and Mixtecs by far predominate. Oaxaca has the highest concentration of indigenous people in Mexico, which has contributed to its distinct and flourishing culture and crafts.

Warm glow of the overhead dome suffuses the entrance area. Suspended from the center is a long support cable leading down to an elaborate chandelier. The arches lining the base of the dome contain cavorting cherubs.

During the initial stages of the colonial period, the Spanish allowed the indigenous hierarchical political structures to continue as long as the native nobility continued to swear fealty to the crown. As time went on, however, they began lumping all indigenous people under the appellation "indio", and everyone in that category fell to the lowest status. The decimation of the indigenous population, as well as its isolation in remote valleys, made this much easier. In addition to the gold and silver from the mines, the Spanish gained considerable wealth from the export of dyes made from the cochineal insect. These dyes had long been used by the indigenous people to color their woven cloth. The tiny cochineal insect is collected from the paddles of the nopal cactus, and then ground up on a stone metate. When it is mixed with water and other natural substances, it produces various brilliant colors. A later posting in this series will look at this process, which is still used to produce Oaxaca's world-famous weaving.

The main nave of the Cathedral is lighted by chandeliers and filled with flowers. The high stone pillars, lined with beautifully carved wood, provide both support and a conception of division between the naves, while still maintaining a sense of openness.

On September 15-16, 2010, Mexico celebrated the Bicentennial of the beginning of the War of Independence. When the War of Independence broke out in 1810, officials in Oaxaca remained loyal to the crown. They hanged the representatives of insurgent leader Miguel Hidalgo who showed up to ask for support. Just as Hidalgo, Ignacio Allende, and other early insurgent leaders came to a bad end, so did local insurgents who attempted an uprising. For a short time the insurgents held the city under José María Morelos y Pavón, but they later withdrew, and Morelos was captured and executed. After the war, the State of Morelos and the City of Morelia were named after him. Oaxaca remained in royalist hands until the war ended in 1821.

The choir area and the pipe organ. In the front part of the main nave, nearest the main entrance, is a beautiful "U" shaped set of seats for the choir, intricately carved from a dark stained wood. Above the wooden U are the massive pipes of the Cathedral's organ.

After the victory against Spain, Mexico remained in turmoil for much of the next 50 years, as two groups struggled for power. The liberals advocated modernization, the end of the all-pervading influence of the Catholic Church, and a platform of personal liberties that today we would describe as human rights. The conservatives wanted to maintain the society as it was under the Spanish, only with them in charge. This struggle played out in Oaxaca, as well as around the rest of Mexico. Two of Mexico's most famous political personalities, Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz, were natives of Oaxaca and they first emerged into the public eye during this period.

Sculpture of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción dominates the center of the Cathedral. The bronze statue was made in Italy by a sculptor named Tadolini and delivered to Mexico during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (called the "Porfiriate"). The spotlight produces an effect like a beam from the heavens. The statue is located about 1/2 way down the central nave.

Benito Juarez was a full-blooded Zapotec whose parents died in his native village outside of Oaxaca when he was only a boy. He moved to the city and was taken in by a kindly middle-class family who educated him to be a lawyer. He rose to become first the Governor of Oaxaca, then Chief Justice of the Mexican Supreme Court, then President of Mexico. As a liberal, he was committed to a wide range of personal liberties including freedom of religion, and to restricting the influence of the Catholic Church, particularly in the area of education. The Church was one of the bedrock supporters of the conservative party, and clearly saw liberal reforms such as freedom of religion and secular education as threats to its interests. A struggle called the Reform War broke out, which Juarez eventually won with the help of a fellow Oaxacan, General Porfirio Diaz.

At the rear of the central nave, another altar to the Virgin. She sits on a pedestal, attended by bowing angels below and two more floating above. In the background the light from a round window is emphasized by halo-like beams on the walls.

Juarez' victory in the Reform War was just the prelude to the main struggle. The conservatives, desperate to stop Juarez' liberal reforms, betrayed Mexico by inviting French Emperor Napoleon III to invade and install a European-style monarchy. Napoleon obliged in 1862 and sent in French troops to put Austrian Duke Maximilian on the throne as Emperor of Mexico. US President Abraham Lincoln strongly supported Juarez, but was pre-occupied by the American Civil War. Mexican patriots continued the resistance, even though they were forced into the north of Mexico. Finally, with the end of the American Civil War, Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson began to send weapons and other resources to Juarez, and the Mexican patriot forces began to win. When the US threatened to intervene militarily on Juarez' side, the French withdrew. Shortly after, the forces of Maximilian and the Mexican conservatives were defeated and collapsed. Juarez and General Diaz were triumphant and Maximilian and numerous conservative leaders were executed as usurpers and traitors to the Republic.

Side chapel in one of the transverse naves is dedicated to Jesus. As a non-Catholic, I am often puzzled by the religious priorities displayed in Catholic churches. For Protestants, Jesus is the central figure, second only to God. In Catholic churches I have visited during our adventures, Jesus is often relegated to a secondary position. Here, he is tucked into a small side-chapel near the back of the church. Clearly the main figure of the Cathedral is the Virgin Mary, as it is in a great many other Mexican churches. There are a number of different versions of the Virgin in different countries, depending on who sighted her apparition and when. The Virgin of Guadalupe is the supreme religious symbol of Mexico. As a dark-skinned Virgin, she is the patron of the poor, the campesinos, and the indigenous people. In a country that virtually invented the concept of macho, I also find it curious that a woman is at the center of religious veneration. I still have a great deal to learn about Mexico, evidently.

Benito Juarez served a total of five terms as President, finally dying of a heart attack in 1872 while working at his presidential desk. The man who tried to oust him, Napoleon III, was himself ousted in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. One of Juarez' most famous quotes was "Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace." Juarez' chief general, Porfirio Diaz, was not a devotee of this concept.

Gigantes cavort in front of the Cathedral on the eve of the Asunción. While strolling the zocalo one evening early in our visit, we were charmed by these huge puppets, as was the little boy in the bottom center of the photo. Giant puppets, called gigantes, have a long history in Mexico, and are part of many public celebrations. While we were watching, an older Mexican gentleman kindly explained to us that the gigantes were part of the Fiesta de la Asunción and that most of the people performing as gigantes and dancers had trained for the honor a long time.

The liberal Oaxacan Juarez was followed by the Oaxacan dictator Diaz. Four years after Juarez' death, in 1876, Porfirio Diaz was elected President of Mexico. Except for the brief interludes during which he remained the "power behind the throne," he held firmly to the position of president. Diaz maintained dictatorial power through electoral manipulation, buying off his opponents, and--if that didn't work--political repression and assassination. His policy was called "Pan o Palo" (Bread or the Stick). He was finally ousted in 1910 at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution.

A small boy peeps out of the viewing slit of a gigante. As small as this fellow was, I wondered how long he could have trained before putting on his gigante suit. Still, he did a good job, dancing and cavorting about in front of the delighted crowd surrounding him. Wherever we go in Mexico, we are constantly amazed and amused by unexpected spectacles like this.

Porfirio Diaz allied himself with large hacienda owners and domestic and foreign industrialists. His goals, aside from maintaining power and enriching himself, were to modernize Mexico's infrastructure and introduce large-scale capitalism. He crisscrossed the nation with railroads and telephone lines, brought in electricity in many areas, and built or instigated beautiful architecture in the 30 year period spanning the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of the benefits of his development projects went to a tiny group of the very wealthiest Mexicans and the owners of foreign corporations. The overwhelming majority of Mexicans were little more than serfs on haciendas, or wage-slaves in foreign-owned factory operations. Indigenous people were often rounded up as actual slaves for highly profitable operations such as the sisal plantations of Yucatan, despite the abolition of slavery in Mexico in the 1820s.

Indigenous dancer has fun while pleasing the crowd. We never learned the exact meaning of the dances, or what the gigantes were supposed to represent, except that it all had to do with the Asunción de Nuestra Señora.

By 1910, Mexicans had enough of the Porfiriate. Diaz attempted another electoral manipulation that year, pretending to offer a free election, but jailing his chief opponent Francisco Madero and altering the vote so that he would appear to win overwhelmingly. Diaz' fraud was so obvious that it set off a huge outcry, and Madero--who had escaped from prison--announced an open revolt. The Mexican Revolution was on! Before it was over, as many as 2 million people (1 out of 7) would die or leave Mexico. The nation will be celebrating the Centennial of the Revolution on November 20, 2010.

Colorfully dressed female dancer balances a large flower basket on her head. This woman whirled and twirled around the stone plaza, always with a very serious expression on her face.

During the Revolution, Oaxaca was a strong-hold for Emilanio Zapata. His slogan "Tierra y Libertad" (Land and Liberty) resonated with the landless, oppressed campesinos and indigenous people of the Oaxaca backcountry. Zapata called for the return of communal land illegally seized from indigenous people by hacienda owners under Diaz. Zapata's call terrified the wealthy landowners, who threw their support to a more conservative revolutionary, Venustiano Carranza. The constitutional convention held after Diaz was overthrown did not chose Carranza as president, and he staged a coup with the support of the conservative elements of society. Soon, he was fighting both Zapata in southern Mexico and Pancho Villa in the north. Carranza was so unpopular in Oaxaca that his brother was assassinated there. The struggle by Oaxacans against Carranza lasted from 1916-1920, but he eventually won. In 1917, Carranza arranged the assassination of Emiliano Zapata, but was himself assassinated in 1920. The old saying "Revolutions eat their own children" was never more true than in Mexico.

The Virgin on her float, with angels in attendance. After the gigantes and dancers finished, a large float full of children dressed as the Virgin and attending angels pulled away from the front of the Cathedral. The crowd followed closely, but it was late and we decided to return to our hotel. It had been a delightful experience, pagan and Catholic all wrapped together as one usually finds in Mexico.

After the Revolution, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was created to meld together all the key elements which had created the revolution. Over the next 70 years, the PRI ruled Mexico, losing national power only in the 2000 elections. However, the PRI remained in power in Oaxaca until 2010. This year the National Action Party (PAN), a conservative business-oriented party, won the election, largely due to the long history of corruption and political violence by the out-going governor. PAN didn't win on its own, however, but with a broad coalition of other parties from the far left to the right side of the political spectrum. Since the only thing uniting them was universal revulsion toward the PRI and its long-standing Oaxaca governor, it is not clear how long the coalition will last.

Mimes dressed as Golden angel perform outside the Cathedral. These two appeared to be unconnected to the Asunción activities. For a small donation, they agreed to a tourist photo. Such mimes, in a wide variety of costumes, are to be found throughout Mexico. We saw them dressed as pirates and cowboys in Vera Cruz.

What happens next in Oaxaca? There is a strong history of grassroots activism and unionism in Oaxaca. Workers and campesinos from the Central Valleys and indigenous people from the remote villages all seem determined to hold the new government accountable. While we were there, we saw almost continuous peaceful demonstrations in the zocalo over a variety of issues. In a future post, we will take a look at some of these demonstrators and their issues.

This completes Part 4 of my Oaxaca series. I hope you enjoyed learning about the Cathedral, as well as an extremely brief history of Oaxaca. If you would like to leave a comment, you can do so either by using the Comments section below, or by emailing me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I am respond.

Hasta luego, Jim