Two young people dancing a jarabe, Oaxaca Culture

Two young people dancing a jarabe in celebration; credit Oaxaca Profundo

Oaxaca Culture

Perhaps the best testament to Oaxaca Culture is revealed in its local arts, crafts, dancing and cuisine. If so, the City of Oaxaca must be at the front of the line displaying and sharing that culture with visitors.

San Bartolo de Coyotepec

In the 1950s, the late Rosa Real de Nieto, a local potter, developed a method of making pottery that produced a unique black, satiny sheen. Today, her Black Pottery business displays row upon row of the glistening earthenware and ceramics – including bowls, pots, animal sculptures, crucifixes and skeletons. Sitting on a low stool in a room near the rear of the establishment, Real de Nieto’s 70-something-year old son, Valente, demonstrates his mother’s techniques by molding clay into pottery before your eyes.

Skeins of yarns in every hue of the rainbow sit in the opening patio of the weaving business operated by the family of Master Weaver Demetrio Bautista Lazo. Next to the yarn are a dozen bowls of the powdered tints used for color. They are created from myriad raw materials, including plants, seeds and bugs. Stop in for a visit, and you may get to see a member of the family station herself before a piano-sized loom and begin the rhythmic process of lacing yarn through taut strings to create rugs that are more work of art than floor covering.

Alebrijas wood carvings

Alebrijas wood carvings sold in the market, Oaxaca; (c) Soul Of America

Some of the region’s most colorful folk art is created in San Martin Tilcajete, home of the whimsical wood carvings known as alebrijes. Painted in bold, bright hues, accented with dots of more color, these imaginative animal-like creatures make wonderful gifts for folks back home. Zeny Fuentes is world renown for his carvings, and a visit to his studios reveals the painstaking attention to detail required to produce his work. From carving to drying to painting, the process for a 12” long wooden figure can take as long as three months.

In addition to arts, crafts and history, Oaxaca is known for a hearty cuisine that blends fresh, local ingredients into distinctive regional fare. For example, many call Oaxaca the mole capital of the world. And why not? A key ingredient in mole — the thick, slightly sweet sauce that brings a uniquely Oaxacan flavor to fish, fowl and meats –- is chocolate. For a taste of the best from one of the top producers in the region, head to Mayordomo’s.

Whiffs of the confection hang heavy in the air of the store a few blocks from the Zocalo in Oaxaca. Jars of Mayordomo’s Mole Rojo (red mole) and Mole Negro (black mole) and plastic-wrapped rectangles of chocolate line the orange and yellow walls of the cozy, brightly lit shop. Plump cocoa beans, sand-colored almonds and large sticks of cinnamon weigh down an old-fashioned scale near the cash register. Nearby, a woman offers samples of a chocolate shake-like drink, and in the rear of the store, an aproned young man scoops cocoa powder out of a bright red grinding machine.

Casa Oaxaca restaurant serving blue tortillas and salsa

Casa Oaxaca restaurant serving blue tortillas & salsa; (c) Soul Of America

For authentic Oaxacan fare, several restaurants are sure bets, including Casa de Cantera, Catedral Restaurant and Fonda Santo Domingo, where the fried grasshopper soup is a pleasant surprise. For a more upscale meal, Casa Oaxaca just a few blocks from La Iglesia de Santo Domingo de Guzman, is a must-visit restaurant.

Possible Side Trip

The region of Oaxaca closer to the coast has strong afrocentric root, its residents being African progeny of slaves brought to Mexico by the Spaniards. Mexican residents in nearby Coastal Vera Cruz and Gurerro also claim Africa as their Motherland, giving this geographic a rich culture that includes percussive music and rhythmic dance. More information on this ethnically diverse area will be forthcoming.

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