Above, a bowl of fresh tejate outside the door of the Santo Tomas Xochimilco church in Oaxaca, where an old woman was handing out glasses of the maize-cacao drink for free for parishioners as we left a wedding ceremony inside. A drink for "Zapotec kings," according to MEXonline, tejate is "made of precisely toasted corn, cacao, cinnamon, and the seeds and flowers of a fruit called mamey." The flor de cacao becomes a foam and rises to the top as the ingredients are mixed together by hand, adding a wonderful texture to tejate as it travels down the throat.
It is served cold, sometimes with ice and sweetened with sugar-water. And it is delicious. Over the three days I spent in Oaxaca last weekend for this wedding of friends of friends, and for the Guelaguetza festival, I had a glass of tejate nearly every time I saw it being sold on the street.
Referring to Oaxaca as a nation unto itself is as accurate as you can get in describing the southern Mexican state. Much like Mexico City functions in relation to the Valley of Mexico and the surrounding central highlands, Oaxaca City (now Oaxaca de Juarez) feels sharply cosmopolitan for its region. All of Oaxaca's distinct regions and ethnic groups converge there, an ethnic, linguistic, and gastronomic diversity that is palpable and evident on every corner. In its food, in its civil and civic customs, in its sense of self and its relationship to the rest of Mexico and the rest of the world, Oaxaca is a fully realized society.
And all societies, of course, have their share of problems.
Above, a woman describes a confrontation with municipal police on the Zócalo in Oaxaca on Monday, July 19, at the start of the annual Guelaguetza, the most important national holiday in Oaxaca. We were walking through when we heard and saw the commotion, just minutes after riot-ready forces forcibly removed a group of ambulante vendors who had taken positions on the city's central square. Two were injured and eight were detained. As reporters and people gathered, the police stood in a menacing row across the plaza. The vendors vowed to return. The mood was tense.
These type of confrontations are apparently common. Nearly four years after the violent conflict in Oaxaca between the PRI government of Gov. Ulises Ruiz and the APPO, a coalition of teachers unions and leftist groups, tensions between the Oaxacan people and their state remain high. Over seven months in 2006, Oaxaca City was occupied several times by either the APPO or the government. At least 17 were killed over-all in the fighting, including U.S. journalist Brad Will.
Voters in Oaxaca, in outward disgust, finally booted the PRI from power this month, but the bad blood doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon. The new coalition government is not expected to offer any radical shift from the status quo. Clearest evidence of this lingering divide is that now there are two Guelaguetzas in Oaxaca, the official state Guelaguetza and the Guelaguetza popular. The official one requires tickets, the popular one is free. The official one appears on television and is presented as a sort of quaint, tourist-friendly spectacle, like the Rose Parade or something, while the Guelaguetza popular is community-based and community-organized.
This is the Guelaguetza we had time to attend. It was held on the campus of a technical institute and was completely open, the mood friendly and communal. Some of the dance groups offered sharp political commentary, in the form of rhyming epigrams, between dances. APPO members organized themselves as security, arming themselves with nothing but long wooden sticks as symbols of order and safety.
The event signals at the continued operation of an alternative society beneath the official state apparatus in Oaxaca, resistant, culturally bound, keeping alive its memories of battle. For the visitor, the Guelaguetza popular was both an encouraging and sobering experience ...
* Post edited.