After dinner we returned to the plaza, which, was all color, strings of lights, and trees hung with tinsel and Christmas ornaments. The noise level had risen from its earlier pitch, augmented by small brass bands, singers with guitars, and, of course, firecrackers. Outside the cathedral there were stalls where one could buy the traditional New Year buñuelos, large, flat, crisp golden fritters to be eaten with syrup from plates, which are then broken. Oaxaca is an area renowned for its pottery, and the plates are, I am reliably informed, factory rejects. A lot of plate-breaking is supposed to go on during the Christmas season, but I never saw any smashed crockery lying around in the morning. Either there is great activity with brooms or plate-breaking is a tradition more honored in the breach. Holiday celebrations in Oaxaca begin on December twelfth with the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, proceed to the December eighteenth feast of the Virgin of Solitude, patron saint of the city, and go on to the Día de los Reyes (Epiphany) on January sixith. The festivities include not only Christmas and New Year’s but also, on December twenty-third, La Noche de los Rábanos (the Night of the Radishes), when giant radishes are carved into fantastic shapes of animals and people and displayed in the plaza. This night is also supposed to be a plate-breaking occasion.
Although it is the capital of the state of Oaxaca, the city of Oaxaca is not large (150,000 inhabitants) and has remained provincial. It is Possible to do a good deal of sightseeing on foot; and just as well, because parking on the narrow streets is a problem. The next day we left our car to wander through the plazas, much quieter and relatively uncrowded in the morning hours. We admired the carved green stone façade of the Cathedral and the costumed girls sitting under the trees weaving sashes and other pieces on small looms, weaving that reminded me very much of Guatemalan work, which is Mayan-inspired. Shoeshine boys were busy with their neat little portable stands, shining the shoes of customers who were sitting and chatting on benches. There were glass-encased stalls featuring fresh fruits and other selling vividly colored soft drinks. Straw-hatted men in white trousers and shirts were hawking serapes, using themselves as their own display counters. I watched one man with a basket of pale-green palm leaves shred the leaves with agile fingers and weave them into birds, usually doves, grasshoppers, and all sorts of things. He had merry face, and it was a joy to watch the pleasure he derived from delighting passing tourists with his art.
Though the sun was brilliant, the air was cool and fresh, and we could have sat for hours in the plaza doing nothing but watching other people walk by, listening to the birdsong, and observing the play of sun and shadow as the light winds ruffled the trees. However, we wanted to get to the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Mexican Art—to give it its full title—before lunch. It was only blocks away, and we walked there resisting curios of all kinds, except for a yellow shopping basked made of istle (maguey fiber), which I brought in case my resolve were to weaken later.
The museum is a gem, the collection of famed Mexican painter Tamayo, a native of Oaxaca. Art and artifacts have been brought together in a fine eighteenth-century house that has flower-filled courtyard with a splashing fountain surrounded by four smiling stone lions. Surely the most beautiful small collection in Mexico, it is an intensely personal assemblage of pottery, stone, and jade figures and artifacts dating from 1260 B.C. to A.D. 950. There is a Nyarit house from the late preclassic period that shows daily life and a ceramic scene of a ball game, both of which made the people of the ancient cultures more real to me. The exhibits are beautifully mounted and arranged in imaginatively lighted cases. I was pleased to see Chicomecoatl, the Toltec goddess of food, carrying ears of corn and was amused by a ceramic figure of a very lively laughing dog from Colima and a parrot that looked as if it were about to speak. There was a cheerful lady from Monte Albán, a corn goddess, appropriately decorated with ears of corn, when I later visited the ruins of Monte Albán the memory of her helped bring them to life.
We went to lunch at the Marqués de Valle, where one can site outside under the arches and observe the life of the plaza or inside, where it is quieter. I had tequila along with sangrita, a drink made with tomatoes, oranges, lemons, or limes, onion, and hot chili peppers. Sangrita is traditionally Mexican, not a regional specialty, and, though one is supposed to drink alternating sips of it and tequila, I confess to having a dreadful habit that shocks purists. I pour both into a stemmed wineglass and add two ice cubes. Mescal, the regional drink much like tequila, is generally served in tiny black pottery shot glasses with salt and lime slices on the side. In this case, I usually squeeze the lime into the glass and forget about the salt. It is a fiery drink, stronger in flavor than tequila.
I was eager to try Oaxacan specialties, but apart from the famous mole negro I found that I ended up with a potpourri of Mexican food from all over the Republic. There was, however, something Oaxacan in every dish because the local chili peppers have flavor all their own. I enjoyed the hearty soups and the luncheon platters featuring good steaks with beans, guacamole, and tortillas in one form or other. I very much liked the Oaxacan enfrijoladas, in which tortillas are dipped in a fairly thick black bean purée, sprinkled with fresh cheese, folded in flour, and topped, if desired, with thinly sliced onion and more crumbled fresh cheese; and entomatadas, in which tortillas are dipped in a tomato and chili-pepper sauce, folded in four, and topped with sliced onion and crumbed fresh cheese. With these specialties I drank beer, always a good choice in any part of Mexico.