Handicrafts in Oaxaca: Tangible expression of the Peoples' Soul

Miguel Ángel Hernández

In the middle of a hard workday, tired of the loneliness and anonymity of my nevertheless loved city, and after some time surfing the net looking for different hotel options to finally book one of them online, I went home and took my backpack to fill it with nothing but the necessary stuff to survive a four-day trip to Oaxaca.

Artesanías en OaxacaFrom the moment I started wondering about the journey, I clearly concluded that the short stay would not be enough to include all the cultural aspects that can be admired in Oaxaca: regional dance and music, painting and archeological sites as well as museums, convents and churches, not to mention its bohemian nightlife; so, for this time, I chose to go straight to the most tangible aspect, the one that would allow me to bring some treasures back home: handicrafts.

Oaxaca - ArtesaníasWhen I arrived at my hotel, the weather was nice and so was the light, so I headed towards my first stop, the town of Arrazola Xoxo. Since most of the different towns in Oaxaca's central valleys are really close to the state capital, before I had taken a deep breath, I was already at the small and colorful town. As soon as I had walked a few steps, there was this friendly young kid who amiably offered to take me on a sort of "tour" to visit all the workshops. People in this town specialize in the creation of Alebrijes, strange and unique multicolored figures carved in opalillo, a kind of noble resinous wood that becomes the body of these weird beings that seem to have emerged from a dream and a nightmare at the same time. Each family received me with arms wide open and showed off the Alebrijes they considered exclusive designs of their own.

The next day, I woke up a little, well in fact, really late, so I hurried to the "20 de Noviembre" market in the downtown area and ate a delicious Tlayuda de tasajo (a sort of huge tortilla with beef) and quesillo (a kind of regional cheese), some tejate water (made with toasted corn, cacao, cinnamon, and the seeds and flowers of a fruit called mamey) and then I fled to San Bartolo Coyotepec, a world-famous town known for its production of black pottery. In less than 20 minutes, I had arrived to San Bartolo and although the sun had already set and it was getting dark already, I found many family workshops still open.

Barro Negro en OaxacaI realized then and confirmed later that most of the craftsmen in Oaxaca leave their doors open, cause they want shoppers to come in and also because the state is pretty safe. In this town, I found an endless number of pieces in diverse forms and styles, from rosaries (Catholic pieces used for praying), formed by small spheres and a cross, beautiful necklaces and bracelets, to the traditional vases and jars that come in many sizes, as well as brilliant sculptures of all kinds of animals, so perfectly done that seem to be alive. In every figure I observed a great care for details and textures as well as a delicate use of light and shadows.

Textiles sarapes OaxacaThe following day, I decided to make the most out of my time so I woke up pretty early to visit the archeological site of Mitla and on my way back, visited a nice little town named Teotitlan del Valle, world famous for its textiles presented in many forms: sarapes, rugs, tablecloths and bags. They are manufactured by artisans using old wood looms, named "de pedal," for this is their power source, and heavy wool threads dyed with natural colors obtained locally from insects, flowers and plants. Before arriving in downtown Oaxaca, I visited Santa Maria el Tule, where right in front of a small, colorful chapel, there is a gigantic tree, about 130 feet high and approximately 2000 years old.

Noche de RábanosOn my last day at this gorgeous destination, a day before Christmas Eve, I witnessed a little-known, special artistic display: Noche de Rabanos, that consists of a market set on the main square in Oaxaca, the essence of which is the carving and creation of different forms, generally human, but also those of animals, flowers and plants, using radishes, totomoxtle (the rind of corn) and a type of flower named Inmortal. These figures are bought by local people to decorate their dinner tables during Christmas and New Year celebrations, and for farmers it has the additional benefit of being a contest in which the most beautiful and elaborate figure obtains a special prize.

Of course, during my trip I was accompanied by the traditional mescal and typical food of the region, offered in numerous and exquisite options but this topic deserves an article apart. Evidently, my visit finished long before I would have liked; nevertheless, this is nothing but a pretext - unnecessary though, considering all its beauty and cultural richness- for returning to the unforgettable Oaxaca.

Written by Miguel Angel Hernández Sánchez