Sankt Hans, Mais Uma Vez

After Hallowe’en and my birthday, this is my favorite holiday. It is the midsummer or midwinter feast, depending on your hemisphere. On the night of June 23-24, you build fires and jump over them. In northern climes, summer swimming begins today.


I have some advice on the city of Oaxaca de Juárez which is very, very touristy. This is tourist advice and I am a tourist, but I am a really skilled one. The town is so colorful that when I got here from Mexico City I thought I must have eaten a mushroom on the way. It also has this very colonial situation that you can read up on. Francisco Toledo, a noted painter, was quoted this week in the paper with reference to a specific problem, saying “All Oaxaca is greatly wounded…”.  I am not completely sure but I suspect that the water saving hotels for liberal foreign tourists, although they may use less water than hotels do in the US, still use more water than the regular hotels without large bathrooms and high pressure showers.

1. Never accept a hotel room sharing a wall with the street. No matter how quiet the neighborhood, the cars in this state have noisy engines; their body parts also clank together as they bounce over the cobblestones. 2. Hotels and restaurants around Santo Domingo are recommended as being quieter than downtown; this is the most theme parkish area, however. I preferred to go further up, above República, where you get back into real life. I had neighbors up there who sang songs at night with this extra-deep guitar. 2.5. I stayed in one place I liked and another I didn’t; ask me which and why if you are interested in the information. Many people would probably prefer the one I didn’t like as much. 3. It is true what they say about comedores familiares – even those which look fancy are infinitely cheaper and better than restaurants with similar decoration. 4. Current price of comida corrida is about 40 pesos if you go to a nice looking place that just isn’t within easy view. You do not have to go far to find this; don’t give up when you see bad looking places in obvious locations charging 45, or medium looking ones charging up to 100. 5. There’s a café on García Vigil, the Espresso Gallery, which posts notices about concerts and movies. Further up, under the aqueduct, is the film club; it shows interesting films every night at 7 PM and sometimes more often. 6. Watch out for shopping, as you will be expected to shop and this is not  inexpensive. I wanted to buy a certain kind of huipil I had not seen before, black and very long with large embroidered flowers of a single color (you could wear it with a black pencil skirt, black heels, and Mexican jewelry, and look fantastic) but the asking price was $120 where I started looking, so I cancelled the idea. I ended up spending $120 anyway and this was without getting the book I wanted or the earrings. What I bought: 4 Mixtec CDs, $47 (in a store); 1 Zapotec carpet 3×5 feet, complex and subtle design/tight weave, $55, because the genie-like seller had made it himself and kept laughing and would not go away (asking price had been $75; perhaps it is a flying carpet); 1 Mixtec table runner, $18, because the seller was the regular weaver of a friend of mine (asking price had been $20). 7. I recommend, in addition to the museums and churches (Rufino Tamayo’s pre-Hispanic collection is spectacular) the Ethnobotanic Garden. It is connected to an open newspaper reading room and archive, and an ethnobotanic library, very nice. It also has a film club on Thursdays from 6 to 8 PM, and a good bulletin board announcing intellectual and cultural events.

At the garden, which really is beautiful, I learned that Oaxaca is not only one of the most ethnically varied places one can find, but also one of the most botanically varied. I saw bushes and trees in evolutionary transition from having leaves to having spines. The bushes in particular were very impressive; they look like wire sculptures with broad needles but really they are bushes looking taut because they have leaves and spines that both have the form of broad needles.

The garden was organized by the painter Francisco Toledo and some friends. He is a painter and cultural preserver of some visibility and one should try to visit his other aposentos, which I have not. One should also visit the Taller de Artes Plasticas “Rufino Tamayo,” Juárez 514, Centro, and perhaps register for classes.


I am still disappointed to have miscalculated such that I missed the Monsiváis events, but if you read the papers for 22 June you will find them described and commented upon in loving detail. There is also an article about Monsiváis and the Mexican left which says in part:

Monsiváis reivindicó la utopía. Sostuvo que el totalitarismo es el asesinato de las utopías y, que, ante la distopía del neoliberalismo, mantener la utopía en el mapa de las convicciones es un requisito de salud mental. Optimista pese a todo, aseguró serlo porque ahora sé que los malvados, los explotadores, los represores, sólo tienen éxito y felicidad mientras viven (antes creía que en el cielo también reprimían las manifestaciones de protesta).


Hace unos años, Carlos Monsiváis escribió: El mundo que conocí ya no existe y el que ahora padezco se está desvaneciendo. Mi consigna al respecto es muy sincera: o ya no entiendo lo que está pasando o ya pasó lo que estaba entendiendo. A pesar de semejante confesión, es difícil comprender cabalmente la izquierda mexicana actual sin estudiar el papel que Monsiváis jugó en ella. Ahora será más difícil hacerlo sin él.

It is worth reading the whole thing.


15 thoughts on “Sankt Hans, Mais Uma Vez

  1. Fascinating. I was able to read the information on the Ethnobotanic Garden. That’s just the kind of place that interests me.

  2. Greetings from IAH, where my next plane is delayed!

    Yes — Oaxaca is fascinating but it is also very touristy and colonial. Depressing because it’s virtually impossible to avoid being in that colonizer position; reminds me of Puebla and Brazil.

  3. Like, I noticed on another blog I read that the ethonobotanical garden is viewable only twice a week on two hour tours with a dozent who apparently yacks the whole time (at least the English speaking one).

  4. Now the English speaking tour is every day. Spanish speaking tour is three or four times a day. Yes, there is a lot to say about these plants and the docent talks. Yes, it would be nice if one were allowed to wander alone, or at least sit in a cafe. But they only have a certain amount of money and it is evolving. Unfortunately rather than create written materials visitors can read as they wander on their own, they are creating headsets with recorded speeches. I don’t like guided tours but I would never have realized so much about these plants had the guide not talked.

  5. I don’t mind handsets. It depends on how well they are done. For me (just who I am) I need to be able to enjoy things at my own pace.
    Glad to hear they are expanding their services.
    All academic, I suppose, because the chances I’ll ever see it are slim. At least, thanks to you, I know about this place.

  6. The colonial/touristy aspects of the area, though, do set one up to be precisely that person who is taking advantage of the poverty to live it up – your concern about Mexico generally.

    I am now in Louisiana and Jonesing big time for Mexico City. It is *such* an amazing place, like being in Paris and Cairo all at once. And it is so “me” – like a city made to order for me. And the people in Oaxaca remarked on how much I seemed “like a person from Mexico City.” I want to move there and am not quite sure how to make it happen.

    It’s really true what the conquistadors said when they got to Tenochtitlan — they were amazed, and they’d already been to Rome and Constantinople, and so they thought they’d seen the world, but this was a more amazing city, they (basically) said. This still applies.

  7. Oaxaca sounds changed from our last visit in 2000. We spent two months there wintertime in late 1990s. Seemed very low key in contrast to San Miguel Allende which has so many Americans and Canadians–and Italian restaurants–that it’s surprising to find natives.

    If you go back, get to the many indigenous villages around Oaxaca–some quite untouristy. My big complaint about the City was the air pollution from the buses, unregulated car painting places. And the noise.

    This winter we heard a great lecture by a faculty member (Communications) at Univ. of Oregon on being in Oaxaca when local women took over the TV station following their long and awful treatment during teachers’ strike. She, originally from Peru, also had a film about it–amazing. Let me know if you want the link; it’s viewable online.

    Always feel guilty about not going back again…life changes. As enviro artist had some of best experiences there. sigh.

    1. Wintertime would be the time. It wasn’t that overrun by tourists when I got there in May, either. That was when I stayed in the neighborhood and hotel I best liked, too, away from the center. Noise and pollution, yes.

      Film link — I’d *love* it!

      I’ve been to some of the villages before, in the 70s and 80s, didn’t get to go this time (would have just now, but the fact of so many people going on tour to them daunted me).

      It’s still nowhere near as Americanized as San Miguel. I don’t think it could get to that — there’s too much else going on.

      I’m an out of place tourist because I am so Mexicanized already. To do things in my style I think what I’d do in Oaxaca next time is base myself out of town, perhaps in one of those non touristy indigenous village — apparently there’s a network you can get into to rent rooms. Secretly I’d like to have a car and drive around on my own. I don’t normally like to insulate myself in that way but it would make a lot of exploration possible.

      The general problems in the state are many and political, and they are serious; this is why the tourists are in one world and the actual residents in another.

      I also think that with this World Heritage Centre business comes the theme park style of tourism.

  8. Go to this link and in the right side column you can get to the 37-minute video, “Women, Media, and Rebellion in Oaxaca” by Gabriela Martinez.

    Did you visit Francisco Toledo’s paper-making studio outside of town near an abandoned fiber factory…no tourists (except us) when we were there. His comment on Oxaca being “greatly wounded” reflects his longtime view, quite understandable.

  9. Gracias — I had heard about this but had no idea you could see it for free?

    No, didn’t have time to go out of town or do much tourism at all this time, I was so tied up with the university. This studio is definitely one of the things I’d go to, though — and hang out generally in Toledo’s orbit, it would be fascinating. Greatly wounded, it’s not just his view, it’s the fact.

  10. P.S. I still haven’t been able to watch that video – technical problems – but check this out, UO is creating a “Virtual Oaxaca.”

  11. And: we have to look for these web based projects by UO faculty:

    Gender in Early Mesoamerica Database
    Mapas Project
    Nahuatl Dictionary
    Virtual Mesoamerican Archive.

    1. Something super-surreal about this U. of Oregon project. UO is the state institution here that has all the cash in the system. Because the founder of Nike is a graduate, invests heavily in sports at the place. Sort of thing may be familiar to you in your setting. See the “Philanthrophy” section of Wikipedia

      Looked at the link for the Oaxaca project and wondered why Graciela Martinez was not involved in some way. Oh, wait, she’s in another department. What was I thinking. I could go on about my own interaction with UO but it’s late and who care about continuing ed for old people anyway.

      If it can do some good for Oaxaca, wonderful, and the source be damned.

  12. The Virtual Oaxaca project seems really surreal to me but then I’ve been there in person. I like the Nahuatl dictionary. I think Graciela Martinez IS involved. It depends on what website you look at.

    I spent a lot of time at UO at one point. It’s a better place than here. But it also has its vagaries, and “wired” or “digital” humanities has its vagaries too; sometimes they’re the last refuge of soundrels, although I don’t think that’s the case here.

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