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Last of the Oaxaca

Ultramarine, coral, cadmium, lime…the house colors captivate me. They are an essential effervescent palette of Oaxaca, Mexico. To me they are also a significant message. They lead my eye to other juxtapositions: the clusters of maroon and purple bougainvillea trailing everywhere partner well with the ubiquitous jade of the cactus fences. Native succulents are used in all sorts of clever ways here — for sustenance, for enclosures, for remedies. In fact the sixteen indigenous tribes of this region see value in every portion of their environment. Interdependence is their credo. 

I learn about this, slowly. First, there is the proper collection of grasshoppers and agave worms for meals. Then, the lessons on how beans, squash, and corn flourish when grown with each other. I become familiar with the peculiar scent of copal. Next, the importance of symbols: zig-zag ladders for lightning, geometric spirals for life cycle, stylized figures for maguey. 

Finally, follow the Pre-Aztec myths about pumas, wild rivers, and bat-gods. To me the stories are fascinating. For Oaxacans their legends are an integral means of transferring generations of knowledge about their traditions, how to live in accordance with nature, what to cherish. It is also a way to keep the music of their language alive. Language and land, I discover, are crucial to Oaxaca. They bear witness to one another. Together, they maintain the area’s unique diversity, both cultural and biological.      

Of course the same problems plaguing every society — greed, jealousy, abuse of power — fester in Oaxaca too. The narrow valleys are considered impoverished by consumerist standards. The stewardship of the variant ecosystems by local communities is judged inadequate since there is no political or corporate oversight. The native reliance on territorial subsistence and well-being is viewed as anathema to modernization, progress, and globalization.

Despite the cultural instruction, my prejudices feed into these narratives as well. I pass by tin shacks and assume misery; I see plates of chapulines and presume scarcity; I encounter pantheistic artwork and infer orthodoxy. It’s not until I visit the ethnobotanical gardens that I realize how inextricably cultural heterogeneity is linked to ecological diversity. The connections are nuanced, but undeniable. The garden forces me to examine the multifaceted links between wild plants and humans. It reveals the successful development of ancient civilizations through their interaction with flora in aesthetic portrayals.

Oaxacans are adamant that if these relationships are not valued, if they are not protected, loss of belief and loss of identity will occur. Solutions to prevent a heritage deficit and the demise of harmony, however, cannot come from the outer world. They must be ministered by the community; specifically appropriate to Oaxaca; in balance with the terrain and those belonging to it; fused with both artistry and wisdom. 

It’s been a privilege to observe Oaxacans taking responsibility for their particular plots, tending and preserving case-by-case, forging ever stronger bonds with the part of themselves which hearkens to the call of the earth. 


TRAVEL NOTE:

Among the thousand other endemic botanical specimens, the cacti of Oaxaca are as meaningful to the indigenous as corn. It is best to treat the living plants with respect, to avoid painful situations.


Colorful houses are a mainstay of warmer climates. Let me know a memorable destination where you’ve seen some creatively colored facades in the comments below!

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128 replies »

  1. Your gorgeous photos make me want to pack my suitcase right now and head for Oaxaca! I’ve always loved the voluptuous color schemes of the Caribbean. Recently, I discovered that Charleston, South Carolina, also has beautiful – and colorful – facades.

    • I concur — a number of Caribbean islands also have colorful houses, though I haven’t often found them in steady rows like Oaxaca. I wonder if some one from Charleston visited one of these islands and wanted to recreate a part of that brightness in South Carolina?

  2. Very well written with wonderful photos. The colors are mesmerizing. I hear from many travelers that Oaxaca is Mexico’s gem and I’m dying to go. Your post encourages me even more!

    • It’s a treasured part of Mexico for me because it is so different from the resort-filled areas. It’s much easier to interact with locals in Oaxaca than in more popular vacation spots of Mexico and get a peep into their complex, colorful lives. Hope you’ll get to experience it for yourself soon!

  3. You capture the beauty of Oaxaca like none other I’ve seen, made in part even more beautiful by the underlying politics and struggle the community faces. Your photos show the diversity of this amazing place and hope it does not change too much as it moves forward.

    • Thank you so much Randall for your kind words. Oaxaca was such a jewel to explore, a place proud of its beauty and closeness with nature but unafraid to talk about its obstacles. I’m very happy I was able to show some of that complexity through my post.

  4. Beautiful pictures and I love the burst of colour in your shots. 🙂 Change, like evolution, is the essence of every society and culture. It’s a predicament of sorts because it’s equally important to stagnate (sometimes) — to preserve a cultural heritage. Every culture needs a heady mix of the old and the new. The balance is crucial. It’s heartening to see few places doing just that. 🙂

    • You are so right! It’s intriguing when a destination is able to find its own balance. I used to think that eventually all societies would trajectory towards the same result, but find that’s not true. Each one has to take its particular path.

  5. Posts like this make me wonder why, despite all the places I’ve been, Mexico’s never been one of them. Maybe it’s just preconceptions that don’t include places like Oaxaca, with its glorious colors and well-kept squares. Your photos show this place in an excellent light.

    • Hopefully it’s on your list, Dave! There’s so much more to the country than resort-filled coasts where foreigners lose their inhibitions and indulge in destructive behavior. My time in Oaxaca and in the CDMX has been an eye-opening time with locals who have very much changed my ways of thinking about life, death, and everything in between.

      • Guess I need to add it to my list. Of course the reality is, as a scuba diver way overdue for a warm water trip, Cozemel may get the nod, with an attempt at something inland for excursions. More than one trip, maybe?

  6. Mexico is wondrous, and a place I’ve visited many times. It’s inexpensive for Canadians to go there, though I’ve not been to where you blog about. Love the pictures and all the amazing colours. 😉

  7. PS I didn’t think of this till I’d posted my first comment, but I also think that we are missing the ideal of ‘interconnection’. There is a subtle difference between that and interdependence. What do you think?

    • I definitely agree that the two are different. Both are equally important to keep in mind, though I think it vital that we as a species admit we depend on the ecosystem. For a large portion of the planet, that doesn’t seem valid anymore. Thanks so much for bringing this up; I’d like to think about the relationship between the two a lot more.

  8. I think that interdependence is what we have most crucially forgotten in Western (capitalist/materialist/consumer) societies. Lovely photos and your thoughts are very on-point x

    • I hope so-called developed countries are learning that lesson, but it feels as if financial “success” and a continuous course of consumption still paves the way. On a happier note, Oaxaca has been a very colorful revelation.

    • Ah, thank you Jane. I appreciate the compliment from your photographer’s perspective. Have you ever been somewhere that was so vivid and full of potential shots that it overwhelmed you? I spent a long time not taking any photos in Oaxaca, because I just couldn’t figure out how best to portray its personality.

      • I love what you said, Atreyee. I think it’s so important to settle in and look without your camera to really see and get a sense of a place. Then shoot. You accomplished portraying it very well.

  9. Several years ago we spent a year traveling through Mexico and regret not getting to Oaxaca, so it stays on my travel list. I love the colors, textures, and the history of the indigenous. I love your description of the relationship between flora and the human species. Great post and gorgeous photos.

  10. I absolutely adore how you can visit such a picturesque location that others may only appreciate on face-value and yet you dig beneath the surface in search of understanding and value.

    I’m curious, on your travels have you found similar mentalities amongst smaller communities or are they all different?

    (On a side note – absolutely stunning photographs.)

    • Thanks, Kylie, so happy you enjoyed the photos! In answer to your intriguing question, the similarities tend to be among long-term close-knit cultural communities (such as indigenous or religious groups): their deep-rooted sense of place and tradition, their suspicion of outside influence, their concern for one another’s welfare, their indifference to what is “acceptable” to the larger society, and a steady departure of their youth from the collective bond.

  11. Loving the colors on this post! Brilliant. Oaxaca reminds me so much of Granada in Nicaragua. The colors, the buildings, the streets….the overall feel of the place feels like a cute little town in Central America. Fabulous post 🙂

    Ryan

    • Thank you. I’ve never been to Nicaragua, although I hope to some day. Oaxaca is very much a “cute little town.” I liked most of all that it’s people are welcoming but not tourism minded. They have such a strong sense of who they are and what they value, which I very much admired.

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