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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. 


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!

128 replies »

    • 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 🙂


    • 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.

  4. Stunning photos! I was struck by your sentence: Oaxacans are adamant that if these relationships are not valued, if they are not protected, loss of belief and loss of identity will occur. I’ve been reading about Canada’s indigenous people where this vital connection with plants/nature—often in peril—is paramount to their identity.

    • Thanks so much! These living cultures around the world have so much to teach us, but we mostly don’t bother to listen. Extinction of plants, birds, animals means extinction of these societies as well and the planet becomes a less colorful place for all of us.

  5. Interesting connections … are these overtly discussed, absorbed via observation, read about, all of the above? Not that it matters! Just curious about your instruction in these links between plant and human life because they make perfect sense and yet feel esoteric on many levels (to an outsider, at least). On a lighter note, the photos are gorgeous!

    • No, I’m so happy you asked! Though, you might not be. 😬 So, the house colors are hard to ignore once you’re in Oaxaca. After I got over gawking at them I was obsessed with how so many of the households use living plants as an accompaniment to their color scheme (purple bougainvillea with green facade, jade cactus with red facade, etc.). This led me to the cactus varieties, which are vital to the culture outside of their decorative purposes. I went around investigating about cacti and its uses locally, from some of the chefs. Which led me to other dishes made out of domesticated plants: corn, squash, grasshoppers, etc. Most of the chefs partner with surrounding farms to carefully manage and collect according to seasonal availability and changes in weather, guided by community standards and ancestral knowledge. One of them invited me to one of the farms where I chatted with the owners about how there has been a long tradition of companion growing in the area of corn, beans, and squash because of their mutually beneficial properties. He recommended my visiting the ethnobotanic garden so I could better understand the science behind it. The garden is where the whole concept of bio and cultural diversity is studied, preserved, and maintained. So most of what I learned about the interdependence of species comes from my tour there. I could have written an entire thesis on this, but who wants to read that on a blog, right? 🙄

      • Totally fascinating, and good for you for following that trail of knowledge! You must have had some time there – what a luxury. We are eager to see Oaxaca. We’ve been to so many cities and regions in Mexico and for some reason, Oaxaca has never been one of them. I know this is a more commercial angle, but one of our old hometown Chicago chefs, Rick Bayless, is obsessed with Oaxacan cuisine and has spent months at a time studying their ways, not just the actual recipes but the background, as you have done. Now I need to find where I put that cookbook in our move here!

        • I’ve never tasted any of Bayless’ recipes, but I’ll have to make a note to search out his restaurant on a Chicago trip. Good luck routing out his cookbook! On that topic, as you know, Mexico’s rich and varied cuisine is so much more than the ubiquitous taco, burrito, and beans found around the world. Each region has a specialty of local ingredients they proudly feature in many different dishes. For Oaxaca, that is tlayudas, moles, and mezcal. I do try to spend awhile in each of the destinations I travel to, because otherwise it’s impossible for me to get any sense of the place or people with whom I interact. I’m extremely fortunate that I’m able to do so! What parts of Mexico have you explored so far and which would you recommend as your favorites?

  6. Amazing colours and images and you’ve given me an insight into the Oaxaca community that makes me feel that this is a society in touch with the way it should be, recognising and respecting all those connections.

    • Many would complain that the Oaxacans are insular, anti-progress, but there is much to admire about their determination to remain true to their land, to honor the bond they have both with their past and with their nature.

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