Travels & Traditions: Oaxaca, Mexico - #301

BURT WOLF: About 10,000 years ago, people living in the Near East figured out to grow their food rather than just hunt and gather.  It was our biggest technical breakthrough and it began our shift from hunting and gathering to farming.  About 2,500 hundred years later it happened again when someone in southeastern China solved the puzzle.  And then the third time when the Zapotec Indians worked it out around 3,500 BC in southern Mexico.   Almost every other farming community in the world can trace their history back to one of those original sites.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Another technical achievement of almost equal significance was the development of a written language that could represent objects, sounds, and ideas, that appears to have happened only twice.  The first time was just before 3,000 B.C. when the Sumerians developed their cuneiform language, and the second time was about 600 B.C. when the Zapotecs figured it out.

Two of the most important developments in human history, and the Zapotecs were the only culture to independently develop both. Who are these people, and where did they come from?

The answer to where they came from is easy.  About 15,000 years ago the sea between Siberia and Alaska was frozen. The tribes of hunter-gatherers came across from Asia to North America looking for something good to eat.  The ancestors of the Zapotecs settled in southern Mexico in a region known as Oaxaca. 

Oaxaca’s an old Aztec word meaning “impossible to spell from the way it’s pronounced.”  Actually Oaxaca’s a type of a pea with a very high protein content that the Zapotecs found here thousands of year ago.  You should check out this spelling.  O-A-X-A-C-A

Oaxaca.  Today there are almost 800,000 Zapotecs living in Oaxaca.  Oaxaca is also the home of 15 other cultural and linguistic groups, which makes this region the most culturally diverse state in Mexico.

The city of Oaxaca was founded by the Spanish in 1529, less than 40 years after Columbus bumped into the new world.  At an altitude of 5,000 feet above sea level, it has a mountain climate that produces warm days and cool nights.  The zocalo is the center of the city and the place where the community likes to hang out.  If you stand at the center of the zocalo and look towards the cathedral, you will be looking north.

The streets of Oaxaca run along a north-south grid that was laid out by the Spanish.  Today the zocalo is the social center of Oaxaca.  A good place to stop for a drink in one of the cafes that line the square, get your shoes shined, or just go for a walk.  A few blocks from the zocalo is the basilica.  Legend has it that in 1620, a donkey carrying a large box suddenly appeared on this spot and dropped dead.  Inside the box was a statue of The Virgin of Solitude, which was taken as a sign that a basilica should be built right here. And so it was.

People come to the basilica, purchase a little ribbon with a small replica of their afflicted area and pray for relief. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Now, years ago I might have questioned the cause and effect relationship here, but there’s a lot of research that indicates that belief can be as strong as medicine. So I’m going to go for it.  This one is for arthritis.  A real problem in my family.  This one is for bad eyesight. Don’t have to explain that.  And then this is the one I’m really curious about in case you feel you are losing your mind, you pin that one. And I hope there’s no limit, because I need all three of these.

Inside the basilica, on top of the altar, is The Virgin of Solitude, the patron saint of Oaxaca.  She’s considered to possess the power to heal.  Having been healed, you can celebrate with a sorbet from some of the city’s most celebrated vendors, whose stands are right out in front.  They use an old fashioned system that produces a great result.  A wooden barrel is packed with ice and salt.  The salt lowers the temperature of the ice which surrounds a metal canister.

A bucket of ice, salt and water is also a quick way to chill a bottle of wine.  In this case, the canister is filled with pureed fruit, everything from tamarind to tuna.  Fortunately tuna is the Spanish word for prickly pear, which is good, because tuna ice cream sounds a little fishy to me.

The most outstanding church in Oaxaca is Santo Domingo.  Its construction began in 1552.  The architectural style is known as baroque.  Baroque was the result of two forces that shaped Europe and its colonies starting in the 1500s.  It was a time when the kings of Europe were consolidating their power and wanted to show their strength by building huge palaces.  It’s when Louis XIV built Versailles.  It was also the time of the Reformation, when Protestants were preaching against the outward glitter of the Roman Catholic Church.  Catholicism responded with even more glitter. When something is described as baroque, it is clearly over the top. 

Next to the church was the Dominican monastery, which is now the state museum.  The monks’ cells have been turned into display areas for works of art that represent Oaxaca’s historical periods ... ancient jewelry, alabaster utensils, statues and costumes.  At the edge of the present city of Oaxaca is Monte Alban, a group of mountains in the heart of a great valley. It was the urban center of the Zapotec nation and was occupied for more than 1,200 years, starting in 500 B.C. 

Their craftsman leveled the top of the mountains and carried up enormous amounts of material so they could build their cities as close to the sun god as possible. And they did it all without pack animals or wheels.  During its golden age, 25,000 people lived up here, 16 square miles of terraced land descended to the valley floor. The priests and the rulers lived at the top, the peasant farmers on the bottom, and the middle class in the middle.

Don Victor Gonzalez, a Zapotec guide, took me through the site.

DON VICTOR GONZALEZ: In this space here there must have been great walks, processions and even theater representing the mysteries of the religion. But from our level you see steps on this side, all the way over there.  So the steps were for people to sit and see the events.  You can see the size and you can see the number of steps all over.  So that shows that there must have been a tremendous crowd that came to see here the religious events and walks and so on.

BURT WOLF: The great plaza at the top covers eight acres and has the remains of over a dozen huge buildings.  The sides of some of the buildings were covered with high steps that are rather narrow.  The shape gave them more height for fewer stones.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I might be today’s sacrifice.

BURT WOLF: When steps are low and flat, you need more of them. When they’re high, there’s much less construction and they help you reach your target heart rate faster.

DON VICTOR GONZALEZ: I’m sorry I did not suggest eating more tortillas before we started.

BURT WOLF: The buildings are oriented toward the points of the compass and based on observations by Zapotec astronomers.  Even had their own observatory in the shape of an arrowhead pointing towards the spot where the sun sets.  The Zapotecs had developed a 365-day calendar that was so accurate that improvements on it were only made during the past 50 years.  And of course once you have a calendar, you have Sunday afternoons, which led to the development of spectator sports. One of the areas at the top is a ball field where they played a form of soccer.

BURT WOLF: So this was the ball court.

DON VICTOR GONZALEZ: Right here you see this stone circle.  Probably this is a place where the game would start. They placed a ball there and maybe threw the ball back and forth against the two sides, which were perfectly smooth. And the ball was thrown back and forth.  Each player would try hard for the ball to go into the niche of the opponent.  We really do not know with certainty every detail. 

BURT WOLF: But I’m sure that they sold beer and hot dogs and popcorn and ...  (Laughs) and stuff like that.


BURT WOLF: And souvenirs and souvenir books and ...

DON VICTOR GONZALEZ: I hope they did.

BURT WOLF: Little cards with the players’ names on and ... nothing changes.

The area that has been excavated represents less than one percent of the total site.  The potential for archeological discoveries in Oaxaca is enormous. 

About ten miles east of Monte Alban is the town of Santa Maria del Tule.  And in the center of the town is a huge cypress tree   126 feet high, with a circumference of 174 feet.  It is probably the largest tree in the world.  And the burrows have taken on distinctive shapes.

Here’s a lion.  An elephant. A deer.  And a crocodile.  Like anything that’s 2,000 years old, it’s having a few health problems.  But it is so loved by the people of Mexico that they moved the Pan American Highway off to the side of the valley so the fumes would not hurt the tree. 

A few miles east of the great cypress tree is the town of Mitla, which is an important Zapotec center, often described as the Vatican of the Zapotecs.  The high priests lived here in magnificent palaces.  Toni  Sobel , a professional tour guide who has lived here for other 30 years, took me around.

TONI SOBEL: Mitla is the town of souls.  The Zapotecs, who built Mitla, believed that the soul of all dead Zapotecs came back to rest here.  And what’s so wonderful about it are the beautiful mosaics. And the mosaics are made out of little tiny pieces of stone that were hand carved to fit together perfectly. And they had no stone tools.  They did it with harder stone. They were covered with a thin veneer of white stucco and painted red. Can you imagine this glowing red in the sun? The people who live here today are the direct descendants of the people who built these buildings thousands of years ago. 

BURT WOLF: In tomb number two there is a large round stone called the Column of Life. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: You put your arms around the column and the space between your hands represents the life you have left.  You measure it, and for every finger of width between your hands, you get a year of life. So the trick is get somebody with very skinny fingers to measure it.  Like that kid over there.  Get that little kid over here to measure it.   They also say just hugging it will give you the power to have many children, which is why I’m letting go, because I already have all my children.

Having determined that I still have some good years left, I returned to Mitla to celebrate.  The main street of the town is lined with shops that sell mescal, which is considered to be the cognac of Mexico. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Okay, I’m going to test my extensive Spanish here.

Two bottles of mescal okay. And this has the worm. And you’re sure it’s not going to affect my eyesight at all.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I can just be able to drink this and it’ll be great.  Okay.  And this is ... this is ... this is the aged one?


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It’s like ... it’s old like me.  Great.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Great.  Okay.  So I’ll ... I’ll ... here’s looking at you, honey.  Hmmmm.  That’s very good. I certainly know where all my cavities are now.   And this is the aged variety.  Much milder.  Much milder.  I’m just going to wait here for my change and the ambulance.

 You can purchase a standard bottle or one with a maguey worm in it.  The worm’s natural habitat is the plant, but it appears to have an afterlife in mescal bottles.  Usually there’s one worm to a bottle.  But the Chinese have decided that the maguey worm is a aphrodisiac and they order their mescal with 20 worms in the bottle.  Considering that there are 1.2 billion Chinese on the planet, hey, they might be right. 

The Spanish colonists needed the local production of thousands of things ... furniture, pottery, clothing. These things were too expensive to import, so European craftsman taught techniques to native artists who quickly mastered the skills.  But the final result always shows a balance of both European and native Indian aesthetics.  As a result, the towns around Oaxaca are like craft shops. 

The village of San Bartolo Coyotepec is known for its black pottery.  They’re still using a technique that was developed 2,000 years ago.  The pottery with a matt finish is traditional and waterproof. But the most famous is the glossy black, which unfortunately is not waterproof.  But it looks great. Sometimes we go for beauty over function.  Goodness knows I have.

Don Valente, whose mother, Dona Rosa who’s created with having introduced the shiny look, is carrying on the tradition.  Tourists come from all over the world to see him work.  Today’s group is from France.  Clay is taken from a quarry that is owned by the village and only available to residents.  Don Valente starts by softening the clay and pressing out any air bubbles.  He forms it into a bowl.  Makes a primitive potters wheel and starts to spin the full shape.

The clay for the neck is added and shaped.  If you want a flowerpot, you’re all set.  If you want a pitcher, hang on a second.  The surface with finished with a piece of gourd, a technique that goes back for thousands of years.  The strip of reed is used to produce a design.  Then it’s ready to be fired in the kiln.

Teotitlan del Valle is a town that’s famous for its weaving. My favorite spot is called Bug In The Rug. First the wool, which has just arrived from the sheep, is placed on a card and combed so the fibers all go in one direction.  Then the carded wool is spun into strands.  Natural dyes are used to give the strands color.  Their most famous dye is made from crushed bugs.  This is the same dye that the English used on their red coats during the American Revolutionary War. The colored wool is then woven into carpets using traditional Oaxacan designs.  They’ll make any pattern you suggest.

About a 40-minute drive from Oaxaca City is the town of Ocotlan, where the painter Rodolfo Morales was born. Morales earned a considerable fortunate from his paintings and used a considerable portion of it to fund a local museum.  II’s the perfect spot to get a look at an unusual collection.  The museum also contains a room devoted to the locally produced clay dolls of the Aguilar family.

Isaura Aguilar developed the art form, which is now carried on by her children, including Josephina, who is celebrating her saint’s day and who has invited us to join the party.  Josephina lives here with her eight children, their spouses, and ten grandchildren, all of whom are or soon will be involved in the family business.  Most of the images are drawn from traditional rural life, but more urban figures are slowly creeping in.

The state of Oaxaca is considered to be the gastronomic center of Mexico.  It’s divided into seven regions, each with its own cooking style.  Fortunately you can taste all of them in the capital city.  The cooking techniques of Oaxaca have been preserved for thousands of years, and that’s what gives the food its unique flavor.  Like most Mexican cuisine, Oaxaca’s food is a blend of native Indian and Spanish influences.

One of the great authorities on Oaxacan cooking is Susana Trilling.  Since 1987 she’s been in Oaxaca writing books about the local food, running her own cooking school, and making television shows.

SUSANA TRILLING ON CAMERA: These are empanadas.  She’s making her own empanada with quesillo, which is the string cheese of Oaxaca. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Is that a goat cheese?

SUSANA TRILLING ON CAMERA: No, it’s a ... it’s a cow’s milk cheese.   All the three cheeses of Oaxaca are cow’s milk cheeses.  So this is the quesillo, and she’s going to put squash blossoms on it and some epazote inside.


SUSANA TRILLING ON CAMERA: It’s a wonderful street food. And she also has a specialty here which is called empanada with mole and amarillo.  Mole is really a mixture or concoction.  It’s a sauce.  It doesn’t have to have chocolate in it.  They call Oaxaca the land of the seven moles.  And only two have chocolate.  This woman is making a flower out of mango, and this mango is called pericon. It’s considered one of the most meaty mangos. There are lots of different varieties of mangos that we have here, and this is just the start of mango season, so you’re really hitting it right. 

She’s going to make this into a beautiful flower. And they’re really wonderful at making all these fruits and vegetables.  People like to eat with lime.  And the worm salt.  See, the lime really brings the flavor out of a mango. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: How much is that?

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Would you like one?  Cheers.  What’s next? Thank you. Muchas gracias.

SUSANA TRILLING: Okay. She’s making a chocolate con leche.

BURT WOLF: Hot chocolate milk.

SUSANA TRILLING: Well, it is.  It’s ... it’s actually considered the most ritualistic, the ... the most incredible drink you can give somebody here.  It’s Mexico’s gift to the world.

BURT WOLF: And it’s milk.

SUSANA TRILLING: Milk with chocolate.

BURT WOLF: With chocolate melted in it and then whipped up.

SUSANA TRILLING: And the foam is considered the most important part of the drink.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ahhh. All right.

SUSANA TRILLING ON CAMERA: You can also have it with atole with chocolate mixed in, too.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Oh, it’s really good.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What’s the foam about?

SUSANA TRILLING ON CAMERA: The foam is ... well, I think it’s like the transference of energy of the woman who’s making the drink to the person who’s going to receive the offering of the gift. Because it really is considered the most sacred you can give someone.





BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I ... I feel my energy coming up. There’s that energy.  Whap.   

Of the tens of thousands of insects that exist in Mexico, 400 have been identified as edible.  And most of them are residents of Oaxaca.  The most famous is the grasshopper, which became part of the Zapotec diet as an alternative source of protein.  Today they’re either toasted or deep fried and served as a crunchy snack. 

In 1976 the federal government of Mexico declared the historical center of Oaxaca a zone of national monuments.  And one of those national monuments was the convent of Santa Catalina, which was built by the Dominican order four centuries earlier in 1576. For almost 300 years it followed its founders instructions to receive poor virtuous girls who wished to become nuns and devote their lives to God.

During the 1600s the carved stone pits and washing fountains in the Northeast courtyard were open to the public.  The water system that feeds the basins was designed to steady water level and considered to be one of the most ingenious hydraulic systems built during the colonial period. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1861 there were drastic changes throughout Mexico.  Government reforms nationalized the property belonging to the church and the nuns were forced to leave the convent.  At that point the property went through a series of reincarnations.  It became a government office building, then an art school, and eventually a movie theater. 

In 1975 the property was turned into one of the most beautiful hotels in Mexico.  Named the Camino Real, it is a perfect example of how ancient, colonial and modern Mexico could be blended together.  The convent architecture has been preserved and restored, and the walls are lined with valuable works of art.  The second floor chapel remains in place, a perfect spot for a quick prayer before you buy a lottery ticket.

The main chapel is used for meetings for up to 500 people, and the original kitchen holds the breakfast buffet.  Meals can be taken in either of two cloisters, and the food is excellent.  There is a beautiful swimming pool, and the adjacent bar is an ideal spot for someone working on a television script.   The property consistently receives the Four Diamond Award from the American Automobile Association.   In theory, the nuns would have none of this luxury.  But who knows, times change. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Well, that’s a look at Oaxaca, Mexico, perhaps the only place in the world to independently develop both agriculture and a written language. We’re not quite sure why or how they did it. My guess ... they wanted to send you an invitation for a great lunch.  For TRAVELS & TRADITIONS, I’m Burt Wolf.