You learn about a culture through food and religion. We continued our exploration of the cultural life of Oaxaca (“Oaxaca, a la vanguardia en cultura”) in markets and churches.
My guide book tells me that Etla is a county-sized region encompassing a number of villages, the centre of which is sometimes referred to as the Villa de Etla, or sometimes Reyes Etla, or as one guide book tells me should be more correctly called the town of San Pedro y San Pablo Etla. But everyone just calls it Etla. It is the site of a massive market on Wednesdays, selling produce, cheeses, meats, herbs, sheepskins, pottery etc.
We went to the Etla market with our friend Lynda on a Thursday, missing the crowds and giving us time to enjoy a local desayuno (breakfast), a stroll through the market and a visit to both San Pedro and San Pablo.
Breakfast was chiliquilles of several varieties. My breakfast tortillas were swimming in a mole sauce of dark ancho chilies, sprinkled with fresh queso and chopped sweet onion. I am not an egg person, so I opted for chicken, and was given mounds of gorgeous shredded chicken, which I swirled in the sauce. My mother and Lynda had green tomatillo sauce on their tortillas, topped with soft fried eggs.
We cradled cups of fresh coffee and delicious sweet cocoa. Outside, just past our table, a woman sat on the ground tying together bundles of seed pods to sell alongside her roasted squash seeds and chilies. “They are Huaje seeds,” said Lynda, “The name ‘Oaxaca’ comes from the nahuatl Huaxyacac, which apparently means ‘the place of many huaje trees’”. The practice of gathering and selling the Huaje seeds has been going on for many centuries. The trees grow everywhere.
Sated, we walked through the market. There were gorgeous breads, bright yellow chickens (one chopped open and proudly displayed with egg yolks still inside), cheeses, and people cooking quesadillas with ingredients I couldn’t identify. I bought a bottled chili sauce with chapulines (grasshoppers) and some chili powder ground with toasted worms. It’s the best powder for dipping slices of oranges and limes into, to have with your Mescal. It will definitely brighten up a dreary winter day in Canada!
The town was filled with whizzing 3-wheeled vehicles. They are collectivos (shared transit) and they were transporting people to and from the rural areas around the town.
In the centre of town is the church and former monastery of San Pedro y San Pablo.
The statue of San Pablo is in the courtyard. A 12th century Venetian martyr, San Pablo was assassinated on the road to Milan when someone put an ax through his head. He looks remarkably calm about it.
Less than 2 kilometres away, on the outskirts of the village, is the Santuario del Señor de las Peñas. Legend has it that when God was making the world, He sat down to rest here, and that the mark that He made has become petrified into rock (Peña). The chapel is built on an old Zapotec archeological site that has yet to be dug. It’s a magote – a hummock in the landscape that implies a pre-historic structure beneath. The Oaxacan valley is filled with unexplored magotes, overgrown evidence of a thriving culture.
The chapel is a place of pilgrimage, where people go during Lent to be cured. The church is filled with painted decorations, simplification of 16th century “white vine illuminations” commonly seen in Spanish manuscripts of the time. Here, though, they seem to be painted from memory, from a vague sense of what they must have looked like in the old world.
A few kilometres down the road, in the village of Tlacochahuaya, is the massive Templo y Exconvento de San Jerónimo, one of the first Dominican Churches built in the new world, begun in 1586.
A huge fig tree grows in the vast front courtyard. The yard was built to be large enough to hold 5000 people, who could be preached to in the open air. It was built with 3 open-air arched-roofed chapels or pozas where conversions took place. San Jerónimo still looks down on the courtyard below, his left hand on a skull, the voice of God coming to him through what looks suspiciously like a megaphone.
Inside, the Templo y Exconvento de San Jerónimo is filled with paintings of flowers and happy angel faces. We were greeted by two men, one of whom spoke some English and offered to take us up to see the church’s treasured organ – for the price of 10 pesos each. Andres lived in the United States for 30 years, working to support his family here in Tlacochahuaya. He wants to stay home now – his daughters have all married and he tells us, passionately, that he wants to stay in Tlacochahuaya with his wife. After 30 years of living away, we couldn’t help but wonder what his wife thought.
Andres unlocked a low door and we followed him up a narrow stone staircase to the choir stall above.
The organ is magnificent, covered in decoration, the pipes painted with wonderful faces and the stops hand lettered.
It was build in 1789 and restored in 1991. The bellows look very clean and new. Being up in the choir stall afforded us a detailed view of the painted decorations, and an overview of the smoky church below.
From Tlacochahuaya we headed to the town of Tlacolula and one of Oaxaca’s largest and oldest markets. Tlacolula was founded by Zapotecs around 1250, and their culture still dominates here. Originally called Guichiibaa (“place between Heaven and Earth”), Tlacolula has a population of 15000 – most of whom come to the Sunday market. We drove down the main street behind a Mexican cowboy on horseback, and oxen in yokes. A cow stood idly in the middle of the road.
In the market, live turkeys and goats compete with stands of cheeses, chapulines, fruits, nuts, vegetables, breads, tortillas, Tlayudas, herbs and spices. I contented myself with a small package of toasted pipitos, squash seeds. We headed for comida at Comodor Mary’s, one of the oldest restaurants in the village. A photo on the wall shows people building the restaurant in 1929 – it’s been run by the same family ever since. We were brought a basket of fresh radishes, Chepil (an herb used in molès, soups and salads) and Huaje bean pods. The beans, which I had been longing to sample since we were in Etla, were a bit bitter raw. Still, a fresh and interesting taste, and the radishes were the best I’ve tasted in my life.
For my comida I had a perfectly cooked chili rellanos (chili stuffed with cheese), sitting in a sea of coloradita molès and refried beans. I sipped cold beer as I watched market women in brightly coloured clothing pass by with baskets on their heads.
Beside the market is the Parroquia de la Virgen de la Asunción.
It is lavishly decorated in carved ornaments, paintings and sculptures. Not one inch has been left bare. These urbane paintings and sculptures of Tlacolula were a striking contrast to the simplicity that we saw in the country setting of the Santuario del Señor de las Peñas.
We headed to the chapel, Capilla del Señor de Tlacolula, which is known for its assemblage of martyrs who have died gruesome deaths. And it is here that I again found San Pablo. Amongst martyrs who have been shot with arrows, had their entrails pulled out, left with large holes in the bodies, San Pablo’s body leaned over calmly, his fully decapitated head sitting serenely below.
I heard a soft sound behind me. A woman was weeping in a pew. I became aware of intruding in her space. I am, of course, a tourist, a gringa with a camera, insensitive to the sanctuary that this chapel offers to the inhabitants of Tlcacolula.
We left the vibrant colours and tastes of the Etla Valley and headed back to the city lights of Oaxaca.