Holy Cards from Oaxaca: The magical burro delivered parts of the patron saint

As the man from the countryside drove his pack mules down the dusty street in Oaxaca in the year 1620, one dropped to its knees. There, in front of the church of Saint Sebastian.

But, wait, this was not one of his burros. It was a volunteer laden with a heavy chest. The burro refused to budge, rolling over dead, knocking open the chest to reveal its contents. The hands and beautifully carved face of the Virgin Mary appeared. Surely a miracle.

A church would have to be built here. And it was. A grand church now known as the Basilica de La Virgen de la Soledad.

And the Virgin was cloaked in splendor, her garment designed to conceal her lack of corporal substance.

Many who have prayed to the Virgen de la Soledad through the centuries since credit her with miraculous cures. In the belief that she, the patron saint of Oaxaca, protects them, mariners would trek from the coast on foot to bring her tributes of pearls and gold.

When the Constitution of 1857 authorized confiscation of the church’s assets, her bejeweled garments and tributes were spirited away by some of her faithful. The tattered remnants of her gown, gems intact, were rediscovered by a merchant remodeling his shop in 1888. He ordered the finest velvet from France to present to the nuns who stitched the jewels back into the luxurious garment that is her hallmark.

The Feast Day of La Virgen de las Soledad on December 18 is one of Oaxaca’s most important celebrations. We never were able to determine at what hour she arrived by float paraded through the streets, perhaps midnight? A few spent fireworks littered the stones the next day. We found her enthroned in a corner of the Basilica’s plaza on her day, the faithful filing by to lay floral tributes before her.

In addition to the behemoth Basilica built in her honor, a smaller plaza in front of the church always beckons – the ice cream plaza, properly known as Plaza Socrates. Stalls of vendors of imaginative flavors of ice cream – such as rosa or aguacate – competitively beckon families to sit at their tables for some of the best people-watching in the city. Marimba minstrels generally set up in the middle of the neverias.

A plaza full of ice cream makes Socrates seem a wise man indeed.

Postcard from Oaxaca: Flavorful Leftovers

Sometimes you get home from a trip with the postcards you bought to mail to family and friends unwritten and unsent. That’s what these final food photographs from our month in Oaxaca represent.

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Primarily, the photos speak for themselves, and some of these restaurants were mentioned in the much earlier “Serious Salads” post.

A few notes:

  • We ordered the top-billed pizza at Mexita, which, with a creamy wild mushroom sauce at the base, really had too much going on. Try something more minimalist.
  • The mound of caramelized onions on top of the vegetable couscous at El Morocco Café is wonderful.
  • The atmosphere and food at Epicuro, an Italian restaurant, are good enough to go more than once, but the management needs to lose the cards the servers must ask you to read before you are served. Obviously, the management was offended by some online reviews, and the card says customers are not always right and should take up any criticisms on site instead of online. Ignore the insult because the pizzas and grilled seafood are worthwhile.
  • Presentations are colorful and food straightforward at La Zandunga. We probably would have visited more than once if it were not so close to our favorite spot, La Biznaga.
  • La Teca was way on the other side of town. The Istmeno food was a little heavy for our tastes, but we loved the locals and families gathering on the back patio in the garden.
  • We grabbed sandwiches or a Spanish tortilla from Gourmand Delicatessen several times. The potato-filled tortilla represents a flavorful bargain, feeding the two of us two meals.
  • And, of course, there was street food, ours generally purchased from a woman we would pass on our way home.
  • Oh, and make frequent detours through Jardin Socrates in front of the Soledad Church where neverias vend ice cream in flavors not found north of the border.

Hope this series of restaurant posts serves as a helpful guide for those planning trips to one of our favorite spots in Mexico.

Postcard from Oaxaca: Competing gritos dampen the fiesta

Flags and banners multiplied all this past week – green representing hope, white for unity and red for the blood shed by the heroes of Mexico.

The Zocolo, or Main Plaza, in Oaxaca is the heart of the city and state’s celebration of Mexico’s independence from Spain more than 200 years ago. Officials assemble there for the official “grito,” replicating Father Hildalgo’s 1810 cry for revolution on the eve of Diez y Seis de Septiembre.

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But as the festooning of buildings increased, so did underlying levels of tension.

One was created by weather – both hurricane and tropical storm heading in from both the Gulf and the Pacific coasts threatening to dump enormous deluges of water on the city. Somehow, the two storms seemed to have knocked each other off course, only leaving clouds and scattered showers over Oaxaca in their wakes.

Two bullets dodged, but the remaining one was more explosive than the fireworks that lit up the sky last night.

Teachers. Teachers were occupying the Zocolo and were one step ahead of the government.

At first, I didn’t even notice as we wandered in their midst crossing the Zocolo because, well, they just looked like teachers. The more observant Mister noticed that some of these teachers had wooden sticks at their sides (We didn’t snap their photos.).

On Friday, teachers strategically parked buses to block intersections around the Zocolo, backing up traffic for blocks and resulting in the honking of many horns. The Mister pointed out those traffic jams might not engender enthusiasm for their cause.

And then, Saturday night, they made the simple procurement of ice cream seem fraught with danger. On the west side of the plaza in front of the Basilica de la Soledad, several truckloads of police were donning flak jackets. The basilica behind them was beautifully illuminated, and the booths of the neverias on the east side of the plaza usually are packed with families. Instead, only one vendor of ice cream was open. Spooky. We quickly made our purchase of a cup of tamarindo con chile and headed off in a different direction.

And their cause? Displeasure with a sweeping new educational reform bill President Peña Nieto signed into law. Since I write about food more than politics, I’ll let Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald explain some of the effects of this law:

Peña Nieto signed into law an education reform law on Sept. 10 that introduces nationwide teacher evaluations, increases classroom hours and significantly reduces the powers of the country’s powerful teacher unions.

Until now, under a 1963 law, Mexico’s 1.5 million-member National Teachers’ Union, SNTE, selected 50 percent of the country’s teachers, while the remaining 50 percent were appointed by the government.

This generated a corruption-ridden system in which many teachers were paid despite not showing up for work in years, and retiring teachers sold their lifelong jobs for as much as $10,000 to people without qualifications.

Under the new law, which has triggered violent protests by a dissident leftist teachers’ union, both aspiring and current teachers will have to go through a national evaluation test. Aspiring teachers will have two chances to pass it in order to be hired, while the 1.2 million existing teachers will have up to three opportunities to pass in order to be allowed to continue teaching or to be promoted.

Mexico’s education reform was passed in Congress after growing public discontent over the fact that Mexico consistently ranks last among Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development member-countries in the group’s standardized PISA tests for 15-year-old students.

One of Peña Nieto’s first moves after taking office was putting SNTE leader Elba Esther Gordillo behind bars on charges of embezzling $200 million in union funds. For the past 25 years, she had been one of the country’s most powerful political figures.

Some of the union members are not appreciative of the President’s reform efforts, which led to a showdown on the Zocolo. The government issued an ultimatum that the teachers must abandon their occupation of the Zocolo by noon.

We kept our distance, needless to say, ears peeled for sounds of violence.

But some sort of compromise was reached; the teachers left for another park, leaving the grito tradition intact.

The boundaries of the Zocolo were fortified by hundreds of police and machine-gun-wielding soldiers (whose photos we opted not to take). Families wanting to enter the Zocolo for the evening celebration were required to pass through metal detectors.

We passed on by and headed up the hill to raise a glass of mescal and watch the fireworks from our patio overlooking the city.