Oaxaca, Mexico:

an Expatriate Life

Writing by Stan Gotlieb

Pictures by Diana Ricci

Bless This Restaurant

Restaurant Infierno (inferno; hell) is a hangout favored by artists, students, and others in the cultural avant-garde in Oaxaca. This picture was taken at their first anniversary party. Costumes did not tend toward the clerical.[Photo by Diana Ricci]




I missed the blessing of the fishing fleet, when I lived in New Orleans. Likewise in San Francisco. I keep meaning to go to the blessing of the animals in Zaachila, but haven't gotten there yet. Last night, feeling just a bit like an anthropologist, I finally made it to a blessing event.

Xochimilco (So-chee-MEEL-co) is a colonia (neighborhood) just outside the central district of Oaxaca. Almost totally residential, it boasts no supermarkets or laundromats, few commercial sites, and only a handful of restaurants. Opening a new eatery is a big event, and the owners did not take it lightly.

I had been invited to tag along, by some musician friends who were providing the entertainment. We hopped a cab from downtown, and arrived outside a large rectangular new building with a high palapa roof. Constructed of palm thatch over wood framing (a mix of tree trunks, bamboo, and milled lumber), palapas are a source of endless fascination for me, and the smell of a fresh one is inspirational.

Seating easily a hundred people, and attended by a waitstaff of about half a dozen, this is not your average family restaurant. It will be necessary to draw people from far beyond the neighborhood, if the project is to realize a comfortable profit. A difficult job at best in these times of financial uncertainty, this effort appeared to need all the blessings it could get.

When we arrived at 8:00 p.m., the official opening time, the place was almost empty. By 9:00, it was jammed with celebrants. The local Oaxaca state legislative deputy, a Carrasco (like the governor), was in attendance along with a few dignitaries from around the city who were probably either business associates or relatives of the owners. The musicians were crooning romantic melodies and the owners were glad-handing the arrivals.

Shortly after 9:00, the priest arrived. Dressed in civilian clothes and wearing a prayer shawl, he called for silence. A pitcher of holy water and a couple of lilies were brought out and set on a nearby table. The owners were called to the front, and the service began.

Asking for the intervention of the Father, Son, Holy Ghost and Virgin Mary, the padre talked about the uncertainty of the times and the difficulty of succeeding in new ventures. He praised the hard work of the owners and their staff, and he asked that they be kept safe from harm. He conjured up throngs of new customers and prayed that they have joyous experiences therein. He picked up the lilies, and with one of the waitresses walking alongside holding the pitcher within easy dipping range, he meandered through the edifice, shaking holy water over tables, chairs, utensils, staff and patrons.

After returning to the front to lead the throng in the Lord's Prayer and another round of benediction, the padre folded up his prayer shawl, put it in his carrying bag, and left. The music started up again, and the food came out: platter after platter of taquitos, empanadas, memelitas and other "bocadillos" ("small mouths": finger food; appetizers), and endless supplies of beer and Coca Cola. An hour after the priest had taken his exit, the folks began to do likewise. By 11:30, the musicians had packed up and only family and close friends were left.

Whether the Xochimilco achieves exito (success) remains to be seen. If it does, who knows? Maybe the prayers worked and maybe they didn't, but why take chances? It could be that it is just as important to have God on your side, as it is to be in the good graces of the governor's cousin.
(July, 1996)

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