Muertos has come and gone. This year, as in the past, there were new decorations to experience. The masthead photo was taken upstairs at restaurant “La Olla”, and the next two photos show two of many very elaborately decorated skeletons to be seen inside the building that houses the restaurant “Los Danzantes”, named after the famous stelae discovered at Monte Alban. After 18 years, we still find delightful works of beauty and irony that we have not seen before, as we walk along Oaxaca’s streets.
Anyone want to buy a hacienda?
When I first came here, I lived in the legendary (among expat Oaxacaphiles) “Rancho San Felipe” for about a year. The Rancho was a very large property built by a former governor, whom I was told was the only sitting governor in the history of Oaxaca to be tossed out of office for corruption. Whether or not this was true, I can say that the large and lavish swimming pool he built in front of his mansion would have done Cecil B. DeMille proud, with it’s “Venus rising” fountain at one end, clamshell and all.
I gather that his fortunes waned at some point. By the time I got there, the mansion was a shambles and the pool no longer functioned. In the “front” of the property, there were several “semi-detached” bungalows for rent, along with a four-plex style building. I moved into one of the fourplex apartments shortly after I arrived in 1994. A catering kitchen had been built into the ruins of the mansion, and a space carved out on the lawn between it and the swimming pool that could hold banquet seating for up to 500 people. The French windows at the back of my apartment gave onto the scene. The parties shook the whole building, often until 4 or 5 in the morning, an average of once every month.
The rental units were deteriorating, and the “landlady”, who was the governor’s daughter, believed, as did Richard Nixon, in the principle of benign neglect. Scattered along the perimeters of the back ¾ of the property (did I mention it was big) were her house, and the residences of her siblings. They had separate entrances from the one the renters used.
After a few months, I met Diana and eventually moved back to town to share her apartment, her lately-installed telephone, and her life. We still visited occasionally at the Rancho, and over the years observed its collapse, until one day it was announced that the rental units had to be vacated to make way for a large hotel (did I mention it was big?). The units were indeed closed up, and nothing much seemed to be happening, until we heard that the hotel had backed off and that the front property was to be sold off in two different lots. While I haven’t been back since the joint was emptied, somebody told me that half the front was indeed sold, and that someone had built on it. Not that it matters…
Today I had it called to my attention that the Rancho is on the block, although how much is left to sell deponent knoweth not. However if you have a few million bucks kicking around, and have always wanted a clam-shell-fountain-headed swimming pool complete with Venus rising, you can email to the realtor, MIchelle Tommi: villa_loohvana at hotmail.com… She used to be married to one of the siblings, and knows the property intimately.
Death and dying in Oaxaca:
Oaxacans have a different attitude toward death than most of us do. Unlike us, they keep their departed one on a short string, as demonstrated in their rituals, customs, and traditional “leyendas” (legends) that dominate these three days of celebration around the first day of November. Clearly, not every Oaxacan – probably not even a majority – celebrates; nor do those who do necessarily go to the cemetery to decorate the graves of their beloved; but I would guess that a clear majority of Oaxacans have altars in their home. In recent years, the commercial tours have grown in number. Some cemeteries have been over-run with gawkers and picture takers. While the larger graveyards bear the brunt of the invasion, some smaller ones have also been affected.
The Francisco Toledo wall/fountain in the ethnobotanical garden, seen from the Andador
Many folks welcome strangers, seeing it as an opportunity for a teachable moment; others welcome the money that the visitors bring with them. Every boneyard of any size has a lot of vendors selling flowers, food – for the mourners as well as the spirits – and grave decorations (sugar skulls, tableaux (bar scenes are a favorite), small Calaveras, etc). They usually line up along the path to the graveyard, along with shooting galleries and other carnie games. At the larger cemeteries, the booths are brightly decorated and have that “Midway” feel to them.
My first cemetery visit was to the small, unpretentious one in San Felipe del Agua. SFdeA, aside from being a main water source for Oaxaca, had already begun to develop. There were a few tourists there, but not many. Some of us at the Rancho decided to get together to decorate the grave of the only gringo ever to be buried there: a singular honor. He was a Polish philosopher, and evidently beloved by the farmers and artisans who made up the majority of SFdeA residents: cemetery space is hard to come by.
As the years went by, the crowd size grew. I had moved to the center, and was in walking distance to the big cemetery, variously known as the Panteon General and the Panteon San Miguel.
A few years ago, the much-loved Thornton Robison died unexpectedly, and somehow a plot was wrestled from the already-congested burying ground. It had been his request to be buried in Oaxaca. Every year, on the 1st of November, old friends and current guests at Casa Colonial b&b, which he owned along with his widow, Jane, gather to light candles, eat tamales, drink mezcál, listen to a great string band singing classical popular tunes, and share Thorny stories. Who knows, maybe he really attends, you couldn’t prove it to me, either way; but what really matters is that we show up.
The changes in the immigration rules:
As of now, things are still a little confused. I’ve read what I could find on line on the subject, and while some parts are fairly clear, others are not. The agents are nervous: the new laws are published, but the rules implementing them are still in process. I don’t believe that everything will be settled by the promised deadline of December 1 (which is, incidentally, the day that the new President takes office, which means probable changes in personnel). Say what you will about lame-duck (and according to some, simply lame) president Felipe Calderón: the immigration office functioned better in the last six years than I had ever seen it. Whether the PRI can do as well, remains to be seen.
One thing to be aware of, if you are planning to convert your tourist visa into a residence visa of any kind: it appears that you will have to return to your country of residence (the one that issued your passport) to do so.
The prices are going up, of course. The higher prices are probably meant to discourage folks who could just as well come and go on the tourist card: normally, the local migration office doesn’t have to deal with those. Along the same lines, the price for a one-year temporary residency visa is about twice the price per year of a four-year one. All meant in my opinion to lighten the repeat traffic. Getting a permanent residency visa is about half the price of a four-year temporary residency: another indication that the migra just doesn’t want to see us any more than they have to – and the feeling is bound to be mutual…
There are several gringo immigration lawyers eager to come to your assistance, should the need arise…
This altar was on the low end of Carmen Alto Plaza, where many sidewalk artisans make and sell their craft works.
** Lila does it again: Our favorite Oaxacan song-bird, Lila Downs, just appeared on the Latin Grammies show, having won the best-folkloric-album prize for “Pecados y Milagros”. Judging from the “official” pictures from host network Univisión, it was quite a performance. Celso Piña, the king of Cumbia, assisted, along with people in calavera costumes. The stage appears to have been filled with musicians and entertainers. I hope that Univisión will make her performance available as a streaming video on their website…
A few days ago, Lila appeared in a free concert on the grounds of the Rail Road Museum. We didn’t get there, but friends who did raved about it…
** The Rail Road Museum used to be the train depot, back in the days before the super-highway. The first time I came down here, it was on the National Railway. There was one overnight train, which took 14 hours to get here from Mexico City. In 1972 the trip cost 8 bucks u.s. for a coach seat, and 8 more if I wanted a private room. I opted for luxury…
Since 1994, we have watched rail passenger traffic dwindle and then vanish. We used to love going on the “payroll train” to Taviche , where the engine and one car were put on the tound table and turned around; and getting off in Ocotlán for the Friday market. As soon as the road to the village was made (barely) passable, the train went the way of the dodo bird. The last train operating in Oaxaca state went from the capital toward Puebla, through the Cañada region. There was almost no-one aboard, a few windows were broken, and going on the train to Cuicatlán took more than twice the time it took to come back by van…
One of Oaxaca’s abandoned colonial-era houses , opened for the season with a display of Muertos flowers on empty beds. Word is that more installations will be displayed as time goes on. What a good idea. Why didn’t I think of that?
** One of the news sources that I read from time to time is put out by the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), They do good research and have contributions from some of the best investigative reporters. Yesterday,I read an article by David Bacon, focusing on the civil war going on in the village of San Jose Progreso, in the mountains east of Ocotlán. Rising prices and the development of more efficient technology now make marginal ore sites more profitable, and the conflict between the citizens who wish to preserve their heritage and those who are going for the money has devolved into a shooting war. Right now, there are federal police in SJP “preserving order” (read, repressing the dissidents). To read the whole article, click here.