Memories of Oaxaca
“There’s something happening here.
What it is ain’t exactly clear.”*
By Alan Goodin
When I first ventured to Oaxaca it was in 1989. There, something unexplainable came over me, something I couldn’t explain to myself or any of my friends when I returned home to Sacramento. Whatever IT was, IT had burned a place in my mind and a profound sense of wonderment in my soul. Every other year since then, I returned to Oaxaca and eventually Puerto Escondito, Acapulco, and Mexico City. Oaxaca wasn’t like any of those other cities. It was different and when I wasn’t there, something inside my spirit was missing. No matter if my body was standing atop 11,000 foot Mt. Shasta, trout fishing on the Colorado’s Flathead River or skiing in Mammoth, my mind was in Oaxaca.
My obsession with Oaxaca caused me to move there in 2000, Yet, even after living here, I couldn’t put my finger on why. Late one night, on The Day of the Dead, sitting in a cemetery, alongside graves and alters with large groups of Indigenous people, something happened to me. I literally saw into another world, as if the heavens parted and ‘the Word’ was revealed to me. I could see and sense multiple worlds.
A second set of eyes were opened to me. I was seeing life and death simultaneously. Was I with Virgil, guiding me into those Dark Woods? Had Saint Peter opened the Pearly Gates? As always, I had a camera with me. When I picked up my photos I wasn’t surprised to see people I knew to be alive, standing, sitting, and talking with near-human, luminous souls, their friends and ancestors I suspected. Of course that was the second point. Seeing is believing! But being in the present and past, well it was time to break out the mescal and ‘break bread’ with the Gods. I was in between yesterday and today, but in this time zone, yesterday wasn’t the day before today, it was decades and eons from the past.
Later that night, back at my hotel in the centro, I had all the amenities of the first world, yet I could walk out the door into the Zocalo and find myself immersed in a cornucopia of Third World scenes and scents; chocolates, moles, roasting chickens, smoke from wood fires, beautiful trees, varying groups of beautifully dressed Indigenous people and something else. Whatever IT was, it wasn’t visual. It was sensory! And IT enveloped my body and soul. Past and present coexisted, right outside my window. Yikes! Beware, I hadn’t been warned, but there was nothing to fear. “Cast fate to the wind,” I thought. The river Styx had been crossed and I had entered the Dark Wood.
In 2003 I begin writing and my writing took me out of the Zocalo and into Mitla, Teotitlan, Etla, San Martin and the surrounding villages. There were all the foods, handicrafts, traje (traditional clothing), and numerous rituals of the Third World inhabited by the Triques, Zapotecos, Olmecas and other Indigenous peoples who settled this valley one, two and maybe three thousand years ago. I’ve heard it said by many that the Maya, Aztecs and Zapotecos abandoned their great temples and lands in Oaxaca long ago. Numerous reasons are given; over population, drought and war. That’s not exactly true.
You see, they’re still here—everywhere. More simply stated, Oaxaca is a suburb of Monte Alban, Mitla, Zachilla and the multitude of ‘archeological sites’ that are seeded and growing within the Oaxaca Valley, surrounding mountains and hills. Because they are everywhere that was when I noticed there were multiple worlds, all in one valley; the natural, the historical and the spiritual. I never had to think about going to any place again, as I can stand in Teotitlan, Milta, Monte Alban or any of the hundreds of villages in and around Oaxaca and be in three places at once. It was free. All I had to do was opened my mind.
In 1995 the Zapatista Rebellion was stampeding its way across southeastern Mexico and I was pulled into its current, and another realization. Here is some guy in Chiapas, Marcos, parading around in the jungle like a Post Modern Cyber-Che Guevara, with a ski mask on and wearing two watches; one set on Mexican time and one set on Zapatista time. Corny as it seems, the symbolism in Marcos’ gesture was another spiritual experience, except this time it was “mind and time expansion.” At the time, Mexico did not observe Daylight Savings. How primitive! Then I was informed by some Zapatistas that they don’t even observe Mexican time. The whole concept of timelessness opened a spiritual part of my mind that had only been opened once before, in Vietnam, in combat, where all too often time does not exist.
To me, all of the things that have and will happen in Oaxaca are in the present tense. Oaxaca simply is! It’s like the Emerald City. There is no time here. One afternoon, while walking by the colonial church, Santa Domingo, a brand new Jaguar drove past me, followed in seconds by an old man wearing a weather beaten cowboy hat and riding a burro. Observing the First and Third World clash, I thought, this is incredible. But the more I pondered what I had just seen, I said to myself, “Wait! That was no ‘clash.” I had just seen the First and Third world meld—like all the ingredients in Oaxaca’s Seven Moles; the flavors of a thousand years being served in the 21st Century, as if nothing had really changed. That’s the point! For many in Oaxaca, some things never have changed. Better said, “When you come to Oaxaca, YOU CHANGE!”
So, First World, Third World, Mexican Time, or No Time; historically, culturally, spiritually or any way you chose to describe “Memories of Oaxaca,” for me, it’s Milagro. It’s Magic!
*For What it’s Worth, by Stephen Stills
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Photo courtsey of Alan Goodin is a retired Correctional Officer and Vietnam Veteran who migrated to Oaxaca in 2000. He has authored the novel, “Life Imitating Death: Making Dollars and Sense” set in Chiapas and Oaxaca and is currently working on another creative non-fictive novel, “A Place We Ought Not to Be,” a story about a Special Forces soldier in Vietnam. The story is based as some actual event as well as those related to him by his friends in the California Central Valley Vietnam organization. He is a passionate photographer and has been published. Recently he did all the photos used in a presentation on Zapoteco Codicies use by Linda Martin at the OLL. He can be reached at email@example.com. Many of his photographs appear on the Oaxaca Lending Library’s website.