Sunday, March 15, 2015

Oaxaca's Zocalo: Public Space

With fondness, I remembered Oaxaca's Zocalo, remembered the first evening over 40 years ago when we walked under the tall jacaranda trees that dropped purple blossoms on the cobblestones. The bandstand was lit, its ceilings were the color of cantaloupes. As a band played, hundreds of people walked through this plaza. Often, there were loud political speeches too. But it is the purple blossoms and the meandering crowds that I most remember.
What changes Earl and I saw that first evening in Oaxaca when we entered the Zocalo after dinner at that pretentious restaurant. The amplified political speeches were matched by the amplified music that came from booths selling CDs. Electrical extension cords hung over the plaza and crossed our paths. The entire space is filled with stalls selling cheap goods for tourists.
In the very center of the Zocalo, surrounding the bandstand, are dozens of tents. People are living there - many of the tent flaps were open and I could see sleeping gear. The bandstand itself is covered over with huge banner signs. Loud speakers declare a political message and no purple blossoms fell from the trees.
The entire scene was shocking, because we were both remembering how it all used to be. The next morning as we headed out with Benito, we asked about the tents and the signs. Turns out that for five months, teachers have taken over the Zocalo in protest over salaries and student testing. Teachers? The government is, for the moment, looking the other way and allowing this extended protest. The many stalls selling tourist goods appear as cover for the protester's tents. Life goes on, tourists buy. And indeed, one can still sit under the Zocalo's porticoes with a cup of coffee or lemonade, simply watching the passersby.
On our last evening in Oaxaca we eat at a restaurant overlooking the cathedral. Beautiful view, homely vegetable soup and quesadillas.
After eating, we wandered the Zocalo. People were coming in and out of the Cathedral and street vendors were selling trinkets and balloons. Food stalls were busy, comals filled with tortillas and empanadas kept warm.
"This is the people's place," Earl said. "Police are not visible. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. Families are our walking, eating." It all felt like the Italian evening paseggiato. Even with the dusty tents surrounding the almost hidden bandstand. There was intense spirit, simplicity, poverty, entrepreneurship and the best of street food.
We may not travel to Oaxaca ever again, so we left the Zocalo with a bit of sadness. Oaxaca is a place that made such an impression on Earl some 40+ years ago when he lived in the countryside and painted immense skyscapes, mermaids and 'Studio Night', that painting that brought us together.
This is the mountain Earl saw and often painted from his studio in Elta, north of Oaxaca, some 40+ years ago.
Earl Staley's 'Studio Night', painted in Mexico in 1979. I bought the painting in 1981 for my studio and darkroom.
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