Dispatches from the Archives: Night of the Radishes, 2008
In this first Dispatch from the Archives, we bring you an email written to family and friends from our first Mexican adventure nearly a decade ago. Found deep in Greg’s “sent messages” email folder, we hope these old dispatches can give you some insight into our former travels and perhaps reveal a little of why we continue to travel today. In this installment, we experience a unique celebration found nowhere else but Oaxaca, Mexico: The Night of the Radishes.
December 25, 2008
Today has been a lazy day for me. Christmas day in Mexico is a rather calm affair. Some people might go to mass but for the most part, they are sleeping in or nursing a hangover. The main event takes place on Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena. For our Nochebuena celebration Alysa and I helped Socorro, our host mom, prepare a large meal. Oaxacan cuisine tends to be very complex and very precise. Dozens of local ingredients are prepared just so and combined in exact quantities to produce an intricate meal defined by mole and chili sauces. I did my best to help Socorro out, but it can be difficult working with both a cuisine and language to which I’m not familiar. In the end, though, everything turned out great. But I’m getting ahead of myself because it wouldn’t be until midnight that we finally began to eat. The drinking started much earlier and I’m not sure I had the wherewithal to give an accurate description of last night.
Rather, I want to describe an event that is unique to no other place on earth. Every December 23 at least one hundred local artists gather in the Zocalo to create truly unique works of art. There are three types of sculptures: those made from flores immortales, a tiny colorful local flower; totomoxle, or corn husks; and most famous of all, oversized radishes that have been left in the ground long past harvesting time so that they can reach the proportions necessary for this night. Noche de los Rabanos, or Night of the Radishes, is arguably the most endemic cultural event of the city.
I was looking forward to Tuesday night long before I even arrived in the country. It was not something I wanted to miss. Consequently, I was not deterred by the great mass of people who also came to view the artwork. I arrived at the Zocalo at about 6:30 with a small group of teachers and students from my language school. On the way there we passed a number of pickup trucks loaded with heavily armed police complete with body armor and assault rifles. “Are these police here every year,” I asked in Spanish to Nora, one of my teachers. “Only since 2006,” she replied, referring to the riots and its ruthless suppression that is still fresh in the minds of Oaxacans.
Undaunted, we arrived in the Zocalo and made our way past the police-lined barrier that separated the mob from the stalls displaying the sculptures, to what we rightly guessed to be the end of a long, slow-moving line. The line wrapped all the way around the square and there was very little organization to it. I have learned that there is no sanctity of lines in Mexico. The pushier you are the more success you will have. For quite some time a pushing war existed between my school group and a family of about a half dozen that tried to merge their way in past us. We formed a tight and impenetrable conga line and shouldered our way past them. For the better part of an hour we fought back and forth, jockeying for the better position. When Iliana, another teacher appealed to one of the cops for help in enforcing order in the line he merely balked at her and informed us that that was not his job. Finally, we won out and firmly established our place in front.
The line moved very slowly. At one point I got out of it to discover just how long it was and why it seemed to barely move. Fighting my way through the crowded square I made my way past the abandoned government palace (the local government relocated its headquarters to a more remote location outside the city after 2006) to the first viewing platform. There I discovered that a group of several dozen police was letting in a mere trickle of about twenty five viewers at a time. Not to be discouraged I made my way back to my place in line where we slowly made our way over the next two hours, all the way fending off line cutters and children trying to sell us bead bracelets, cigarettes, and chapulines, crickets fried in chili sauce.
The wait was well worth it. The sculptures were some of the most impressive works of carving I have ever seen. Sure, they are much cruder than what I have seen in museums and art galleries. What impressed me, however, was the unique media in which they were carved and the ephemeral nature of it all. By the next day, the radishes will have shriveled, the flowers will have begun to wilt, and the corn husks will have started to decompose. So much work went into what will only last a day or two. And the prize for the winning entries is nothing more than recognition and a picture in the newspaper. Yet I could see the pride the artists took in their work as they sat smiling behind their sculptures.
As I was viewing the last of the entries the sky lit up and the air was filled with whistles and bangs. In front of the cathedral at the far end of the Zocalo two towers covered with fireworks, called castillos (castles) were ignited. I ran across the crowded square in time to see the cathedral lit up by colorful incendiaries.
Well, that’s all for today. Happy holidays to you all!