Travel Writing


Curt Rosengren

Market day in Tlacolula

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In a Zapotec village at the foot of the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains, an old woman bundles up her pottery with care. In another, a young woman and her mother pack exquisitely colorful wool weavings into a bag.

On the quiet streets of Tlacolula, in the shadow of the 16th century mission church, a market is starting to yawn and stretch itself awake. This is Sunday, and like centuries of Sundays before it, it is market day here.

The small town hums with a slow motion flurry of activity as vendors arrive from throughout the surrounding valley and a multicolored cloak of stalls spreads across the dusty pavement.

Vendors set up tables and stretch tarps across the street for shelter from the sun. They set out their wares with painstaking care, pausing now and then to laugh at a joke or to catch up on the latest news. One stretches out on a table for a quick nap to gather energy for the day. There is no real sense of urgency here.

The Sunday market in Tlacolula, one of the oldest in Mesoamerica, is a juxtaposition of the historical and cultural worlds that makes the Oaxaca experience so rich. Past and present, Spanish and Zapotec—all are here in force.

Two thousand years ago, the once mighty Zapotec empire was centered at nearby Monte Albán. Fifteen hundred years later the Spanish came. Both would play a definitive role in shaping the Oaxaca of today, and both continue to form the face of the market.

The market stretches for blocks along Tlacolula’s main thoroughfare, spilling off onto the side streets as it wraps itself around the Capilla del Santo Cristo. This 16th century church was one of the endless network of mission churches the Spanish began building shortly after their arrival in 1532. The unmistakeable domed, twin-tower profile of these grand landmarks are a defining characteristic of the Mexican countryside; even tiny villages are graced with beautiful churches dating back hundreds of years.

On market day, Zapotecs from throughout the valley fill the dirt courtyard of the Capilla del Santo Cristo, taking time out from the market to talk, laugh, or simply rest in the shade of the surrounding wall, much as their ancestors have for hundreds of years.

The color explosion of the Zapotec women's traditional dress seems determined to counter the muted dryness of the surrounding landscape. Bright ribbons winding through long black braids, richly colored blouses and painstakingly hand-embroidered smocks splash brilliantly against the dusty backdrop.

An endless array of goods for sale fill the market stalls, some modern and some from an age long past. Pottery made in a centuries old tradition vies for attention with t-shirts sporting Michael Jordan’s face. Scrawny hamstrung turkeys pant in the heat while speakers buzz in distorted protest from a stall offering the latest hits in Mexican pop. Car parts spread on a sheet on the ground battle for pesos with intricately hand-woven wool rugs.

Even the language in the air is a blend, as the familiar sound of Spanish mixes with the nasal hum of Zapoteca, still the primary language for many who live in these valleys.

Many of the crafts for sale here—pottery, weaving, basketry, and others—are Zapotec traditions that have been handed down through the generations for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Potters in nearby San Marcos Tlapazola, a village of 1,500 people, form exquisitely utilitarian pottery using the same wheel-less method they have for the last thousand years. In Teotitlán del Valle, artisans transform bags of raw wool into intricate weavings featuring traditional Zapotec designs, just as they have for centuries.

In many of these villages life remains largely unchanged since pre-Hispanic times. Men amble to work in the fields on foot or riding rough wooden ox-drawn carts. Oxen plod through the cornfields pulling a plow as they prepare the earth for a crop that has been a staple here for millenia. Women make the day’s tortillas from scratch, preparing them on stone metates, and cooking them over an open fire in a room designed to let the smoke escape between the blackened walls and the roof. Zapoteca is still the primary language, and many of the older people speak Spanish poorly or not at all.

Elena and her daughter Magdalena are from one of these nearby towns, Teotitlán del Valle. Every Sunday they get up early and pack up dozens of weavings, each a work of art that can take ten days or more to complete. They ride a crowded bus to Tlacolula, where they sit in the cool shade of a covered walkway, their rugs displayed in a dizzying melange of color and design.

Teotitlán del Valle is a town of about 4500 people whose Zapotec inhabitants have garnered worldwide attention with their intricately hand woven rugs. Traditional Zapotec designs are woven painstakingly into the fabric using handspun yarn, colored using the same natural dyes used for hundreds of years. The vibrant reds come from the cochinella, an insect that lives as a parasite in the cactus plant. The yellows come from the root of a plant. Some of the dies used today are synthetic, but most are not.

Food is out in force in the market as well. The dozens of varieties of dried peppers to choose from are matched only by the extensive selection of beans. Produce sits on tables like neatly stacked still life sculptures while vendors sell tacos and bags of brightly colored juice tied around a straw. Young and old alike stop by to buy chapulines—crunchy red grasshoppers fried in lemon and garlic that are a Oaxacan delicacy. According to local lore, once you try chapulines you’ll never leave.

At day’s end, as the market begins to slow and the crowd begins to thin, Elena and Magdalena take down the weavings and stow them away in preparation for the trip home. The rest of the market follows suit. Tarps are taken down, and goods are packed away with care. A piglet squeals as it is uncerimoniously carried away by its hind leg. Busses leave the station with standing room only, packed with people and product heading home. When nothing remains but the debris of the day, the streets return to their sleepy state, waiting for the next week and another chance to spring to life.