By the time my taxi squeezed into the crowded streets of Mexico City’s historic center, it was just past dawn, and I hadn’t slept in thirty hours since leaving San Francisco on a red-eye.
It was December 12, 2000, my first visit to Mexico City. Home to some 20 million souls, I knew Mexico City was crowded, but what was going on with all of these people filling the streets? In the middle of the night?
Little did I know about the love affair that was waiting for me in Oaxaca, where I was headed next, and where I am writing to you from today.
That first cab ride from the airport I felt pleased (ok, maybe a little smug) having negotiated the confusion of fake vs. authorized cabs that were making headlines far beyond Mexico at the time. Being scammed for an inflated fare was less of a concern than being kidnapped for ransom.
Almost the second I settled into the back seat, after locking the doors and rolling up the windows, the taxi broke down with a flat tire and coasted to a narrow edge of freeway underpass.
Was there really a flat tire? Visions of being thrown in the trunk danced in my head.
Once the tire change was in progress, I my worry shifted to being flattened by or dying of asphyxiation from the loud and stinky diesel busses roaring by too fast.
Those pretty crosses dressed with flowers and candles you see on the sides of the road everywhere in Mexico are not really there for decoration, you know.
Now I’d been in the cab about as long as my flight from San Francisco and we were only inching toward the hotel through what seemed to be a parade. Or a procession. People were holding signs and candles and babies. The hotel bed I was desperate to fling myself into was a mirage.
My energy perked up immediately when I saw a grandfatherly man in a black suit ride by on a rusting bicycle, balancing a nearly life-sized portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe on his handlebars.
This single moment made feel like I was in exactly the right place at the right time. In life and in the world. A snapshot forever in my mind. Camera out of reach.
Since I was a little girl, I was fascinated by these images of the saints. Especially Guadalupe, who was revered in the barrios where I lived in Chicago. Every taqueria had a shrine in her honor, decked out with christmas lights (same colors as the Mexican flag!), tinsel, and plastic metallic beads.
Glitz and a sort of too-muchness influence my visual art. I’m still inspired from what I lovingly describe as: Catholic Kitzch. Jesus and Mary and glitter just…go together, you know?
Sitting in a taxi going nowhere in the historic center of Mexico City was just about the best seat in the house to observe (and by proxy) participate in the pilgrimage. Every year on this day, her saint day, tens of thousands of people walk and bicycle and crawl on their knees to her shrine…from all over the world, as they have since the 1530’s. That’s a long time.
The love affair I mentioned earlier is with Oaxaca herself: the city, the state, the people, the countryside, the artisans, the handcrafts, the colors, the food, the culture, the languages, the onslaught of sonic invasion that is firecrackers and mariachi and marching bands long past midnight.
Did I mention the food and the art here?!
That I live here for so much of the time is a big part of my artistic dream. I was drawn to the place because of the art and all the reasons I listed above.
There is also a sense of familiar too-muchness with all the bright colors and the warmth that makes me feel at home. For this I am grateful. Because for so long I never felt at home anywhere.
I love you Oaxaca. Me encanta siempre. I love you always. Happy Anniversary.
Gracias a la Diosa. Thank you to the Goddess.
Now…raise a taco or margarita and celebrate with me.
I’m off to get some photos of the fiesta today and will report back. There will be burros there!
Did you know?
I wrote (over-shared?) about my experience moving to Mexico (and about life, home, money, love, sex —and lack thereof) in my memoir: Sketchbooks: My Personal Practice.
Also: If you want to come to Oaxaca with me and experience a behind-the-scenes art and cultural experience, I host workshop here (mine and for other teachers). Warning: you’ll probably fall madly in love this place.
This post was published December 12, 2013. On my 13th anniversary of arriving in Oaxaca for the first time.
About the photo:
I snapped this Virgin of Guadalupe painted on the wall at a wood carver’s workshop here in Oaxaca.