Amy with SMU-in-Oaxaca

Amy spent winter break 2007-08 in Oaxaca, Mexico, where she and other SMU students explored culture, art and anthropology – visiting villages, churches and museums; participating in festivals; and working alongside the indigenous people of Oaxaca.
Amy is a junior from Austin majoring in studio art with minors in art history and women’s studies.

Read more from Amy with SMU-in-Oaxaca

“Wa-ha-ka”

Excerpted from Amy’s blog:

We arrive in Oaxaca, somewhat exhausted but eager to see the city. Others sleep and rest through the morning, but I simply could not wait to walk around. My roommate Halei and I walk throughout the city’s square, through markets, delis, restaurants and the zocalo (actual heart/square of Oaxaca), Santo Domingo and through to a wedding ceremony.

Amy-1.jpgIt was a spectacular manner in which to begin the day and ultimately the trip. Walking through the markets that morning has become one of the most vivid memories of the trip. I was immersed in the textures, smells, language, sounds and color. The locals exuded a kind of peaceful but active energy, intently listening to each other in conversation. In the markets there were many activities and roles in which the locals involved themselves: basket weaving and cooking; they were musicians, salesmen and women, etc. – all while interacting with visitors, their own children nearby – looking sincere and alive.

The markets were very similar to the visual stimulation and experience one has while in Chinatown (Manhattan). The visual stimuli, in particular, was both this kind of real cultural immersion and, quite literally, a spiritual experience. The color, combined with the accidental but nevertheless wonderful formality of the manner in which baskets spilled onto the floor, their circular shapes creating multiple orbs; the way the chapulinas (grilled grasshoppers) spilled onto one another – everything had a chaos to it, but also an order. A structure and order I had rarely experienced before. It was as if everything unified and linked together.

I decided to travel to Oaxaca long before I knew about the SMU abroad trip. I have for years now been very interested in Mayan and Zapotec culture, Oaxaca, specifically in regard to the Monte Alban site, Guatamala, and Veracruz. When proposing this trip to family and friends I also mentioned the aspect of weaving (even better, back strap weaving) that would be integrated into the trip. …

… Everyone was completely fascinated about Oaxaca and of my description of the activities we were to do. I found that the reactions were about 50/50: people either knew of Oaxaca, speaking of it as one would of a great love affair, or they knew nothing about it, did not know how to pronounce it nor where they familiar with its location. It usually went about like this : “what? wawaka? oxwawa?” “no. wa-ha-ka. oaxaca.”

I remember when we stepped off the plane the morning we arrived in Oaxaca city. The air was so crisp. The fog fuzzed the landscape. I remember stepping off the tiny airplane, walking across the strip into the airport to claim our baggage. The small airport was dense with people and noise but everything seemed to move a bit slower, a bit crisper. People were friendly and lively.

After claiming our bags the group was introduced to one of the most vivacious, engaged individuals I have ever met: Ester. Ester was our travel guide-leader-woman of all things in Oaxaca. She grew up in Oaxaca, became educated and taught as a professor with her husband, has sons who now work for her under the travel agency she runs. … Our group was enormously blessed to have her with us, traveling along our sides each day, filling our experiences with rich information and insight.

guzman.jpgThe afternoon with the group and Esther is devoted to walking through Oaxaca’s main streets and specifically visiting the Church of Santo Domingo (The Chapel of the Rosary) and the ex-convent. This ex-convent is now the Cultural Museum of Oaxaca. As its name, Santo Domingo, implies, the church and monastery were founded by the Dominican Order. Begun in 1572, they were built between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, with the monastery as an active component from 1608 to 1857. …

In 1972 it became a regional museum, and in 1993 a full restoration took place. Now there are cactus gardens surrounding Santo Domingo, as well as festivities with the locals; the front courtyard is bustling with teenagers and Oaxacans every evening. The architecture is very, very beautiful: intensely symmetric and baroque style. The church is famous for the interior decoration and the elaborate altar made of gold and beautifully carved wood. The Chapel of the Rosary is striking. Masses are held as well as weddings.

Upon entering the church a wedding was in place. Thousands of paper confetti in pinks, yellows and blues were strewn across the floor, people were entering and exiting – among this “chaos” a wedding occurred and it didn’t seem to phase the bride and groom. The front altar had a kind of magnetism to it, with copious amounts of gold leaf and highly decorative paintings. The ceiling when first entering I saw the Tree of Life, a beautifully carved and painted piece with images of angels and entangled vines, incredibly detailed and colorful, depicting the lineage of Felix de Guzman, the founder of the Dominican Order. There is no way to adequately describe what I felt while in this space, with the quiet murmurs from the wedding, the architecture’s magnetic quality and the light from the outside piercing in.

n18807799_32641720_2405.jpgThe Camino Real Hotel was a few blocks away. We passed through one of the main outdoor markets, filled with woven textiles, jewelry, mainly. I picked up a hand-woven scarf made of silk and a small red bracelet.

After gathering everyone together we visited the Camino Real, a magnificent hotel with vividly green gardens and blooming flowers. This was also the location to a very important convent. Built in 1576, the Santa Catalina convent was home to Dominican nuns for almost 300 years. In the mid-1800s the State took over the property and used the building as a prison, government offices, and later as a school. In the 1970s a full restoration project was undertaken with the goal of returning the building to its original state.

This hotel was also to be our destination for the later part of the evening, where our group would eat traditional Oaxacan food (mole sauce!) and watch the Guelaguetza. This is the scene for spectacularly colorful regional folkloric dances performed by several different ethnic groups from the seven main geographic regions of the state. The entire city comes alive with color. Color is everywhere from the beautifully hand-embroidered dresses and huipiles, to the food and to the paper streamers decorating the room.

Suddenly, the stage burst into color as women and dancers, dressed in flowered blouses and skirts coquettishly circled the men, in sparkling white and red costumes. For an hour and a half, group after group preformed the state of Oaxaca’s traditional dances. In all colors of the rainbow, they radiated a lively energy in a seducing fashion. With fruit (pineapples!) and silky, brightly colored skirts, the ladies brought the traditions of Oaxaca’s Indian past alive. All the dances were exciting and very picturesque. …

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