Blog 13: Holiday season

 5 December 2013

            The holiday season has begun in earnest. Last week was Thanksgiving and the first day of Chanukah, neither of them national holidays in Mexico, though the first of them is marked in style by the Oaxacan ex-pat community. December 1 launches the novenas of the Virgin, with the Virgen de Juquila on the 8th, the Virgen de Guadalupe on the 12th, and the Virgen de la Soledad on the 18th. Rosaries every afternoon, and processions led by the brotherhoods and guilds every evening right after sunset. Then comes the Christmas season: the Day of the Radishes on the 23rd, Christmas on the 25th, Three Kings Day (Reyes Magos) on January 6th, and wrapping up with Candelmas (Candelaria) on February 2. What’s a pagan to do but enjoy the clutter and the clatter!

            Every saint’s day, holiday national and regional, birthday, first communion, name day (if your name is Pablo, then it is the Día de San Pablo, June 29th), and for that matter, any day that is special to anyone for any reason, is celebrated with cohetes (fireworks). They’re sold all over, and people buy them by the ones, by the packet, by the kilo, and by the crate. Rockets are the most popular: they go up with a satisfying whisssshhh, explode with a loud bang, and leave a puff of white smoke hanging in the air over the celebrant. Rocket launchings are so constant that most people do not even notice them, and they haven’t startled a Mexican pigeon since early colonial times. But at this season of the year there seems to be a special firework: cohetones (really big rockets). When they go BOOM, dead leaves drop from the trees, cups rattle on the shelf, and lizards scurry for cover.

            The Oaxaca ex-pat community has its own congregation rituals, events that are publicized by the gossip-line among the cognoscenti and, in the cases where the events are intended to reach out to the unconnected and the passing-throughs, they are announced on the website of the Oaxaca Lending Library. Our second night in San Pablo the gossip-line informed us of a Beatles retrospective concert by a local rock group that night at a downtown dive called Pescado Rock and Linda and I thought, well, what the hell. We did our shopping for the week, finished our errands in town, and a little before strumoff time, settled ourselves at the smallest of the eight tables at Pescado Rock. The waitress addressed us in English and handed us the three-page drinks menu; we ordered a pitcher of lemonade in Spanish. Before long the place began to fill, and the newcomers included several people we knew from last year, among them Mary and Bill from San Pablo. We carried our pitcher to a larger table and joined them.

            It was, I imagine, a typical Beatles retrospective crowd anywhere in the world, most of us people who might well have been photographed screaming at John and Paul back when they and we were teenagers. In this audience white hair and no hair prevailed. A couple of women were wearing granny dresses, and I saw at least one faded dashiki. There were a smattering of Mexicans speaking Spanish, but by and large we were English speaking ex-pats. The three musicians came in and began tuning and laying down some warm up riffs: guitars, bass, and drums. All three were younger than most of the audience by about a decade, which put them in their mid to late fifties. Once they were all in key and nimble, they came over to the tables to chat with their claque, many of whom they seemed to know by name. The lead guitarist, hair down to his ears, was clearly Mexican, but completely fluent in English. The not quite so scruffy backup guitarist, who also played the kazoo and the cajón (which is a wooden box that functions as a drum), looked familiar. Once he began chatting with Bill the peso dropped: it was Arturo Zamacona, the doctor who had treated Linda last spring! The bass player, also fluent in Spanish, was Australian: he’s been teaching English here for the last decade or so.

            Thirty minutes after the announced starting time the lead guitar cleared his throat into the microphone to signal that the session about to begin. Since this was at least a half hour before anyone expected them to start, and people were still filtering in, and drinks were still being ordered and hugs of greeting were still being exchanged, no one paid much attention. At least not until the band struck up “Hard Day’s Night.” Then all eyes turned front. By the time the band got to “working like a dog,” the entire claque had joined in, singing along at top volume with the gusto of remembered youth. 

And the band was good! They had the arrangements right, they were loud and enthusiastic, and they connected with the audience. Though they neither looked nor sang precisely like the Fab Four, a good time was had by all.

             Noisy, though, and as more and more people straggled in, increasingly claustrophobic. For us it had been truly been a hard day’s night, so Linda and I cut out after the first set.


            The Thanksgiving Day dinner is another of the ex-pat congregating rituals. Those gringos who have not gone north to celebrate the holiday with their kids, or scored another invitation somewhere, or have decided to roast a guajalote in their own oven, sign up at the OLL, the Oaxaca Lending Library, for the community dinner, which this year was held at the Casa Raab here in San Pablo, thanks to the good graces of Rebecca Raab. At 2:00 Linda and I started walking up the hill in our best clothes. For me that meant non-jeans slacks and real shoes, for Linda really cute short jumper over black slacks. On the way up several cars carrying couples whom I would swear we had never seen before, slowed and waved to us as if we were their oldest friends. Two vans passed us, too, packed with downtown septagenerians for whom finding their way to San Pablo through the maze of closed-off roads was too daunting a task.


A gravel road leads from the Raab gate on the Camino al Seminario to the big house where the party was to be held. The Casa Raab grounds are thickly forested and dotted with houses that the Raabs rent out as a way of generating income to augment the mescal business in support of the property. And to provide for the animals. For years Rebecca has taken in stray and injured dogs, horses, and burros, some two-dozen of which are current residents on the property. They have to be fed, watered, walked, groomed, loved and cleaned up after. A small army of volunteers, among whom Linda is now one, intermittently come by to help.


We arrive at the gate and turn up the gravel road. The dogs bark. The vans disgorge people and two wheel chairs. We recognize a few faces from Linda’s volunteer day down at the OLL. We make our way to the big house, and help lift one of the wheel chairs over the stoop and down the short flight of stairs that leads to the party spaces. The big house, the largest of the rental houses on the Raab property, in addition to a couple of bedrooms, bathrooms, and a kitchen, all of them decorated with museum-quality Mexican folk art, has a large party room, a wrap-around porch, and a swimming pool surrounded by a patio. Thanksgiving day started out cool, so we have worn long sleeves and sweaters, but now there isn’t a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind and the sun is turning the patio into a convection oven, so Linda and I scurry into the shade.  A conjunto of three guitarists, uniformed in white shirts with ties, black pants and mirror-shined shoes, is playing traditional Mexican music on the porch in the shade. The music is mellow, nothing too up-tempo, and the voices good and the harmony appropriate to the genre. In the corner is a bar where a couple of volunteers from the OLL are dispatching drinks at 40 pesos with and 20 pesos without, the favored additive being the cactus liquor mescal.


At the poolside tables groups of apparently close friends are clustering. We talk with the in-betweens and wanderers, most of them fascinating people with former and sometimes current careers in public health, education, religion, and even a few in business. Conversations about their local involvements plant ideas in our heads. The gossip line is working full speed, and soon somebody seeks me out with a question about crypto-Jews in Mexico. Linda finds the woman who is deeply into dying and weaving and has good connections in Teotitlán del Valle, the weaving town 30 km further south in the Oaxaca valley. I seem to find the Unitarians. When the socializing verges on too much, Linda and Rebecca go out to walk the dogs. Eventually, in drinking and sunning and shmoozing and dog-walking, it gets to be 3:30.


The caterers ring a bell to announce that the food is ready, and we

alll swarm into the great room and line up for the buffet. Huge platters of roast guajalote, squash pudding, green beans, a salad, cranberry sauce, bread stuffing, and mounds of fresh rolls. The plates fill, the table groups reform, and people come back for seconds and thirds. The drinks table has more than covered their investment in liquid and has filled a jar with a sizeable contribution to the OLL’s operating budget. Just before desert the OLL board member in charge makes a short thank-you speech, announces the passing of a donation jar to help Rebecca in her work saving animals, and signals to the kitchen that it is time for the pumpkin-ish pie. Ish, because although the rest of the meal would have been comfortable on any table between the Rio Grande and the Canadian border, the pie looked and tasted like it had been prepared by someone who had read about pumpkin pies but had never actually seen one. It was good, and like the rest of the food it disappeared in short order, but it was, well, ... odd. Maybe some whipped cream would have helped.


At 5:00 the sated, and in some cases sotted, thankful guests began to trickle away. Linda and I waddled down the hill toward home, waving back at the cars filled with waving strangers and new acquaintances, a couple of them—who knows?—who may evolve into friends.


Happy belated Thanksgiving, everybody. Remember: Juquila, Soledad, and the radishes are right around the corner.


David  & Linda