Blog 17: La Mixteca

Blog 17: La Mixteca                                      22 February 2013


            During the down times when Gabriel de Fonseca’s silver mine near Chiametla (southeastern Puebla) was not yielding enough quality ore to support him and his young son Tomás—we’re talking the early 1540s here—the teenage boy strung together the mules he and his father were using to haul ore and headed down into La Mixteca (northwestern Oaxaca) to buy cochineal to bring back to sell to a jobber in Puebla de los Ángeles. Round trip it was about 800 kilometers, over some of the roughest terrain in Mesoamérica, the passes at 10,000 feet plus, the valleys at about 3,000. Thick pine forests on the heights the hillsides scrubby, cactus-studded, scorpion and snake-infested desert (2); the gentle platforms along the rivers home to a half dozen different Indian nations, most of them subject to the Mixtecos, mostly growing corn, beans, and squash, or tending the rows of young nopal (paddle cactus; prickly pear cactus) which are host to the tiny parasitic cochineal beetles, each of whose dried, crushed, bodies yields a barely perceptible drop of the reddest and most stable dye known to the world in those pre-acrylic days. Neither Gabriel, nor his son Tomás, could ever imagine that four and a half centuries later they would be the protagonists of the book I am in the middle of writing.

            Linda and I left Oaxaca last Saturday to take a week long swing through La Mixteca, if not actually retracing young Tomás’s route—because I haven’t been able to find a single clue to where he actually went—but at least to get a feel for the country. And to check out the Dominican folly, or glory, depending on how you look at it.


            As soon as the dust of conquest settled, the major religious began to squabble over how much territory would be granted to them to missionize. Franciscans got most of Michoacán, where we used to winter; Augustinians glommed onto the hill country west of Cuernavaca; and the Dominicans established a hegemony over Oaxaca, a vast region with two major Indian nations (back then, and now), Mixtecs in the north and west, Zapotecs in the south and east. In those days, when Gabriel and Tomás de Fonseca were struggling to dig silver in Chiametla, there were lots of Indians in Oaxaca. Lots. And very few friars.  The plan was to send off to Spain for more friars, and to use Indian labor—supplied to the friars for free via the repartimiento labor levies—to build huge monasteries to house the friars who would fan out to the villages to convert the Indians to Christianity.


            It worked, sort of. With architects trained by the great renaissance masters in Spain, and

with Indian labor, the friars erected structures in the villages of Yanhuitlán, Coixtlahuaca, Teposcolula, and Tlaxiaco large enough and splendid enough to compete with any in Europe. Great western façades with stone statues of Apostles, rose windows, raised choir lofts, vaulted roofs with flamboyant Gothic arches; and everywhere the unique Dominican crosses, often flanked by the dogs (Latin pun: Domini-cani) which were the symbols of the order, in their mouths either the torch of truth of truth or a sword and olive branch, to remind people that the Dominicans come in peace, but they also run the Inquisition. (What these churches don’t have are large stained glass windows: these walls were solid stone, because the monasteries also served as forts – all those Indians, you know.) Each of these conventos faces a vast plaza, enclosed by a wall, where masses of Indians would gather (or be gathered) to hear the missionary sermons and to watch the celebration of mass on the altar in the outdoor chapel standing to the left of the monastery church. To the right were the friars quarters and support structures. Elegant Renaissance cloisters. Kitchens large enough to prepare food for a couple of hundred clergy and their honored guests. Assembly halls, store rooms, stables, kitchen gardens, everything a vast corps of missionaries would need to support their labors. But . . .


            … smallpox, measles, and a host of other European maladies soon reduced the Indian population by—in some regions—90%, a decline from which it has taken almost four centuries to recover. The vast works begun with so much enthusiasm were slow to finish. And the legions of missionaries didn’t come from Europe, at least not in the numbers that the founding friars had anticipated. Worse yet, the funding sources back in Spain began to dry up, as the supervisory councils in the orders began to come to grips with what their vanguard missionaries had committed themselves to.


            No matter. From a tourist standpoint the surviving Dominican behemoths —Santo Domingo in Oaxaca City, now a museum— and these four up in the Mixteca, are Michelin 3-star attractions. And most are halfway into a process of restoration—assuming that la crisis económica doesn’t bring everything to a halt—that should be finished in a decade or so.

I remember back when I was a graduate student, driving from Cambridge across the Mass Avenue bridge in Boston, looking across the Charles River to where the Pru, the 52-story Prudential Building, towered over the 4-story genteel brick townhouses in Back Bay. The Pru, the only skyscraper in Boston in 1964, was of an entirely different scale from everything else. It dwarfed everything else in the landscape. Either the Pru was put there by a race of Giants, or Back Bay was a cardboard village next to a Lionel train set.

That’s the impression you get looking at the CONVENTO DE SANTO DOMINGO next to the village of Yanhuitlán.



There is more to La Mixteca than mountains and monasteries, of course. Before the Spaniards came, the Mixtecos who farmed the valleys lived in villages strategically placed on the tops of the many low mountains that poke up from the sides of the valleys. Linda and I have enjoyed prowling around some of those too, although not all are reachable by vehicle and, given time and energy, we’re not all that keen at long uphill walks at altitude. And there are regional markets, that one day each week draw in hundreds, and in some cases thousands of Indians, the women clad in red-striped, ribbon-draped huipiles, to buy, sell, trade, and socialize. We mostly resist buying, but still . . 


            And there are friends to be made. Linda and I are … as far as we can tell … the ONLY tourists in the whole Mixteca region this week, certainly the only foreigners in the Sunday market at Nochixtlán, the Wednesday market at Tlaxiaco, the Friday

market at Juxtlahuaca, and presumably next Sunday’s market in Huajhuapan. (There will be a test on all these names when we get home.) So everybody is friendly. And as we ask questions, especially Linda about weaving and spinning and dying, we provide an endless source of amusement to everybody within view or earshot.  That especially when they only speak Triqui (another Mixteca language).

The hotel keepers and restaurant people and shop keepers we have met have all been gracious and giving. José Luis Vázquez, the owner of the JV Inn in Putla (an extraordinary 4-star hotel in a 1-star town, with 1-star prices: $25 for a magnificent double room), even took us out to breakfast.


            Putla, by the way, is at the bottom of the Mixteca, 60 kilometers all downhill from Tlaxiaco, and another 60 all uphill to Juxtlahuaca. Its valley is the one tropical spot in the region, and while it has nothing special of touristic interest, it is warm and humid, with lots of streams and bits of forest for me to go walking in. So we stayed a couple of days, buoyed by our discovery of the JV Inn —the couple of hotels mentioned in the guide books turned out to be a notch below basic— and the restaurant, Tito’s, that we stumbled into the first night. The streets in Putla are so labyrinthine, and so cobbled, and so steep, and in so need in repair, that we looked for an

eatery on the state highway that runs along the east side of town. Tito’s won not because it was the most attractive but because it was the only. Inside we were surprised to find a comfortable covered patio overlooking the hill to which the rest of the city was pasted. The menu was ample, we ordered, and were stunned to be presented the most imaginative and delicious meal we have eaten since we left the USA. Linda ordered squid with garlic, a favorite, usually simple squid rings sautéed in garlic, accompanied by rice and a small salad. But these …! Whole, chipirón sized squid, sautéed in their own ink with a toasting of garlic over them; a mound of rice laced with tiny steamed mussels; a salad of crisp lettuce and other greens, dotted with cubes of fruit—watermelon, papaya, and strawberries—sprinkled with shaved almonds and amaranto, with a delicate honey and olive oil dressing. I ordered a seafood-stuffed fish fillet, usually a few shrimp and maybe squid pieces in a folded-over fillet, or sandwiched between two small fillets. Not this time: it came out as a delicately fried softball-sized globe, with a thin crispy crust over a tender, flakey fillet. The stuffing was squid, octopus, mussels, shrimp, oysters, molded tightly together in the center of the fillet. Same rice, same salad. We went back a second night, but we won’t bore you with the details. 


            Other than Tito’s (we’d go back to Putla, just for the restaurant; the name of the chef who designed these dishes –she’d call herself a cook — is Elda Bautista), we’ve been eating mostly in comedores, a class of eatery somewhere between restaurant and street food, and it’s been mostly good. The favorite Mixteca breakfast is entomatadas con cecina: tortillas soaked in a tomato sauce, sprinkled with cheese, topped by a large thin slice of cured, spiced beef, and accompanied by grated salt-cheese and a lettuce salad. Instead of the cecina you can get it with tasajo (a thin flank steak), or fried eggs. Or just about anything else you might want, I imagine.


            One other major difference between La Mixteca and Mexico City: In Mexico City I appear to be normal size. Since we left Oaxaca I’ve been keeping track, and in all these villages, all these markets, I have not seen one single person as tall as I am. And precious few women as tall as Linda! Think of us as foreign Prudential Buildings on tour in the Back Bay of La Mixteca.


David & Linda