The Zocalo is filled with light, people from throughout Mexico and around the world, balloons, itinerant vendors, strolling musicians. The atmosphere is festive, celebratory, one of relief, for this is a different year than last and people are thankful. Tourists are returning, the Zocalo is alive, a 30 foot Christmas tree is studded with white lights, there are noche buena (poinsettias) everywhere, and ringing the Zocalo is the display that attracts crowds who stand in line for 5 and 6 blocks ringing the area to see ancient tradition of carving radishes. They are sliced, shredded, carved in stars and circles as if a chef were preparing a totally radish dinner.
They are stuck together with toothpicks and wire to create nativity scenes, farmers plowing fields atop oxen driven carts or mechanical plows, dancers at the Guelaguetza, musicians plucking guitars and blowing horns and beating drums. The radish carvers, mostly from the campo (the country) near Ocotlan, stand sentry making sure that no one disturbs their creations, frequently spraying water from pump bottles to keep wilting leaves and red radish skin fresh and shiny. The winner of the best carved scene will win $10,000 USD, a princely sum. We are sitting up above the crowd on the second floor in the white table clothed El Asador Vasco, twelve of us, Zapotecs and gringos, when the winner is announced. An immediate shower of white firecrackers cascade like a waterfall from the top floor of the government building to herald our attention that there is a winner; it is a solid wall of twinkling light that goes on for about 5 full minutes, or so it seems. Everyone runs to the edge of the wrought iron railing to take photos, to ooh and ahhh, and to experience the glorious celebration. Then, near the Castillo (which is what everyone calls the Cathedral) another round of firecrackers goes off into the sky. It is about 10:30 p.m. and there is still a long cue waiting to circle the display of radishes that surround the Zocolo. The line won’t diminish until about 2 or 3 a.m. My sister says she was there at 11 a.m. and again at 3 p.m. when the crowds were few, there was no wait, and she could see the people doing the carving and setting up. By 7 p.m. the line began the snake and the wait was at least 2-3 hours. One trick is go into the Zocalo from behind the display to avoid the wait, which is what I did. I didn’t get to see the full view, but could get a good sense of the carvings and some of the detail. Along one end of the U-shaped promenade is where people fashion corn husks into flowers, dioramas of the nativity, and a multitude of fanciful decorations that one can buy to take home. It’s much easier to see and buy from the “back” than from the promenade side of the display.
The food and ambience at El Asador Vasco, which is above El Jardin, is great and reasonably price. We had a seafood soup from the Isthmus, house wine, entrees, dessert and beverages for 12 people and the total bill including tip was a tad over $200 USD. The meal was leisurely over almost three hours, and we were entertained by a group of strolling Mexican minstrels with guitaron, mandolin, twelve-string guitar, six-string guitar, tamborine, and pandero (a percussion instrument). Their voices were clear, strong and beautiful. The group leader knew Federico from when Fede was on the school committee in Teotitlan and the leader taught school there.It was after midnight when we got back to the pueblo and we didn’t wake up until 10 a.m. on December 24. Tonight, we are celebrating with a big dinner for 12 at home hosted by Dolores and Federico. The table is decorated with succulents from Benito Juarez that we got at the village market this morning, corn husk flowers that I bought at La Noche de los Rabanos last night, and small votives. Our meal will include green corn sweet tamales fresh made in the village, a potato salad mixed with pineapple chunks, onions, green and red peppers and mushrooms, ponche (punch made with guava, raisins, manzanitas–little apples, sugar cane, canela-cinnamon, panela–sweet Oaxaca chocolate, and pastel de chocolate with mocha, champagne y vino y cerveza Noche Buena and Modelo Negro y Claro. The guests are arriving.