San Martin Tilcajete is best known for its woodcarvings. Whimsical figures — human, animal, and anthropomorphic — are painstakingly whittled from copal wood and then painted in bright, magical colors by talented artisans.
Often, the designs are intricate patterns that derive from Zapotec symbology or represent scenes from every day village life–a band of musicians, a farmer driving an oxen cart, an armadillo or a mezcal toting devil. The main street is lined with houses selling the figures. Go back deeper into the village and you will find more alebrijes made and sold by nearly every home.
San Martin Tilcajete is a farming community where organic maize is still grown. Behind the alebrije store front we found an elderly couple shucking corn — small ears with huge kernels — that would feed both animals and people. Monsanto has not yet completely intruded here with its genetically modified, perfect, added-sugar, large kernel/large cob corn — thank goodness! We jumped right in to lend a hand separating hard kernel from the cob.
But on February 12, we didn’t go there to look at or buy alebrijes! We were there on Fat Tuesday for Carnival, when the pueblo becomes a revelry of cross-dressers, dancers, greased young men brandishing spears and wearing masks, and a host of village onlookers and parade-goers.
Tradition has it that Fat Tuesday is the last time to celebrate before the Lenten season of austerity and ritual fasting begins. Food and drink flow, music pierces the air, and imaginative costumes become living figures of whimsical carvings.
At the end of the parade through the mostly dusty dirt streets of San Martin Tilcajete, the troupe and entourage assemble in front of the village municipal building where the president and master of ceremonies pay homage to the tradition and the participants.
Then, the honorary bride and groom of the parade go to the village church where there is a mock wedding ceremony that culminates the festivities.
We got there early in the morning and left by 1 p.m. before we withered in the hot Oaxaca sun. After trailing the desfila (procession) through the streets of the village we were ready for a bougainvillea covered arbor of shade. Even on February 12, it was a really hot day. We heard the revelry will continue well into the night.
We found respite, a beer, and lunch at Azucena Zapoteca restaurant at the intersection of the road to Ocotlan and San Martin Tilcajete. Operated by famed carver Jacobo Angeles Ojeda and his wife Maria, the food and service are both outstanding. Then, we caught a local Ocotlan bus right out front for 15 pesos (12 cents) that took us to Oaxaca, in time to buy bus tickets to Chiapas at the end of the week.