Return to San Pablo: Oaxaca’s Indigenous Cultural and Academic Center

At Centro Academico y Cultural San Pablo we discover secrets, surprises and ancient stones.


An 18th century rosary chapel with contemporary stained glass window designed by Francisco Toledo, the imposing green stone façade mingled with original 16th century adobe, and a gold-leaf altar are only a few of the architectural delights of San Pablo de los Indios, the first Dominican convent in Oaxaca.

Our guide, Janet Chavez Santiago, coordinator of educational programs, described the features and history of this glorious structure.  She said there were important surprises found during the excavation for the foundation:

Two female skeletons were uncovered that date from 500 B.C.  These are the oldest found in Oaxaca, older than those from Monte Alban I.  The women were buried with ceramics of the same style found at Monte Alban, though older.


Every convent has a fountain, Janet says.  The location was evident but the design of the original fountain was illusive, so architect Mauricio Rocha created a symbolic water feature out of obsidian, a native Mexican stone.


In the main patio, the outline of a doorway framed by ruffled stone, was the opening to Benito Juarez University, which was known as Instituto des Artes de Oaxaca.


Later, Janet would show us where Benito Juarez, director of the institute, later president of Mexico and leader of the reformation, had his offices.  At the entrance, there are two layers of painting:  17th century frescoes and grafitti and 19th century wallpaper.

The main patio area, called the sala capitula, is where the Dominicans assembled to govern the convent.  Architects wanted to go down to the original floor and as they did, they found a large rock and river stones.  As they kept excavating they uncovered a Zapotec temple foundation that was the same age as the bone discoveries. Archeologists who were brought in to examine the materials believe the city was an indigenous religious center that pre-dates the famed mountaintop site.


The beauty of San Pablo is more than skin deep.  It takes us back to the origins of Oaxaca and it is not too difficult to imagine life as it might have been then.  The convent is dedicated to the cultural and linguistic diversity of the state and preserving the traditions and language of its indigenous people.  Originally, it was the only convent to serve the indigenous population.


As Janet explains the language of the stones used in the original structure (flat and hand hewn) and the later restorations, she also tells us that one of her primary goals is to teach Zapotec (Tlacolula valley dialect) to anyone who is interested.  She hopes the courses will begin in May 2012.


As we leave, we take one last glimpse at the imposing green glass wall that surrounds and protects the library archives.  We marvel at this architectural masterpiece that so consciously and sensitively blends past with present and future to keep the dream of cultural continuity alive.

Footnote: Originally, the entrance to San Pablo faced toward the Zocalo and was framed by a large patio.  There were three alleyways open to access it.  Over the years, these alleyways were closed off and the patio disappeared as the Dominicans sold off property to pay to restore the church bell tower and other damage during a major 18th century earthquake.  That’s when private homes and the Macedonio Alcala Theatre were built.  San Pablo was last used as a hotel when the Alfredo Harp Helu Foundation purchased it in 2005.  The restoration began in 2006, totally supported by the Foundation.



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