Oaxaca Whirlwind: Mezcal, Worms, Ants, Mole — What Happened to Culture?

It may have started 10 years ago when the New York Times travel section started featuring destinations you could dip into for a long weekend. Oaxaca was one of them. Arrive mid-afternoon Friday, bar hop Friday night, dip your toes into archeology with a quick trip to Monte Alban, try street tacos for lunch and fine dining for dinner, do a bit of market shopping, travel out to the Sunday Tlacolula market followed by a fast in-and-out weaving demonstration along the Teotitlan highway and get out of town by 4 p.m. Sunday. If you have 12 hours more, have another great dinner at El Catedral, Origen, Casa Oaxaca, or Los Danzantes. 36 Hours in Oaxaca. Isn’t that enough?

My Austin, TX cousin Norm sent me a text last week asking if I’d seen Somebody Feed Phil, Episode 1, Season 5, Oaxaca. (Netflix link: https://www.netflix.com/watch/81486397?trackId=253448517)

Norm wanted to know if I’d been to any of the places featured in the 55-minute segment. Curious, I logged on to discover, Yes, I know Casa Oaxaca, Origen, their famous chefs, the Abastos Market, the street taco corner, how to taste and understand mezcal, and the tapestry weaving cooperative featured. I’ve even written about eating chicatanas, gusanos, chicharrones and chapulines for Mexico Today. I know some of the fixers (the people who set up the visits). I don’t know everything. I defer to the experts for that. I also try to research for accurate reporting. The Oaxaca episode of Somebody Feed Phil had information errors and understandably, offered a sensational, brief overview for the foodies and fun-lovers among us. It could have done more. If nothing else grabs your attention, it’s going to be eating insects.

So, watching the visually stunning episode solidified my long-time desire to sit down to write about a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while: When you invite people to discover a place, it takes more than dipping your toe in the water. We must go beyond many of the more famous places featured. You need time to get out into the villages, talk to people, understand the history and the culture, ask questions. You need to discover how people survived over the centuries, sustained themselves, cultivated corn that was first hybridized 10 miles from where I live in the Tlacolula Valley 10,000 years ago. You need to know how the crafts developed out of necessity to clothe themselves and prepare food. You need to understand the political complexities of syncretism — the mix of indigenous religious spirituality and Spanish Catholicism. You need to do more than eat worms, ants and grasshoppers, make yourself up in costume mimicking the film Coco on Day of the Dead. You need to do more than sample mezcal — you need to know why it was used in ceremonial rituals.

Oaxaca is known for her sensational food and beverage. To be a responsible tourist, you need to take a deeper dive into over 8,000 years of Zapotec, Mixtec, Mixe, Ikoots, Amusgos, Chinantla, and the nine other indigenous language groups that comprise Oaxaca today. You may want to read Origin: The Genetic History of the Americas, as I am.

Yes, Oaxaca needs tourism. Our economy here depends on it. There is no other industry and it is how the formal and informal (cash) economy functions. Oaxaca lures people into the idea of coming to sample all that is offered because of its diversity in people and plant life. Of course, the lure is magical — the color, the light, the indigenous dress and the amazing food and beverage. What’s not to love? A five-day dip into the culture is an introduction where we can observe, ask questions, be respectful and discover more. Ultimately, we want you to return again and again. We also want you to learn rather than to judge or impose your own standards on a society that has thrived much longer than those of us whose origins are from Western cultures. Community runs deep here. Individualism not so much.

So when you come for Guelaguetza or Dia de los Muertos or Semana Santa or Navidad, please come with an open heart and mind. Don’t paint your face for the street party and think that you are participating like a local. Locals don’t do that. It is a Hollywood interpretation. Find the makers who are extraordinary but who have not yet achieved the fame bestowed on them by Anthony Bourdain or Phil Rosenthal or Conde Nast Traveler.

Go deeper. Take your time. Discover. There is still much to be discovered.

Tempted to visit? Go deep with us and participate in our one-day to week-long immersion visits that introduce you to the art and artisans of Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico. We still have some spaces open for our Summer Textile Mountain Tour, Day of the Dead Cultural Tour in 2022 and in Chiapas and Michoacan for 2023. See the right column of this site and click on the program that interests you.

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