Samuel Contreras sells handwoven rugs in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, a center of native hand-weaving.
Samuel Contreras sells handwoven rugs in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, a center of native hand-weaving.
Photo by Luis J. Jimenez
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Oaxaca: One Year Later

Officially, Oaxaca is back to normal. And as if to prove it, the government has taken a more active role in some of the city's most beloved festivals, which once had been ad-hoc community affairs.

But a more nuanced truth comes out when you share a coffee or a shot of mezcal with Oaxacans or with those, like my friend John Rexer, who have adopted the city.

"It feels antiseptic," he remarks as we walk through the Zocalo and the adjacent square known as the Alameda. Rexer, an expat American, runs the Cafe No Se bar in Antigua, Guatemala. But he spends much of his time in Oaxaca overseeing his latest business venture, a new brand of mezcal named Ilegal. "It feels as though it's been prettied up and staged for the tourists."

Yes, it's nice not to be dodging flying rocks, he acknowledges. But in its effort to remove the ugly barricades and trash, the government also swept away a bit of Oaxaca's soul.

Problems and Opportunities

We walk the few blocks to El Naranjo restaurant, where a decade ago, Oaxaca native Iliana de la Vega won international acclaim -- and sneers from local culinary purists -- with her lard-free mole and organic ingredients. An English-speaking man in chef's whites directs us to a table next to an ancient orange tree. He is friendly, helpful and definitely not de la Vega.

She fled Oaxaca last year, and after drifting from New Mexico to Austin, hopes to soon join the staff of the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio.

"We just couldn't make it," she tells me later in a telephone interview. "We had trouble getting downtown; we couldn't get deliveries; we couldn't pay the rent. We'd cook all that food and then no customers would come."

Andrew Peterson, the new owner, proudly announces that he has changed every recipe on the menu save one: de la Vega's gazpacho. In the interest of science, I order that and the mole, which had been El Naranjo's specialty. Neither dish stands out, and Rexer grumbles that he has trouble detecting any chilies in his allegedly spicy shrimp.

Though pleasant, El Naranjo falls short: sadly gringoized, when what we crave is authenticity.

We amble out for a late-night stroll, pleasantly surprised to find others on the streets, a far cry from the days of curfews. As we turn the corner onto Macedonio Alcala, we can't resist the lure of Caribbean music pulling us into Cafe del Borgo.

Behind the bar, owner Eduardo Evans looks relieved at the sight of a relatively packed house.

"The last four months were the worst," says Evans, better known by his nickname, Lalo. With occupancy at many hotels below 10 percent, he considered leaving but couldn't: "All my money is invested here."

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