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

Evans predicts that the holiday season -- with Oaxaca's parades, religious ceremonies and famous radish carvings -- will be better.

There is one difference nowadays that is both attractive to those who complained Oaxaca had been inundated with gringos and unfortunate for the business owners who survived on U.S. dollars. The majority of visitors -- including the two men seated beside me -- are Mexicans.

Sacred Sites

Early the next day, I hike from my hotel in the center of town up Calle Crespo. The morning light dances off the twin steeple tops of the Church of Santo Domingo. The sprawling structure, built over a 200-year period beginning in 1572, is bathed in a soft golden-violet hue.

From behind a thick, dark wood door, Oscar Carrizosa invites me into his courtyard perched on a hill above the city. Carrizosa is a painter, a chef and the owner of the Casa Crespo bed-and-breakfast. As I spot the bougainvillea and teak lounge chairs, I feel a twinge of jealousy that the only two rooms are booked.

When he bought Casa Crespo three years ago, "Oaxaca had been very popular, especially with very educated people from New York, California, Washington," he tells me as I slather jam made from Jamaica flowers onto a slice of warm bread. "They came to learn about our traditions, our culture, food, art."

But after losing half of his savings last year, Carrizosa says, "I was ready to leave Oaxaca for Guadalajara."

Carrizosa lives among the sturdy churches and palaces that survived wars, earthquakes and last year's disturbances. The most famous church -- and most opulent -- is Santo Domingo. Inside is a breathtaking explosion of gold, virtually every inch of the baroque church covered in it.

On this visit, however, I am eager to see Oaxaca's only basilica, considered the most sacred site in the state. It is slightly more modest than Santo Domingo. But with light streaming through the windows and angel statues holding chandeliers high above, it is in some ways more pleasing. A Mass is underway, hundreds of Mexican faithful filling the pews of the church dedicated to the Virgin of Solitude, Oaxaca's patron saint, who is honored each Dec. 18.

Just outside the basilica, in a small plaza, a collection of ice cream stands provides the perfect respite from the midday sun.

Artists in Crisis

Throughout the seven-month siege last year, the handful of restaurants that remained open were the salvation of hungry reporters. One was La Biznaga, situated far enough from the Zocalo to provide a refuge from the fighting. This time, I wanted to find out if my fondness for La Biznaga, with its soothing jazz and specials printed on seven-foot-tall chalkboards, would hold up under less desperate conditions.

"Oaxaca is in a process of recuperation," local artist Rowena Galavitz says as we snag the last open table. "It's a little tentative."

Galavitz, from New York, was drawn to Oaxaca 14 years ago by its "incredible light and color." She considered leaving last year, but her half-Mexican son protested.

"As artists, we really suffered," she says as we tuck into fresh grilled tuna and a heaping salad. "Who wants art in a crisis?"

Before the riots, Oaxaca had a thriving art scene, from museums with artifacts of pre-Hispanic cultures to galleries with the colorful paintings of 20th-century native Rufino Tamayo. As its reputation grew, the area attracted not only painters but also sculptors, writers, musicians and filmmakers, Galavitz says.

But last year, several galleries folded, and art students stopped coming to the city for lectures, which meant the artists, too, began abandoning Oaxaca. "Anybody who was able to get out, did," she says. Others, including Galavitz, began exhibiting in other cities. Now, "I don't really have a market here in Oaxaca anymore."

Though she is aware that the political disputes could flare up again, Galavitz says the recent calm is helping to slowly revive the art world. As we talk, a team of artists is hanging photos and paintings for an exhibit of pieces about the protests opening that night.

It will be called "Fallen Angels."

Ceci Connolly, a Washington Post reporter currently on leave, last wrote for Travel about Panama City.

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