On the television at the internet cafe is ‘Celebrity Deathmatch’, in español! This particiular match is between Cheech Marin, Antonio Banderas, and Fidel Castro. It’s pretty amusing. Cheech, after getting beaten severely by Antonio, said “Yo tengo hambre!” and went off for munchies. Meanwhile Fidel stands in the corner smoking a cigar.

Last weekend, I took a tour with the institute. We went to Mitla, a large indigenous market, and the Tule tree.

Mitla is an archeological site. Archeologists believe it was originally designed to be the ‘city of the dead’. In Zapotec tradition, bodies are buried in stages. The bodies of important persons (probably priests) from Monte Alban were brought to Mitla, where they were entombed for 7 years. After seven years, the bones were removed, painted red, and decorated with jewelry and masks. They were then reburied at Monte Alban.


When the civilization at Monte Alban started declining, the population center in the valley switched to Mitla. Construction continued on the complex for ~44 generations, and was still underway the Spanish arrived. The Spanish immediately built 2 catholic churches using the Mitla buildings as foundations and building material and started teaching the locals to disrespect the old ways. The temples of Mitla began being used as granaries and barns, and many were disassembled and the stones used elsewhere.

Since Mitla was always in use, it was not a ‘ruin’ per se. Only 20% of the site is restored… the rest was still standing at it’s original height when archeological work began.

The construction is amazing. The walls are built in levels. The first level above the foundation leans inwards, and the 2 levels above this lean outwards.There is no mortar used between the stones. Since the Oaxacan valley has always been an active earthquake zone, the stones are allowed to float on one another, flexing and moving with the earth. When archeologists first started working on the site, they added concrete to some walls to ‘stablize’ them. The effect was that the huge stone lintels across the tops of the doorways almost immediately cracked.

mitla stonework detail

The walls are entirely decorated in pattered panels. The patterns are not carved into a single block of stone. Rather, the patterns are a mosaic of stones, each laid upon its neighbors and extending a foot into the wall from either side. I was amazed that this could be done without computers… the patterns and the work involved is amazing. (Looking at the work in the patterns one can easily imagine 44 generations of Mitlans working on these edifices.)

After Mitla, we went to a nearby indigenous market. The market filled the streets of the pueblo, and seemed to go on forever, a maze of commerce. You could buy shoes, pants, tapetes [rugs], traditional embroidered shirts, Levis, and bootleg music for every taste. I’ve never seen so many doomed chickens and turkeys in my life, carried under arms or swung by the legs. Kids tugged their parents towards tables of toys, and burros pulled carts filled with baskets of herbs through the crowds.

At one point I took a wrong turn and ended up in the hall of meat sellers. If you ever want to convince someone to become a vegetarian, take them to a meat market in Mexico. Women sat behind tables piled high with animal parts, whipping the tables every few moments to keep the flies from settling. The hall reeked of decomposing flesh. Alone one entire row women hacked at chickens with machetes, an irregular faltering heartbeat for the room. I tried to defocus my eyes, ignore the scent, and find the nearest exit.

More wandering. Carved figures, copper pots, carved wooden yokes for oxen, dogs, burros, and pottery. Scarfs, tablecloths, and other textiles. The only thing I bought was a small bag of potato chips covered in salsa for $3 pesos (USD$0.30). They were delicious… warm and spicy.

Lastly we went to the Tule tree. Named after the pueblo in which it resides, the Tule tree is a water cypress. The normal life span for this sort of tree is 500 years, and the Tule tree has been ring-dated at over 2,000 years. It’s huge. The trunk is 40′ in diameter, twisted, irregular, and beautiful. The tree is entirely covered by a huge green mass of foliage, easily double the size of the church built by Spaniards nearby.

Boys 5 and 6 years old from the village dress in green sweaters and act as unofficial tour guides, telling tourists that an elephant can be seen in this knoll, and a witch in that one over there. They drone on, describing very imaginary features of the tree, and then hold out their hand for a tip.


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