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Mexico Relishes Night of Radishes

<i> Snedaker is a Santa Monica free-lance writer and author of the cookbook "The Great Convertible." </i>

Neither radishes nor Christmas are indigenous to Mexico, but the Zapotec and Mixtec Indians here manage to combine the vegetables and a religious festival in one celebration called La Noche de Rabanos, or Night of the Radishes.

By 3 p.m. on Dec. 23 families from the hills around this regional capital have trickled into the zocalo (plaza) in horse-drawn carts, on foot, on horseback or in noisy old trucks.

Most bring long red radishes, some already carved, others to be touched up on the spot. A few unpack figures and objects made of corn husks and flowers.

The adults spread out behind a double row of booths on one side of the square. Silently, unsmiling, one person, usually a woman, arranges moss or radish leaves for the base of her display.

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This is serious business. Prize money, as much as $500, rides on these radishes. Children help quietly, with longing looks toward a carrousel or balloon vendor. The few words exchanged are in one of the region’s Indian dialects.

Exhibitors concentrate on their own displays. Important figures go in first. A Madonna in a radish cloak, covered with radish flowers, is settled, moved an inch to the side, then moved back.

The Holy Family, in one pose or another, is the favorite theme, but there are also radish bullfights, a radish well of mortared bricks, radish Indian dancers with headdresses larger than their heads, Maya gods, palm trees with radish coconuts and even a Christmas Eve feast with all the food carved from radishes.

A radish cowboy rounds up cattle with radish red coats. A radish figure climbs a greased pole for radish prizes.

Three radish wise men, one black, hands clasped in prayer, regard the radish infant in his manger. Radish camels wait behind the travelers.

While exhibitors tether radish birds to fly from a string above the figures or erect an arch announcing Posada y Adoracion Nacimiento del Nino, spectators gather, wander from booth to booth.

They are the advance guard of a crowd that will fill the square by midnight. Excitement mounts. Exhibitors are silent and anxious.

Last year there were as many Mexican tourists as British, German, American or Japanese. Mexicans from other regions find Oaxaca exotic because Zapotec and Mixtec Indians still speak their own dialects.

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On this high plateau the air is bright and the temperature hangs in the 60s. From Nov. 1, the Day of the Dead, until Jan. 6 and Epiphany, or Kings’ Day, life is a series of feast days and celebrations. La Noche de Rabanos falls in the middle.

At dusk, lights above the booths blink, the front of the governor’s palace lights up and Christmas lights around the square intensify the swirl of color below.

Bright Colors

Crowds are dressed for a fiesta. Women knot the celebrated Oaxacan rebozos around their heads. Full, embroidered skirts and blouses or short, embroidered, white huipils , or cotton pullovers, striped in day-glo red and off-white, complete their costumes. Children wear primary colors, men wear big hats, white pants or jeans and sandals.

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Mariachi bands stand near wherever there is a knot of people and break into brassy marches.

When every radish, flower or corn-husk figure is in place, exhibitors step back and wait. Police edge crowds away from booths.

Judges in the city-sponsored contest soon move slowly along the two rows of booths, saying little, taking notes. The crowd, sensing the drama, is quiet.

First, all the radish tableaux are critically regarded, then the displays of flowers and corn husks, grouped at one end. The flowers and corn husks first appeared 10 years ago, and still aren’t considered quite as good as the radishes.

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As judges confer, viewers press forward, make their own choices, bet on winners.

Awards are announced in a blare of scratchy Spanish from the loudspeaker. Onlookers applaud. Exhibiting families, grinning, push into the palace, followed by half the bystanders. It’s standing room only.

With a brief speech, the governor awards prizes--first, second and third--and honorable mention, and hands out envelopes. Winners, losers and spectators laugh and applaud again. The suspense is over.

Exhibits are bought by spectators to enjoy over the holiday or are taken home by the artists. Crowds funnel down a narrow walkway in front of each row of booths to line up at the end, then inch through again. Later, people settle at one of the tables that spill out from the three restaurants on the square.

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Vendors selling rebozos, dolls, filigree earrings, belts, knives and throw rugs swarm around the tables.

Black pottery, found only in this area and turned in the village of Coyotepec, is piled on street corners. Green ceramic animal musicians also are for sale. Men stand proudly, arms draped with serapes. The women badger or cajole, the children whisper and ask with their eyes. Saying no isn’t easy, especially to a woven wool rug copied from a post card-size picture of a Joan Miro, a Pablo Picasso or an Henri Matisse.

Nearby Teotitlan de Valle is the weaving village, and women with hand looms sell in the Saturday market and daily in the square. Weavers still do ancient designs, but they’ve discovered that certain abstractionists sell better than copies of Danzantes from the ruins at nearby Monte Alban.

Danzantes are ancient dancing figures, deformed dwarfs or mutilated captives, depending on which archeologist you read. They decorate slabs of stone in the Building of the Dancers in the center of Monte Alban.

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Around midnight, fireworks break overhead as the grand finale ends the Night of the Radishes.

Tomorrow or the day after there will be folk dancing in the square, more fireworks, or, if it’s Saturday, the market, a weekly celebration of food, drinks, produce and crafts on the edge of town.

Night of the Radishes sprang from this ancient Indian Saturday ritual. The main harvest in these hills is in December, just before Christmas.

In the middle of the 19th Century, Dec. 23 became the biggest market day of the year when Dec. 24 was declared a fast day in preparation for the feast that followed Midnight Mass.

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To encourage farmers, at the end of the 19th Century the church began to award prizes for the best vegetables. Because radishes send down long, oddly shaped roots around the rocks in this dry soil, Indians saw prophecies and people in them.

The most unusual shapes always sold first in the Saturday market. Indian children used them for playthings, seeing a doll in one, an animal in another.

With a little knife work here and there, radishes fulfilled dreams, were put up for the church’s vegetable prizes and were exhibited around town after the harvest.

Finally they grew into a separate competition and were moved to the main square.

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The nearby cathedral is an unprepossessing building started in the 16th Century but looted during the revolution. Santa Domingo, up the street from it, has twin towers of pink and green Oaxaca stone. Its towers are pale in comparison to its interior. Gilded reliefs, frescoes, sculptures and altars dazzle visitors.

The convent next door has become the regional museum, with old masks and gold, jade, crystal and obsidian jewelry from Monte Alban and Mitla, nearby Zapotec and Mixtec ruins.

The revolution left as many marks on Oaxaca as the conquest. Benito Juarez, an Oaxaqueno, made his headquarters in the Presidente Hotel, formerly the convent of Santa Catalina.

One Californian who has been coming here every Christmas for 20 years says the convent was once a prison. She remembers going through it after the prisoners were moved to make way for hotel renovations.

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Fortunately, the owners kept the patios, arches and inner gardens. A splendid restaurant serves such regional specialties as the famous seven moles of Oaxaca.

With the Presidente, Marquess de Valle, Mission de Los Angeles and Victoria hotels in town and Mission San Filippe a little way out, Oaxaca has excellent double rooms from $10 to $30 a night.

Taxis go anywhere for $2. It was hard to eat $3 worth of quesadillas, guacamole, chorizo, flan or a fig pie, and, for breakfast at the San Filippe, old-fashioned porridge.

There are tours to the ruins outside the city almost every day for about $30. They contribute depth to the Oaxaca experience. Zapotec rulers were enjoying their pyramids at Monte Alban about half an hour away when Christ was born.

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At 6,000 feet the place looks as if the mountaintop were lopped off by a machete. The ball court, pyramids and Building of the Dancers, with the strange Danzantes carved on slabs, are of stone hauled up from the valley.

Between Monte Alban and the ruins at Mitla a 2,000-year-old tree flourishes in a churchyard at Santa Maria del Tule. This enormous cypress needs so much water that the government laid pipes to carry water directly to its roots.

Mitla feels like the suburb of a Zapotec village. Atop a small hill, it overlooks the houses and shacks of town. Part of its wall was taken to build the church across the road.

Cruciform tombs were dug here in 300 BC, but most important are the friezes of stone mosaics that author Aldous Huxley called frozen stitches. Stone masons cut and fitted tiny pieces of local stone into panels of stone fabric.

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Farther out, Yagul is still a puzzle, barely excavated. Its thatch roof is long gone, revealing maze-like corridors that may have been homes for priests’ families. Nearby are a ball court, and what is now a meadow guarded by a giant stone frog, possibly a water god.

Water, or lack of it, is important in this community. Old ruins are not the only things preserved by this warm, dry air.

Traditions, customs, old beliefs and dialects hang on as tenaciously as the radish roots.

For more information, contact the Mexican Government Tourist Office, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 224, Los Angeles 90067.

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