Travel: Mexico - Viva Oaxaca, Vivaaaa!

Andrew Marshall remembers a night of `purest uncut Mexico', high on mezcal, heady with the old revolution
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Ten years ago I went to Mexico to write an economic survey. It was at a time when this brittle and complex country was starting to pull itself together as the debt crisis waned and reform took hold. It was a good story for a journalist. Mexico City was fun, though it was hard work and filthy, and I found it a constant struggle to keep on schedule. But Oaxaca was something else. It gave me a night that I shall never forget, a night of purest uncut Mexico.

I was lucky enough to be in Oaxaca for the Grito, the annual celebration of the first call to revolution. All day, the people gathered in the zocalo: quiet, besuited local worthies, bemused (and increasingly drunk, in many cases) Indians, and the ever-present backpackers. I grabbed a table at a pavement cafe, sipping the dark Bohemia beer that is a thousand times better than any bottle of something-or-other with a chunk of lime in it. As darkness fell, I switched to mezcal, the murderous spirit that has done for so many good men.

Then the officials turned up. First came the local soldiery, with rifles bigger than them, helmets slipping over their eyes, and ill-fitting uniforms. They stood around the square looking nervous, as well they might in a part of the country where the state still has only a fragile hold on parts of the countryside. Then came the more serious guys, with automatic weapons and steely-eyed stares. Lastly, the armoured cavalcade escorting the Governor poured into the square with sirens blazing.

The Governor came on to the balcony of his colonial-era palace, and launched the traditional call-and-response with the waiting crowd. "Viva Benito Juarez," he cried. And they roared back: "Viva!"

"Viva el Presidente!"


"Viva Mexico!"


And so it went on, late into the night, as the beers and the mezcal mounted up. In the small hours, I stumbled back to my hotel, the lavish Presidente, and crashed out.

What a place to awake. Its whitewashed walls, the calm, dark, green and damp courtyards, the timbered rooms and the quiet corridors made it one of the best places I have ever nursed a hangover. I slumbered through the morning, woken only by a light earth tremor that did nothing for my composure.

I spent the afternoon wandering the dusty, drowsy streets of the city, exploring the churches and the museum dedicated to Benito Juarez. His name is little known outside Mexico, yet he is one of the founding fathers of this Byzantine state and its permanent crusade against colonialism, dependency and the church. Here, he is a secular saint of the revolution.

Graham Greene charted this territory in The Lawless Roads, a survey which he wrote in the Thirties on the crushing of the church in Mexico. When he visited Oaxaca, the revolution was not long past, and he painted a vivid picture of a city under virtual occupation. One large convent, he wrote, had been turned into a barracks by the army, their horses stabled in the cells and the courtyards. I discovered, with a bit of careful reading and some sleuthing, that this convent was now the hotel Presidente.

In the cathedral, which was long ago restored to worship, I admired the elaborate paintings and carved statues that go with the church in a country where the older religions have quietly fused with Catholicism. And while I was there, a woman broke into song from one of the side chapels, a song which was so beautiful I could not stop myself from seeking her out. She knelt on the floor, singing her heart out, 80 if she was a day, and full of fierce devotion. And though I am not religious, I could not help but recall the old saw about poor Mexico: so far from God, so close to the United States.