In some towns, it is called the Plaza Nacionál, the Plaza de las Armas, the Parque Independencia, or the Plaza Centrál, but wherever you go, the local folks know it as El Zócalo. Whether it is a huge open concrete parade ground such as in Mexico City, or a typical small town square with a few trees and a band stand, it is the center of town, socially or ceremonially, if not geographically, and nowhere is this more true than in Oaxaca.
Stan and Diana keep regular office hours, most days from noon until 2:00 p.m., at the Restaurant Primavera or one of the other Portales (under the portals) on the West side of the Zócalo. Stop by and say "hello". [Photo by an anonymous tourist]
Deep in the south of México, Oaxaca, the capital of the state with the same name, preserves the traditions of the past while providing all the conveniences of the present. Traffic has been barred from the streets around the Zócalo, and the sidewalk cafes bounding three sides of the park provide a wonderful perch for watching - and being watched by - the passing throng.
Traditionally, there was a nightly "promenade" around the park, with young men walking one way and young women another, but that was in the days of chaperones and Victorian morality. These days, everyone walks every which way, but the rest of the tradition lives in the groups of boys and girls out for an evening stroll, and a look-see. Sprinkle in some older couples strolling hand in hand, and gawking tourists obviously charmed by the ambiance, and the people watching can be loads of fun.
Balloons are big here: both figuratively and literally. The balloon sellers offer everything from little hearts with "te amo" (I love you) on them, to Disney characters, to 20-foot long cylinders which the children love to toss up into the air in the Cathedral plaza next to the Zócalo. I am willing to wager that virtually all camera wielding tourists have at least one picture of a balloon seller in their possession by the time they leave.
Oaxacans love noise, and there is plenty of that available around the Zócalo. During the day, there are the strolling guitarists, sax players, and accordionists, and an occasional á capella singer (generally someone who had to pawn his guitar temporarily). Some are good enough to tip, and some you want to pay to stop. At night, the mariachi bands come around, and the marimba bands set up on the corner, complete with base, drums, and amplifiers. At any time, there may also be a soccer game on the TV's mounted on the wall outside the eateries. The result can be hard on the ears, and on the throat as well as voices are raised to be heard over the cacaphony.
Ambulantes (roving merchants) selling rugs, clothing, wood carvings, pralines, chapulines (grasshoppers, fried in chili and salt) and other knickknacks and gewgaws vie with each other and the beggars for attention and money.
The Oaxaca state band sets up for a free concert every Sunday noon on one side of the Zócalo, and there are other musical offerings on the weekdays as well. The police band and the state marimba band each play a couple of nights a week, in the kiosk in the middle of the Zócalo.
>From colonial times, the country has been organized in a "concentric circle" fashion: each village has an administration, which reports to the "Municipio" (larger than a township, smaller than a county), which in turn reports to the State capital, which in turn reports to the central government in Mexico City. If a group has a grievance which they cannot resolve at the local level, they come to the government palace at the south end of the Zócalo to pursue their petition.
Rarely a day goes by that some group or another does not march around the Zócalo to demonstrate in front of the governor's office. Sometimes, it is a few people, and sometimes thousands. Sometimes there are brass bands or lead cars with public address bullhorns on top, and sometimes the marches are silent. It can be very eerie listening to the whisper of thousands of huaraches going by on the cobblestones.
Occasionally, the march develops into a "plantón", an occupation of the space in front of the government palace, complete with tents, hunger strikers, and hourly rallies. Once, over ten thousand disgruntled teachers occupied all the streets around the Zócalo for several blocks in every direction, for ten days.
Sometimes the demonstrations get pretty intense, and occasionally one hears a "Yankee Go Home" (the North American Free Trade Agreement is far from popular with the bulk of Mexicans), but in seven years of wandering up to demonstrators and asking them what they are up to, I have never encountered any personal hostility. Oaxacans are gracious, polite and curious, and forgiving to a fault.
There are also parades celebrating various national holidays and commemorating everything from the armed forces to national AIDS awareness; and "Calendas" (candle-lit marches, often with bands and floats) celebrating various saints' days and special holidays.
Diana and I are, by self-designation, "Zócalo lizards" (kind of like lounge lizards, only less nocturnal). Every late morning, we stroll the five blocks from our house to our favorite "portale" (sidewalk café), buy a newspaper or two, and spend a couple of hours. We drink a cappuccino, read the paper, and catch up on the local gossip with other like-minded gringo expatriates and Mexican friends. I think of it as our office. Actually, many entrepreneurs who cannot afford to pay rent on an office keep regular hours in the Zócalo, having a coffee, getting their shoes shined, and answering their cell phones.
Often, in the early evening, we grab an ice cream cone and stroll around the square, listening and watching while the public life of the city happens all around us. To us, Oaxaca without the Zócalo is simply unimaginable. It is the heart and soul of the Oaxaca experience.
FOR A PHOTO ESSAY ON THE ZOCALO, press HERE