Oaxaca's December festival: the radish as an art form

There are no radishes like the radishes in Oaxaca, Mexico, 300 miles south of Mexico City. Each is perfect, uniformly bright red, and almost a foot long. They are a familiar sight, hawked in every section of the market and as tasty as they look, never woody or pithy.

I've never met anyone whose favorite vegetable was the radish, but it has never seemed strange to me that the only radish festival in the world is celebrated in Oaxaca. Here the radish has been elevated to an art form and the results are highly gratifying.

What does seem strange to me is the night they have chosen for this festival. It's Dec. 23 and nobody seems to mind that the entire month of December is one long fiesta.

There's music, carnivals, endless parades, and breathtaking fireworks. No one ever seems to tire of eating bunelos, watching castillos, and listening to the marimba.

On the afternoon of the Radish Festival, booths are being erected at one side of the zocalo and on the other side entire Indian families are setting up shop.

The masa and tortilla presses are waiting and the cases of soft drinks are stacked as high as your head. There are dozens of bunelo stands with their oilcloth-covered tables and brightly painted folding chairs.

Underneath the tables are stacked the hundreds of bunelo bowls that are awaiting destruction. These are bowls, defective for one reason or another, that have been collected all year by the potters of Oaxaca.

Bunelos are delicious, light fritters and when you've eaten your portion, you throw your bowl out into the street. If your bowl breaks, according to local custom, you'll be assured of good luck all next year. Soon the shards are ankle-deep in the streets and long before midnight, merely crossing the street becomes an adventure.

Activity soon begins in the booths where the artists are assembling their radish displays. These artists were farmers yesterday and the entire family is along to help ensure the success of the operation. There are cash prizes for the winners. Most of the onlookers are more interested in the various bands tuning up their instruments on the platforms erected on each side of the zocalo. The cotton candy man is established on one corner and the balloon man is blowing his shrill distinctive whistle. The music starts. There's a marimba band on one stage, mariachis on another, and a rock group on a third.

There are far better things to do with a radish than eat it. I'd heard of and anticipated the Radish Festival for 20 years yet I'd never been able to visualize it in my mind. Each display was an entire scene.

There was the arrival of Cortez in one booth, a nativity scene in the next and an intrepid Pancho Villa in another. You may never have seen a radish shaped exactly like a horse or another like a cow. I wouldn't have either if someone else hadn't seen it first.

All was constructed of radishes, but there were a few additions. The radish ladies wore skirts of lettuce leaves and a few had necklaces of tiny green peas. I could have tarried forever, but I remembered the long line behind me and reluctantly moved on.

Afterwards, we decided to sit at one of the many sidewalk cafes around the zocalo. Our 10-year-old was thirsty for a bottle of Sidral, a delicious carbonated apple drink that is popular in Mexico.

Watching people is the favorite pastime in Oaxaca and an hour elapsed quickly as we sipped and stared. It was then that we saw the castillo being raised at the corner.

Castillo means castle in Spanish and the fireworks castillo is constructed of bamboo and is approximately 30 feet high. This is the piece de resistance of every Mexican festival whether religious or secular.

First comes the bull, however. The man is inside the bull costume, and a very fierce toro he makes too! He's well supplied with firecrackers which he tosses with elan into the spellbound crowd. A flock of bold little boys accompanies him in his dash around the zocalo.

The castillo, with all sorts of fireworks of every color and size affixed to its frame, is lighted from the bottom. Pinwheels, skyrockets, cherry bombs and Roman candles go off in dazzling profusion. There can be no more exciting 10 -minute display of fireworks available anywhere.

It's all over. The musicians have packed away their instruments and most parents are carrying sleeping tots. It's time to go home. We are tired, but undaunted. Tomorrow night is Christmas Eve, the biggest fiesta of the year.

Practical info: There are regular flights from Mexico City to Oaxaca on Aeromexico and Mexicana Airlines; the drive is only recommended if you wish to stop along the way. Oaxaca is a small town with a number of small, simple hotels (about $25 for a double) - adequate, but the traveler who demands opulence had better go elsewhere.

The reason most travelers go to Oaxaca - aside from its radish festival - is to see the pre-Aztec Montealban archaeological site and the Church of Santo Domingo; these make an interesting contrast as one demonstrates the native, the other the Spanish, side of Mexican culture.

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