This week I am thinking of unusual holidays, and the definite winner is a day this past February. Fred and I were staying in a suburb of Oaxaca City, and we were enjoying not only exploring the city itself, but also the surrounding villages. There are no finer craftspeople in Mexico than the Oaxacans. They have so many ways to express their creativity…rugs, pottery, clothing, glass, and, of course, mezcal. On this particular day we went to the village of Tilcajete, about an hour’s drive from where we were staying. In this village we looked forward to seeing the work of the artists who make the painted wooden animals. Sebastian, our wonderful guide, took us to the workshop of Jacobo and Maria Angeles Ojeda who are perhaps the most renowned craftspeople for these animals in the entire country. (I have much more to say, both about the wood carvings and our guide, but that isn’t what this post is about.)
After we saw that workshop we became very aware that a festival was going on in that village. While we were in the workshop it had really cranked up. I have seen carnival twice in the Yucatan, and many festivals in San Miguel de Allende, but never had I ever seen anything that could begin to compare with the otherworldliness of this one. Since it took place in a very small village where everyone knows each other, there was a sense of intimacy involved between the participants. The light that day was so intense and the air so clear and the surroundings were so unfamiliar to me that it truly did seem like another world and another place in time. Some of the men and boys had dressed as demons or evil spirits. Since all the people in this village are woodcarvers, the masks were absolutely works of art. Most of them had some sort of noise makers attached to their bodies, so that whet they moved, they made a lot of noise. The noise was added to by random fireworks that sounded like bombs, which made Pinky and I a bit uneasy. But, we maintained. The men in the costumes were just flitting around without any seeming plan or purpose. They had all covered their bodies with some sort of thick, greasy paint. They were scary-looking, but amusing to watch. Their vibe wasn’t frightening, it was funny. I was happy that they took great delight in having their pictures made.
While this was going on, in another part of the square, something even more remarkable was happening. It seems that what ever else this particular festival is, it is known as the day to be free in your body. This means that it is totally cool for people to change their gender identity for this day. To top this off, they have a little play about a wedding, with an evil intruder who tries to steal the groom from the bride, and a full wedding party with a brass band. The thing is that all the women in this play are men in drag. And, on the street as well, people are free to express any gender identity they like. Sebastian told us that when all the festivities came to an end, the mayor of the town was throwing a party for everyone.
I have heard for a while that Southern Mexico is quite tolerant of people who are transgender. There certainly didn’t seem to be a problem that day in the state of Oaxaca. The whole day was almost too much to believe. I would have been satisfied with a visit to the woodcarvers, but I also got a trip into another world.