Saturday, December 25, 2010


The Oaxacan "Night of the Radishes" rings somewhat of the '90's TV series 'The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.' Radishes? Here in Southern Mexico it is played out rather differently however: radishes are left in fertile fields to grow as big as they can possible get, sometimes up to three feet in length. They are then carved, joined, jointed, sliced and diced into pieces that are then reconstructed into the shapes of small, medium and large sculptures that can ultimately create a whole town, a Day of the Dead cemetery, or a Guelaguetza dance festival complete with bleachers.Or try a Frida Kahlo portrait. It can actually take your breath away. If you have any left after waiting in line for three hours with about 5-10,000 Oaxacans for a chance to pass by and take a peek in the Zocalo, their main plaza.

Included in the venue are other similar scenes but this time they are created with dried corn husks or small dried flowers, carefully joined and glued into a panorama. Equally charming. And all against a saturated red backdrop of thousands upon thousands of red poinsettias in full bloom. KaBoom!

Several years ago, in 2001, two weeks before his death, I had the honor of interviewing the grand Oaxacan artist el Maestro Rodolfo Morales, considered by many to be near sainthood in this southern Mexican City for the stimulus he gave to artists and the artist community as a whole. He complained to me of a terrible stomach ache, and had no idea his death from pancreatic cancer was imminent; he blamed it on parasites in the water. He recounted his version of the beginnings of the Radish Festival: years ago, when vendors had a night food market on the few days right before Christmas Eve, one vendor decided to attract attention to his stall by carving radishes in somewhat sexy poses. The idea caught on, soon all the vendors were making similar risque carvings, until the church decided enough was enough…..but the seed was planted, so to speak, for an evening of carved radishes right before Christmas….

The event is now much more commercial, the price of entry to exhibit the dioramas or sculptures has tripled in just the last year, and the grand prize is about $50,000 pesos….$5K US which is a lot of money for a root vegetable. And there are Second and Third cash prizes, in three categories. This year the event opened at noon rather than later in the afternoon, in order to accommodate more easily the jam of foot traffic generated by the contest. And ended with a huge bang: magnificent fireworks lit up the sky in front of the city's Cathedral just off the Zocalo, and spelled "Noche de Rabanos" in lights as well as a heavenly fireworks show that delighted thousands.....mostly Oaxaquenos, however, as bad press about the northern drug cartel violence has adversely affected tourism this distant southern city, a city which has escaped those bloody irrational violent episodes, Gracias a Dios.

Regardless, it is a unique cultural expression from a city that UNESCO has rightly included in the category of Patrimonio de la Humanidad.