Photo by © Steve McCurry (courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey (By the Book)

Paul Theroux is among PopMatters' favorite travel writers. In this excerpt of On the Plain of Snakes, wherein he traverses the Mexico/US border, Theroux takes us to the ancient city of Oaxaca, bringing forth the dignity of its Zapotec and Mixtec people.

On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey​
Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Oct 2019

Excerpted from On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, by Paul Theroux. Copyright © 2019 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Distributed by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Intact Oaxaca

A DEAD CAT lay on the sidewalk. This was in Oaxaca city, on the corner of Calle Tinoco y Palacios and a narrow lane, with an unreadable name on a broken sign, near my posada. The cat was large, not a mere gato but what Mexicans called a gatazo, a big cat— a flattened, half-inch-high carcass, like a fluffy scrap of carpet, recognizable as a ginger tom, frowning and toothy in death, a bit flyblown but dried out, stiffened, and beginning to mummify. Because the streets were so similar, I used this cat as a landmark —”Turn left at the dead cat”— and always found my way home, never having to humble myself by asking directions.

It was another lesson in Mexican idiom, too, because dar el gatazo— to show the big cat— is slang for making yourself look good.

Poor but complex and handsome, like so many of its people, and dignified in its poverty, indestructible in its simplicity, Oaxaca was a proud place, too. As for its name, to the antihero of Under the Volcano — Malcolm Lowry at his most florid and hyperbolic — Oaxaca “was like a breaking heart, a sudden peal of stifled bells in a gale, the last syllables of one dying of thirst in the desert.”

To me the name was clunky and familiar, because it was my home for the weeks ahead. The city was orderly and joyous without being recklessly licentious, like other Mexican cities I’d seen. But in the harmonious symmetry of its old-fashioned layout, one antique street looked to me much like another. It took me a while to see that an old, unremarkable, one-story corner house, at 600 Pino Suárez, which I passed every day on my way to Spanish class at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca, had been occupied by D. H. Lawrence when he lived here with his wife, Frieda. On the inner patio he wrote the final version of The Plumed Serpent and some of the pieces in Mornings in Mexico.

It is worth remembering the way the latter book begins: “One says Mexico: one means, after all, one little town away South in the Republic: and in this little town, one rather crumbly adobe house built round two sides of a garden patio: and of this house, one spot on the deep, shady verandah facing inwards to the trees, where there are an onyx table and three rocking-chairs and one little wooden chair, a pot with carnations, and a person with a pen. We talk so grandly, in capital letters about Morning in Mexico. All it amounts to is one little individual looking at a bit of sky and trees, then looking down at the page of his exercise book.”

Thus, Lawrence in Oaxaca, at his best, seeing things as they are. And it was pretty much how I spent many days in my posada in Oaxaca, dibble-dabbling with my pen in my notebook.

There was a good reason for Oaxaca being unaltered, and unalterable. A few days after arriving in this colonial town in a high valley, justly celebrated for its beauty and its traditions, I was reminded again of how “the past of a place survives in its poor”— how the poor tend to keep their cultural identity intact. They depend on its compass and continuity and its pleasures for their self-esteem, while the rising classes and the rich tend to rid themselves of their old traditions, except in a showy or ritualized way, because they became wealthy by resisting them and breaking rules. Oaxaca, with its powerful and visible identity and its living culture, was hard-up as a result of staying true to itself.

As proof of this, I met a man, a Oaxaqueño, who said he was aggrieved. “We are poor in Oaxaca, and I will tell you why. All our houses are hundreds of years old, all our streets are narrow. It is forbidden to destroy any houses, it is forbidden to widen the streets. We cannot build big hotels or resorts here, like other places in Mexico. We cannot change. It is forbidden. So we remain poor.”

The old scarred Oaxaca houses, the whole yellowish place of sun-struck and eroded stucco and stone, looked as though it had been carved out of aged cheese. The stone that gives Oaxacan architecture its distinctive mottled yellow-green-tan color is volcanic tuff, known in Spanish as toba volcánica, or cantera verde, which is quarried from hills all over the region.

In spite of their plain facades, many of the larger buildings had shaded patios and courtyards, and large interior rooms, and some interior courtyards with roofed entryways (zaguanes) resembled atriums, with fountains, stone carvings, and brittle palms in dusty pots. Many of the ancient churches, the monasteries and convents, and the great temple of Santo Domingo had been confiscated and desecrated under the reform laws spearheaded in the 1860s by President Benito Juárez, who was born in the small village of San Pablo Guelatao, in the mountains northeast of Oaxaca, and raised in the city. “That chapel? It was a stable for horses,” Oaxaqueños said of the most beautiful church interiors. “And this convent was a barracks.” But when the wave of anticlericalism had passed, the churches and convents were restored to their former glory, along with the plazas and the Zócalo. Still no luxury resorts have been built.

D. H. Lawrence, Malcolm Lowry, and Aldous Huxley — all visitors, inspired in their writing by their immersion in Oaxaca — would recognize the place today, would grow sentimental, would probably find a table in a rooftop bar, the same wobbly table they’d sat at before, and order some local artisanal mezcal to drink, and marvel about how little had changed. The Oaxaca allusions in Mornings in Mexico, Under the Volcano, and Beyond the Mexique Bay are not dated in any significant way. Lawrence extols the hike to Huayapam, Lowry praises the powerful mezcal, Huxley anatomizes the architecture: they would not be disappointed by Oaxaca today, or much else in the south.

The Mexican republic comprises thirty-one states. The north of the country lies in America’s cruel, teasing, overwhelming shadow— a shadow that contains factory towns, industrial areas, smuggler enclaves, and drug routes. Mexico City, in the middle of the country, is like an entire nation, of twenty-three million people— much larger than any Central American republic. But the south of Mexico, the poorest region, is a place apart, rooted in the distant past, some of its people so innocent of Spanish, they still speak the language of the 2,500-year-old civilization of Monte Albán, a few miles outside Oaxaca, enumerating the beautiful temples by counting all ten of them in Zapotec on their fingers: “Tuvi, tiop, choon, tap, gaiy, xhoop, gats, xhon, ga, tse.

The sanctions against bulldozing the classic architecture of Oaxaca and making room for resorts have kept the town’s soul intact. Not many cities in Mexico can say that; not many cities in the world. Oaxaca is remarkable for having resisted modernization— a great impulse for any venerable city — and for valuing its cultural heritage. Because traffic is slowed to a crawl by the narrow streets, most people walk. A city of pedestrians moves at a human pace in most other respects, too, and is inevitably a place where small details are more visible, and noticed and appreciated. Strollers see more, and are more polite, than drivers.

Photo by © Steve McCurry (courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Being poor, many Oaxaqueños have had to uproot themselves and become travelers and emigrants in order to make money— a greater proportion of them here, and in the southern states of Chiapas, Puebla, and Guerrero, than elsewhere in Mexico. In the course of three weeks in the city, I met many— men, mostly — who had worked for a spell in the US, or in a maquiladora on the border.

“I labored for three years in a factory that made televisions,” a man told me, and thumped a table with his hands, demonstrating the procedure, “fitting a piece of plastic panel with screws, all day, every day.”

There was the young man who mopped floors at a Holiday Inn in Dallas, the waiter who had made pizza in Racine, the attendant at a car wash in Anaheim; all — or most— confided they’d been illegal, and some of their stories were of ordeals.

“It was back in ’95,” the former car wash worker said. “I walked five days in Sonora, and crossed the border. I got to Tucson after a week, and worked in California for eight years. I was eventually deported— just as well, my family is here. I’m staying in Oaxaca. Nowadays I would have to pay the mafia five thousand dollars to get me over the border, and I probably wouldn’t make it.”

The constant references to the United States, all the talk of people who have relations there, the descriptions of their long and difficult trips there, their sadness, always, at having to return home—”My mother is old,””My father died,” “My family is here,” “My grandma is sick”— made it seem as though the US was a satellite of Mexico, like a moon, anchored in space, adjacent to Mexico, always visible and seemingly available but kept just out of reach, a terrible tease, circulating in the sky.

Because Oaxaca had remained its old self, the town’s human scale allowed you to cross the heart of the city unobstructed in less than an hour, walking from the far south side, up Bustamante from the Periférico, past the Zócalo at the center, continuing to the perimeter road on the north end, the old Pan-American Highway, designated Niños Héroes de Chapultepec. Oaxaca’s colonias and newer residential areas lie at greater distances, but even a traditional rural village, such as the settlement against the mountainside at Huayapam, was a fifteen-minute drive. A car is a burden in town, though, because of the slow-moving traffic and the scarcity of parking spaces.

The texture of Oaxaca was apparent in the course of any stroll: the hawkers, the beggars, the squatters, the improvisational buskers and musicians and singers lining the cobblestone streets; the women with small children selling handicrafts— carpets, weavings, carvings, vivid grinning painted skulls set out on a straw mat; the blind man singing his heart out, playing a guitar, while a small, dirty, barefoot child solicited tips from passersby with a plastic cup. They constitute the foreground— the “color”— of all writing about Oaxaca, from D. H. Lawrence’s first visit in 1924 onward. Anywhere else, such street life would seem pathetic, but in Oaxaca the blind singer is forgivable, and valued as another example of folklore.

That most of these street vendors are Indians— Zapotec and Mixtec — deepens the town’s cultural authority: five hundred years after the conquest— Oaxaca was founded in 1529 — the same indigenous people persist, tenacious and undiluted, still speaking their ancient languages, easily recognizable as Mexico’s native aristocrats, their same hawk-nosed profiles chip-carved on the murals disinterred from the ruins at Monte Albán and Mitla, not far away. As Benito Juárez (raised speaking Zapotec) described his own family, they are “Indios de la raza primitiva del país“— that is, Indians of the original race of the country.

Because of the wide doorways that line the sidewalk, and the open doors, Oaxaca’s streets are filled with the fragrance of its characteristic cooking: the aroma of warm, buttery string cheese, eight kinds of drizzled mole, the creamy fragrance of fresh cacao beans, and the scorched tortillas of the folded-over tlayuda. All this to the sound of guitars and accordions, the laughter from bars, the vitality more obvious now, in the weeks leading up to Halloween and the Day of the Dead. Many strollers were already in costumes — princesses and monsters and villains and the black-suited troupes wearing skeleton suits, children, dwarfish and disguised, who look more terrifying in skull masks because of their small size, like demon homunculi, all of them dancing to blatting brass bands and snare drums along the nighttime streets.

Photo of Paul Theroux by © Steve McCurry (courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)