I shouldn’t even be surprised any more when the mundane turns to magic. It so often does in Mexico. So when an ordinary, unannounced weekend trip to Tehaucán to visit Tía Raquel y la familia turned into a double blowout fiesta, it was just validation that well, magic happens.
Tehaucán lies in a broad valley over the mountains from Oaxaca to Puebla, only a half hour or so from where a long bridge separates the two states. It’s not necessarily a lovely place – it’s flat, often hot and has a serious pedestrian crowding problem. It does have a nice zocalo, cathedral and a Woolworth’s on the square.
It’s surrounded by chicken-raising farms where all the eggs come from that they sell in Oaxaca, like the friendly, bald Mr. Egg, who probably is not up on his reading about inhumane chicken conditions as his counterparts might be in el norte. But Tía Raquel y la familia live there, and when José got the call that she (a cousin of his mom’s, both well over 80) was failing fast, we hopped a bus to go pay our respects before it was too late.
These are cousins (how many of them live in Tía Raquel’s sprawling urban compound, I’ve never been sure) of exceptionally modest means. They raise fighting cocks, run a lingerie shop out of the front of the house, sell tacos and tamales on weekends, and have various other assorted jobs.
When we got off the bus in Tehaucán, we went immediately to Tía Raquel’s room just off the dirt courtyard to see how she was holding up. A lengthy hospitalization had taken the stuffing out of her, but she was beginning to eat and gain ground again. She was incredibly happy to see us, as always. (Pépé, she confided to me once, was a “difficult boy” whom she’s glad has had some happiness in his later years. “We really worried about him,” she confided.) But she and her family took him in, so there we were.
Just then, Fabiola – one of Raquel’s granddaughters, came rushing in dressed to the nines. Or at least dressed as well as her crutches would allow, having just broken a foot bone and being supremely irritated about it since it quashed dancing for a while. “Are you coming to the fiesta?” she said. “Concha and Isai’s 44th wedding anniversary? We’re all about to leave!” Of course, we’d known nothing about the fiesta, since we never call ahead to say we’re coming. I’d brought a small backpack for the night, my very best possible outfit being a change to a sparkly T-shirt and the jeans and tennis shoes I’d worn on the bus.
There was talk about us riding with someone to the salon de fiestas since it was across town, but Pépé wanted to catch some of the International Fiesta going on in the zocalo before we headed to the party. As is the Mexican custom to get many varied opinions on what one should do, he got a series of complicated directions to get to the party later in a combi, Tehaucán’s version of public transport in the form of vans with side benches. Meanwhile, Elsa (another sister of Concha’s) stirred up what looked to be about 50 gallons of macaroni salad in the downstairs kitchen off the dirt courtyard, as they were cooking all of the food for the party themselves.
I changed into my sparkly T-shirt and we headed to the zocalo, where the city was celebrating its 355th birthday with an international festival of booths and entertainment. Yup, that would be as in founded in 1660, just 40 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Of course, that wasn’t when the first people got there – just the Spanish in their silly tights and pointy metal helmets. In fact, the oldest domesticated corn ever found in the world was dated here to about 1500 B.C.
We managed to hit the zocalo just as the main event was starting with a salutation to the four cardinal directions by a representative group of its indigenous people (a mix of Mixtec, Olmec and Toltecs who fell under Aztec domination). A group of school kids was just finishing the national anthem; I love the heart salute that goes with it.
After a little drum beating, they burned copal to purify the senses. We all raised hands and first faced east, towards the municipal building with its incredibly painted murals of the region’s history, to face Father Sun. Turning south, we saluted Mother Water, also holder of the heart. West was to pay homage to women and Mother Corn, who the narrator called a gold much more important than the metal the Spanish conquistadors sought. And finally we faced north, the direction of eternal peace and rest. It was absolutely lovely.
Afterwards, I was skeptical that we could actually find the party venue since we had no official name or street orientation: just the direction to take a combi towards the cemetery, get off at a restaurant called the Red Lobster and walk until we heard the band. Amazingly, or should I not be surprised here, it unfurled seamlessly – the party was in full swing and once we were seated at a round banquet table, no one could see my jeans and tennis shoes.
It was about 249 festive mexicanos and this one gringa: a full complement of a catered dinner with all the requisite liquor (and a few overenthusiastic cousins who had been on the wagon for a good while and were making the most of falling off of it), strobe lights, a live band, cake the size of a banquet table, and a painting of a tree that you put blobs of finger paint on as leaves to leave as a souvenir for the anniversary couple.
By time we got to the part where the dance floor was shaking – and frankly, I was glad for the tennis shoes as compared to the stilts the young girls were hopping around in, threatening to explode from their already impossibly tight dresses – we were down to about 49 mexicanos and one gringa as the costumes (masks, feather boas, oversized sunglasses and wigs) came out for the celebrating couple and the larger family.Three of the great-grandkids took the microphone, though one of the little girls couldn’t bring herself to actually sing.
The night ended with a slide show (on a hanging sheet, none of that fancy computer stuff here) played to Vicente Fernandez’ rendition of A Mi Manera, the song that Frank Sinatra made famous as “My Way.”
Yeah, Tehaucán my way. It was magic.
— Susan Bean Aycock, embracingthechaos.org