The culture of Mexico is astonishing – deep, rich, and complicated. The past is present here and the complex blending of cultures over a long period of time have created something unique. We were able to experience this place during this week through a kaleidoscopic range of libraries. But one of the other ways we experienced Mexican culture was through its world-class cuisine. I realized that Mexican food in the US is a pale imitation of what we have eaten here. Mexican libraries and Mexican food were our guides as we took a deep dive into a place we barely know.
Our human guides for the week were Walker’s girlfriend’s mother Paulina and Paulina’s other daughter Ana. We were so lucky to have such smart, talented, and extremely well-informed woman to travel with us on our journey to Oaxaca and Puebla.
Before we left Mexico City, we spent our last day packing, doing laundry, getting organized, and seeing the sights of our hipster neighborhood.
I drove the seven hours to Oaxaca and got a quick lesson on navigating Mexica roads. Getting out of Mexico City was a nightmare, but once we hit the open road we were dazzled by volcanoes, pine forests, and an openness we didn’t experience while we were back in CDMX. I never understood the attraction of Oaxaca but once we arrived, I became an instant convert. At a large gathering in a little park, we came upon a huge group of children listening to a young boy dressed up in traditional attire belting out songs. Nearby, was a small bookmobile that drew in the kids attracted by the music. Smart way of getting young people to read. It was sponsored by a group called Libros Para Pueblos that purchase and distribute children’s books to more than 60 communities throughout the state of Oaxaca.
Oaxaca is known for its great textiles and art and were amazed by what we saw all around us. We even stumbled upon a small children’s library that was full of playful kids. The local market was delightful and here for first time I encountered the variety of mole this area is famous for throughout the world. That night at dinner, I indulged my passion for mole by having the mole sampler plate. I also tried the local insect sampler plate. Delicious!
The archeological site Monte Alban towers about the Valley of Oaxaca and traces its roots back to 500 BCE. It lasted 1,300 years but was abandoned long before the Spanish arrived in the 1520s. It is one of Mexico’s most culturally rich archeological sites, with the remains of temples, palaces, tall, stepped platforms, and observatory and a ball court where the losers had their hearts cut out. We were blowen away but the beauty of the place and thankful by the relatively nice weather and lack of the tour bus circus that is common to sites like this.
Oaxaca is a complex but intensely attractive city whose majestic churches and refined plazas have deservedly earned it a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. The gorgeous Templo de Santa Domingo is the most splendid of Oaxaca’s churches with a finely carved baroque exterior and an interior with intricately carved relief gilt designs swirling around a profusion of painted figures.
Our Air B&B in Oaxaca was centrally located, tiny, with the toilet located in the shower. But it was a perfect place to come home to at the end of a long day.
We needed that comfort as we attempted to do five libraries in one day. In the US, we don’t do much to observe International Workers Day of May 1st. But in Mexico on May 1st, everything is closed so I had to jam all our Oaxacan libraries into May 2nd. Several libraries stood out including the Burgoa Library. It contains an important collection that was almost destroyed but has now been rescued and is housed in old convent. In 2018 it was recognized as a Memory of the World of Mexico by UNESCO. The Juan de Córdova Research Library is in a beautifully redone 16th Century convent, now a community center and library. It contains a deep collection on Oaxacan anthropology and history. The most unusual library was the Oaxacan Lending Library. It is a non-profit, membership library that contains a community and events center. It was started, in part, by American ex-pats and helped by the US Embassy.
Our long day was capped off by an exquisite dinner on a roof-top restaurant called the Casa Oaxaca. I had one of my best meals in Mexico here. I enjoyed, of course, the chicken mole, a must when dining in Oaxaca.
The second big destination on our week-long trip was to the old city of Puebla. Founded by Spanish settlers in 1531 it quickly grew into a conservative Catholic religious center with over 70 churches in the historic center alone. It also flourished as a center for pottery, glass, and textiles. We arrived from our long drive from Oaxaca and headed straight for the Lafragua Library. It contains the largest and most diverse ancient collection in the State of Puebla and is one of the most important in Mexico. It is beautifully located in an ancient former Jesuit building that holds two 16th century codices: the Sierra-Texupan codex and the Yanhuitlán codex. We arrived just a large group of students were being shown some of the treasures of the archive. Their enthusiasm and cell phone photos of the ancient priceless artifacts was a delight. Our librarian-guide was also brilliant and insightful as we took on a private tour of a great place.
The streets of Puebla were also fascinating, especially for its architecture and restaurants.
Our second library was one of the most historic in Mexico. Founded in 1646, the Biblioteca Palafoxiana was the first public library in the Americas. For this, it has been listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World register. It houses thousands of rare books on its gorgeous shelves, including one of the earliest New World dictionaries and the 1493 Nuremburg Chronicle, with more than 2000 engravings. I was deeply moved by being in presence of such history and beauty. But after the excitement of the students at the Lafaugua, the Palafoxiana felt like a beautiful fossil, rather than a living library. Something to behold, rather than to be used.
Coming back into Mexico City was to re-enter a global city rather than the smaller, slower-paced towns we had just been visiting. We also reunited with Walker and Rosa at Paulina’s house. Paulina even provided a facial and pedicure for Ellen and all the world-weary travelers assembled under her roof. The pedicure felt great! Walker and I then went for a power walk in various neighborhoods such as Roma and Coyacan. I even spotted a small, plain branch library named after the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes.
On our final day in Mexico City before our next trip, we got up very early and drove to one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhood of Iztapala. Here was a library in a jet airliner in a dangerous, druggy area that was put there to counter the crime and hopelessness. Iztapalapa remains afflicted by high levels of economic deprivation, and a significant number of its residents lack access to clean drinking water. Iztapalapa has one of the highest rates of violent crime in Mexico City and combatting homicides and drug trafficking remain a major issue for local authorities. A sign in front of the jet airliner/library read “Careful! Machismo Kills Always!” referred to the high level of violence against women. The library was a stunning example of when libraries can be a positive force for social change.
We ended our long day by visiting the Central Library of UNAM, the largest and most prestigious public university in Mexico. I had run into a bureaucratic dead-end in trying to get permission to photograph this library, so we decided to just show up, take our chances, and just photograph the stunning exterior. Coincidentally, we happen to show up on graduation day where the grounds around the library was filled with recent graduates and happy families. My photographs captured some of that unique joy of graduation and the wonderful closeness of Mexican families. The huge unique mural covering the outside is considered an iconic masterpiece and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Next week is our last road trip within our Mexico Library Road Trip when we head west to Guadalajara and other cities and towns. Stay tuned…
3 responses to “AN INTENSIVE STUDY OF LIBRARIES AND MOLE IN OAXACA AND PUEBLA”
We love it!!! Tina and ken
Hi, Bob, I love your photo essays and wanted you to know Oaxaca was a special treat as a sister city to Palo Alto (where we met a zillion years ago at a talk you gave at what we now call the Palo Alto Art Center about your work at the San Jose wastewater treatment plant). As always, I’m looking forward to following your adventures.
great write up , Bob, i share your enthusiasm for all the places you’ve been and i wouldn’t mind that chicken / mole – as you probably know we spent a week in Telapa which was / is one of the more unusual places that i’ve been to … we definitely need to rendezvous somewhere sometime in Mexico ( when you can just sit back for a week or two , maybe jump into the warm pacific…) looking forward to an evening of photos and stories…