Ocotlán de Morelos
About 35 km (20 miles) south of Oaxaca City, Ocotlán gives an excellent snapshot of life outside the wonderful but much larger state capital. Being compulsive church-goers (but not during services!), my travel buddies and I visited Ocotlán---along with several other interesting towns along Highway 175---on a long day trip.
Like the Mixteca Alta, this region---known as los valles centrales, or Central Valleys, of Oaxaca---had a substantial indigenous population at the time of the Conquest, and therefore an imposing Dominican complex was begun here in the 16th century. The temple is still a magnet for townspeople attending church services, baptisms, and weddings; its ornate and highly original façade sculpted with stylized flowers and other elements from nature painted in ochre and blue on a white background. The interior---full of brilliant colonial-era religious statues and lovely wall paintings---is wonderfully preserved. Now a museum, the adjacent monastery has been thoroughly restored, and houses regional crafts, religious paintings, the artwork of Rodolfo Morales.
The renovation owes a lot to Ocotlán’s most famous native son, Rodolfo Morales. Born in 1925, the artist received worldwide recognition for his naïf, surrealist paintings after his work was promoted by abstract artist Rufino Tamayo, of Oaxaca City. With a subject matter of brown-skinned people and angels, as well as architecture and activities inspired by his pueblo, señor Morales’ art has been shown and collected internationally. An educator as well as painter, Morales dedicated much of his time and energy to promoting the arts and education for people in his home town and surrounding communities. His foundation has restored several colonial buildings, including the Dominican monastery complex. The artists’ 18th-century home today serves as a cultural center with outdoor theater, galleries for local artists, and a computer center. A quiet, self-effacing man, Morales passed away in 2001 at the age of 75.
Rodolfo Morales is not the only Ocotlán artist recognized throughout Mexico and beyond. The charming, simple, and creative clay statues and statuettes made by the Aguilar family are snatched up by collectors but still inexpensive enough to be purchased by the average person. We stopped at the humble home-showroom of Josefina Aguilar, on the main road into town, and bought a number of lovely items. My favorite was a 10-inch painted clay statuette of a pregnant woman with a turkey on her head, holding a fish in one hand and a bunch of flowers in the other. Next door, at a sibling’s shop, I bought a painted, unglazed clay bell with a cow’s head figure on top. Both were meant to give as gifts, but they are so unusual that I have not given them away. Other crafts produced in Ocotlán include basketry, shawls, and traditional clothing.
Friday is market day in Ocotlán; this tradition predates the Spanish Conquest and is a source of bartering and bantering among people from outlying villages as well as local people. Vendors sell traditional food (including fried grasshopper tacos, tamales wrapped in banana leaves, artisan liqueurs, and unusual flavors of ice cream) in addition to live animals, plants, flowers, produce, fabric, ceramics, baskets, knives (some inscribed with witty sayings), saddles, and hats. People from around the area sell their own handcrafts. The market happens every day of the week, but Friday is the big day.
Ocotlán’s major fiestas are the Feast of the Virgin of Ocotlán, celebrated on 15 May with live music and regional food. The feast of el Señor de la Sacristia (Our Lord of the Sacristy) is celebrated on the third Sunday in May.
This town of about 13,000 people makes an excellent day trip from Oaxaca City. Stop at San Bartolo Coyotepec for black pottery, Santo Tomás Jalietza for textiles woven on backstrap looms, and San Martín Tilcajete for carved, painted, wooden animals and alebrijes. The intriguing church in the small village of Santa Ana Zegache is a short distance off Highway 175, between Ocotlán and Santo Tomás Jalietza. Leave Oaxaca City early, and don’t forget the camera and plenty of spending money. The towns along the way are the perfect place to buy handicrafts right from the artisans.