Typical public transportation in Juchitán de Zaragoza (also known as Juchitán de las Mujeres). These three-wheeled vehicles, some covered like this one and some open to the air, buzzed around everywhere in the city, taking people wherever they needed to go.
Our last day in the Istmo, chef Silvana hired a mototaxi driver to give us a tour around the area. Look at its wonderful roof--an old-fashioned fabric for just the right touch. We whipped along having a fantastic time, waving at pedestrians and being waved at, people laughing with us as we tooled along.
Juchitán, the largest city on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, (population about 100,000), prides itself on its culture and its traditions. The iconic statue at the entrance to town is based on a photograph taken by one of Mexico's most outstanding photographers, Graciela Iturbide. To quote the Getty Museum, "Between 1979 and 1988, Iturbide (b. 1942) made a series of visits to Juchitán, Mexico, where—in her words—she photographed the way of life there "in complicity with the people." Located in the state of Oaxaca, Juchitán is an ancient, communal, matriarchal society. It is also an open, fiercely independent, fiesta-loving city. Since the early twentieth century, the women of Juchitán—their dress and manner—have been national symbols, and Iturbide's photographs capture them in public and in private as they conduct their lives in this ancient city in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec."
The 1979 Iturbide photograph, called "Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas" ('Our Lady of the Iguanas'), shows the power and dignity of a Zapotec woman, who carries on her head live iguanas that form a bizarre crown.
In the Juchitán municipal market, we were talking about iguanas with a young muxe who sells ropa típica (regional clothing) of the area. He pointed across the aisle to a booth where the owner prepares licuados (smoothies, more or less) and lo and behold, we saw this big black iguana, tethered to a tree branch. It's the Ctenosaura similis, native to the region and the most common iguana found (and hunted for food) in the Istmo. In theory, the iguana is protected by law--but in practice, it and its eggs are much eaten in Mexico. The meat is truly delicious, I didn't care for the leathery eggs.
In the Juchitán market, a vendor offered iguana eggs, cooked in caldillo de jitomate (thin tomato broth) with green chiles. The eggs are about 1.5" long. I tried to eat one, but I really didn't like the texture or the flavor. Imagine that, something I didn't like!
We devoured several of these delicious fresh chiles jalapeño, roasted and stuffed with picadillo (a hash made of beef or pork plus chopped vegetables and fruits), then battered in beaten egg, fried, and served with delicious caldillo (thin tomato broth).
I've eaten various kinds of smoked fish--whitefish, salmon, and others in the USA, marlin in Mexico--but I had never seen smoked tuna until chef Silvana and I went to the Juchitán market. The vendor at this stand gave me a little chunk to taste. Out of this world! Smoked tuna, meaty and completely delicious, is now on my have-to-have-it-again list. This pile of tuna pieces was about 18" high.
Meet the Chrysobalanus icaco, a fruit endemic to the Istmo and known at least in Juchitán as jicaco--they're the rosy pink ones. One name for them in English is the cocoplum. As you can see in this week's photos, in Juchitán we saw several things that were brand new to us. The jicaco fruit is prepared as a tea to combat diarrhea, and people cook and grind the leaves and stems to combat dysentery. The seeds can be toasted and ground and prepared as an atole (thick drink usually served warm) to provoke vomiting. Chef Silvana and I ate part of one raw fruit; it isn't at all sweet, hasn't a lot of taste, and is very astringent and medicinal. It makes you pucker up and not in a good way!
Flower seller, Juchitán market. In this part of the Istmo, it's crucial to find and take advantage of shade wherever possible, and equally crucial to drink lots of water. The time in late April-early May that we were in the Istmo, the daily temperatures climbed to well above 100ºF, with 100% percent humidity. Thinking about climate change, I asked a young man in the market if this year's temperature and humidity were unusually high; he said, no, they were normal for the time of year.
We bought several necklaces made of plumeria flowers (aka frangipani) at the Juchitán market. The plant is named for French botanist Charles Plumier, who traveled to what is now Mexico and found it. Described by Charles Linnaeus in 1753, it's called flor de mayo (May flower) in the Istmo. I'd always thought it was native to Hawaii, but no: it's Mexican. In the market, we saw many young women wearing these necklaces, saints' images were draped with them, and the flowers' sweet fragrance wafted through the air.
The Juchitán market sets up every day on the streets, around a park and spread out to another close-by area as well. We peered into the back of the city's municipal building to see what remains of the market where it was set up in the past. Why? Close to midnight on September 7, 2017, an extremely strong earthquake (8.1 on the Richter scale, said to have been the heaviest Mexico earthquake in over 100 years), with its epicenter just off the coast of Oaxaca's neighboring state Chiapas, hit the Istmo. Juchitán, a city of well over 100,000 people, suffered severe damage, including to its municipal building.
Photo above: the municipal building in Juchitán, the morning after the September 7, 2018 earthquake.
We were deeply disturbed to see how little recovery has been possible, and we later learned that there is no plan to rebuild the municipal building. Its offices and the market have been relocated, the daily market now sets up outdoors, in a park near the destroyed building. Wherever we looked in the city, huge piles of rubble left from damaged or demolished buildings (homes and businesses alike) remained in the streets and on the sidewalks. People told us that there is no place to put the rubble, so it simply sits there, a constant reminder of the disaster. Many people told us that none of the funds collected by the government and by other agencies have reached them; people continue to live in the streets, some under tarps and some with nothing to protect them from either the intense heat or the intense nightly rains.
Just one of hundreds of destroyed homes and businesses in Juchitán.
Another. Of course Juchitán was not the only place seriously affected by the earthquake. All of the towns in the area show similar damage. You might well ask why few repairs have been made, why the funds collected and designated for direct assistance to the Istmo--estimated to be $45 million U.S. dollars--haven't been disbursed. The answer: government corruption. Sadly enough, it is all too common for donated funds to end up in someone's pocket rather than in the hands of those for whom it was destined. Should there be another devastation of this type anywhere in Mexico, please ask me about alternate ways to donate money so that it will actually get to those who need it.
Next week: a trip to several small towns in the Istmo. Despite the shock of seeing so much earthquake damage, we loved the rest of what we saw and did and want to share it with you. See you next week!
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